By Latheef Farook –
On Saturday 8 May 2010 afternoon the Urban Development Authority, UDA, under the Defense Ministry, deployed police and special forces to destroy number of houses at Mews Street in Slave Island in the heart of Colombo.
All except one house, owned by a Tamil, are Muslim owned. Those who lived there were forced out of their homes with their belongings thrown into streets.
The evicted people said that they have title deeds of ownership of the land, documents to prove the houses are legal and were living there for decades. They worked in and around there and earned their livelihood. Their children too went to schools in the area.
However their lives were shattered overnight when their houses were destroyed without any human consideration and dumped in temporary wooden structures Mattakkuliya. They said the authorities were ruthless in driving them out of their houses.
Justifying the demolition of these buildings in a statement the Media Centre for National Security (MCNS) stated that;
“The removal of unauthorized dwellers, formerly residing in a land adjoining the Defense Services School at Mews Street, Slave Island, was done in a very fair and humane manner, consistent with applicable legal procedures,
The land which the dwellers were residing after building unauthorized structures belonged to the Urban Development Authority (UDA). Although the dwellers were residing without proper authority, considering the humane nature of the matter, they were provided with compensation and alternative residences with UDA intervention.
As the illegal dwellers had failed to adhere to repeated reminders to vacate their unauthorized structures they were evicted on 7 Friday May 2010 after providing adequate compensation and alternative houses.
The MCNS also stated that the Defense Services School was established several years back with the intention of providing viable education facilities to the children of war heroes of the Security Forces and Police who acted with selfless determination and sacrifice to save the country from terrorism. As it was a necessity to acquire the land to further upgrade and develop the existing facilities of the School, the Government had to take the decision, which was carried out in a very fair manner, the release said”.
As expected a tense situation arose during demolition of the houses and in the clash between the residents and the police one police officer was injured.
Few days later the owners of the houses staged a street protest despite pouring heavy rain amidst tight security. A Daily Mirror report of 14 May 2010 stated as follows;
“Speaking at a protest held at the Lipton Circus SLMC Leader and the Minister of Justice Rauf Hakeem said that the Defense Secretary, who heads the UDA, did not have the right to forcibly evict people as he was not elected by the people but using the power that has been bestowed on him by his brother, President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It is disgraceful the way they have been evicted. They should have at least been given one month instead of two hours”.
The owners of these houses did file a case in the Supreme Court three years ago and the UDA agreed to build alternative accommodation in Dematagoda. According to reports the Attorney General also agreed to ensure that people whose houses were demolished would be given alternate houses at the new housing complex in Dematagoda.
The government did build houses in Dematagoda. However they were distributed among people from Borella who were reported to be supporters of government MP Thilanga Sumathipala known for his periodic anti Muslim outbursts.
The housing complex at Dematagoda known as Mihindu Senpura was opened with fanfare on 18 November 2013 by President Mahinda Rajapaksa at a function attended by Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Colombo Mayor A.J.M.Muzammil. At the ceremony the President claimed that the housing units had been distributed among Colombo’s former shanty dwellers without considering party affiliations.
However the residents said that they had lost complete confidence in the authorities and lost all hopes of getting alternate houses. Growing feeling among them is that Muslims are being evicted from poor areas in Colombo under a sinister plan to take over their prime lands.
Reiterating this growing fear UNP Matara District MP Mangala Samaraweera accused the government of changing Colombo’s demography for its political gain. Samaraweera told the Parliament on 2 December 2013 that lands in the city were being acquired on the pretext of development. People in Slave Island had been rendered homeless.
Here is part of his speech dealing with the pathetic plight of the evicted residents whose houses were demolished at Mews Street;
“I want to take this opportunity to inform this house about the insidious attempt by Defense Ministry to change the demography of the city of Colombo. The plight of the people in the Slave Island Area who have been forcibly evicted by the Army on behalf of the UDA with false promises is a glaring example of attempts to change the ethnic demography of Colombo.
In the guise of urban development, many families of mainly Muslim and Tamil origin in the Colombo Municipal area have been evicted from their homes – many of them third generation deed holders – by coercion, threats and false promises using the full might of the military who are virtually running the UDA now.
In 2007, the houses of over 300 residents in Glenis Street in Slave Island were demolished by the army. These houses were not shanties and some were actually 2 or 3 story houses and many had a history going back to over 100 years. The residents were intimidated by the army to go to Weligoda in Mattakuliya to live in temporary shelters for 6 years.
Then in 2010, 18 houses in Mews Street, again predominantly Muslim and Tamil were demolished using brute force and thuggery and many people had to run for their lives leaving their furniture and belongings behind. Subsequently M.M.F. Rizmiya filed a fundamental rights case FR 349/2010 in Supreme Court against the UDA on behalf of the residents with Mr. J.C. Weliamuna appearing on behalf of the petitioners.
On 11 May 2011, the Deputy Solicitor General informs Supreme Court that a decision has been taken to construct a new block on the Baseline Road, Dematagoda housing scheme for the petitioners and the UDA agreed to give homes there for the petitioners.
However, once the Mihindupura Housing Scheme was opened, the petitioners were told, in total contempt of the earlier court order that they will not be getting houses in this scheme as earlier promised.
In keeping with the regime’s sinister plan to settle minority families in the Greater Colombo area – these families have now been told that they will be given houses in Bandaranaikepura, Rajagiriya, outside the Municipal limits. However, the ‘catch’ in this tragic story is that these innocent families have been deprived of a house because ‘higher ups’ had then decided to give the apartments promised to them to 237 families living in Railway Quarters in Dematagoda”.
Commenting on this under the title “strengthening the culture of fear or democratic problem solving” columnist Jehan Perera had this to state;
The demolition of houses and stalls on the grounds that they are unauthorized constructions, the round up of beggars, and the absence of viable opposition to these actions, bears witness to a reality that may come to encompass the whole of the country.
The shanty dwellers of Colombo have been the next target for the clearing up operations. There is a mechanistic precision in what is happening under the instructions of the Urban Development Authority. There is no compassion being shown. Virtually overnight, and with scarcely any warning, hundreds of people are losing their homes. It may well be that most people think that the pavement hawkers and shanty dwellers need to be displaced, as they are a nuisance or even worse. But there must be dialogue and mutual accommodation that befits a community, which is what this country must be. When people see the ruthless and efficient use of state power used to destroy the livelihoods and homes of others, they learn that there can be no dissent and no countervailing power to that of the government. This creates fear, even if what is being done is judged to be necessary and efficient.
What is happening today on the streets of Colombo is not totally new. At various times different governments have tried to clean up the city and banish the eye sore of poverty from their eyes and those of the world. On the previous occasions, the poor were taken away after a viable alternative had been provided to them. Where this was not the case, street and political protests made the government leaders rethink and change their minds. Security in a democracy means that people feel and are confident that the law will apply to all and the protections of the law will be available to all. People must also feel confident of their government’s commitment to the rule of law, and in its spirit, not only in words but also in deeds. Government leaders who say that black is white and use denial as their first line of defense will not be able to retain the people’s trust for long”, thus concluded Jehan Perera.
Now one may ask why the Muslim parliamentarians are silent. Perhaps, as known and shameless sell outs, they are busy kissing the feet of the power that is to safeguard their positions and perks. Helpless Muslims in Mews Street have no one to turn to.