By Muhammed Fazl –
“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest” – Elie Wiesel
Much has been said, petitions submitted and protests held, but what is disconcerting to the Muslim community is the absence of even a single case in a court of law against possible encroachment of lands belonging to Wilpattu forests or its reserves… and to this day. In this context, rise it does questions about mala fide propaganda and allegations leveled at Minister of Commerce and Industry, Mr. Rishad Bathiudeen and against original inhabitants-turned-refugees in the Mannar/Puttalam districts.
At a time when the judiciary and concerned departments are operating far more independently, the ‘holy truth’ cannot be more obvious than when men in saffron colored robes jump into the fray when issues concerning Muslims and/or Muslim politicians surface. As an investigative writer/activist, I hope I am not alone in sensing a deep-rooted and a well organized campaign against Muslims taking shape.
Wanting to see ground realities for myself and intending to expose the truth, I set on a journey a couple of weeks back to all areas surrounding the Wilpattu jungle. Having met local inhabitants and settlers while on the inspection tour, I am of the view that at no stage, illegal grab of state or protected lands had taken place in order to settle Muslims who were living as refugees for almost a quarter of a century. Interestingly, it is the Sinhalese community from Hambantota areas who had ‘invaded’ and who had set up shop in lands foreign to them. And that too at a time when around 100,000 Muslims continue to live as refugees.
Every Sri Lankan, irrespective of race or religion should have the right to settle down in any part of the island at any stage. But when the Rajapaksa government intervened and relocated 2860 Sinhalese families in the Mannar district (from elsewhere) by presenting 3 acres of land to each family as against half (1/2) acre for a Muslim family, does it not signal a pattern of clinical discrimination of Muslims? Under these circumstances, would it be fair to make unsubstantiated allegations against Mr. Bathiudeen solely for standing up for the rights of his community?
The following video interview with Rev. Athuraliye Rathana Thero, Rev. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thero of BBS and with Minister Rishad Bathiudeen was to give each one of them an opportunity to air their individual versions of the story and for the intelligent viewer to make better judgements.
Though Minister Rishad Bathiudeen seems to be innocent of illegal encroachment of Wilpattu lands, I believe allegations of establishing settlements in a haphazard manner while disregarding requirements of infrastructure facilities needs to be looked into by professionals in respective fields. On a positive note, credit should be given to Mr. Bathiudeen for his relentless struggle to uplift the standard of living of his constituents and that which I believe should be emulated by other politicians.
Engaging more in politics than in teaching the philosophy of Buddhism, Rev. Athuraliye Rathana Thero should be thanked as well for his willingness to address the matter. While questions can be raised on his poorly-thought-of decision to present a petition directly to President Maithripala Sirisena before discussing any issues with local residents, officials or politicians, one can also question the wisdom and timing behind a Buddhist religious figure meddling in affairs concerning minority communities. While Rev. Rathana Thero seems to be choosing a balanced and a middle path, I believe the Muslim community will continue to keep a close tab on his future movements in this regard.
Amusing, contradicting and a little disturbing at times, Rev. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara came across as a person who would opt for the limelight at any cost. Now that Rajapaksas are out of power, with clipped wings and zero ‘fire power’, the Bodhu Bala Sena (BBS) seems to be a spent force with their regular and empty rhetoric… not to mention the fast dwindling numbers of their ‘fan club’.
Interestingly, both monks I interviewed seemed to be disinterested in curbing activities such as gambling, alcoholism, substance abuse, violence etc., and that which directly contradicts the beautiful teachings of Lord Buddha. And it sure would be refreshing if their sponsors are not ethanol importers or casino/brothel owners among other undesirable characters. Sri Lanka, ranked among the top 5 countries for alcohol consumption, suicide and rape cases, I am forced to wonder why prominent personalities don the robe of a Buddhist monk when they are least interested or spend the least time in addressing matters concerning Buddhism. This trend may look innocent to the unsuspecting since it is one’s personal freedom of choice, but when religion or the race of the majority is used to subjugate minority communities, I am afraid we are heading towards a volcano waiting to erupt… and that which would engulf us all!
To sum it all up and to my understanding, allegations of illegal settlements around Wilpattu forests is all about scoring the highest percentage of votes among the majority community at the upcoming elections and for racist and hate groups to vent out their frustrations. Unlike the instance where President Sirisena professed to be a President for the entire country whilst retaining the position of Leader of the SLFP, I believe it would seriously damage his credibility should the President’s decision be tilted in favor of racist Sinhalese/Buddhist opponents of Muslim settlements. As in the case of North American politics, where people belonging to the Islamic faith happens to be the perfect bait for one’s petty political gains, for the sake of flag bearers and leaders of racist agendas, let us just hope Sri Lankan Muslims are not pushed to the edge.
*The writer is an independent social/political rights activist and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or through Facebook (FB ID – Fazl Muhammed Nizar)