By Mass L. Usuf –
The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) a global monitoring body of internally displaced people worldwide estimates that as of February 2015, there are 90,000 IDPs in Sri Lanka. Most of them live in host communities and others in camps. Some cannot go back to their lands as it has been occupied by the forces.
In this thirty year old saga, the Wilpattu National Park, one of the few natural assets of this island, has taken center stage in the battle of righteousness. Protecting this 131, 667 hectares santuary including its fauna and flora is an absolute national imperative. The necessary laws are in place, the oldest among them being the Forest Ordinance No 16 of 1907. Civil organizations, conservationists, and environmentalists are the watchdogs.
Some elements of these watchdogs in collaboration with extremist organisations and there proxies have turned out to be diehard ‘actors’ in the cause of conservation. The National Park was previously dragged into controversy when reportedly the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) charged that Minister Rishad Bathiudeen had settled Muslims after clearing part of the land belonging to the park.
A disturbing concern however, is the eclectic approach of these ‘actors’ in their zeal to protect the forest. Are they sincere activists or pawns fulfilling a different agenda altogether? There have undoubtedly, been many instances of glaringly gross violations of our reserves. I shall rest my case only with one.
Why did not we see the “jathika vasthun surakimu” tamasha, when the Colombo Telegraph reported in September 11, 2014, as follows :
“Sri Lanka Navy has forcefully acquired close to 900 acres of forestry located within the perimeters of the Wilpattu National Park to carry out constructions of a mega tourism project. According to information revealed by the officials of the Environment Conservation Trust, the land grab has been carried out by the SLN in the area located along the Northern border of the park, in the vicinity of the Mollikulam area. Presently, a large wall that is about nine inches in height is being built around the forcefully acquired land and its constructions have been completed so far for about 2 km along the Eluwankulama – Silwathura road that was also constructed by the SLN illegally.
What is even more damaging is that, 50 more acres of land in the national park have been impacted due to being cleared to obtain soil to build the massive nine inch rampart that is being built around the 900 acre land”.
Might is right
With my deep respect for the sincere protagonists of conservation, I wish to ask where were all these mushroom provocateurs ? Did they ask for the Initial Environmental Examination report or Environmental Impact Assessment report for the project as required under the National Environmental Act No. 47 of 1980? Were these provocateurs not aware of The Fauna and Flora Protection Ordinance, No 2 of 1937, which states in Section 3A :
“No person shall, within one mile of the boundary at a National Reserve, construct a tourist hotel or provide any services or facilities similar to the services or facilities provided by a tourist hotel”.
Did not they know that the Forest Department policy statement says,
“One of the objectives of the National Forest Policy is:
To conserve forests for posterity, with particular regard to biodiversity, soils, water, and historical, cultural, religious and aesthetic values”.
At that time, might was right. None dare question. But, now, under the yahapalanaya all the minions and cowardly ‘actors’ like Rip Van Winkle have suddenly woken up and crying, “Save Wilpattu”.
Is it not ironical that these pretenders desire to protect animals and trees only from the Muslim IDPs. We generously rushed aid to Nepal but trample upon our own people in the backyard and are indifferent to the pain, suffering and hardship of humans. Even murderers and terrorists have a safe place to stay but those who lost everything for the sake of a unitary state is labeled and ostracized. Where have we gone wrong ?
Among the LLRC recommendations were the introduction of a uniform State policy aimed at resettlement of Muslim IDPs in host communities or in their original place of habitat. To introduce an assistance package including financial assistance for housing construction for Muslim Community in North and East. Take immediate steps to assist in rebuilding of the mosques, houses and schools destroyed or damaged by the LTTE.
As a Muslim Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, has a moral obligation to take care of the interest of his community. Being a conflict-induced IDP himself, he relates well to the woes of his people. The LLRC recommends settling them in their original place of habitat. To attach a racist tone to these returnees who have been suffering silently for several decades is both inhuman and callous.
Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, addressing a press briefing, Thursday (7) May, said, “During the past few weeks, some have negatively reported on continued and illegal Muslim re-settlements in the Marichchikatti Grama Seva division which is outside the Wilpattu National Park,”. To establish his bona fides, he vowed to quit if they are proven. He even charged that a criticism campaign is taking shape against him.
The two pronged strategy aims at taking the Minister head on via the electronic media and the muslim community using the social media. The deliberate churning out of racially provocative statements and inciting fears of demographic changes bears testimony to this.
A study of settlements in the North and East reveals, “trends where Sinhala politicians and Buddhist clergy have entered areas in the East and erected new buildings and fenced off land, intimidating minorities in the area and creating tension among the different communities, as well as reinforcing minority fears about the use of land to effect demographic change”. (Bhavani Fonseka and Mirak Raheem, Land in the Eastern Province – Politics, Policy and Conflict, CPA 2010)
In the North, “civil society organisations, the media and opposition Tamil political parties, such as the TNA, have also highlighted a series of concerns.
These include land grabbing, cultural colonisation through the erection of Buddhist temples and statutes, Military colonisation through the setting up of High Security Zones and military cantonments and Sinhalisation of a region that has been claimed as the traditional homeland of the Tamil People”. (Chamindry Saparamadu and Aftab Lall, January 2014 – Working Paper 10, CEPA)
Why is this adrenalin rush ? Is it because these people are Muslims or is it to settle an old score with Minister Rishad Bathiudeen or because these are genuine advocates of conservation? Whatever the motive, the IDPs continue to languish in their present state.