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Bishop Rayappu, Minister Bathiyudeen and the “Holy Wars” in Multi- Religious Mannar District.


Dharisha Bastians in Mannar


(This article was published in the “Daily Financial Times”of September 20th 2013 before the Northern Provincial Council Elections held on September 21st 2013)

In the coastal District of Mannar in the Northern Province, where salty sea breezes blow, everyone is part of a marginalised community. The unique ethnic composition of the region, so markedly different to the rest of the province, means that in addition to the province-wide issues of land, resettlement and livelihood loss, a wholly different dimension sets into the politics of the area.

This region of the north is home to the province’s largest population of Muslims, some 38,000 of whom were forcibly evicted by the LTTE in October 1990. Since the Ceasefire Agreement in 2002 and the end of the conflict in 2009, these communities are trickling back into the district, where resources are scarce and officials and host societies are not necessarily welcoming.

As in other parts of the Northern Province, Tamils are in the majority in the Mannar District, accounting for about 81% of the population according to Department of Census and Statistics 2012 data. The Muslim population is a small but significant 16% and hold considerable sway especially in the Musalai Division of the district.

But the demographic segregation runs even deeper. The district’s Tamil population is further divided along religious lines – about 57% of the population is Roman Catholic, while 23% of the Tamil population are Hindu devotees. The Catholic community is marshalled by the controversial Bishop of Mannar, Rev. Rayappu Joseph, who wields considerable influence in the area. The Bishop’s influence was at its zenith before the defeat of the LTTE, but he remains a force to be reckoned with and a deeply polarising influence even four years after the Tigers’ defeat in the Wanni.

A Bishop and a Minister

The Muslims of Mannar counter this influence that they claim is oppressive, with the support of a powerful Muslim Government Minister, Rishard Bathiudeen. Bathiudeen exerts considerable power in the Mannar District, elevating his community’s concerns to the national level and portraying himself as a relentless crusader for the rights of the coastal Muslim populations of the north west.


The Bishop and the Minister are often in each others’ cross-hairs, creating tension and suspicion between the communities they lead. Tamil Catholic and Hindu communities accuse the Muslim Minister of using Government resources to empower only Muslim communities. One Catholic Priest, closely affiliated to the Bishop, who declined to be named, said that although Muslim fishermen were in the minority in Mannar and it was a livelihood for a majority of Tamils, the Minister was ensuring fishing boats and other equipment provided by the Government was being channelled mostly to the Muslims. “These people are not fishermen, but they get the boats,” the Priest says.

According to the Catholic Priest, the issue goes up to the Bishop eventually, who tackles it head-on with Minister Bathiudeen, who then makes public statements against the Bishop, further polarising the two communities.

But the Muslim community claims political backing is crucial to surviving in the area because most of the district’s Tamil population was very unhappy about the return of the Muslims, first in 1992 and then in 2002.

Following the signing of the CFA between the Government and the LTTE in 2002, Tiger Leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran apologised for his organisation enforced eviction of the Muslims from the Northern Province in 1990.

But the suspicion and hostility upon their return was not very different, Muslim elders in the region say. “When we came back in 2002, the Tamil bureaucrats and the people looked at us as if we were a gang of thieves,” says one Moulawi, sitting under a tree in the old Moor Street mosque in Mannar town.

‘Not Muslim chauvanism’-

“Our shops were attacked, our boats burned – when people tried to resettle they were constantly threatened and sent back by the LTTE. The Tamil people and officials here were hostile. Muslim educational and employment opportunities were non-existent – when the system doesn’t work we have no option but to rely on politicians – that’s not Muslim chauvinism,” an elder of the Old Moor Street Mosque says. Rishard Bathiudeen is the only politician to have ever done anything for the Muslims of the region, he claims.

The problem of displacement is a poignant issue for the region’s Muslims, who remember vividly the horror of having to leave their homes in the province overnight on the Tigers’ dictates. “The fate of the Muslims of the north is like the fate of the Palestinian people,” one Moulawi says, in emotional tones.

Today, the Catholics are the biggest problems as far as the Muslim community of Mannar is concerned. “They occupy our land, they take our businesses and make no mistake, the Bishop is behind it,” said a senior All Ceylon Jamaiythul Ulema Mannar Branch, an organisation of Islamic clerics.

It is a charge Mannar Bishop Rayappu Joseph vehemently denies. Rev. Joseph says that although some Muslims accuse the Catholics that is not the perception in the entire community. According to the Bishop he was not instigating any tension between the two communities. “Minister Bathiudeen is behind this- he blames me but it is fact that he is distributing equipment unequally and that is causing issues,” he said. The Bishop said he was willing to talk to the two communities if the tension was actually increasing.

Meanwhile the stories of Tamil Catholic majoritarianism told by the Muslims in Mannar are distressingly familiar. The LTTE reclaimed public land and put up a Catholic statue in the middle of Mannar Town, they claim. “Today it is continuing. They come to Muslim villages and erect Catholic statues, even though there are no Tamils or Catholics living in the area,” says one layman representative at the Moor Street Mosque.

The accusation is echoed in the districts of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi and even by Tamil Hindus in Mannar, who accuse the military of erecting Buddha statues and constructing Buddhist temples in areas where there are no Sinhalese or Buddhists. As one Tamil Hindu man who spoke to the Daily FT quipped, “Wherever one community is in the majority, there’s always this elder brother complex.”

TNA overtures to Muslims ‘just rhetoric’

With the Catholic Bishop staunchly backing the TNA, for the Muslims of Mannar, the overtures made to Northern Muslims in the party’s election manifesto is nothing more than rhetoric. “On the street and on stage, a very different rhetoric is being pushed,” quips one religious representative who spoke to the Daily FT at the Moor Street Mosque.

He says Minister Douglas Devananda whose Government allied EPDP is the TNA’s main contender in the Northern Provincial election and the TNA’s Chief Ministerial Candidate Justice C.V. Wigneswaran had never visited a Muslim village during their election tours to the Mannar District.

Tamil Catholics and Hindu leaders express great concern about State-sponsored colonisation of Sinhalese families in Mannar, but ironically this is not a view shared by the Muslims of the area. “There have always been Sinhalese in Mannar, and now there are coming back, there is nothing wrong with that,” say the Muslim leaders.

While it is true that Sinhalese settlements have existed in the region, the Tamil community says it is opposed only to the Government forcibly constructing Sinhalese settlements in the Northern Province. Speaking to reporters earlier this week, TNA Chief Minister hopeful Wigneswaran said the party had no problem with Sinhalese with legitimate claims to land in the north returning home. “It is only in the case of state sponsored settlement that investigation will be required,” he said. But it is possible that the Muslim community of Mannar see a certain security in the increase of Sinhala families in the area.

They express similarly dissonant sentiments about the presence of the armed forces in the province, a move highly criticised by activists and the Tamil community throughout the region. “Make sure you write this – the Muslims have no problem with the presence of the Army in this area. We exist very happily with them,” the elders tell reporters.

Muslim rights under TNA

As voting day draws nearer in Mannar and the rest of the province, the Muslims openly express fears about the TNA capturing the Northern Provincial Council at the election. When the international community pressures the Government over reconciliation, it is not just the rights of Tamils but also the political rights of Muslims that must be emphasised, the elders say.

“We suffered under the LTTE. When the TNA comes to power, will they respect Muslim rights?” is their pre-poll query.

As for the region’s 23,000 Hindus, on the religious front it is a case of being caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. “The Muslims have the Minister. The Catholics have the Bishop. The Tamil Hindus have no one,” says a representative of the Hindu Society in Mannar.

The Hindus are facing encroachment on multiple fronts, the Hindu community leaders claim. One of five Shivan Kovils in Sri Lanka, Thirukeswaran resides in the Mannar District and according to the Hindu community, the space is being encroached by creeping settlements and religious constructions. And the problem is not only from the Sinhalese and the Muslims. “Catholics say Muslims are encroaching, but Catholics are also encroaching on Hindu lands,” the Hindu Society says.


Changing demographics

The issue of displacement is equally poignant for the Tamil Hindu community, which recalls that each time Tamil ethnic riots broke out in the south, arrangements were made to transport Tamils to the north and east. Some Muslim settlements, they claim, are settlers who were not originally from the Mannar District. It is seen by the Tamils of the area as part of the larger issue of changing the demographic composition of the Northern Province to prevent Tamils from being a majority in the region. “They sent us here after the riots because they believed this was where we would be safe. If we cannot live here then where do we go?” a member of the Hindu Society asks.

The Tamil Hindus back the TNA like the Catholics, because they say, since the end of the war, they have lost a voice. For the Tamil community throughout the province, the issues are central to liberty and justice. “The roads and highways are all very nice, but they are just window decoration,” says a representative of the Hindu Society.

At the TNA’s final election rally at the Mannar Stadium in Town on Wednesday, the Tamil nationalist rhetoric goes strong. Evoking memories of LTTE heroes and the suffering in Mullivaikal in the final days of the war, TNA Batticaloa District MP P. Ariyanendhan urges Tamil people who are fed up of being thrown “scraps and bones” to go out early on Saturday to vote.

“If you are Tamil, and you want food, get to the polling station by 7 a.m. and make a difference,” said the MP in typically bombastic electioneering style. “They can shoot heroes but they cannot kill the spirit of Tamil Nationalism,” the Parliamentarian said, to rousing cheers by the significant crowd on a cool, coastal night.

TNA leaders are making no secret of the fact that they are channelling the LTTE’s rhetoric on Tamil grievances.

But in Mannar at least, the lines between oppressor and oppressed are more blurred than in the rest of the north. While the TNA is expected to carry the province in tomorrow’s election, the Muslim communities in Mannar are expected to vote overwhelmingly in support of candidates supported by Minister Bathiudeen who are contesting under the ruling UPFA’s betel leaf symbol.

They believe his continued interventions in the region will keep the problems of the Mannar Muslims and their alleged marginalisation by the majority Tamil community on the national radar, especially if the TNA controls the provincial administration from 22 September. Juxtaposed with the Sinhala-Tamil dynamic in the rest of the region, the Muslim-Tamil dimension in Mannar exposes the glaring – and sometimes overshadowed – challenges for post-war reconciliation in the island’s embattled north.