Featured image courtesy Tamil Guardian

The Gazette Notification issued on the 24th of March 2017 declared four forest areas North of the Wilpattu sanctuary as reserves, preventing Muslim Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) from returning to their homes in Musali after languishing in makeshift camps for over 25 years. President Maithripala Sirisena’s hurriedly signed controversial gazette on Wilpattu, inked at the Sri Lankan Embassy in cold Moscow while on an official tour, has generated so much heat that the President is claiming a conspiracy against him. He also claims that it is intended to mislead the Muslims. What was the urgency  to sign such a gazette while on a brief tour overseas?

Environmentalists continue to protest the caging of animals in zoos, but now they want to cage Muslim IDPs. Do not fail to understand that all these returning IDPs are paddy farmers or Chena cultivators who had legitimate rights to use these lands before the controversial political declaration of forest reserves in the Northern Province in 2012. This declaration was done by the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration to prevent the jurisdiction over these lands by the Northern Provincial Council. All forest, wildlife and Mahaweli lands come under the jurisdiction of the central Government. The people of Musali have used these lands for generations and none of this is within the Wilpattu National park. The Environmentalists have now been completely brainwashed that Rishad Bathiudeen was settling alien Muslims in the Wilpattu National Park. They now sing a different song as it has now been proved that the declaration as a forest reserve was done when the Muslims were living as IDPs outside the Northern province. Now they say the declaration of forests should not be revoked as there is a small forest cover growth during their 25-year eviction of the Muslims by the LTTE. There are Sinhala settlers right inside the Wilpattu National Park who have been living there for hundreds of years and have legitimate rights to stay there. No one protests about them, and I too fully support their right to live there as they have claims to those lands. There are new settlements that have been established by Mahinda Rajapaksa, bringing his people from Hambantota and Suriyawewa. Thousands of acres of virgin forests were cleared for this alien settlement programmes and not a word has been spoken by the Environmentalists, Buddhists and the media.

These Muslims of the Northern Province were forced out from the entire province for being loyal to the concept of a united Sri Lankan nation. The price they have had to pay is heavy with over 25 years of their lives lived as Internally Displaced Persons, having to more or less beg for their survival, and a whole generation labelled as a displaced community. The Northern Muslims have always been a hard working lot, thriving in fisheries and agriculture. The multi pronged strategies adopted to prevent their return to their village and their former lands probably is also due to the economic threat they pose.

The Government of Mahinda Rajapaksa after winning the Eelam war and killing the top leaders of the LTTE had a golden opportunity to reconcile all communities in Sri Lanka. There was plenty of pressure from India and the International Community to settle the Tamil IDPs immediately after the war. Hats off to Basil Rajapaksa for undertaking this task in record time. 300,000 Tamil IDPs were resettled, but the Government failed to resettle a single person of the forgotten Muslim IDPs. Was this a deliberate act of racism or was it just an oversight, because the Muslims did not make a noise about it? The Muslim politicians were considered a commodity that can be bought over at a price and silenced. But now, the Muslims will not suffer injustice in silence any longer.

Minister Anura Priyadharshana Yapa, as Minister of Environment signed a gazette notification declaring certain areas in the Northern and North-Western Provinces as forest reserves. His coordinates done using GPS technology are flawed. One point is in Marricikatti, another one goes to the Anuradhapura district, while another goes in to the sea off Galle. This gazette notification was not presented to the Cabinet or Parliament. It surfaced only towards the end of 2014 when the Bodu Bala Sena produced it in Court claiming that the Muslim settlements are in a forest reserve. It is beyond any doubt that this has been done hurriedly to deprive land rights to the Northern Provincial Council just before the 2012 NPC Elections.

Map below shows GPS coordinate (Extraordinary Gazette: 1759/25 of 20.05.2012: Schedule-By West : From the last point mentioned above under southern boundary up to the straight line that join two points denotes by coordinates 113676E and 91414 N) falls in the sea, 25 Km away from Galle.

The Following maps show encroachment in to Wilpattu National Park by non Muslims.

Maps courtesy Dr. Nawfel Samad

No environmentalist is concerned about the destruction caused to this part of the Wilpattu Reserve. Their racism is directed only towards the Muslims in Musali South, which is over a kilometre from the Wilpattu border.

The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last month without a vote adopted the consensus resolution on Sri Lanka that proposes to grant two more years from 2017 to fulfill its commitment to reconciliation and transitional justice.

The Muslims in Sri Lanka have restrained themselves from publicising the discrimination of the Muslim community in the country on an international level. It is time that they exercised their right to justice by demanding their reasonable solution to their urgent problems.

Readers who enjoyed this article might find “Sirisena’s double standard: the heavy cost to Muslim IDPs” and “Muttur siege: Reflecting ten years on” enlightening.