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Sunday, 14 June 2015

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Forgetting people and remembering stories?

The poor Muslims of the Mannar District have the right to be considered as people of Mannar, with a right to return to their homes from which they were expelled in 1990 several times over. I am not a fan of the victim position but in this instance it seems especially apt. After the expulsion in 1990 when they were

summarily driven out from the North, the LTTE questioned their right to belong to that place, the right to call it their home. This haunted the Northern Muslims for the entire 19 years the LTTE was in power. 2009 and the military defeat of the group lifted this spectre but many others unfortunately have rushed in to take its place.


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Muslims-who still claim excellent relations with their Tamil neighbours in the pre 1990 north-- have long been puzzled as to why the LTTE drove them out. However, the LTTE's extreme nationalist agenda, the then government's amateurish attempts to arm young Muslims-and the possibility of extorting Muslim wealth without any opposition, were primary causes.The

LTTE's fascist vision did not tolerate any form of difference and just as they decimated their opposition within the ranks of other Tamil groups they saw no problem with driving out the Muslims of the north and looting the considerable wealth that they left behind.

In the political message that the LTTE sent out to the Tamil people, Muslims no longer belonged in the north. And this message had its effect.

When Muslims started returning in 2009, many administrative officials in the north ( but not all., let me be very clear about that) would say things like why have you come? Aren't you well settled in Puttalam? In fact some Tamil civil leaders stated that the expulsion was a blessing in disguise because Muslims didn't have to suffer through the war!!! (This person has since shifted his position. He told us in 2012 that he recognises that the Muslims suffered severe economic losses.) The point of course was that even after the LTTE defeat their politics in Tamil areas was such that there was little sympathy and a lot of resistance to Muslim return. Thankfully that has shifted now and the blocking of administrators is not a story we hear often.

While doing research for an INGO report on northern Muslims in 2012, one UNHCR field officer and one in Colombo insisted to me that it was misguided to think in terms of Muslim return to the north. According to prevailing international norms regarding resettlement and IDPS, people who have been living in an area for over 20 years should have been integrated in to that community, that after such a long time it was "unrealistic" to consider them IDPs, one told me. The other said that the Vanni(Tamil) IDPs had nothing. The northern Muslims at least had Puttalam and had a community in Puttalam that they had built up over several decades that they should ideally stay there.

IDP resettlement

I was told quite categorically that UNHCR would lobby the government to prioritise Vanni IDP resettlement over all old IDP resettlement. Perhaps such a position was understandable in a situation of a severe funding crunch. But what the position meant for northern Muslim prospects of return was difficult to countenance.

Of course there were a few facts that were missed by these persons. Puttalam was already a marginal and poor area with few jobs, very little land fit for agriculture, no infrastructure to support the large population that came in 1990,and few improvements since then. Tensions between displaced and host communities were rife and many Puttalam people wanted the northerners to leave. Additionally to receive IDP rations in Puttalam northern Muslims had to maintain their election registration in the North.

Under the Sri Lankan provincial councils act, settlements that change the ethnic composition of an area were suspect. Therefore most northern Muslims continued to consider the north their home that they would eventually return to.

Regardless of all this readily available information (many academic papers had been written on the issues) the INGOs were unaware of much of the context and insisted that local integration must be considered an option for all.Now the fact is that some Muslims actually have found decent lives in Puttalam and many have no intention of returning to the north. Others chose to live in Puttalam and work in the north. But in Puttalam the northern Muslims were a population that exceeded 100,000 persons.

Some lived in abject poverty waiting to return to the north. And another sections of the community lived with a memory of and a desire to resurrect the prosperous and successful lives that they had in the north. These stories were invisible and more importantly irrelevant to the INGO perspective.Through their position, they undermined northern Muslims legitimate right to return and probably impacted the speed of the resettlement process.

The BBS of course when it raised its ugly head in 2012 questioned the entire Sri Lankan Muslim community's right to exist in this country and not just the Mannar Muslims right to return to the north. The monks of the BBS framed their position on the issue of Wilpattu not just on saving a wild life sanctuary but that there should not be an Arab colony in the area! It was of course in the guise of an environmental issue that the problem was raised.

Something else

The BBS was clever that way - all the issues that they raised were done on the basis of something else, not racism. Halal was an unethical trade practice, the niquab was a security threat and Wilpattu was an environmental disaster. It is what the issues had in common - that they targeted Muslim populations -- that remained curious and made one wonder as to their intentions.

Today it is clear that the issues that they raised, if they were indeed issues, did not merit subjecting an entire community to racist vitriolic, extreme insecurity and the threat of violence.

Today, under yahapalana with all that behind us, and where racism has become boring, there is yet another issue that the Muslims struggling to return to the North are being forced to confront: the expert knowledge of the Sri Lankan environmental lobby.

Today the Wilpattu issue is not about "Muslims" as the presenter of Hiru TV's Balaya segment kept repeating recently, but about saving the environment. I am responding here to two media encounters with the environmentalist lobby. One unfortunately, I cannot accurately cite-I heard it on the radio while driving.

An environmentalist as part of his commentary on the Wilpattu issue stated also that it was a mono- ethnic settlement that the minister concerned was establishing there, and that should not be sanctioned. If there was a settlement being done it should be all ethnicities Muslim Tamil and Sinhala..

This while being a salutary sentiment smacks of a lack of historical knowledge. This was not a new settlement. This was an old settlement of Muslims from several old villages who were driven out by the LTTEand were returning.

Disputed areas

The second environmentalist intervention I reference is the one on the aforementioned TV program Balaya, that featured the minister concerned, a JVP politician, an environmentalist and a University professor of Geology. In this discussion what was revealed to me was that the disputed areas that are being known as the Kallaru forest reserve (no longer the Wilpattu sanctuary) was only gazetted as such in 2012.

The gazetting defined the villages of Karadikuli, Marichchukaddi, Kondachchi and others as forest! These places where northern Muslims have been registered as voters for decades-even after 1990-- were wrongly gazetted as forest.

The environmentalist response to this challenge was to accuse the minister of lying.

"Why should the government do such a thing, and why, ifthis was indeed the case, had land-owners not filed cases against the state," he asked. This was perhaps a fair question. But it was also an indication of just how little knowledge the environmental lobby had about the northern Muslims history in the area. There is enough information available. One set is the electoral registers. Additionally there must be countless documents with local administrators that attest to settlements being there prior to 1990. There is also documentation done in the immediate aftermath of the expulsion by Dr.S.H.Hasbullah.

The Law and Society trust ran a Citizens' Commission on the expulsion of Muslims and we worked from 2007 to 2011 collecting stories and documents. Our report is available and though we did not specifically emphasise the fact that there were people who lived in the areas immediately north of Wilpattu, we have enough references - testimonies of people from Marichchukatti and Kondachchi for instance, that can serve as information on the existence of these villages.

Returning Muslims

Another question from the environmentalist: if the returning Muslims were claiming that they were coming back to the land that they owned then why was there a need for a land kachcheri? The response was that the regularization of land ownership through the presenting of deeds happened in the north in 1995. This was five years after the expulsion.

Therefore, new deeds had to be given and new lands had to be handed over to the children of the original settlers. This question was an indication that the environmentalists were also inadequately informed of the hugely complex problem of land in the aftermath of the conflict and extensive reports that were produced by different organisations - the Centre for Policy Alternatives, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka for instance-on the issue.

Thankfully, the Hiru TV program at least provided a forum for the JVP representative to acknowledge without question, the right of the displaced northern Muslims to access land for settlement and for their children to return as well. And the JVP representative was able to lift the discussion to a level where he emphasized that there was a necessity to discuss the environmental impact of all settlement processes in the north.

For me, however, the environmentalists' lack of knowledge about the history of Muslims' expulsion, and his complete disregard for the specifics of that history were troubling. After having spoken with hundreds of people from there and listened to their stories, the denial that they ever existed is shocking. And therefore, while an IDP policy and an Environmental Policy with regards to resettlement are no doubt needed, we also have to inculcate a regard in one another for our respective stories of suffering. We have conversations about reconciliation - sanhindiyawa. These seem to be the moments when the need for such a sanhindiyawa are paramount.

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