COLOMBO: The resettlement of the war-displaced Muslim population became national news on the issue that settlement was taking place within the renowned Wilpattu National Park. The controversy broke out when media reports alleged that there was illegal forest clearing and settlement of people taking place within the park.

Environmental groups raised the issue about where the displaced Muslims were being resettled. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa said “We have to preserve our national heritage. Wilpattu is one such heritage and we cannot allow such national assets to be destroyed. This appears also to have taken place even when I was in power but we did not know that such a thing was taking place at that time.” Not only politicians, but also environmentalists and representatives of Muslim civil society have got involved in the debate. There is a need to be clear about the issues.

In 1990 the entire Muslim population of the North, amounting to nearly 90,000 people were ordered to leave by the LTTE which saw them as an obstacle to its goal of militarily carving out a separate Tamil state in Sri Lanka. Most of those expelled made their way to the district of Puttalam which borders the North. During the years of the war the Muslims could not go back safely to the North. The LTTE never gave a clear signal or guarantee of their security should they return. As there was no indication when the war would end, many of the displaced Muslims were provided with or purchased land in the areas of their temporary location. When the war finally ended in 2009, nearly two decades after their displacement, it was natural that many of the displaced Muslims had settled down in the areas of their temporary settlement.

Although the war has been over six years, the wounds caused by it continue to fester and threaten relapse into new forms of conflict. The long unresolved issue of the Muslim displaced who wish to return to their original places of residence in the North continues to foment a sense of bitterness and injustice that undermines the efforts to promote post-war reconciliation. An estimated 80 percent of them continue to live outside their original places of residence. The issue of displaced Muslims became highlighted in the past weeks due to allegations in the media and by Sinhalese nationalist groups, such as the BBS, that they were being illegally settled in the Wilpattu National Park. This led to public protests and to fact finding missions and there seemed to be a possibility of anti-Muslim agitation taking on a larger political dimension as it did during the last phase of the previous government.

During the period 2013-14 there were verbal and physical attacks on the Muslim community by nationalist groups. The BBS became a powerful presence in the country, and appeared to enjoy the blessings of a section of the government, as they could engage even in violent actions but with impunity as the police and security forces stood by without stopping them or taking them into custody. There was also a virulent anti-Muslim campaign that generated a parallel sentiment among a significant section of the Sinhalese population. This included allegations of a growing international Islamic presence in the country and the rise in the Muslim population posing a future threat to the majority status of the Sinhalese community. The emergence of the issue of the alleged encroachment of the Wilpattu National Park by Muslims and the wide publicity to allegations that they were being backed by Muslim politicians has created a new point of tension.

The government and environmental groups have now confirmed that there is no encroachment of the Wilpattu National Park which is located in the Puttlam District outside of the Northern Province. However, there is concern that the buffer zone is being illegally encroached upon in the neighbouring Mannar District, namely the Marichchukkaddei-Karakdikuli forest reserve that adjoins the Wilpattu North Sanctuary, which is contiguous with the Wilpattu National Park. At a discussion on the issue that took place recently it became clear that there is an impression that environmentalists are opposed to Muslim resettlement. But this is not the case. The environmental groups are not anti-Muslim. They have also opposed the settlement of Sinhalese outside of the law. The position of the environmentalists is that resettlement must not take place in violation of the environmental laws of the country.

There is also evidence that the formerly all-powerful Presidential Task Force (PTF) under former Economics Minister Basil Rajapaksa allocated these lands for resettlement as far back as 2011. Therefore it is not fair to blame the displaced Muslims for illegal encroachment. The State has a legal and ethical obligation to provide alternative lands to the displaced people as the current places of resettlement are in dispute. The war and conflict have created numerous land disputes between state and private interests, between communities and between individuals which in fact take communal overtones because of deep rooted ethnic and political divisions in the country. The problem is that the previous government made some effort at resettlement but such efforts have not been according to the accepted procedures for the alienation of land under the land laws of the State. This matter has to be looked into by the new government and a permanent solution found.

At a recent discussion held by a civil society group, the National Peace Council, on the issue of Muslim resettlement in the North, it was pointed out that it was in the interests of national reconciliation to affirm the right of return of all war-displaced and forcibly evicted people, be they Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim to their places of original residence. In view of the growing controversy and polarization within society on this issue, the government needs to formulate a national policy on resettlement of the war-displaced and to establish an administrative mechanism to ensure resettlement in a fair and transparent manner as a matter of priority. The government also needs to reconsider the issues of High Security Zones and the take-over of lands for purposes of setting up military camps especially where it has led to the displacement of significant numbers of people.

During the discussions, at which sharply contrasting views were expressed, it was alleged that the previous government had sought to settle Sinhalese from different parts of the country in the North and East as a means of ensuring that this Sinhalese presence would be an obstacle to any future separatist ambitions of the ethnic minorities. However, noone of any community should be allowed to encroach on state lands. Whatever is done should be according to the law. Indeed, environmental groups have filed legal action in these cases of illegal Sinhalese settlement or have publicly protested against them. An example would be protests by environmental groups in 2013 against the establishment of Namalgama and Nandimithragama in the Vavuniya District, where Sinhalese from the South have been settled.

The security of the state lies in winning the confidence of the ethnic minorities, through adhering to the laws of the country and to transparent procedures rather than in attempting to engage in social engineering by establishing military camps or Sinhalese settlements in the midst of the ethnic minorities.

The new government appears to be taking a positive approach towards the demilitarization of the North and return of land to the people. The Minister of Resettlement D M Swaminathan has said that the Ministry of Defense confirmed it had 44,548 acres under its control. He said that his ministry was seeking to release 18,000 acres back to the people and close down the 32 welfare centre in Jaffna and 3 that still existed in Trincomalee. This is an enlightened problem solving approach that needs to be applied to the issue of the Muslim displaced too.