It has been 27 years since the Muslims were forcibly evicted from the Northern Province by the LTTE and have been living in the Puttalam District in many IDP camps in vulnerable conditions.
The prolonged armed conflict which started in 1983 between the Sri Lankan Government and the LTTE killed around 90,000 people and left over one million IDPs from three ethnic groups: Tamils 82%, Muslims 14%, and Sinhalese 4% (UNHCR Report. 2009). In 1990, the LTTE forcibly evicted around 15,000 Muslim families from the Northern Province in five districts: Jaffna 3,475, Mannar 8,200, Vavuniya 1,800, Mullaitivu 1,000 and Kilinochchi 525 (Ibid. 2009).
The displaced Muslims moved mainly to the Puttalam District and have been living there as IDPs since then. The IDP camp life is very pathetic and they have been facing various problems in their daily lives. The life in IDP camps have demoralised men, women, children and elderly people and affected them physically, psychologically, socially, economically and educationally.
The end of conflict in May 2009 brought new hopes for the resettlement of Muslim IDPs, but the Sri Lankan Government and the international community prioritised the Tamil IDPs and side-lined the Muslim IDPs from the resettlement process. This has led some Muslim IDPs voluntarily to go back to their homes. The former Resettlement Minister Rishad Bathiudeen was able to negotiate with some Islamic organisations and they agreed to provide some houses for this marginalised Muslim IDPs.
In 2012 Muslims in Marichukatti began their resettlement process with the support of Qatar foundation (Al-JASSIM). Since then some Buddhist monks and media groups began to accuse their resettlement and claimed it was an illegal resettlement and violation of Wilpattu forest, though the Muslims hold their deeds to live in their own place.
From the Muslims’ point of view, these are the lands where they lived for over 100 years even before the conflict start and they hold their deeds (legal documents) to prove the ownership and right to live in their own place. The issue is little complicated and not many understand what exactly happens in Wilpattu.
In fact, the villages Marichukatti, Karadikkuli, Palakuli and Kondachi are some border villages of Mannar District and located very close to Wilpattu National Forest. Due to the conflict and absence of people all these villages forestified and looked like a forest.
In 2012, the former Environmental Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa extended the length of Wilpattu and declared all these neighbouring villages as a part of Wilpattu National Forest. Since then, the Forest Department, environmental people and some media personal began to accuse the resettlement as a violation of Wilpattu forest. Meantime, the people who hold their deeds (legal documents) argue that it is their own land and they are entitled to live here. In fact, this is a legal issue between the victimised people and the Sri Lankan Government.
Challenges over the resettlement
The Resettlement of Northern Muslims IDPs still remains unresolved. Many factors were attributed to the present status. There are four main challenges that have hindered their resettlement.
First, there was no substantial plan from the Sri Lankan Government for their resettlement. Second, a significant part of the land that belonged to northern Muslims was conquered by the LTTE and given to Tamil people during the conflict. Third, the housing assistance was inefficient. In fact, the Indian Government allocated 50,000 houses for the IDPs but it was not clear how many houses were allocated for Muslim IDPs. Finally, there was a lack of initiatives targeting the Muslim IDPs as beneficiaries of the post-conflict resettlement projects managed by the Sri Lankan Government or the international organisations.
In fact, the Sri Lankan Government and international organisations focused primarily on the resettlement of Tamil IDPs. From the Sri Lankan Government‘s point of view, the resettlement of Tamil IDPs were more important than that of the Muslim minority as it can reduce the tension between the Sinhala and Tamil ethnic groups which were central to the war. Parallel to this, international organisations and donors have pressured the Sri Lankan Government to resettle the Tamil IDPs. Apart from this, there is no media coverage or any pressures from the civil society or any media groups.
Resettlement in Marichukati
Marichukati is one of the ancient villages which is located in the Musali division of Mannar District. In 1989, there were around 200 Muslim families lived in this village. In 1990, they were forcibly evicted by the LTTE and moved to Puttalam and lived there in the past two decades. In 2012, some Muslim IDPs, 73 families returned to their original place and began to build houses and engaged in agricultural activities with the support of Qatar foundation.
Resettlement of Muslim IDPs in Marichukati village was portrayed by certain media as an illegal settlement and violation of Wilpattu National Forest. However, former Resettlement Minister Rishad Bathiudeen continuously said that there was no illegal settlement or any violation of Wilpattu National Forest. He openly stated that if anyone could prove it was an illegal settlement or violation of Wilpattu, he was ready to step down from his ministerial post that he holds in the present Government. However there is no such attempt made from the media or any respective organisations up to now. But criticism is going on without any base.
The author of this article twice visited this place and witnessed what is happening there. It seems that the Muslim IDPs who went back to their previous home in Marichukatti face a lot of issues regarding resettlement and livelihood. Resettlement is very challenging even within their own land which belonged to their forefathers for over 100 years.
There are some remains of an old mosque, a school and broken houses, etc., which shows that earlier there was a Muslim settlement. Moreover, almost all residents in Marichukatti village hold their legal deeds which show they are legally entitled to live in their homes. In fact, the accusation from media and disturbance from the wildlife authority is a violation of fundamental rights of these Marichukatti people.
One Muslim IDP pointed out that when he went back to his home in Marichukatti after 25 years, it was fully occupied by the Navy and they were not giving his home back for him to live there. Further he pointed out the Navy forces had built a small Buddhist temple for their religious purposes inside his land, but in the future they may claim that there were some Sinhala settlements in the past based on this recently-built temple. Likewise, there are many other issues that have to be discussed and sorted out in order to continue peaceful resettlement.
The overall conclusion of this article is that the resettlement of Muslim IDPs in Marichukatti was manipulated and misguided by the media and some Buddhist monks.
The Sri Lankan Government which is responsible to protect its own people also overlooked and side-lined the Muslim IDPs on this issue.
The tension and rhetoric is growing between the wildlife authority and former Resettlement Minister Rishad Bathiudeen (on behalf of villagers in Marichukatti). Moreover, party politics is also part of this issue and up to now there has been no statement or action taken by any Muslim political party except the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) and its Leader Minister Rishad Bathiudeen.