Maithri’s gazette on lands adjacent to Wilpattu National Park: Calculated Move to Prevent Muslim Refugees from returning to their lands?
By Latheef Farook (Island)
On Friday 24 March 2017 President Maithripala Sirisena signed a gazette notification, during his official visit to Russia, declaring around 100,000 acre lands adjacent to Wilpattu National Park as “forest conserves”.
The inevitable question is why it was signed in Russia in such a mighty hurry as if the whole world was coming to an end. Why didn’t he sign it in Sri Lanka. This controversial gazette, signed without taking into consideration the rights of the displaced Muslims from the area, has caused serious concern among Muslims and triggered an unwanted controversy at a time when the country faces several acute political, economic and social crises .
Muslims think this gazette is part of a carefully planned and executed conspiracy to deprive them of their lands. They believe that racist elements have exploited the state machinery and misled President Sirisena to issue this gazette notification. They consider so-called discussions with Muslim delegations planned by officials on the issue are aimed at hoodwinking the Muslims.
It is known that Sinhala racist elements were trying to block Muslims who had lived for ages in some of these villages and kicked out by LTTE fascists during the ethnic war from returning to their lands from welfare centres to rebuild their lives.
Racists who harassed and attacked Muslims during Rajapaksa regime, began a vicious campaign, distorting facts and misleading the nation, accusing Muslims of illegally clearing forests adjoining the Wilpattu National Park and settling down there. Muslim refugees were only trying to return to their lands.
This controversy prevented Muslims from returning to their lands.
A comprehensive report prepared after extensive research by a six member team of academics led by Professor Shahul H. Hasbullah of Peradeniya University on the issue has already been submitted to President Sirisena. The report explains that the contested area is not located in Wilpattu. The resettlement of the displaced remains the crux of the matter, but their are shown in a bad light.
Under such circumstance one would expect President Sirisena, elected with the full backing of the Muslim community to be fair by the displaced Muslims who neither asked for nor encroached on state lands. All what they wanted was to return to their own lands. They expected President Sirisena to conduct an impartial inquiry and ascertain the true facts before issuing such a gazette. This has not been done.
As a result Muslims’ legitimate rights have been violated. Frustrated and angry, Muslims expected Muslim parliamentarians to meet President Sirisena, explain the injustice and persuade him to withdraw the gazette.
Unfortunately, the Muslim parliamentarians did not live up to their execrations.
Instead of joining hands with Minister Rishad Bathiudeen to help ensure the rights of the displaced Muslims other Muslim leaders launched a sinister campaign against him.
Even former President Chandrika Kumaratunga said recently that Muslim politicians did not raise issues faced by the community unlike the Tamil politicians who always raised issues of concern to Tamils.
Muslims accuse the government of ignoring them and pampering the very racists whom Maithri-Ranil team pledged during elections to contain.
With Muslim parliamentarians failing to respond, the Muslim civil society took the initiative to raise the issue and held a meeting at All Ceylon Jamiathul Ulema, ACJU, office in Maradana on Thursday 31 March 2017.
One of the participants told me that they had met ACJU to try to use Friday Juma sermons to explain the situation to Muslims. The need to use Juma sermons to educate Muslims on the challenges faced by the community has been a long felt one. Knowledgeable Muslims make repeated appeals urging ACJUto use Juma sermons to address serious issues threatening the community. However, this fell on the deaf ears of ACJU. Most Friday sermons were confined to irrelevant issues.
ACJU has so far miserably failed in this respect and it cannot make any contributions to political issue. Under such circumstance involving ACJU is nothing but politicizing an organization which refuses to come out of its medieval mindset
Meanwhile, a Muslim delegation met President’s Secretary Palitha Abeykoon on 1 April 2017 to present their views to be passed on to President Sirisena.
During the meeting Minister Bathiudeen pointed out the unjust nature of the gazette while MP Mujibur Rahman said that before signing the gazette President Sirisena should have spoken to Muslims. He said it was never too late. The President could appoint a commission or a committee to verify facts and take a decision instead of subjecting Muslims to untold suffering.
In the midst during a television discussion Minister Faizar Mustapha, who owes his ministerial portfolio to Sinhala political leadership defended the gazette notification, saying that the Muslims had not been affected by the gazette notification. This is not strange as he also defended former Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa when the latter demolished Muslim owned house in Slave Island and threw them with their families on the road.
Instead of displaying his ignorance in trying to please Sinhala leadership Minister Mustapha should have attended the special National Shoora Council meeting where Professor Hasbulla explained in detail the calculated damage done to the Muslims of the area.
National Shoora Council NSC, umbrella organisation of 18 national Muslim organizations, which formed a committee to explore measures to ensure the rights of Muslims refugees, held a special meeting on 5 April 2017. Chaired by NSC chairman Tariq Mahmud the meeting was attended by several Muslim parliamentarians, lawyers, prominent journalists and other intellectuals.
Prof. Hasbulla made a comprehensive presentation explaining how the gazette notification had deprived Muslims of their land.
He said only 40 percent of the displaced Muslims had returned so far and around 60 percent of them waiting to return. The question is where to settle the latter category of Muslims. Because this gazette notification, they cannot regain their own lands.
Meanwhile, in a press statement Muslim civil society activists have said President Sirisena had been misled into believing that the IDPs were encroaching on the Wilpattu National Reserve, which he later withdrew, declaring that “Not an Inch of Wilpattu Land” has been encroached.
Unfortunately, once again, anti Muslim forces have managed to convince the President that the lands of the Muslim IDPs are forest reserve. This is a total violation of the “Right of Return” of these patriotic citizens whose only crime was opposing the division of the country by the LTTE.
They call upon President Sirisena to withdraw the Gazette notification.
Muslims suspect that the anti-Muslim campaign under Rajapaksa government is being carried out surreptitiously by racist elements in the incumbent administration.