By Hilmy Ahamed –
Your Highness Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein,
In your capacity as the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, I write to your Highness with much hope and confidence that the office of the United Nations Commission For Human Rights will provide and protect the human rights of Sri Lanka’s multi ethnic, multi religious and multi cultural population.
Your Highness, as you are well aware, all three communities in this country, i.e. the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims suffered in numerous ways and faced untold hardship during the 30 years of armed conflict that devastated our country socially and economically. The Muslim community in particular, who were not part of the armed conflict, paid a heavy price when ethnic cleansing took place in the Northern Province, when they were forced to leave their homes in a few hours taking nothing of value. The entire population of the Northern Province was ethnically cleansed. The Muslims in the East too suffered extreme violence including the gunning down by the Liberation Tigers of Thamil Eelam (LTTE) of 147 Muslims while they were in prayer inside a mosque in Kathankuddy, Sri Lanka. The Muslims paid this price because they refused to join the Thamil separatists in their quest for a separate state (Eelam).
The evicted Muslims of the North have remained in refugee camps and shelters in different parts of the country for over 25 years and still continue to live as a “Forgotten People”. They have been denied their right to return, their land and properties forcibly taken from them and their livelihoods lost.
At the end of the war in May 2009, the Government followed a policy of resettling the ‘last in, first out’, that deprived the Muslims of their right to return to their homes and restart their lives and livelihood.
During their displacement, most of their land and property have been taken over by the LTTE and settled with families of their war heroes and other Tamil population of the Northern Province. The Government, the International Community and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) have done very little to address the grievances of the Muslim IDPs.
In 2012, the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in one of the most controversial declarations had professed large extents of land in the Northern Province as forest reserves. This was undertaken as a knee jerk reaction to the possible loss of control by the then government of the Northern Provincial Council in the elections of 2013. The The 13th Amendment gave the Provincial Councils rights over “Land, land tenure, transfer and alienation of land, land use, land settlement and land improvement.” It specifically says “Land shall be a Provincial Council subject to certain limitations.” The Supreme Court determined in September 2013 (Three weeks after the TNA won the Northern Provincial Council) that state land was vested in the central government and not the provincial councils.
The Muslims were the worst affected by this declaration as almost all their lands that they were forced to abandon due to their eviction had forest growth beyond the stipulated height. They could not go back to clear the shrub growth due to the military engagement of the LTTE and the government forces.
At the end of the war in 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a Presidential Task Force (PTF) for Resettlement, Development and Security in the Northern Province. The President’s powerful sibling, Hon. Basil Rajapaksa, led the PTF. It was mandated to resettle the 300,000 IDPs from the war within the shortest possible time. Almost the entire displaced persons of the last stages of the war were resettled, but IDPs from 1990 were not part of this impressive resettlement scheme as they were considered old refugees.
In 2012, the PTF identified and started distributing some land in the Mannar district (Musali South) previously owned by Muslims for the resettlement of the Muslim IDPs of the 1990 eviction. In the absence of substantial support from the Government, benevolent donors from many Muslim countries supported these returning IDPs with housing and other basic infrastructure. This led to various protests by extremist Buddhists and they began, with the support of some Environmentalists, a campaign claiming that these IDPs were being settled within the boundaries of the Wilpattu National Park. When evidence was provided that the Muslims had title deeds to these lands, some under the seal of King Edward from 1906, they changed their stand and said that they are being resettled in the forest reservations of Kalaru, thus depriving the rights of the Muslim population to return to their own homes.
Further, with the end of the war in 2009, some extremist Buddhists began targeting the Muslim and evangelical Christian population of the country. The Secretariat for Muslims (SFM) has recorded over 500 incidents of violence, intimidation and threats against each of these communities during the last four yers. The Government has taken no action to stop this violence. With the change in government in 2015, there was high expectation amongst the minority communities that the new Government of good governance would address these concerns, but regretfully there has been no firm action against these extremists.
The hate campaign orchestrated by these extremist Buddhist groups led mostly by Buddhist monks culminated in the Aluthgama pogrom that resulted in loss of lives, property and livelihood of the Muslims. The demand from the Muslim community for a commission of inquiry has not been heeded. We earnestly request your office to address this issue as priority and bring the perpetrators of this violence to justice.
The Muslim community expects your Highness and the Office of the United Nations Commissioner For Human Rights to include the legitimate concerns of the Muslim community as part of the Geneva process in finding a lasting solution to our country’s long drawn conflict. Any solution without addressing the concerns of the Muslim IDPs and the hate campaign towards minorities will cause the rights of the Muslim community to be violated.
I thank you for your kind consideration.