Sri Lanka: Images of Military Zone Reveal No Significant Increase in Public Facilities, AAAS Reports

The Valikamam High-Security Zone, the subject area for the AAAS report on Sri Lanka, is on the north coast of the Jaffna Peninsula. | AAAS

Thousands of Sri Lankans remain refugees five years after a long civil war, and satellite-image analysis seems to reveal many new housing-like structures and development in a military zone in the northern part of the country. However, the analysis also shows no significant increase in civic facilities despite government claims that it has seized the land for public use, experts reported today.

The analysis, completed by the nonprofit, nonpartisan American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), suggests a sharp increase in the number of residential housing-type structures within the Valikamam High-Security Zone (HSZ), on Sri Lanka's Jaffna Peninsula. At the end of the civil war between government forces and the rebel Tamil Tigers, a satellite image from 2009 included 3,215 such buildings. By 2014, the number had jumped to 4,731, reported Susan Wolfinbarger, director of the Geospatial Technologies and Human Rights Project at AAAS.

Some 2,000 displaced civilians have petitioned to return to their homes on the Jaffna Peninsula. The petition is still waiting to be heard by a Sri Lankan high court, explained Fred Carver, campaign director at the Sri Lanka Campaign for Peace and Justice (SLC), which requested the satellite image analysis. A government order authorizing the military's acquisition of the HSZ region, encompassing 6,381 acres, or 25 square kilometers of land, states that the region is being used for a public purpose.

Groups of structures that could represent public-purpose or institutional use were identified as part of the assessment of images captured in 2009, 2011, and 2014. Analysis showed that some of these structure types were removed while others were developed, with no significant overall increase in the total number of structures in institutional areas within the military zone. Potential public-purpose facilities, such as hospitals, represented 35% of the total structures in the HSZ in 2009, but only 24% in 2014, largely as a result of construction outside of the originally identified institutional areas, Wolfinbarger said. Institutional areas only covered 7.7 square kilometers or around 30% of the total area.

Development in the western portion of the security zone (view larger version) | Left image: DigitalGlobe. All other images: Airbus Defense and Space. Analysis AAAS.

"The changes that we have seen in the satellite images happened within an area that is only accessible to the military," Wolfinbarger noted. "We have observed a dramatic expansion of housing-type structures as well as agricultural activity. The reasons for this are not clear."

 "We don't know precisely what the land is being used for, but it doesn't seem, based on the AAAS analysis, to be consistent with the pledge to use the land for public purposes," Carver said. "It also doesn't seem as though all 25 square kilometers of the region is being used for a military base."

Eric Ashcroft, AAAS senior project coordinator, said: "Over the study period, most of the growth in structures occurred outside of potential public-service areas and consisted mostly of new, house-like structures, which could indicate that the land is not actually being used for a public purpose."

The AAAS analysis confirmed the existence of the ocean-front "Thalsewana Holiday Resort" within the military zone which touts itself online as "functioning under the Security Forces Headquarters." Another coastline development also was seen to the west of the resort, and AAAS researchers further identified a number of new and expanded or improved roads as well as increased land-use for farming.

BETWEEN 2011 (view larger version) AND 2014 (view larger version), LARGE NUMBERS OF STRUCTURES WERE ADDED TO THE STUDY AREA IN A MANNER INDICATING THAT THEY WERE RESIDENTIAL IN NATURE. | LEFT IMAGE: DIGITALGLOBE | RIGHT IMAGE: AIRBUS DEFENSE AND SPACE | ANALYSIS AAAS. LOCATION: 9.805N, 80.019E.

"Human rights groups, like SLC, are concerned about the actions of the military in these areas, as they move toward using these 'military' areas for non-military activities, such as farming and resort tourism," the AAAS report notes.

The research, funded by the Oak Foundation, used satellite images obtained from DigitalGlobe and Airbus Defense and Space. Previously, AAAS satellite-image analysis of Sri Lanka's northeastern coast in 2009 revealed an estimated 342 new graves shortly after violence erupted there that spring.