16 June, 2024


An Issue About A Non-Issue Wilpattu Land For Resettlement?

By Shahul Hasbullah

Prof. Shahul Hasbullah

Prof. Shahul Hasbullah

An Issue about a non-Issue

This is a revised version of a paper of the same title presented at a small gathering of scholars and activists on May 27, 2015. Formally speaking, this is my first engagement in public on the hotly debated issue of Wilpattu land settlement and I hope, it will form a critical and informed engagement on this issue. I was at first reluctant to enter into any debate as I felt that it had become over ethnicized and politicized, leaving little from for constructive and politically informed, activist and academic input. But as the debate has taken a turn toward discrediting the right to return of those displaced in war, I feel the need to present my views. I have been working in the area of conflict driven displacement, return and resettlement of communities, land disputes that have arisen in the wake of return for two decades.

The urgency of the situation also demands that I take to task nationalistic forces acting under cover of legal expertise, environmentalism and other benign and legitimate concerns, which drawing upon certain facts and needs regarding the returnees into calculation have transformed the face of the returning figure into one of mass villainy. I have therefore undertaken to bring to light an understanding of the ground situation concerning the return of the people of Musali South (located in Musali DS Division of Mannar District of the Northern Province.)

Concerns raised and the issues focused in the presentation

At the seminar, geographers, environmentalist, rights activists and people with local knowledge presented their views on land and Wilpattu. I for one raised a fundamental question and that my driving motif in this paper. Why are we discussing Wilpattu and Land, now? Why has this become one of national significance at this precise moment? Whose agenda does this serve? Who benefits from it and how? More importantly, why are the concerns of the marginalized, the cardinal principle of existence and belonging, the RIGHT TO RETURN, shelved and not seen as important any more.

In my consideration, the dispute over Wilpattu is not what we have to focus on at the moment and that the disputed forest clearance has to be discussed in connection with the return of the displaced. The need of the hour is a national policy on return and in my view we need to discuss that first and foremost, as every other issue, including the Wilpattu land issue and attendant forest clearance issue arise from that. We need to address this concern at the national level.


The “forgotten people and their land”

Musali South is of historic significance. Even before the Christian era, pearl fishing had been an active trade in the area, connecting the region to the outside world. Greek, Roman and Arab traders had regularly visited the region to procure pearls found in the Gulf of Mannar, along the coast of Musali. Arab, South Indian and local divers mingled together. Pearl harvesting activities continued into Dutch and British rule along the same Musli coast of Sri Lanka. The Muslims and Tamils of Musali South are the descendants of these divers and panikars (elephant catchers), brought into the area by the British.

During and after the decline of pearl fishing, local Muslims and Tamils gradually turned to paddy cultivation, cattle farming, honey collection and other land base economy in Musali South. Evidence of the existence of those Muslims and Tamils and their villages such as Maruchchukaddy, Palaikuli, Mullikulam and Karadikuli for centuries are available. The first population census of Sri Lanka conducted in 1871 is the most recent reliable historical evidence of the existence of these people living permanently in the region and engaged in land related activities.

Ethnic relations

Muslims (80%) and Tamils are the dominant communities in the region while seasonally Sinhala fisher folk of Chilaw, Negombo and other had landing rights in the fish rich coastal belt. Traditionally, ethnic relationships were extremely cordial and people lived amicably in a spirit of coexistence for centuries.

Violence and Militancy

Tamil armed groups first started having camps and roamed around in the early 80s, bringing about disruption in the activities and lives of the people roaming around and disturbing the normal life of the local people in this area from the early Tamil militancy. In 1985, Sri

Lankan armed battalions crossing the Puttalam boundary and Modaragamaaru or Uppaaru, and began their activities to control the territory, resulting in a mass exodus of all communities that fled toward the north of Musali and other safer places. The suffering of the people intensified. The biggest blow was that in the third week of October 1990 LTTE which was the most dominant group ethnically cleansed the northern province of all Muslims, including Musali. In 2007, after recovering the east from the LTTE, armed forces entered this region, resulting in another exodus of Tamils and Muslims who lived in this area at that times. Until 2009 no civilian was allowed to return.

The plight of the displaced in Musali South

80% of the Muslims of this area evicted in 1990 are yet to return. They are living as displaced in overcrowded settlements in environmentally hazardous (flooding, swampy and sandy) areas; they wished to return and feel that a conducive environment has not yet been created in their places of origin. Tamils of this area continue to be displaced in their own region and elsewhere in Mannar and in India. Their plight, in general, is worse than many other displaced people and obviously they want to return home as soon as possible. In the meantime, Sinhala migrant fisher folk, had to unfortunately discontinue their seasonal visits resulting in the loss of their landing rights in the region.

The Issue: return of the people of Musali South

The return of all displaced must be recognized as a non-negotiable issue. The rights of expelled Muslims and their children, evicted Tamils of Mullikulam, the landing rights of Sinhala fisher folk have to be recognized and the situation rectified. Muslim-Tamil amity has to be strengthen in Musali South and the rest of North. The right to return should not be politicised and ethnicized.

Agendas of Nationalists

But the agendas of nationalists are of a different order. Securing and expanding ethnic boundaries is the national agenda that has also been achieved at the regional level: Territorializing marginal lands or border lands traditionally considered to be a part of other ethnic/religious communities; Using sentiments such as national heritage in a bid to claim ownership; Using political or military power to stake a claim through force and through laws, statues, regulations; Citing national security for purposes of expansion; Using terror, the language of insider/outsider and traitor; Using ethnicized sentiments.

The Issue: return of the people of Musali South

The return of all displaced must be recognized as a non-negotiable issue. The rights of expelled Muslims and their children, evicted Tamils of Mullikulam, the landing rights of Sinhala fisher folk have to be recognized and the situation rectified. Muslim-Tamil amity has to be strengthened in Musali South and the rest of North. The right to return should not be politicised and ethnicized.


We must all recognize and facilitate the return of ethnically cleansed Muslims; Allow Mullikulam Tamils to return home, and have the navy base relocated; Implement recommendations of LLRC recommendations which say that the returnee must be provided with land, house and livelihood; Revisit critically the application of laws concerning forest cover and wildlife area in areas where for three decades there had been no human habitation. Appoint a commission on issues of return and formulate a national policy on Return.


The pressing issue today is the recognition of the Right to return, a policy and mechanism to implement it. The issue of Wilpattu land settlement is a non-issue; we must act as reasonable people and engage in constructive debate in order to defeat the ulterior moves of nationalistic forces. There is an urgent need to create a conducive environment for the displaced to return home. We must resolve in our minds and show through our actions that we will not let ethnic cleansing and forcible eviction take place again. The ultimate task is to work for peace and justice to all.

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  • 12

    Environmentalists have clearly pointed out that the issue is not Wilpattu but the neighboring forest land.


    Many many reports including HIRU have shown that forest is being cleared by the thug called Richard Badurdeen ( Who is also famous for threatening a judge and attacking court premises.)

    Let not your RELIGION/ETHNICITY blind you to the destruction of this valuable asset. If you are blinded by RELIGION/ETHNICITY then you are no different to the Buddhists who keep quiet at the destruction and damage caused by BBS.

    Let us all come forward to protect Wilpattu.

    • 17

      Shahul Hasbullah –

      “Environmentalists have clearly pointed out that the issue is not Wilpattu but the neighboring forest land.”

      However, the Environmentalists and Chauvinists have Not clearly pointed out the DOUBLE STANDARDS that have surfaced as an Environmental issue, and got the Double standards following Chauvinists involved.

      Why Double standards? Why Double standards when it comes to rape of a School gird from the North and release the rapists? Yes, expose the Double standards.

      1. This was a direct result of the war and LTTE ethnic Cleansing and the Northern Muslims have been chased from the North from their Villages and homes. Most of them are still languishing in the Jungle or areas surrounding the Jungle.


      Many Idiots including JVP got sucked into this bait laid by BBS, Supported by Norway, LTTE, Israel and Certain Elements in the West.

      2. “The 2860 Sinhalese families settled in the Wilpattu area have been provided with three acres of land each compared to the half an acre for the Northern Muslims, says the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka.”

      Yes, ask the questions from those who made a big fuss. Why are they not helping the Northern Muslims to get back to their home Villages? Who is behind this? BBS funded Norway, LTTE, Israel and the West?

      3. Why DOUBLE STANDARDS? Because they are MUSLIMS? Also ask why is that there is All this delay in settling the Expelled Muslims 6 years after the war Ended in the original home villages, and why is that they had to bring families froim Jsambabtota into Wilpattu? Because Yala was cleared for the Mattala Airport?

      Forgotten People – The Evicted and Displaced North Muslims of Sri Lanka (English)

      Published on Jun 1, 2013 The Evicted and Displaced North Muslims of Sri Lanka. The expulsion of the Muslims and other nations from the Northern province was an act of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Tamil militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) organization in October 1990. In order to achieve their goal of creating a mono ethnic Tamil state in the North Sri Lanka, the LTTE forcibly expelled the 72,000 strong Muslim population from the Northern Province.


    • 10

      I question as to the status of the so called ‘environmentalist’? Sanjeewa Chamikara claims to be a Graduate of the ‘Young Zoologist Society’, an NGO located in Dehiwala. So does Jagath Gunawardene who describes himself as an environmental lawyer. Is there a University at Dehiwala. Funded by ???.

      Other ‘Environemntalist’extremist Monks- Gnanasara, Akmeemana Dayarathana , Battaramulle Seelarathana.

      A motley crew of racist not environmentalist. Playing on the peoples emotions.

      • 7


        “A motley crew of racist not environmentalist. Playing on the peoples emotions.”

        They have 5.8 Million Modayas, Mootal and Fools to choose from.

        However, this should be used to point out the Double standards of the Northern Muslims and other displaced People for them to get back to their villages.

        The Curse of LTTE and repercussions of the LTTE war crimes.

        Yes, killings and ethnic cleansing is a war crime, including holding hostages, as done by LTTE.


        A war crime is a serious violation of the laws and customs of war (also known as international humanitarian law) giving rise to individual criminal responsibility. Examples of war crimes include:[1]

        initiating a war of aggression

        murdering, mistreating, or deporting civilian residents of an occupied territory to slave labor camps

        murdering or mistreating prisoners of war or civilian internees

        forcing protected persons to serve in the forces of a hostile power
        killing hostages

        killing or punishing spies or other persons convicted of war crimes without a fair trial

        wantonly destroying cities, towns, villages, or other objects not warranted by military necessity

      • 4

        What a moron???.


        there are and WERE many ENVIORNMENTLISTs those who have / had no formal education even.

        get socially educated!.

        • 5



          Yes, Anybody can be an Environmentalist including the Chauvinists, Anarchists, Racists, Imbeciles, Idiots and Morons. They can vote for Mahinda Rajapaksa too.

          Thre is no IQ Qualification.

          Idiots, Imbeciles and Morons can be, all with IQ’s lees than 70. We see that here, they cannot see the Double Standards.

        • 4

          Dear Amaray Aiya,

          Can my gardener Palyandi become an ‘Environmentalist’? He is quite good at growing vegetables and looking after the chicks. He really loves nature. He wouldn’t kill even an ant.

          I am sure he is more qualified than all these high falutin Enviro NGO types who get paid by the Western Conspirators.

          He doesn’t have a Digree but is very good at Digging. He is a graduate of Yahapalana Estate.

      • 4

        I don’t think the environmentalist Sanjeewa Chamikara is the racist here.
        We find a certain group with “one thing in common” banding together to defend this destruction.

        • 2

          Exactly, I mention this too.

  • 6

    The lot of the displaced muslims is indeed terrible.
    This, in spite of the fact that there were muslim politicians, ambassadors, senior public servants, professionals, industrialists, businessmen etc.
    Muslim MPs served in both government & opposition ranks in every government since independence.
    Muslims were not involved in the ethnic war, except the very few in the forces & police.
    Even now, in the new government, there are influential muslims.
    So, why are their voices not heard, like those of the tamils?
    A muslim MP’s effort to settle some families near Willpattu has triggered a huge controversy.
    The displaced muslims must return to their lands just, as the displaced tamils should.

  • 3

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  • 2

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  • 9

    First of the distinction should be made that Wilpattu animal sanctuary is nowhere affected in this resettlement exercise. Forest lands are allocated for settlement in many parts of Sri Lanka – Ampara, Hambantota, Niwara Eliya and so on, for farming and human settlement.

    In this case Mannar IDP have rightfully occupied their land from where they were forcefully evacuated by LTTE 25 years ago. It is the responsibility of the state to reallocate these lands for the IDP to return to their original habitat, even though these lands were later gazetted as forest land.

    All what Rishad has done was that he used his political influence during the previous Government to convince then president to appoint a Task Force to allocate these lands to the IDP. Basil Rajapakse who was the Minister in-charge for this resettlement in the North has clearly confirmed that the resettlement was done in accordance with relevant Government procedures.

    Once again let us not confuse people of Sri Lanka the majority community in particulr by using the name Wilpattu for this resettlement to make it as a racial issue.

  • 7

    Muslims (not just in SL) nowadays tend to play the ‘victimization’ card and this blinds them to view issues in a holistic perspective.
    The facts of the case as I understand from reading all the numerous studies that have been done:
    1)Yes, there were small settlements bordering Wilpattu but they were not just Muslims
    2)Tamil Christians were relocated to another village ‘cos the Navy had taken over ther original land on the borders of Wilpattu
    3)The villages near Wilpattu were fishing villages and as such the only livelihood was through fishing – paddy & cashew cultivation were further north
    4)Animals like elephants have encroached out of the Willpattu borders due it it becoming a secondary forest.
    5)Interviews with Muslim IDPs have shown that they are ambivalent about returning to these jungle areas with concerns about livelihood, security, schooling etc.
    6)2nd & 3rd generation of IDPs have swelled the numbers far above the original settlers
    7)The original settlers had land rights – which is basically to use the land but no recourse to deforestation or title

    So instead of making it an ethnic issue – we should look at the issue of how viable this resettlement is from the point of view of humans and flora & fauna. That there is an impact on the reserve(s) and its flora & fauna cannot be denied – whether it is justified to disturb that equilibrium with no real gains is a question to be asked. Are the IDPs problems going to be solved by resettling them on the borders of Wilpattu? Is their quality of life going to be significantly better in that precise location? Are their issues about livelihood, security, schooling etc addressed? Can they be addressed at all considering the precise location taking into consideration the obvious subsequent effect it will have on the environment? If not – can’t an alternative location be sourced.
    As far as I see it – this was a very short-sighted resolution of a long-standing issue. Just because it is long-standing and a sore-point does not justify ‘quick fixes’.
    As such we need to ask ourselves – in the end who really gains from this resettlement program. The IDPs? I think not.

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