By Latheef Farook –
A myth to prevent Muslims returning to their traditional lands
Musali South in the Mannar District has traditionally been a predominantly Muslim populated area for centuries. Their peaceful life was devastated in October 1990 when they were kicked out of their homes and lands within two hours by the LTTE when it ethnic cleansed the entire Northern Muslims.
Since then they languished in refugee camps and temporary shelters in extreme hardships.
After the military defeat of LTTE in 2009, Muslims started to return to their lands to resume their devastated life. However racist forces with their own sinister agenda,hell bent on causing problems to Muslims, have falsely accused them of encroaching Wilpattu and triggered off a controversy to them from returning to their lands to which they have deeds and permits.
Explaining the situation in her preface to a document on Musali South 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 have 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 people 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”.
A six member team of academics led by Professor Shahul H. Hasbullah of Peradeniya University has prepared 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. With a plea “Help Us Return Home” people of Musali South appeal 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.
Explaining the background 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 ethnic (Tamils, Muslims and Sinhala), religious (Catholic, Hindu, Muslims, Buddhist) and linguistic (Tamil and Sinhala) communities.
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. For more than two decades, the people have been displaced- until today. They have a right to return to their homes”. Thus concluded Prof Hasbullah. Muslims, in fact, 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.
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.
Judging from the subsequent anti Muslim campaign under Rajapaksa government aimed at virtually eliminating the Muslim community it is not difficult to realize now that Muslim owned Musali South lands were acquired deliberately to deprive Muslims of their lands.
Commenting on the controversy 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 ethnicised, 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 themselves 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 that six years have passed since the war ended in and the ethnic relations in the country further deteriorated because of the short sighted political leadership that encouraged ethnic tension and fear in the country 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 programmes 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.