by Devanesan Nesiah and Chulani Kodikara
(Report of Findings of fact-finding visit to Mannar – 8th and 9th August 2012 by Citizens’ Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province by the LTTE)
On 18th July 2012 there was a protest outside of the Magistrate’s Court in Mannar that turned violent. According to media reports the incident occurred in relation to a dispute regarding a fishing harbor in the Uppukulam area of Mannar.
The Citizens’ Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province by the LTTE has been engaging with the northern Muslim community since 2009. The Commission felt that an impartial investigation into the causes of the disturbance was necessary. Therefore a delegation consisting of two Commissioners—Dr. Devanesan Nesiah and Ms. Chulani Kodikara, and representative of the Commission Secretariat Ms.Nafiya Khalik and two members of the Commission advisory group engaged in a fact finding exercise in Mannar on 8th and 9th August 2012.
The current report is based on the above visit during which interviews were conducted with affected communities (both from Uppukkulam and Vidathalthivu), Additional Government Agent, Representatives of the Bar Association, Police and Department Head of Fisheries Corporation in Mannar.
The Right to Fish off of Konthaipiddy Harbour
All Commission interviewees within the civil administration recognized that Muslims of Uppukkulam have been traditionally using the Konthaipiddy harbor prior to their expulsion and that they have customary rights over the harbor. This seems to be an undisputed fact, except in our interview with the Vidathalthivu fishermen, who claimed that they were told in 2006 that the harbor in fact belonged to the Ceylon Fisheries Harbor Corporation (CFHC). They had then requested permission from the CFHC to anchor their fishing boats inKonthaipiddy Harbor. Their request is supported by a recommendation from Mr. A Adaiklanathan, MP for Mannar. By a letter on 15.06 2006 signed by the Chairman, CFHC gives the Vidathalthivu fishermen temporary permission to do so. No time limit is mentioned in the CFHC’s letter granting written permission.
The Additional Government Agent, however stated that this was a mistake on the part of the CFHC and that the CFHC had authority over an adjacent block but not Konthaipiddy harbor, and that therefore they had no authority to grant permission to use the Konthaipiddy Harborto the Vidathalthivu fishermen.
The Context: Vidathalthivu and Uppukulam
Vidathalthivu is in Manthai West DS division in Mannar mainland. In 1999 due to the civil war, about 332 families became refugees and relocated to the Thoddaveli church land onMannarIsland. Their relocation village was named Joseph Vaz Nagar. This relocation site is 09 km from Konthaipiddy harbor. Uppukkulum is in Mannar town onMannarIslandand Konthaipiddy is the coastal border of Uppukkulam. Residents of this village are predominantly Muslims who were expelled in 1990. Currently about 450 families have returned to Uppukulum.
History of Agreements between the fisher people of Uppukulam and Vidathalthivu
(The details below are based on written materials collected by the commission on the current visit)
At least until 2007 there is a paper trail which establishes that the Vidathalthivu fishermen used the harbor with the permission of the Al Azhar Fishermen’s Society of Uppukulam and that they also paid rent to the Uppukkulam fishermen who own fishing huts in Konthaipiddy harbor. The last agreement between the Uppukkulam Al-Azhar Fishermen Co-operative Society and the Vidathalthivu Fishermen was in 2005.
On 07.06.2005, as the period of use granted by Uppukulam fishermen to Vidathalthivu fishermen had expired, the Vidathalthivu fishermen had to vacate the Uppukulam harbor. The Assistant Director of Fisheries had a discussion with the Uppukkulam Al-Azhar Fishermen Co-operative Society on this matter and permission was granted to the Vidathalthivu fishermen for fishing up to 10.08.2005. Later Uppukkulam Al-Azhar Fishermen Co-operative Society granted a further one year to do fishing. This was done after Member of Parliament Mr.Adaikalanathan had discussions with the representatives of the Uppukulam Fishermen Society at his District Office. On June 15th 2006 at the request of Assistant Director Fisheries, Mannar and M.P Adaikalanathan, the Sri Lanka Fisheries Harbor Corporation issued a letter allowing the Vidathalthivu fishermen to tie their boats at Mannar Kondapitty Pier.
On 23rd Nov 2006 there was a meeting attended by M.P Adaikalanathan, Divisional Secretary, Asst. Director of Fisheries Mannar, Fisheries Inspectors of Vidathalthivu, representatives of the Uppukkulam Al-Azhar Fishermen Co-operative Society and representatives of the Uppukulam Mosque Trustee Board. The meeting was presided over by then Government Agent. The following decisions were taken at the meeting:
Kondapitty pier belongs to Uppukulam fishermen. On humanitarian grounds, the members of the Vidathalthivu Fishermen Society are to be allowed to do fishing through this pier.
In this respect, the Vidathalthivu Fishermen Society and Uppukkulam Al-Azhar Fishermen Co-operative Society should enter an agreement and implement it.
The agreement should be renewed annually.
Though the above agreement was prepared, the two parties could not agree on certain matters, and therefore it was not signed. However, the Uppukulam Fishermen’s Society did not interrupt Vidathaltheevu fishermen fishing from the harbor.
Engagement with the LTTE
In 2006 November and January 2007 the LTTE district secretariat head P. Anpuraj had sent summons to Uppukkulam Al-Azhar Fishermen Co-operative Society but due to fear the Uppukkulam fishermen’s leadership did not meet the LTTE representative. The one meeting between the Al Azhar Fishermen Cooperative Society and the LTTE took place with “Amuthan” the Sea Tiger leader of the area in 2002 where the former agreed to rent the Konthaipiddy padu temporarily to Vidathalthivu fishermen.
The Post War Context
Since the end of the war, once the Muslim displaced started returning to Uppukkulam in significant numbers they claimed the harbor back and wanted the Vidathalthivu fishermen to leave. When the latter did not comply complaints were made to several persons. For example letter dated 07 August 2011 to Hon. Rajitha Senaratne, Minister of Fisheries, to Rishard Badurdeen, Minister for Industries, and the GA Mannar.
Since a complaint was made it appears that on several occasions the GA, DS, the clergy etc. have intervened to appeal to the Uppukkulam fishermen to allow the Vidathalthivu fishermen to continue to anchor their boats at Konthaipiddy Harbor until an alternative site was found. The civil administration– it appears– tried to find a solution in the meantime. There appears to have been several meeting with the GA and DS Mannar, the Vicar General, Catholic father from Vidathalthivu, fishermen and police participating in these meetings.
The discussion has dragged on since 2009 for three years and the Uppukkulam fishermen have approached various government authorities for help. Similarly the Vidathaltheivu fishermen have also appealed to different civil authorities for an alternative but permanent solution.
Run up to the recent outbreak of violence
On 5th June 2012, the Uppukkulam fishermen asked the Vithuthalthivu fishermen to stop using the harbor and to relocate to another site.
On 6th June the Vidathalthivu fishermen made a complaint to the police.
On 7th June, The police called both parties for a meeting at the Mannar Police station. Following this meeting the Vidathalthivu fishermen agreed to stop using Konthaipiddy harbor if they are given a permanent alternative solution.
(The police officer that the commission met in Mannar stated that the Mannar police got an intelligence report in early June 2012 that this dispute may turn violent.)
The matter was then referred to the GA as the police has no authority over land.
11th June 2012 meeting with GA – The Vidathalthivu fishermen are offered an alternative site in Erukkulampiddy and asked to relocate within one month.
15th June at another meeting – A paadu in Moondrampiddy Vidathalthivu was suggested since the fisher men have been fishing in the Vidathalthivu sea which is 48km away from Konthaipiddy habor. The Vidathalthivu fishermen rejected this option because of the distance from their relocation site which is Joseph Vaz Nagar in Mannar town.
26th June 2012 -The GA called a meeting with several Fishermen’s Societies in the area. SSP asked the Vidathalthivu fishermen to stop using the Konthaipiddy Harbor within three hours. The fishermen appealed to extend the period up to three days. The GA promised to provide dry rations until an alternative solution was found. The Vidathalthivu fishermen stated that they stopped going to sea following this decision until the 11th July 2012.
Therefore there was no fishing off of Konthaipiddy Harbour by the Vidathalthivu fishermen from the 29th of June to the 11th of July.
29th June – The GA called another meeting with more than 50 Fishermen’s Societies in Mannar and inquired whether their harbors can be shared with Vidathalthivu fishermen. All refused.
At a meeting called once the month was up the 2nd Mile Post harbor area was allotted by the DS, when the Vidathalthivu fishermen tried to use this area it was discovered that this was a private land. The owner lodged a complaint in court and a court order was issued. Later a new site was allocated in Thalladdi. However the fishermen found that area to be muddy and stated that if they were to relocate with their boats they required a canal to be cut. The GA agreed to arrange for a canal and the Vidathalthivu fishermen were given three days to relocate. But the Vidathalthivu fishermen claimed that it was not given to them in writing, and also that so far, the canal has not been cut.
The Vidathalthivu fishermen had stopped going to sea until the 11th of July. However, because they were finding it difficult to manage, economically, they decide to go to sea on the 12th and 13th July using the Konthaipiddy habor. They claimed that they sent a letter to the SSP informing him of their decision to use the Konthaipiddy harbour. The Uppukkulam fishermen made complaints to civil administration and police on both days.
In the meantime on the 13th of July in the afternoon after Jumma Prayers Uppukulam fishermen damaged some huts in the harbor which were being used by the Tamil fishermen. Following this incident, 17 Tamil fishermen filed charges against the Muslims claiming damages worth of Rs.1.6 million. (Members of the commission inspected the site. After conversations with Vidathalthivu fishermen it became clear that the damage was to a handful of old kajan huts and the roofing sheets of one hut. The estimated damages therefore seemed somewhat excessive.)
On the 16th of July the matter was referred to the Magistrates court. The Magistrate gave an order that the Tamil fishermen should continue using the harbour until an alternative site is found. Police was deployed at the harbor as well. The Uppukulum fisher community made a silent protest in front of the court complex.
The matter was again referred to court by the SSP and all parties were summoned on the 18th of July. The police asked the magistrate to give an order to the effect that until this matter is solved, no pickets, unlawful assemblies, demonstrations, etc should be held. GA as a third party was asked to find an alternative site before 07th August.
On 06th August 2012 the GA and the DS submitted a report to court with three alternative options:
- Thavadi – A site near the Thalladi Army Camp, the same distance as theKondapitiyaHarbor(a canal and road will be constructed with anchoring facilities )
- Naayathuweli which is located in the intersection of UA 32 highway and Uyilank Kulum road (the byroad to the coastal area will be constructed)
- Thalaimannar Pier (which is being now allocated for displaced fishermen to anchor their boats)
The protest by Muslims took place in two incidents on 16th and 18th of July 2012 in front of the court complex and the protest on the 18th turned violent. About 600 people gathered in front of the court and blocked the road for two and a half hours. We were told that men, women and children participated in the protest. Also Muslims from other villagers participated. This was clearly not a spontaneous gathering. Later on people started shouting Allahu Akbar, and held placards with slogans insulting the magistrate.
The police said that they used tear gas to disperse the crowd. The crowd claimed that they were also beaten, particularly the women and the children. 13 people were arrested randomly by the police after the crowd dispersed. On 31st July there was another court hearing and magistrate Judeson ordered the 13 suspects to be further remanded for 16 days and warrants were issued to arrest 27 protesters out of the 37 suspects. The Muslim men in the village have since then gone into hiding.
We observed a significant police presence in the Uppukulam village. Women complained that they are harassed day and night since the police is looking for their men who are in hiding. Many families are suffering as the men are the breadwinners. The village looks deserted and the women we met complained about their men being away and their livelihoods being severely impacted.
Many women said that without the husband providing for their day-to-day expenses they are finding it difficult to even eat a meal before beginning the Ramadan fast. They also said that on the day before our visit there was a police round up during which a hand grenade was found by the side of a pond that is being used by the people on a day to day basis. Women suspected that the police had planted this explosive to come to the village and do a cordon and search operation.
The Commission’s Conclusions
At the root of the escalation of this problem is a perception among the Muslims that they are being unfairly treated in Mannar. They have no faith in either the civil administration or this particular magistrate in Mannar. There is a perception that they have been marginalized through civil mechanisms. An earlier case was cited in our meeting with the leaders of the Mosque relating to a piece of land in Moor street(near the Muslim burial ground).
The land in question was allocated for 27 poor Muslim families prior to 1990 and part of this land was acquired by St. Xavier’s Boys College for a swimming pool. When the Muslims protested against this, the police filed a civil disobedience case and magistrate Judeson ordered the civil administration to find an alternative land for the Muslim returnees.
The Commission learns that this order was not within the ambit of the application filed by the police. The Muslim community is extremely upset by this decision. There are many land related cases in court and they fear that there won’t be an impartial investigation into these cases (especially after this incident). There is clearly a need to address this sense of marginalization by the institutions that is felt by the Muslims.
There also seems to be great deal of mistrust and insecurity in relation to lands and livelihoods in the north. This is indicated by the fact that 50 other Tamil fishing societies in Mannar were consulted with regards to providing the Vidathalthivu fisher people with an alternative fishing area and none were willing to share their spaces.
Returning northern Muslims, who are claiming their rights after twenty years are sure to disturb practices that have become entrenched over twenty years. Therefore greater sensitivity is required by all concerned actors when dealing with such issues.
The problems of those who have been accused and arrested with regards to the damage to the fishing huts and the incidents at the protest have to be addressed urgently. The Commission received information that a bail application has been filed in Vavunia court, but so far the 13 arrested have not been granted bail. It is worrisome that these suspects have been jailed for over a month without bail.
Further the police has since been arresting suspects arbitrarily and sending them to remand custody through a special hearing. This has been done while Mannar lawyers are on protests and the court’s normal function has been suspended. This arbitrary arrests and denial of bail to the suspects has further impacted the surrender of the other 27 suspects, for whom warrants have been issued.
The innocent civilians caught in the legal cases in relation to the protest need help and it is necessary to find out if they can be cleared or given mild sentences. (We need to know whether any legal action can be taken to clear the charges against 13 who are in prison, and another 27 who are now in hiding and the additional six who have been arrested on 21st August.)
It is also unfortunate that the issue of finding an alternative fishing site for the Vidathalthivu fisher people has taken so long. The authorities must be held responsible for not responding sooner. Suspending livelihood activities for nearly three years—as the Uppukulam community was forced to do—is not conducive to successful resettlement of northern Muslims. There may be a need to ask the local administration to prioritize finding solutions to the many such problems that the returning communities both Muslims and Tamils are facing.
The Tamil fishermen from Vidathalthivu on the mainland have opted to become residents ofMannarIsland. This decision of relocation needs to be recognized, acknowledged and respected. A solution which enables their right to a livelihood must be found.
The escalation of this dispute is also an indictment on civil society both in Mannar and Colombo. For instance why did the Commission not know that this was happening given the links with civil society groups and community leaders on the ground?
Rather than reacting to such situations, there is a need for the Commission to respond before these incidents escalate into violence.
1. Inquire into the status of the civilians who have been charged. Many seem to have been innocent bystanders and their families continue to be badly affected by their arrest/absence.
2. There is an urgent need to investigate what factual basis if any exists to support Muslims’ perceptions of discrimination at the institutional level in Mannar and other places to which they are returning.
3. The local administration needs to be sensitive to and prioritize finding solutions for the many such disputes over land and livelihoods that are emerging in areas to which northern Muslims are returning.
4. There is an urgent need for more sustained civil society engagement with the returning Muslim community and the Tamil communities in the North that are compelled to make adjustments due to Muslim return. The above case illustrates the urgency in Mannar. But this is sure to be the case in other areas to which Muslims are returning as well.
5. There is a need for greater information collection and reporting of the situation of northern Muslim return. This information must be shared with concerned actors and stakeholders both in the north and outside.
6. There is an urgent necessity to establish a mechanism comprising of civil society representatives, community elders, professionals and religious leaders who are able to intervene with relevant administrative officials to act to prevent potential conflicts and tensions and also offer recommendations to resolve civil disputes and other tensions amicably and without delay.