Maneshka Borham and Rajitha Jagoda Arachchi in Marichchukkaddi
Mohammad Thoufeek of Marichchukaddy the most Southern village of Musali, was 29-years-old when he entered the Wilpattu forest on October 28, 1990 accompanied by his family and other villagers, following the LTTE order to evict their village in 24 hours as it suspected that Muslims provided secret information on them to the government forces.
Musali was the only divisional secretariat in the Mannar district with a Muslim majority. It was a difficult journey through the thick forest to Puttlam where they set up a temporary shelter. Thoufeek and the other 70,000 odd Muslims in the Northern District started a life full of many hardships becoming internally displaced unfortunates.
By the time they returned, Wilpattu forest had snuffed the entire village that they couldn’t even see landmarks of the earlier civilisation. However, Musali Divisional Secretariat (DS) under the guidance of Minister Rishad Bathiudeen and former Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, cleared the area and began the resettlement process.
When we met Thoufeek last week, he was in a small shed in front of his house with his wife, perhaps to escape the hot air inside the house. It was a burning, hot sunny day and to live in the area was nothing short of unfortunate, one could say.
“Assalamualaikum! (Peace be with you),” he extended us a warm welcome.
“These are hundreds of years old traditional lands. All of us have deeds and other legal documents. There is a 100-year-old Masjid too in our village,” he said.
Soon after the war, resettlement in three villages in Musali Divisional Secretariat – Palaikuli (100 acres), Marichchukaddy (100 acres) and Karadikkuli (80 acres) began under the supervision of Minister Bathiudeen.
That was almost two years before the Department of Forest Conservation (DFC) began its duties in the Northern Province in August 2011. A letter sent by DFC to the Attorney General’s Department in 2015 stated that these traditional Muslim villages were taken over by the DFC.
The letter also states that the Presidential Task Force (PTF) for Resettlement, Development and Defence under the chairmanship of former minister Basil Rajapaksa, on November 22, 2012 had recommended that the DFC releases lands for resettlement.
Following the recommendation, on January 2, 2013, DFC ordered its officer in Mannar to release the land. The PTF had then requested the DFC to release 2007 acres more for resettlement purposes. However, DFC had approved the release of only 1635 acres of land which was damaged and could not be reclaimed as forest area.
According to another letter sent by PTF to the Secretary of the Ministry of Environment on November 23, 2012, the officially cleared land area was 1,735 acres within the Musali DS which includes half an acre of land for the house and another acre for cultivation for each family.
Racism, the underlying cause?
The request made by PTF to release more land for resettlement, was due to the increase in population in the village. A member of the Musali Pradeshiya Sabha and a resident of Marichchukaddy, K.M. Iqbal told the Sunday Observer that there were around 120 families in the village when they fled the area in 1990. On their return the number of families had increased to 622 due to the marriages of their children.
“We don’t need forest lands. We only need our traditional lands. We have been waiting to meet the President for a long time. We informed MP Cader Masthan of our need. But there has been no response from the President’s office,” said Thoufeek.
There were two or three houses beyond Thoufeek’s house, around another three kilo metres to the Wilpattu border, a clear sign that Wilpattu had not been deforested by resettlement.
Another significant fact is that no land in Wilpattu is in Mannar District.
Wilpattu had spread to Anuradhapura and Puttalam Districts, as Modaragam Aru the northern border of Wilpattu is also the provincial border between the North Western and Northern Provinces.
The chief bhikkhu of the Northern and Eastern Provinces, Ven. Siyambalagaswewa Wimalasara Thera told the Sunday Observer that there could be wicked efforts to spread racism by discussing the deforestation of Wilpattu.
“We have been talking about unity through the years. It was the Buddha who taught us that there must be unity among the communities. Buddhism doesn’t divide people. We lived here during the LTTE era with the same principle.
“Someone had posted on Facebook that we cry for Bathiudeen’s money. There is no such thing. I don’t care what other people think of me. I stand for what I believe. Minister Bathiudeen is not racist. He is the only politician who supports the 14 active Buddhist temples in Vavuniya. Those who have labelled themselves as Sinhala Buddhists have not done anything for these temples”.
A top official in public administration of the area, who spoke to the Sunday Observer on the basis of anonymity said,
“The authorities in Colombo had no discussion with us, especially on demarcating the forest. They should have first requested the Musali DS to provide information pertaining to land in the area. They demarcated the forest area without consulting the DS. That is the origin of this issue,” he said.
In fact it was President Maithripala Sirisena who under Clause 3A of the Forest Conservation Act had signed a Gazette notification on March 24, 2017, declaring the Mavillu Forest Reserve including a few resettled areas – Mavillu, Veppal, Karadikkuli, Maritchukkaddy, Wilanthikkulam and Periyamarippu after several years passed by the beginning of resett;ement process.
“These lands in Marichukaddy were given to Muslim families that were displaced during the war, in the early 90’s. We personally checked if Rishard Bathiudeen had seized any land in the area, but we found none. As I see it, he, being a Muslim Politician, has served his people. We don’t see any wrong in that,” said Wimalasara Thera.
“Even Sinhala colonies such as Marichchukaddy after the war were reestablished by clearing the forest area. When we resettled the Sinhalese people of Vavuniya District in their villages, we had to go there with bulldozers.
We had to clear the jungle to resettle people in their rightful land. Rankethgama in Vavuniya is one such example. I spoke to former District Secretary Mannar Deshapriya about the issue. He assured me that Marichchukaddy resettlement is legal”.
Wimalasara Thera also spoke about the probable political opportunism that could be behind all these activities. “Rishard Bathiudeen started resettlement under the Mahinda Rajapaka administration. When he crossed over and joined the UNP his former allies started bashing him.
If he someday joins his former camp, people in this camp would start accusing him,” the thera said.
“Ananda Sagara Thera is claimed to be a Presidential Advisor. My question is, if the President himself says that no forest had been cleared after 2015, how can Ananda Sagara Thera go against that opinion? The President should re-think about such advisors,” the thera said.
The Ministry of Defence website announced on March 23, 2019 that no forest cover was cleared after 2015, except the legally provided land to the people of Maritchkaddy, Kallaru and Mullikulam in the Musali Pradeshiya Sabha region north of the Wilpattu Park.
The announcement was based on 178 surveillance operations conducted by the Sri Lanka Air Force from December 22, 2015. The last air surveillance operation was carried out on March 22, 2019.
Villagers in Marichchukaddy said if the President’s report on Wilpattu is published, the issue can be sorted immediately.
“The President’s report is not out yet. We request the President to publicise the Committee report on Wiplattu. If it is out, there will be no issues. Everyone is invited to visit Marichchukaddy to witness what is happening there,” Thoufeek said.