By Latheef Farook –
President Maithripala Sirisena’s order on 30 December 2016 to issue a gazette notification extending the land area coming under the Wilpattu National Park has shocked the Muslims who were trying to get back to their own lands to rebuild their shattered lives.
They fear that this announcement include nearby villages such as Marichichukaddy, Karadikuli and Palaikkuli where Muslims lived for generations in their own lands with valid title deeds but were kicked out by LTTE .
Responding to president Sirisena’s order, Muslims who are trying to return to their lands pointed out that “we have not encroached even an inch of land in Wilpattu or anywhere else. We only wanted to return to our own lands and the allegation that Muslims in the encroach Wilpattu National Park or destroying forests is calculated lie to prevent us from returning to our lands”.
They pointed out that relevant officials and all others involved are very well aware that these were Muslim villages and their dilapidated houses, schools ,mosques and other such structures still remain there. When they tried to return to their lands after the war in May 2009 racist elements created many controversies distorting facts giving ethnic twist to prevent them from returning to their lands.
They suspect it was under the influence of such elements that President Sirisena may have issued his 30 December 2016 order.
They also pointed out that Muslims trying to resettle in their own lands has nothing to do with Industrial, Commerce and Cooperative Minister Rishard Badurdeen though vested interest in the media drags him due to political reasons. Thus this presidential decision was only aimed at pleasing Sinhala racist elements who are hell bent on preventing Muslims from settling in their lands in these three villages.
A six member team of academics led by Professor Shahul H. Hasbullah of Peradeniya University prepared last year an extensive research document on the issue of Musali South Muslims returning to their lands under the title “Denying the Right to Return- Resettlement in Musali South and the Wilpattu Controversy. Their plea was “Help Us Return Home”. They appealed to all to help them return to their lands and homes with dignity and self-respect to end their more than three and half decade old sufferings.
In his author’s note Prof Shahul H Hasbulla stated that; “When the “Wilpattu controversy” flared up, the turn of the debate surprised me. I knew for certain that the contested area in question was not located in Wilpattu. In a published newspaper article, I emphasized the issue of returnees, which in my view, is the crux of the matter. But the ongoing debate paid no attention to this issue. To the contrary, the public discourse continuously labeled returnees as ‘criminals’.
The bleak situation spurred me to take on the mission of uncovering the truth. I visited all corners of “Musali South” in order to get to know its history and its peoples, reflecting on the claims and counter claims of land ownership. I learned from the people who were paddy, chena and cattle farmers; sea, lagoon, river and tank fisher folk; teachers, religious dignitaries; men, women, young and children of all religions.
According to our findings people have lived in the Musali Region for generations. They toiled on this land and roamed the region for various livelihood activities without any interruption, while keeping the tradition of protecting the forest and the environment. They are a part of the nature and culture of the region. ”.
Muslims had nothing to do with the devastating ethnic war between successive governments and the LTTE. However sandwiched between the two they suffered immense and the plight of Musali South Muslims was no exception as they too were kicked by the TTE within two hours’ notice. They suffered in refugee camps and temporary shelters where they were longing for the day to return to their lands and resume their traditional life.
While Musali South Muslims were in refugee camps the Rajapaksa Government had acquired major part of their traditional lands under various pretexts knowing very Well that the owners would claim this land once the ethnic war ends.
First around 40% of their traditional lands in the Musali South was acquired. This was followed by the acquisition of another 30 percent of their land without any consultation or consent to establish security Establishments. Added to this Muslims owned lands were acquired to establish a naval agricultural project. Furthermore a Navy Regional Commanding Office was established in two prominent villages and the Muslims were prevented from entering their own lands, dwellings and other properties.
Thus Musali South Muslims were deceived and deprived large extent of their traditional lands despite possessing genuine title deeds and permits.
Judging from the subsequent anti Muslim campaign under Rajapaksa government aimed at virtually eliminating the Muslim community it is not difficult to now realize that Muslim owned Musali South lands were acquired to deliberately deprive them of their traditional lands.
Commenting on the controversy in the same document Professor Arjuna Parakrama of University of Peradeniya stated in the Special document that ;
“The issue of resettlement in Musali- Wilpattu has divided and destroyed relationships built up among “progressive” groups who hitherto shared similar positions on other national concerns. Environmental activists allowed this discourse to be narrowly ethicized, and emulated populist majoritarian rabble rousers in their passion to “save Wilpattu” from what they saw as corrupt and opportunist minority politicians.
A small band of human rights professionals and academics who took up the cause of the displaced were unable to disentangle them from the political leadership that was using the issue in at least of the ways that the environmental lobby claimed.
The Media exploited all of this – generally on the side of the single-issue environmentalists – to rekindle anti-Muslim sentiment among the Sinhala polity. As a result, those who had no interest in the preservation of wild life became passionate campaigners, while dedicated eco-types transformed into ethno-nationalists overnight. In all of this the affected people remained voiceless – pawns in a series of chess games – and this denial of agency is as damaging as the continued deprivation of their rights”.
Meanwhile Professor M A Nuhman lamented in the same document that seven years have passed since the war ended ,the ethnic relations in the country further deteriorated because of the short sighted political leadership to further their own agendas.
Resettlement of internally displaced people is one of the major issues today that demands an immediate solution in post war Sri Lanka. Hundreds of thousands of people from all three
Communities were displaced internally during the war, losing their houses, land and sources of livelihood; most of them are not resettled so far and they are longing for return to their own soil to live peacefully.
To this day, we have not been able to formulate a national policy of resettlement to resolve the problem of the displaced people justly and permanently. Therefore, resettlement programs are being carried out in an ad hoc manner and have led to further problems and tensions among the communities. Resettlement in Musali South is a case in point.
When the displaced Musali people started to resettle in their places clearing the jungle, it exploded into environmental and ethnically sensitive issue; extremists and the Media carried out a concerted campaign against resettlement creating fear and tension among the people.
Explaining the situation in her preface to the document Professor Sivamohan Sumathy of Peradeniya University said “the return of the Displaced in Musali South has evoked a variety of responses and competing claims that have taken on national and nationalist proportions. The returning population of Musali South has tried to eke out a living in the midst of harsh conditions, unaided by state forces for the most part. Yet the region has become needlessly entangled in a controversy over environmentalism.
While the navy has claimed large acres of land for its own entrenchment in the region, environmentalists have accused settlers, the IDPs, who have returned and staked out a claim for their lands, as destroyers of forest. The displaced themselves. And in this instance, the displaced Muslims of Musali South, account for some of the most marginalized sections of the population, but the debate that the putative return has spurred in the media and in political circles has cast them as adversaries of both nature and the state”.
It was under such circumstance comes President Sirisena’s order to issue a gazette notification extending the land area coming under the Wilpattu National Park and declare it a ‘Wildlife Zone’, by a gazette notification. He told the officials to include all the adjacent forest areas of the Wilpattu National Park that presently does not coming under the Wildlife Department.
Muslims of the area point out that;
Thus the unfortunate Muslims from these three Muslim villages Marichichukaddy, Karadaikuli, said that they did not encroach or do not want even an inch of land from Wilpattu or anywhere else. Their re settlement has nothing to do with Wilpattu National Park.
Muslims are asking the government not to block their return to their own lands. Instead they wanted the government to facilitate their return.