By Hilmy Ahamed –
The Internally displaced persons (IDPs) of Muslim origin from the Northern province who have been branded as the “Forgotten People” during the last 25 years, continue to be intimidated and harassed by some extremist Buddhist forces and a section of the ill informed media. These Muslim IDPs who were forced out of their homes with less than 2 hours notice by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1990, had to leave their villages leaving behind their worldly possessions and lifetime savings. They paid this price because they refused to support or be part of Velupillai Prabaharan’s Eelam quest.
Today, the assault on these innocent Muslims continue to be a politically motivated campaign targeting Minister Rishard Bathiudeen and his fight for justice for his fellow Muslim IDPs. This has the full blessings of the Sinhala extremists, the Catholic church in Mannar and some sections of the political leadership.
Rishard Bathiudeen, who is himself a Muslim IDP from the North was also evicted from his home by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in 1990. This eviction of the Muslims from the Northern province has been recognized as the worst ethnic cleansing exercise ever undertaken in Sri Lanka. Minister Bathiudeen is being continuously targeted for voicing his disapproval of successive governments’ failure to address the just grievances of his fellow IDPs. The failure of the Government to provide the same opportunities to the Muslim IDPs as the returning Tamil IDPs is a violation of their basic right to return. They were branded as old IDPs and the international community too who champion human rights discriminated against these unfortunate people. The pressure on the Mahinda Rajapaksa government to resettle the Tamil war displaced during the final stages of the battle made these Muslims to be a forgotten people.
The crisis for the Muslims started off from the day they were evicted in 1990. Upon eviction of the entire Muslim community from the North, the LTTE started resettling Tamils, especially the families of LTTE cadres on Muslim lands that the Muslims were forced to abandon. This strategy of colonizing Muslim lands was undertaken as a strategic move to permanently displace the Muslim population from the northern province and has been fully supported by the noted LTTE sympathizer and anti-Muslim crusader of the Northern province, the Bishop of Mannar, Rev. Rayappu Joseph. This had the blessing and support of the Tamil administrative officers who held important government positions. This land grab and the resettlement of Tamils in Muslim lands continue to be a major cause of conflict between the returning Muslim IDPs and the Tamil population who had been settled in the Muslim lands.
Upon eviction in 1990, the Muslims were forced to settle in Puttlam and other areas South of Mannar with small numbers settling in Colombo, Kandy and other urban centers. Some of these hard working Muslims have succeeded in reestablishing their lives and livelihood, while the others were forced to live with the barest of resources in refugee camps. As it happens in many similar situations, the IDPs are not welcome by host communities as they threaten the scare resources of the areas they choose to settle. Transformation of Puttlam and Kalpitiya as rewarding agricultural pockets is mainly due to the efforts of these hardworking Muslim IDPs.
The assault on the Muslims by Buddhist extremists started immediately after the end of the war in 2009 when a large number of Muslims opted to return to their homes, like the rest of the refugees from the 30-year terror conflict. This also put pressure on the government that had worked out a strategy to colonize the North with Sinhala Buddhists who would provide a buffer for any future separatist aspirations of the Northern Tamils. Thousands of acres of land were brought under the security forces claiming them to be high security zones. A large number of Sinhala Buddhist families from Hambantota and families of service men have been settled in Kalabogaswewa and Namalgama in the Mullaithivu district which were predominantly a Tamil dominated area.
This pushed the Tamils to seek land elsewhere which put further pressure on the Tamils who had settled in the Muslim lands to share the resources with the returning Muslim and Tamil IDPs.
Now, the Sinhala extremists have taken a novel approach to targeting the Muslims in the Mannar district by claiming that they have encroached on to the wild life sanctuary of Wilpattu. This has been totally dismissed by the people of the area. This claim by the extremists is based on a forest department declaration that any land with shrubs over 3 feet should be considered a forest. The Muslim lands that were abandoned for over 25 years had obvious forest growth of over three feet. The Muslims have permits or title deeds to these lands. The once powerful presidential task force (PTF) that was under former strongman Minister Basil Rajapaksa had approved the land for resettlement of the returning Muslim IDPs. Due process has been followed and land Kacheries had allocated the lands for resettlement.
Various Buddhist extremist groups including the Bodu Bala Sena have undertaken media Tamasha’s to undermine the legitimate claims of the Muslims to resettle in their former villages. A few environmental groups as well as Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) too have joined the bandwagon and are providing ammunition to these racist extremists.
If any of these groups have sufficient evidence to prove that the Muslims have encroached in to the Wilpattu wildlife reserve, it is appropriate that they move courts to plead for necessary injunctions to stop the resettlement without resorting to intimidation and threats to these innocent IDPs. The Muslim community from the North who paid the ultimate price for safeguarding the unitary state of Sri Lanka during the LTTE trust should not be made to pay the price again by Buddhist extremism.