WOMEN’S ACTION NETWORK
Muslims and Tamils have returned to the North having experienced immense loss and struggles over the last 30 years. Post-2009 Muslims and Tamils have begun returning to Mullaiteevu and resettlement has been taking place slowly. However the numbers that are attempting to and have returned is much higher than the number displaced 30 years ago. Therefore the land allocated has been insufficient for these communities to resettle. The situation is further complicated by the loss of land documentation and land disputes.
Through various sources Women’s Action Network (WAN) has also learnt of continuous political intervention in allocation of land, resources and aid, while there is a clear perception of discrimination and antipathy among both the Tamil and Muslim communities. Due to these interventions there is a fear that ethnic tensions between the two communities in Mullaiteevu may intensify. A fact finding mission comprising of activists from Mannar, Trincomalee, Jaffna and Puttalam is undertaken within this context.
The fact finding team interviewed returning Muslim and Tamil communities in Mulliyawalai and government officials. This report reflects their concerns and propositions.
The Muslim Community
The Muslim community during the interviews stated that there is an acute land scarcity for resettlement. They informed the WAN team that they had registered with the Grama Seveka and were allocated land accordingly. They also stated that while the older generation of Tamils was welcoming of the Muslims that the younger generations who do not know of their history were the cause of the tensions. They were clear that they do not wish to take the land that belongs to the Tamils. The Muslims went on to state that the Minister Rishad Bathiudeen has got permission to allocate land to the Muslims in Mulliyawalai
The community feels that the Mulliyawalai Tamil community’s reaction to stop the forest clearance for resettlement of the Muslim returnees recently is due to many returning Tamil families being deprived of land in Mulliyawalai due to various administrative issues and land take over by the military. However the Muslims strongly felt that all their needs will be met by their Minister. They went on to state that there was misinformation disseminated through the media by the Tamil politicians. They stated that since parliamentarians Rishad Bathiudeen, Vanni TNA members, Douglas Devananda and Karuna Amman have been involved in these resources allocations they first have to come to some understanding and amicable way of sharing resources between these two communities.
In preparation for the land distribution in Mulliyawalai for retuning Muslims, the forest land was due to be cleared with the permission of the Forest Department. However on the day when it was to be cleared even though the Minister of Resettlement, GA and the Forest Department official were present the Tamil people protested and women prevented the bulldozer from moving forward by lying down on the ground.
The Muslims claim that the Tamils are worried that the clearing of the forests will lead to an increase of elephant attacks. When the Muslims were forcibly evicted they were about 1,300 in number. Those who registered to return 24 years later for resettlement are estimated about 7,000 . In some cases one family has multiplied to 04 or up to 07 families. Even though the Muslims wish to return to their homeland, the lack of proper facilities, schools that teach Islam as a subject and value Islamic principles etc. hinder their return. Land allocation of 9-10 perches, considered insufficient as there are families that have around 10 members who have families themselves. They have been told that they would be given sufficient plot of land for dwelling purpose and an acre of land for agricultural purposes.
The Muslim women stated that the land allocation and political intervention have been kept away from them and only their men liaison with the minister and others. It has been kept largely as a male affair and unlike Tamil women, Muslim women’s knowledge and articulation on this issue is a concern for the WAN team in the context in which women’s groups have been demanding joint ownership of land and housing for returning IDPs.
The team was told that a petition signed by Mulliyawallai Muslim returnees has been handed over to the minister on the 09th April 2013. They informed us that they wish to have a consultative process with both communities and that a discussion must take place which is covered widely and impartially by the media.
The returning Muslim IDPs are of the opinion that reconciliatory steps must be taken by the state as well as Muslim and Tamil politicians.
When we spoke to a few members of the Tamil community living in Mulliyawalai they stated that they have suffered due to the war for the last 30 years and have lost family members and all their belonging. However while the Muslims have been allocated land the Tamils claim that they have not yet received any land allocation or direct government support in relation to their resettlement in Mulliyawallai. “We stopped the forest clearance by the Muslims only because of this”. There is also a fear that if Muslims resettle there will be cultural tensions between the two communities.
They demanded that of the 800 acres of land allocated for the Muslims, 400 acres must be allocated for the Tamils and that members who are over 18 must be given land. They also demanded that the Tamils living in that area must be given the same treatment and facilities as the Muslims and that they too must be granted permission to clear land. They also stated that land should only be allocated to Muslims who do not have land in Puttalam. And that any reconciliatory steps must be taken by the Muslims as they are the ‘new comers’.
The older generation of people insisted that the distribution must take place in a manner that does not create tension and that it must be equitable. They welcome any form of talks between Tamil and Muslim politicians and dialog at the community level as well. They stated that they are unable to solve this problem by themselves and that the same must be done by the government officials and the civil society representatives.
Government officials such as grama niladaris, divisional secretariats, land officers and other officers, we interviewed, have stated that they have shown no bias in their records. They also stated that even though Muslims have registered they do not come when requested to show proof of living and that there have been ordered not to give Tamils any aid even when Tamils have been living in that area. They however stated that they faced intense pressure from politicians and several had asked for transfers.
They stated that these political interventions were causing tensions among the communities and that they were not consulted when decisions are taken and all decisions are made at the higher level. They also insisted that if any solution was to be reached it would have to take place at the parliamentary level. They stated that there have been threats and that government officials are unable to voice their opinions.
They stated that the land allocation was done in an inappropriate manner without any consultation with the grama seveka, divisional and district secretariats and the wild life department.
At the same time the women’s groups also gathered following information from letters and documents we were given and by speaking to activists from Vavuniya and Mannar.
While Tamil and Muslim returnees were fighting over Sannar land in Mannar, Peoples Bank built 31 houses (each worth 1million) for Sinhalese returnees in Madhu and in that process gave away 19 houses for Tamils as well. According to a civil society member Madhu Sinhala housing scheme is the first resettlement to be completed in Mannar immediately after the end of the war. As per a government officer and some civil society activists, to date there has been tension between Tamil government officers and returning Jaffna Muslims (fueled by Tamil and Muslim politicians) over allocating Indian houses for returning Muslims in Jaffna town and the Muslim returnees have been asked for 10 different documents to get access while the National Housing Authority built 135 houses for Sinhalese in Navatkuli.
While in Mullaitheevu (and in Vavuniya too) tension over land between Muslims and Tamil returnees are building up to the point of burning down poor returnees’ temporary huts in Mulliyawallai and blaming each other, in Weli Oya (Mullaitheevu) and Thalapogaswewa (in Vavuniya) Sinhala settlers are being brought by the government in bus loads for colonization. To date there have been about 4800 Sinhala families brought to Weli Oya and about 2000 families to Thalabogaswewa. On 20th April President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited Weli Oya and personally instructed the government officers to expedite the settlement there and handed over land documents to new settlers. The same week Tamil and Muslim returnees fought over the land clearance in Mulliyawallai in the same district. Tamils who lost their agricultural land to the Weli Oya (Mahaweli L scheme) Sinhala settlement have approached their political representatives but told us that not many politicians have talked about this systematic, long-drawn, state colonization or made much effort to directly challenge the officers in charge now.
Current Sinhala settlement is taking place under the tight fist of the governor, specially appointed military officers and Sinhala government officers in these two areas. Even NGOs can’t have access to Weli Oya and Thalapogaswewa without the prior permission from respective DSs. The WAN fact finding team was told that there is a plan to resettle at least 22000 Sinhalese before the provincial council election in Mullaitheevu. At the same time a notice has been issued this week (22nd April 2013) in relation to acquisition of 6381 acres of land in Jaffna (Valikamam) by the military to establish and expand their bases
• Both communities lack information regarding land distribution.
• There is a need in light of much needed reconciliation that the Tamil community is informed that the Muslims arriving from Puttalam are not new comers (if there are new comers then the government officers need to deal with it and a mechanism for scrutiny should be established) but those who lived in Mullaiteevu before 1990 and are returning with their children and families.
• Even though both communities speak of each other fondly, there are misconceptions and dislike of the other community. Therefore there is a need to deal with this issue in a holistic manner if yet another inter ethnic conflict is to be prevented in the north.
• Minister Rishad Bathiudeen, TNA and other politicians are interested in ensuring that their community members stay loyal and indebted to them. Any reconciliatory steps between returning Muslims and Tamils have been perceived by these political forces as hampering their clearly divided ethnic vote base. With the northern provincial council election expected this year each of these political parties are only keen in further widening the gap between these two communities and converting the rehabilitation and resettlement process and assistance to fulfill their party political agenda.
• Government officials are unable to work independently and to voice their opinions freely.
• Land distribution is not taking place adhering to due process. There is a lack of information as to how land is being distributed before land claims have been settled. The Government is in the initial phase of implementing the new circular that was introduced in January 2013 titled ‘Accelerated Programme on Solving Post Conflict State Lands Issues in the Northern and Eastern Provinces- Land Circular 2013/01.’ In such a context, distributing land to particular communities can provoke tensions.
• Due to these tensions currently land distribution is taking place under the provincial council and not through the district secretariat level.
• There are also tensions in regards to livelihood activities i.e. fishing and agriculture between these two communities.
• The same trend of treating the local Puttalam Muslims differently to the displaced northern Muslims in Puttalam by the Minister can be seen here too.
• It is important that measures are taken to facilitate Sinhalese returning to their native homes in the north too but the government and NGOs need to avoid exacerbating tensions by relocating Sinhalese from other districts.
While recognizing the tremendous amount of the suffering of the Tamil people and the need to prioritize their return and resettlement in Mullaitheevu and any form of special treatment to northern Muslim returnees can only deepen the scares of Tamil community. However WAN also recognize that Muslims who were evicted in 1990 and their descendants have also suffered and have every right to return to their original places of habitation with dignity.
We understand that there is a need for special emphasis and awareness to be made and created with regard to several practical difficulties in relation to Northern Muslims collective and voluntary return after over 20 years of being in displacement. However WAN strongly feels that any provision or even approaches should not be distorted to gain political advantage and to drive a wedge or misunderstanding between communities or at the expenses of reconciliation between Tamil speaking natives of north.
1. Immediate steps to be taken to ensure reconciliation between the Muslims and the Tamils either through community initiatives or a citizens’ committee consisting of non political community leaders.
2. Steps to be taken to ensure that government officials can function with independence and integrity
3. Politicians should take steps to ensure that the affected communities are able to resettle in an amicable manner. They should stop polarizing communities for their own party political agendas.
4. Awareness creation between both communities must be done through government and non-governmental organizations.
5. Donors and aid agencies must be conscious of how the aid has been politicized and used to divide the communities. They must negotiate with the state for non political and civil administrative mechanism as an absolute must for their aid distribution and aid effectiveness.
Please note this report has been written by a group of activists from the north and the east by visiting the areas and talking to:
• Government officials
• Tamils currently living in Mulliyawalai (including the men and women who protested the clearance of the forest land)
• Muslims who have returned to Mullaiteevu- both men and women
• Tamils and Muslims who lived together before the eviction in 1990 in Mullaitheevu district.