Mannar Muslims: Between the Devil and the Deep Sea
Muslims in Mannar are in a dilemma. They are not welcomed in Mannar, at the same time political leaders in the Puttalam district have categorically told them that they have overstayed the hospitality extended to them since November 1990.
Those leaders say that over 100, 000 Muslims not only from Mannar, but also from other parts of the Northern Province have remained longer than expected in the Puttalam district and they are exploiting the legitimate benefits due only to the people of Pattalam.
Political leaders say that it is high time – the terrorist war is over and the country is now under the democratic rule, peace is prevailing, therefore let the Northern Muslims go back to their original areas in the Northern Province.
Whatever said and done, presently Muslims in Mannar are in a precarious positions. They are neither in Puttalam nor in Mannar – but in an Utopian mindset .
Unfortunately, the Tamil Christian religious leaders especially in Mannar say let the new IDPs – Internally Displaced Tamil People, who were earlier from Mannar be resettled first and until such time let the Muslims remain in Puttalam.
Asian Tribune reliably learns that Tamil Christian leaders in Mannar are threatening and intimidating the officials in the Government Agent’s Office, as well as in other Government Departments and telling them menacingly not to be actively involved in the resettlement of the Muslims (Old IDPs) who returns from Puttalam and other areas in the West and South of Sri Lanka.
As the situation in the Mannar district is very tense, it is feared that there might be future clashes between the Christian Tamils and the Muslim - who returned from other parts of the country for resettlement.
Tense Situation In Mannar – French Ambassador
Recently the French Ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Christine Robichon, visited Jaffna and Mannar and said that there are signs of communal tensions, particularly in Mannar.
A statement by the French Embassy said that during Ambassador's visit to Jaffna and Mannar, she met with the additional government agents, the bishops of the two dioceses, other religious leaders and representatives of civil society as well as the United Nations agencies.
Already there are problems between the Muslims of uppuveli in Mannar and the Tamil fishermen who settled down from Vidathalthivu.
Earlier in 2009, immediately after the end of the war against LTTE, Minister Rishad Bathiyutheen, the spokesman for the displaced Muslims announced that Sri Lankan government is taking steps to resettle the Muslims who had been displaced for 20 years, after they were evicted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from their original places in the North.
He added , “The government is to start the resettlement process of the displaced Muslims of the Northern Province, who are currently living in the IDP camps in Puttalam.”
He further said, “Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa will launch the programme to resettle over 100,000 displaced Muslims.”
Assurance By Sri Lanka President
Later, Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa has given an assurance that all Muslim civilians, over a lakh, who were forcibly evicted from the northern province exactly 20 years ago, will be resettled in their original places with all infrastructure by May 2010.
President Rajapaksa said at the All Ceylon Muslim Congress Northern Convention - 2009 at Alankuda, Kalpitiya: “When the innocent Muslims were harassed and forcibly evicted from the north by the LTTE, no one came forward to stop this displacement.
At the event, organised by Minister Rishard Bathiudeen, Sri Lanka President Rajapaksa, who was seeking at that time, second term as President, said: “We will ensure that innocent Muslim civilians who had to leave their original places in the north due to LTTE threats are resettled in their own properties. Their houses, schools and business establishments will be rebuilt with all necessary infrastructure facilities.”
Following the assurance given by Sri Lanka President in November 2012, at another conference titled "Commemorating the 22nd year of the Forcible Eviction of Muslims from the Northern Province", Minister of Economic Development Basil Rajapaksa said “Thousands of Tamil-speaking Muslim people languishing in refugees camps for 22 years after their forcible eviction from their homes in North by LTTE will be re-settled in their original places of residence immediately.”
''We are determined to resettle these individuals shortly. A high percentage of the displaced individuals are Muslims. We certify that we will take steps to resettle them in their home towns,'' Minister Rajapaksa said addressing the conference.
A conference titled "Commemorating the 22nd year of the Forcible Eviction of Muslims from the Northern Province" to address the issue of evicted Northern Muslims was held on 16 November at the BMICH in Colombo with Minister Rajapaksa as the Chief Guest.
Muslims in Uppukulam were evicted by the LTTE in 1990 and the Muslim fishermen fled to camps in Puttalam and Anuradhapura.
However, during the ceasefire period in 2002 some of the Muslim fishermen returned to Uppukulam. The Muslims returned to their livelihoods in Uppukulam to use the facilities in the area for fishing.
At this point in time, Tamil fishermen from Vidathaltheevu, which was occupied by the LTTE, also moved to Uppukulam.
The LTTE had intervened and directed the Muslim fishermen to carry out their fishing activities in the area alongside the Tamil fishermen.
The objections raised by the Muslim fishermen were silenced by the LTTE saying it would be a temporary arrangement and that the Tamil fishermen would find another area once the remaining Muslim fishermen from Uppukulam returned to their village.
Following the end of the war, the rest of the Muslim fishermen from Uppukulam had also returned.
Sharing the existing facilities with the Tamil fishermen became difficult due to constraints on land and other facilities.
The Muslim fishermen have since been requesting the Tamil fishermen to vacate the area as agreed initially.
The Muslim fishermen have lamented that they were unable to carry out their livelihood due to the occupation of their land and facilities by the Tamil fishermen. Subsequently, meetings were held with the Mannar GA and SP to resolve the dispute.
According to a Muslime fisherman one N. Nauseen, every meeting resulted in the Tamil fishermen requesting for more time. “They kept asking for two years or a few months to re-locate and the Muslim fishermen have been affected as a result,” he said, adding the issue has now dragged for over 10 years.
Following the failure of discussions, a group of Muslim fishermen have tried to forcibly take back the lands by destroying some of the waadis set up on the beach by the Tamil fishermen.
“These are our lands,” Nauseen said. However, the Tamil fishermen claiming that the damages caused by the Muslim fishermen amounted to Rs. 14 lakhs had then lodged a complaint with the police.
The arrest of the Muslim fishermen and the court order allowing the Tamil fishermen to continue fishing in the area until an alternative was found resulted in the violence in Mannar on the 18th.
Genesis of the dispute
In fact earlier Muslims in Mannar district comprised 26% of the district population according to the 1981 census. They were 46% of the Mannar Island linked to the mainland by the Thalladdy causeway .
On Oct 21st 1990, Erukkalampitty, the premier and relatively prosperous Muslim village on Mannar Island was surrounded by around 300 tiger cadres and were robbed of cash, jewellery and valuable electronic goods.
On Oct 22nd some Muslims from Marichukkatty village near the Mannar - Puttalam district border were arrested by the LTTE for allegedly having clandestine dealings with the armed forces and were ordered to leave by next day. This was followed by an eviction order on Oct 24th to all Muslims in the Musali AGA division, with a Muslim majority, where Marichukkatty is situated.
The expulsion process continued on Oct 24th with the LTTE making loudspeaker announcements ordering all Muslims living in Mannar Island to leave by Oct 28th and demanding them to report to the local LTTE office to finalize the procedures of expulsion. The helpless Muslims began packing and on Oct 26th, the LTTE “invaded” Erukkalampitty again and seized the packed belongings of these Muslims.
On October 28th evening, the LTTE sealed off Erukkalampitty and other Muslim areas on Mannar Island. The Muslims of Mannar Island from the town and areas like Erukkalampitty, Tharapuram, Puthukkudiyiruppu, Uppukulam, Konthaipitty etc were forced to assemble on selected spots on the beach.
The Muslims of Mannar Island were forcibly sent 60 miles south by sea to Kalpitiya in the North Western Province in boats owned by Muslims of this area. The entire exercise took more than three days. At least one child fell in the waters and died. Some infants and elderly people passed away soon after reaching Kalpitiya.
Mannar Island Muslims
In the Mannar Island, most of the former Muslim concentrations are limping back to normalcy with Muslim refugees returning. Only about 15 percent of the total displaced Muslims have returned to date to places such as Puthukuddiyirrupu, Erukkalampiddy, Uppukulam, Tharapuram, Karisal, Talaimannar, Kataspathiri (Pesali) and Moor Street of Mannar Town.
Surprisingly, the cease-fire agreement did not encourage the Mannar Island Muslims to return home as they do not have shelter for immediate occupations and most of the remaining houses are not in habitable condition while others are occupied. Landmines in Talaimannar remain yet another problem. The returnees feel insecure and vulnerable because only a small number had returned compared to the number of Muslims who lived there before they were displaced. In the midst many of Muslim residents of Mannar Town sold their houses and other properties. Returnees have also reported fears about possible restrictions on religious and cultural practices as well.
Minister Rishad Bathiyudeen
Commerce and Industry Minister Rishad Bathiudeen explained in detail the present plight of Mannar Muslims in an interview with Ceylon Today.
He explained that United Nations Human Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, has termed those displaced prior to 2008, as ‘old IDPs’, resulting in them losing much of the humanitarian assistance currently provided for IDPs by various groups. Since the end of the conflict, hundreds of Northern Muslim refugees started returning to their lands. They face series of problems and there have been little recognition of the issues involved in the resettlement process.
The UNHCR is providing assistance only to ‘new IDPs’, whereas 90% of the Muslims do not fall into such a category. Even the NGOs provide assistance to ‘new IDPs’. Under this program none of the Muslim families receive livelihood support, shelter and sanitary facilities. No Muslim school was reconstructed. Villages still look like jungles.
He added that even the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report suggested the need for policy decisions to resettle the Muslims in the North, but the government has not taken any initiative.
He explained that it is three years since the present Resettlement Minister assumed duties, but shame to say, that he has not visited north, which need to be resettled. The minister should take up this resettlement issue seriously. After the war, no meeting on this issue was held in those areas. Why is the government not paying any attention to this? It is only when you visit the areas that you really understand the suffering of Muslims there.
Minister Bathiudeen also accused “the Bishop of Mannar of blocking the resettlement of Muslims and even written to President Mahinda Rajapaksa against the Muslims. It’s quite shocking to hear that the Bishop has asked the Catholics not to sell lands to Muslims during resettlement. I spoke about this in Parliament (Excerpts of his speech is given at the end of this report). When I was the Minister of Resettlement, I resettled all the Tamils in the North. By the time I was to resettle the Muslims, there was a change in the Cabinet of Ministers. After that, no one took any initiative to resettle them. Now I am taking the initiative but the Bishop is obstructing them. My only expectation is to resettle my people. They are all my relatives. I was also an IDP. It is with their votes that I became a Minister”.
He said seventy nine mosques in the North were demolished during the war. No one has taken any initiative to re-construct these mosques or houses which were demolished during the war.
“This issue can only be sorted out with the help of the government and the NGOs. I have decided, if these issues are not addressed accordingly, I will quit politics and not contest in the next general elections. If President Mahinda Rajapakse takes pride in saying that he won the war, he also needs to resettle the people” said Minister Bathiyudeen
Minister Bathiyudeen accused “the Bishop of Mannar of blocking the resettlement of Muslims and even written to President Mahinda Rajapaksa against the Muslims. It’s quite shocking to hear that the Bishop has asked the Catholics not to sell lands to Muslims during resettlement. I spoke about this in Parliament. When I was the Minister of Resettlement, I resettled all the Tamils in the North. By the time I was to resettle the Muslims, there was a change in the Cabinet of Ministers. After that, no one took any initiative to resettle them. Now I am taking the initiative but the Bishop is obstructing them. My only expectation is to resettle my people. They are all my relatives. I was also an IDP. It is with their votes that I became a Minister”.
He said seventy nine mosques in the North were demolished during the war. No one has taken any initiative to re-construct these mosques or houses which were demolished during the war.
This issue can only be sorted out with the help of the government and the NGOs. I have decided, if these issues are not addressed accordingly, I will quit politics and not contest in the next general elections. If President Mahinda Rajapakse takes pride in saying that he won the war, he also needs to resettle the people” said Minister Bathiudeen.
Threat and Intimidation
Whatever said and done, presently Muslims in Mannar are in a precarious positions. They are neither in Puttalam nor in Mannar.
Unfortunately, the Tamil Christian religious leaders especially in Mannar say let the new IDPs – Internally Displaced People who were earlier from Mannar be resettled d first and until such time let the Muslims remain in Puttalam.
Asian Tribune reliably learns that Tamil Christian leaders in Mannar are threatening and intimidating the officials in the Government Agents Office as well as in other Government Departments not to be actively involved in the resettlement of the Muslims (Old IDPs) who returns from Puttalam and other areas in the West and South of Sri Lanka.
As the situation in the Mannar district is very tense there might be future clashes between the Christan Tamils and the Muslims who return from other parts of the country for resettlement.
Excerpts of Minister Rishad Bathiyudeen speech in Parliament (Unofficial Translation – Courtesy: Latheef Farook )
‘I am above communal considerations’
Select extracts from the Hansard of Minister Rishad Bathiudeen's speech in Parliament on August 8, 2012
“Sir, my electorate and I have been making media headlines in the past few weeks and I would like to make use of this opportunity to set out the real facts with regard to the events that took place in Mannar.
“I am a Member of Parliament elected by the people of Mannar. My electorate is made up of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. It has been my honour to represent them and to represent their heartburn and anguish.
“I make this statement with responsibility and with a sense of duty. I say this because the people of this country must know and they have the right to know the true facts, about the real victims and the real culprits of what happened and what is happening in Mannar. That alone can ensure that the Rule of Law prevails and that justice is done in this country.
“That is being described as a clash between the Muslims and the Tamil Catholics, but that is only what we see on the surface. Underneath the surface, there is a bigger battle, a bigger struggle between two forces, to which I will refer later on.
“Before I was appointed the Minister of Industry and Commerce by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, I held the portfolio of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services. The Tamils of the Northern Province would recall how I, as the Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, spearheaded the government’s programme to resettle the displaced Tamil people in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces with great vigor and enthusiasm under the guidance of Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa.
“However, I had to carry out the task of resettlement under a highly risky condition. I should also mention that on my request as a Member of Parliament and the chairman of the District Coordinating Committee of the Mannar District, the Ministry of Economic Development, under the guidance of President and Basil Rajapaksa, reconstructed the Madhu Church damaged during the terror campaign by the LTTE to the pleasure of the clergy. On a similar request made by me, the Thiruketheeswaram Hindu Kovil reconstruction had to be carried out to the chagrin of a section of the very clergy. I am mentioning this to show that I have always acted far above ethnic or communal considerations. Nearly 500,000 Tamils were resettled in the North and the East when I was the Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, even while the displaced Muslims from the North remained in refugee camps.
“Sir, in 1990, long before the words ‘ethnic cleansing’ were used or known in Sarejevo, in our own little island, the LTTE cleansed the North of the Muslims.
“Thus, the Muslims of Mannar, including the fishermen of Uppukulam, were forced to leave their homes. Mannar is not a recent Muslim resettlement. It is one of the earliest Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka. The fisherfolk in Mannar are successors to these early settlers. However, to the LTTE’s genocidal and narrow view, all that meant nothing; the ‘traditional homelands’and the birthplace of others did not matter. What mattered to them was the ethnically cleansed ‘Tamil Eelam.’ It was an LTTE dream. But, it was our nightmare and more so, for a majority of the Tamil people.
“For 22 years, these Muslims have lived as refugees since they were evicted from their lands. There are those who are obstructing their return and resettlement. They are giving effect to the LTTE decree that Mannar should be without Muslims. I do not think that any Member of this honorable House will accept that. I certainly will not.
“So, this is not about Tamils, Catholics or Muslims, about those who want to live in peace in a united Sri Lanka and those who want to divide it. Therefore, every peace-loving citizen, whether Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Christian or Hindu, who believes in a united Sri Lanka must and will support the cause of the Muslim fishermen of Uppukulam who want nothing, but to earn their living through honest means and to live in peace.
“But, for 22 years, the Muslim fishermen of Uppukulam in the Mannar District have been deprived of their lands and fishing rights. Twenty two years is too long. It is not something that can sit quietly in our conscience. It troubles me and it will trouble all of you that for 22 years, people lived as Internally Displaced People and even after the return of peace, they still remain as IDPs.
“Sir, in 2002, a small group of Muslims returned to Mannar, to their fishing hamlet in Uppukulam in Konthaipiddy hoping to regain their livelihood in their birthplace. However, any hope of resettlement was dashed when the LTTE intervened through its local warlord, Amudan, a sea tiger, and forcefully settled a group of Tamil Catholic fishermen from Vidataltivu in Uppukulam. It was a continuation of the LTTE strategy to keep Mannar for the LTTE and its henchmen.
“However, when this forceful settlement occurred, the Muslims managed to obtain a written undertaking that the fishermen of Vidataltivu would return to their lands once normalcy returned. So, even when they came to settle in Konthampiti, both sides understood it to be a temporary arrangement. However, three years have gone since the end of the war in May, 2009. It is three years since the country returned to normalcy and yet the fishermen of Uppukulam have not been given back their lands that the LTTE took away forcefully. For three years, since May, 2009, the Vidataltivu fishermen, on the orders of the LTTE remnants, have been preventing the Muslims from regaining their traditional fishing Vadiya and the pier.
“The Muslim fishermen of Uppukulam were promised in writing by the Vidataltivu fishermen in 2002, that on any occasion they would leave Uppukulam.
“But, the Vidataltivu fishermen would not leave Uppukulam. The decree of the LTTE remnants continues to have force in Mannar as that of the LTTE. Who is controlling them and giving them orders? These are the questions for which weneed answers.
“So, what did the fisherfolk of Uppukulam do? Did they resort to force and violence? Despite all the sufferings, the Muslims of Mannar, like Muslims all over Sri Lanka and all peace-loving communities living in this Island, have tried to resolve their differences through non-violent means. The Uppukulam fishermen made representations to all authorities concerned to resettle the Vidataltivu fishsrmen in their native place in Vidataltivu or to find them an alternative location. They had made representations to me and also to other Members of the Vanni District. After three years they saw no success. How long more should the Muslim fishermen of Uppukulam wait to retrieve their own land? How long more should they wait to restart their shattered lives?
“Sir, it was in this backdrop, that meetings were held by the authorities in Mannar on June 7, June 11, and on June 26, 2012. The Vidataltivu fishermen were offered alternate locations and were requested to shift and even after promising to do so, they did not shift. What is noteworthy is that almost half of the original group of Vidataltivu fishermen has returned to their original places in Vidataltivu. So, why is the balance group remaining? Is it because they want to cause problems or is it that someone else is using them for causing problems? Just as much as the fishermen of Uppukulam are victims, so are the fishermen of Vidataltivu. They are being used, to this day, as pawns in a game waged by powerful forces pushing the LTTE agenda.
“It was in this background that on July 13, 2012, two Muslim fishermen had reportedly informed the Vidataltivu fishermen not to go out for fishing that day as some Muslim fishermen wanted to come to the Vadiya to talk to them. This request, I learnt subsequently, had been ignored by the Vidataltivu fishermen, which had allegedly provoked about a dozen of Muslim fishermen to take back possession of the Vadiya, in the course of which some cadjan huts in the Vadiya had been damaged.
“Although the Police complaint states that there is a claim that around Rs.1.4 million worth of fishing equipment was damaged, according to the Government Agent, the Divisional Secretary, the District Fisheries Director and the Police, no damage had been caused to any of the fishing equipment, gear or boats lying at the shore. However, this isolated incident was used to exaggerate incidents internationally.
“Furthermore, statements of 17 Vidataltivu fishermen had been recorded naming a number of Muslims of the area, who had nothing to do with the incident, as having participated in it and thereby angering the entire Muslim community in Mannar.
“Furthermore, the Muslims in Mannar believe that the damage caused to the Vadiya was partly by a Vidataltivu group led by one person called Ronald Reagan.
I am told that this man Ronald Regan, who is also a fisherman, is at the bottom of the problem, prevailing on other Vidataltivu fishermen not to move out. Who is advising him?
Who is directing them not to move out?
These are the questions that need answers and the Muslims of Mannar are demanding a Commission of Inquiry President Mahinda Rajapaksa to find answers to these questions. Muslims have reasons to believe that some Tamil religious leaders of the North with close connections to the war-time LTTE are inciting the Vidataltivu fishermen not to move out.
“However, let me also say that the unfortunate incidents in Mannar could have been avoided if the relevant authorities had paid due consideration to complaints of the people of Mannar.
“Let there not be the slightest doubt that I have the utmost respect for the Judiciary. The judges of our country are well-known and respected for their integrity, dedication and ability.
“I am tabling* copies of the letters sent by the Mosque authorities to the Secretary ofthe JSC. There are six letters sent by the mosque authorities from those areas.
“Mr. Presiding, Members, I regret to note that to date, the Mosque authorities have not received from the Secretary even an acknowledgement to these letters. Of course, it is the Secretary who should have acknowledged these letters and placed them before the JSC headed by Her Ladyship the Chief Justice of our country.
“As to what decisions are taken on these representations are matters entirely for the Hon. Members of the JSC, if the Secretary of the JSC had placed them before the Commission. But, some response to those who made the representations in the broader interest of justice and fair play may have helped calm the agitated sections of the public. Justice, we have been told must not only be done but also must appear to be done.
“The Chief Justice who is the Chairperson of the JSC is known for maintaining high standards and she, as the first lady Chief Justice, took office at a difficult time when people were losing faith in the judicial system.
“She has done much to rebuild the confidence.
“Therefore, I feel that if these complaints which were addressed to the Secretary of the Commission were brought to the attention of the Chief Justice and the other judges who are Members of the Commission, they would have taken prompt action. I remain confident of the judiciary in Sri Lanka”.
- Asian Tribune -