Colombo, January 12 (The New Indian Express): The Muslim Council of Sri Lanka (MCSL) met the US Ambassador Atul Keshap here on Wednesday, and apprised him of the issues facing the Muslim community in the light of a recent resurgence of Sinhala-Buddhist extremism with the tacit support of a section of the government.
Briefing Express on the meeting, MCSL member and media personality Hilmy Ahamed said that the Ambassador was concerned about the fate of the post-war ethnic reconciliation process and said that he, along with some other envoys, was talking to various sections of the government about the need to keep the process on track.
While several incidents involving hate speech were worrying the Muslims, the one which brought all Muslim political leaders together and which led to the MCSL to seek an audience with the American Ambassador, was the Wilpattu Forest Reserve encroachment issue raised by a band of anti-Muslim Buddhist nationalists and “misinformed” environmentalists.
Even as the Muslims were pointing out that they had not encroached on the Wilpattu forest reserve and that the hamlets they were occupying were outside the park and were also lands which they had been cultivating since 1906 with government permits, President Maithripala Sirisena issued a gazette notification on December 30, 2016, extending the land area coming under the Wilpattu National Park nullifying the Muslim settlements.
“This shocked the Muslims who were trying to get back to their own lands to rebuild their shattered lives,” wrote Latheef Farook, a well known commentator on Muslim issues, in www.colombotelegraph.com.
The gazette notification covers the villages of Marichichukaddy, Karadikuli and Palaikkuli in the Musali South area of Mannar district, while the Wilpattu National Park is entirely in Puttalam district. The Muslims had lived in these villages for generations with valid title deeds. In 1990, they were expelled from here en masse by the LTTE.
MCSL official Ahamed said that these places look like forests now because no one was living there after the Muslims’ expulsion in 1990. But the existence of dilapidated buildings and mosques are testimony to Muslims having lived there before. There are Muslims peasants with land titled dated 1906. There is a mosque constructed in 1940.
“When the Muslims tried to return to their lands after the war in May 2009, racist elements created many controversies distorting facts and giving an ethnic twist to prevent them from returning to their lands. The Muslims suspect it was under the influence of such elements that President Sirisena may have issued his 30 December 2016 order,” Farook writes.
When the Musali South Muslims were cooped up in refugee camps in Puttalam district from 1990 onwards, the earlier Mahinda Rajapaksa government acquired a major part of their traditional lands under various pretexts, Farook says.
According to Ahamed, any area with vegetation with a height of six feet and above could be deemed forest land and taken over by the forest department. The lands of the Muslims which showed heavy overgrowth because of 26 years of neglect, were deemed forest lands and taken over.
“First around 40% of their traditional lands in the Musali South was acquired. This was followed by the acquisition of another 30 percent of their land without any consultation or consent to put up Security forces Establishments. Muslim owned lands were acquired for a naval agricultural project. A Navy Regional Commanding Office was established in two prominent villages and the Muslims were prevented from entering their own lands, dwellings and other properties.”
(The featured image at the top is that of a Sri Lankan Muslim refugee girl. Photo: Chulie de Silva)