by Secretariat for Muslims
The Secretariat for Muslims is deeply concerned by the recent problems in Mannar including acts of violence, allegations of intimidation, and the manner in which the underlying issues are being addressed.
The Secretariat for Muslims (SFM) affirms the need to respect the independence of the judiciary and the integrity of our courts of law.
Given the challenges to the rule of law in the country in recent years it is imperative that we uphold the independence of the judicial system and object to its politicization and to political interference in its function.
There are serious charges leveled against a cabinet minister in relation to the recent problems in Mannar. However, the Minister has denied these allegations. As such, we welcome the investigations into the allegations and call for a process that will be free of interference and provide for a fair hearing for all concerned.
SFM wishes to draw attention to the underlying conflict in Mannar that needs to be addressed separately from the above allegations and investigations. The principal issues at stake are the return and resettlement of the displaced and the restoration of coexistence between the communities of the area after over three decades of conflict. Specifically it is essential to take measures to ensure the sustainable return of Northern Muslims, while ensuring the rights and needs of other war-affected communities are respected and addressed.
The dispute between the fishermen of Uppukulam and Vidathaltheevu over fishing rights in the Kondapitty harbour is only one instance of the multiple disputes that are taking place in areas where Northern Muslims are attempting return, reclaim their land and rebuild their lives. SFM believes that the grievances of the returning Muslim fishermen are legitimate and need to be addressed.
However, we condemn the use of violence to address these grievances. At the same time we are deeply concerned by the actions of individual state officials in dealing with the demonstration, including allegations that live ammunition was called for.
Like this dispute, there are others relating to land and fishing rights in Mannar and other parts of the North. Another recent example is the land dispute in Sannar in the Manthai West DS division. Over twenty years have passed since the expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province by an act of ethnic cleansing by the LTTE. The Muslims are returning to a place that has experienced a debilitating conflict and significant demographic changes.
The neighbours and neighbourhoods that Muslims left behind have significantly changed and the good relations that existed prior to the expulsion are in a number of instances strained. Additionally today, due to natural increase, there are many more Northern Muslims wanting to return and finding land for them all to settle is also an issue.
The return of Northern Muslims in such large numbers after a lapse of twenty years is perceived as a threat by some sections of the Tamil community. Inevitably the return will affect the social arrangements, the demography and the economies of the north. There will be difficulties, initially at least, and conflicts over scarce resources that must be addressed and overcome.
SFM reiterates that both communities, Tamil and Muslim have the right to assisted return and it is the duty of the state, and the leadership of both communities to ensure that resettlement of all communities is done in a manner that ensures sustainable return, and coexistence in the long term.
Reducing the difficult problems around resettlement to a competition between two ethnic communities at this historical juncture would be a tragic mistake.
For sustainable return and coexistence to become a reality it is necessary that the Northern Muslims and the community’s leadership recognise the fact that twenty years have passed since their expulsion and ground realities in the north have changed. Therefore, sensitivity to the lapse of time and the changes that have occurred and the suffering of the Tamil people of the areas is necessary. At the same time, the Tamil community leadership must recognise that Muslims who were expelled and who want to return must be assisted to do so.
If not the LTTE’s act of ethnic cleansing will become institutionalised by default. They must also recognize that Muslims who were driven out of their homes and livelihoods will inevitably return and will attempt to regain their lands and livelihoods.
Therefore, lands that have been encroached upon and fishing grounds that have been taken over should be returned to the Northern Muslims. Those that are affected by such property restitution should also be looked after and solutions found for them.
The situation on the ground is also complicated by the actions of Government, political and other actors who during the conflict were involved in the re-distribution of land and other resources.
Northern Muslims also have, over the years sold or leased out properties, either officially or unofficially, to Tamils. There needs to be more efforts towards mediating such disputes by the civil administration in cooperation with politicians, district-level civil society actors, and community leaders.
It seems as if such measures were indeed undertaken by the authorities in the Kondapitty incident, but that lack of effective and timely implementation of decisions had resulted in the escalation of the situation. Key political representatives and the civil society leaders in Mannar have also been found wanting in mediating disputes and in ameliorating tensions.
The protracted conflict has polarised communities and hardened ethnic sentiments all over the country. This seems especially so in the war devastated north. In such a context Northern Muslims perceive and have also experienced discrimination at the official level and many have concerns regarding the politicisation and the ethnicisation of the state structures including the district level administration and the judiciary, which need to be taken note of and addressed by the State.
It is also time that theTamil political and civil society leaders take Northern Muslims’ concerns seriously and undertake measures to address this perception of discrimination, including through endorsing the right of return.
On the part of the Tamil community there are counter perceptions that the Government administration has been politicized and ethnicised with specific measures being taken to assist Northern Muslims alone.
Equitable assistance for all war-affected communities is critical in the post-war context. There has to be an effort to review and improve the resource allocation for all communities.
It is imperative that all concerned actors work to minimize the ethnicisation of difficult resettlement issues. While there is rhetoric of reconciliation, substantive measures, including those listed above, need to be taken by the State, political and civil society actors to ensure that communities can rebuild their lives and the opportunities for coexistence and a lasting peace can be consolidated.
(Text of statement issued by Secretariat for Muslims on August 2nd 2012)