The issue of resettling the Muslim people that LTTE expelled from the North in 1990 remains unresolved. Many of them still live outside their original residences. Meantime, various allegations have been directed at Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishard Bathiudeen that he was encouraging the people to encroach on the Wilpattu National Park – however later it was alleged that internally displaced Muslims were resettled by encroaching on Kal-Aru forest which is in the buffer zone of the Wilpattu National Park. While such allegations are still being made, speaking to The Sunday Leader, Minister Bathiudeen said that some extremist groups are targeting him and spreading rumours just to create division among communities.
Following are excerpts of the interview:
By Waruni Karunarathne – Pictures by Senaka Kuruppu
Q: Some environmentalists claim that there is a Muslim settlement in Kal-Aru forest which is in the Wilpattu buffer zone. How would you respond to these allegations?
A: Earlier they were accusing that there was a Muslim settlement in the Wilpattu National Park and it destructed the environment. However, later they all accepted that there is no such a settlement. The Wilpattu National park or in its buffer zone of the national park ,which extend to 1 1/2 km, has no settlement. There are a few old villages including Marichchukkaddei, Karakdikuli, Palakkuli, Mullikulam and Kondachchi that is there since the ancient time. Even before 1916 a settlement was there. The LTTE chased these people away in 1990 and most of them were living in refugee camps. They returned to this area in 2013 after 23 years. In 2012, when Anura Priyadarshana Yapa was the Minister of Environment, this area was mapped using the GPS technology and the Department of Forest identified it as a forest area. They gazetted an area of 15,125 acres as the Marichchukkaddei-Karakdikuli forest reserve. That was indeed a wrong thing to do. People had been living their since before the war. However, people wanted to come back to resettle in this area but since it was taken under the Forest Department, they had to take permission from the Government Agent and then from the Forest Ministry, and the Forest Ministry gave permission for people who had deeds to resettle in this area except on state land. However, there is a Navy camp in an area of 1050 acres – most of which belonged to the people. Those who lost land in that area and new people who came there with their extended families were given state land by the Land Commission (land kachcheriya).
There were about 100,000 people. Of them about 35,000 families displaced during the war and 22,000 families who lived outside North removed their names from refugee camps and came to their original settlements. Each of them brought a letter from either grama niladhari or divisional officer or from a relevant government body confirming that they lived as refugees and intended to return to their original settlement. Those who obtained that letter thereafter did not receive government facilities. Once they submitted that letter to the GA, Divisional Secretary and Grama Sewaka in the area of their original settlement, only these people were accepted to be resettled in that area. Likewise 22,000 families returned to the North and if those families or their forefathers’ names were in the 1990 voters’ list, then those families were resettled in the respective areas. However from 22,000 who were shifted, only 30% are living in the North at present. 70% of them left because they do not have facilities there – proper shelter or infrastructure. Right now only 7000 or 8000 families live in the North in Mannar, Vavuniya, Mulathivu, Kilinochchi and Jaffna.
If I have done anything wrong as they say, there is a law in the country. Anybody can go to the police and lodge a complaint against me – then the police can do the investigations and take legal actions if there has been a breach of law. There are groups who make false allegations just to split communities.
Q: What are the current issues related to the Muslim resettlement in the North and East?
A: Now there are no issues as such. People have identified their villages. There were Tamil, Hindu, Catholic and Muslim villages – Tamils from those areas know the original settlers. Tamils are not against resettling Muslims in those areas. Even at the time when LTTE expelled Muslims from these areas, some Tamil leaders stood against that. Some were brave enough to say that the LTTE did a mistake by expelling Muslims. There were such Tamil leaders. Tamil people cried when Muslims were chased out of their original villages because they lived as one community. So, Tamils are not against Muslims being resettled in the North. To date no Tamil has raised any issue or made any move to prevent Muslim from resettling in the North. Right now the only issue is that there are extremist groups like Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Sihala Rawaya, Rawana Balaya and some nationalist and racists who use media to spread misinformation about the Muslim resettlement. Other than that we do not have any issue right now.
Q: It has been one year since the Aluthgama incident happened. Two people were killed and many were wounded and many houses and shops were damaged, but people in the area complained that no investigations have been done related to that and people responsible for the incidents. As a minister in the government, have you been able to look into this? What is the state of investigation?
A: When it comes to the Aluthgama incident, General Secretary of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) Galagoda-atte Gnanasara thero should take the responsibility. Before the incident, the speech he made clearly stirred up communal hatred leading up to such atrocities. After the damage was done, the previous government deployed army to rebuild the demolished houses and shops due to the incident. Thereafter they managed pretty well without letting it spread further. At that point, we demanded the former President to make inquiries from those responsible and take legal actions against them – yet no actions were taken. People wanted to see those being punished so as to prevent such incidents from recurring in other areas in the country. We do not want to see anybody including Sinhalese who are a minority in Tamil speaking areas in the North and East to face such injustices. The government should have taken actions to prevent that – but the former President failed to do that. That is one reason why he was defeated. He could have stayed for another 10 years as the President if he did not give way for whims and fancies of those extremist groups and implemented the law of this country.
The government cannot give back the lives that were lost. Even though the government rebuilt the houses, no compensations have been given for the damaged and lost goods. Gnanasara thero should be punished for causing such violence. He called himself the unofficial police, but he walked away scot-free and there was no one to stop him.
With reference to the case of Vithiya – raped and murdered – President Maithripala Sirisena said that people responsible will be brought to justice even through a special court – which is the right thing to do. Aluthgama incident also, they should have investigated and inquired through a special court. However, this government is an interim government and we cannot burden them with investigations on this issue. Investigations should have been done at the time of the incident. They pretended to carry out inquiries and made few arrests but as far as I know nothing happened afterwards. What we can ask right now is to give compensations for the affected people and help them develop their economy. It is the responsibility of the police to carry out investigations into this matter in order to take actions against those who are responsible.
Q: The Rajapaksa government was blamed for backing religious extremism in the country. Do you agree? Do you still see religious extremism in the country?
A: I cannot quite say that the former government backed extremism. If that is true, I also have to take the responsibility. A few people in the former government probably backed such extremist groups. There were people including me, Rajitha Senarathne, Basil Rajapaksa, Dilan Perera, Nimal Siripala and S. B Dissanayake who spoke against such groups like BBS. But there were others who backed because they thought that such forces could be used to attract votes. People like us had to leave that government because of those who backed those extremists groups.
These extremists groups are slowly rising up again. They are the ones making huge noises about Wilpattu spreading wrong information. Even after clarifying that there is no one resettled in Wilpattu, they are now carrying out a campaign demanding to arrest me. I am also requesting to appoint a cabinet subcommittee and inquire into the incident. These groups have been targeting people like us because we have been supporting in defeating terrorism and establishing peace in the country and have also been actively involved in resettling displaced people due to the war. However during the last couple of years of the previous regime, they did not listen to what we were saying. Extremist groups like BBS also openly declared their support to Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last presidential election – thereafter we decided not to support a leader who received support from extremist groups. That is why we withdrew our support to MR.
What we are requesting from the President Sirisena and the Prime Minister is to eradicate any form of extremism – Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim, or any other. All communities should live in harmony. We are all brothers and sisters – this is our motherland. We should not compete against each other internally. Instead we should compete with the rest of the world with countries like Singapore, India etc and should look at ways to develop our country.
Q: During the previous regime, the SLMC was talking about making one administrative district in Ampara. Do you think it is necessary?
A: Well, the demands should not be limited to the election period. Before we see if their demand is fair, my view is that every party should keep in mind that their demand should not be limited to the election. Once a government is formed after the election, those parties should see to their requests. During elections, if parties come up with certain demands just for political gains, that is not fair. It is not a huge issue to establish one administrative district for Ampara. In Vavuniya the majority of the population is Tamils but the GA is a Sinhalese – likewise in Ampara also the GA is a Sinhalese. What they are facing right now is an administrative difficulty, especially due to the language barriers. The language of administration in Amapara is Sinhala and therefore Tamil speaking people requested for a separate administrative district for Ampara. Earlier Jaffna had one administrative district and later they separated Kilinochchi. At the same time, they requested a separate administrative district for Ampara – but at that point, they failed to do so. That is not a big issue. But during the election, it was highlighted as a huge issue just to deceive the Muslims. Then the Sinhalese felt that Muslims were asking for a separate state. But it is not so. It altogether does not mean that it is a separate administration – any Sinhalese can live there.
Q: Are you happy about the 20A approved by the cabinet? Do you think it promotes equitable representation of minority in parliament? What are your concerns?
A: Minor parties like ours did not request 20th A. But in the 100 day programme includes 20A. President Maithripala Sirisena received a mandate for that – not only from Tamils and Muslims but also from Sinhalese. Therefore it is also our responsibility to see that those promised reforms are done. However, we should also ensure that there is a fair representation of minor parties and they do not face injustices. All of us may agree that minor parties like JVP do a great service in the parliament. That is a party that does their duty very well – they have to be in parliament to point out the wrongs done by the governments that come into power. Likewise parties of Dinesh Gunawardena, DEW Gunasekara, Nawa Sama Samaja Party, TNA, Upcountry People’s Front, SLMC and my party should also have their representation. We do not want a system that deprives those parties of their rights. There should be a system that represents all the religious and ethnic groups as well as all the minor parties in the country.
We are not happy with the cabinet approved 20A. We demanded for double ballot papers – but in the gazetted 20A, there is no proposal for a double ballot papers. If they do not introduce them, we will oppose presently approved 20A. As a party, we expect to go to courts about that matter.
Q: What decision has your party made ahead of the next general election?
A: We have not decided yet. There are two main parties and we have not decided whether to make alliances. We will decide that only after the election is declared. We have to look at parties who are capable of serving the country and its people irrespective of their religion, ethnicities and status. It has to be a party that does not support extremist groups like BBS. We will help such a party to form the government. Sometimes, as a party we may contest on our.
Q: Do you think that All Ceylon Makkal Congress, being part of the new government, has been able to fulfill the promises they have made?
A: This government has done most of what they promised. President Sirisena has implemented many things that he promised in the 100 days such as bringing the 19th Amendment, repealing executive presidential powers etc., that we can be happy about. We have never let down the country. Neither I nor my community will do anything to betray the country. If anybody is trying to create such wrong impressions that is not such a good thing. All the communities in this country should be treated equally and should be given equal access to the legal system, education, healthcare and other facilities and we should live like one family. That is what we want.