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The Forgotten People of Puttalam

2013 Jul 02

By Nadine Mariah and Megara Tegal
School children studying under trees due to lack of class rooms

As the population of Muslim IDPs in Puttalam expands, the community is finding it harder to cope in increasingly afflictive surroundings. The question of resettlement remains pronounced as the burgeoning population of 250,000 – according to Colombo-based NGO Law and Society Trust – desperately scrape for resources. Over the last 25 years, the IDPs have made Puttalam their home despite the appalling infrastructure provided by the government.

As the resettlement of the Muslim IDPs is prolonged, the government has made several empty promises to pacify the cries of those who feel a lack of belonging and citizenship to their country of birth. One of the government ‘rehabilitation aids’ projects in Puttalam came in the form of a school, which materialized as a small block, hardly fit for an institute of education. Apart from inconsistent electricity and clean running water, the classrooms are cramped, and the staff, quite simply inadequate in numbers. It is ill-equipped to accommodate the 1400 students eager to learn. Lack of space means some of the classes are conducted outdoors; often under the shade of a tree. A teacher told us, “We are grateful for what they have given us, and we thank them”.

Lack of educational facilities

With the lack of electricity and proper supplies, the school will not be able to teach IT literacy for instance, which would enable students to compete in globalized job market; and it is exactly what young Riza requires if he is to achieve his ambition of becoming a web-designer. Riza is a daring dreamer; unlike his fellow classmates he tells me he is already involved in various freelance projects. He is told to pipe down and the other students are asked to share their ambitions; all of whom say they want to become accountants. A common denominator between Riza and his classmates is that they all desperately seek solace from the poverty their surroundings impose on them.

When asked if the school is sufficient, the students smile and respond that they are happy, although it becomes apparent that they have not left Puttalam, and therefore know no better. The school is far-flung from an ideal.  One of the teachers takes us into a library, easily the size of three or four small cupboards. Many goodwill donors have donated books. The students are mostly children of Muslim families evicted from Mannar, Mullaitivu and Jaffna.

Hardships for the students enrolled at the school, are no different to those they face at home; the lack of resources across all aspects of their lives is evident. A sizeable majority of the population are unemployed. Many of the IDPs expressed that they would not relocate if offered land by the government, unless the infrastructure of the area is to a practical standard.
“We can go back, but the bigger problem is infrastructure”, elaborates *Mohammed Imtias [Imtias], who was displaced from his home in Mannar by the LTTE in 1990.

“It’s not enough just to give us a plot of land and an empty building called a school, we need to be relocated somewhere in which we’d have basic facilities, and have better access to hospitals, post offices, jobs, shops and so on. An empty building will not suffice for a school, we need teachers and resources. For years the Tamil IDPs in the north have enjoyed everything— from employment opportunities to aid from NGO’s. Muslim people are deprived and ignored even by the international community. For most, ‘IDPs’ means ‘Tamil’, but Muslims were the first victims of displacement in Sri Lanka. We forcefully evicted from our own land.”

Threat of civil conflict

Imtias’s statement reflects an ethnic conflict between the Muslims and Tamils. Speaking to Dr. Farzana Haniffa, the manager of The Citizen’s Commission—which has conducted invaluable research on Muslim IDPs— and a sociology lecturer at the University of Colombo, The Sunday Leader learnt that the scarcity of resource is pitting the IDPs of both communities against each other. “The government must step in and mitigate the problem, before it develops. Just last year there was tension between the two IDP communities as they fought over the rights to fish on a particular beach”, she stated, reiterating that it was imperative that the government regulates resources, especially where IDP’s are concerned.

*Nafiz, a resident IDP, claimed that Tamil authorities in the north were against the Muslim community. He accused the Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen, who was heavily involved in rehabilitation of the Muslim IDPs, of perfunctory efforts. He noted however, that the Minister was also constrained by Tamil national parties who have been known to accuse Bathiudeen of relocating Muslims’s from other provinces to the North; this then fuelling Muslim IDP’s to also challenge his hand on the situation.

“He [Bathiudeen] has been approach time and time again but he has not raised a finger to help us. He has faced problems from Tamil national parties; who are accusing him of resettling Muslims from other districts, in Mannar. In our old village there were only 185 families, now land is needed for over 550 families. Tamils want to claim the North as their own, claiming Muslims are not original inhabitants from the Northern and Eastern provinces.”
Minister Bathiudeen was unavailable to respond to this comment.

Military eviction

Internally displaced Muslims’s from Mannar have also accused the Sri Lankan military forces of further taking over their land to make way for military bases, having already fallen victim to the LTTE’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ of 1990. Amir originally from Mannar arrived to Puttalam on the 7th month of 1990; now married, he shoulders a family of four children in a half built family home. He describes how his family was displaced by the LTTE, and then how the dislocation was furthered by the Sri Lankan military forces.

“My family and other Muslim families faced horrible discrimination by the LTTE when we were forced out of the land we had held for generations, grown up in, and even made our livelihoods farming in. They claimed the land did not belong to us, and therefore that we did not belong in it. Then when the LTTE was defeated the Army then continued to inhabit our lands, although we were promised relocation. The land my family has here is what we bought ourselves, no loans were given, no compensation was indicated, and we have also lost our farming livelihoods.”

Military spokesperson Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya insisted that whilst the military had come to occupy former LTTE territories in the North, they had only done so because the LTTE has had initially occupied places of military significance in the North to conduct maritime activity. This was indicative of how essential those areas were in conducting Military operations.
“The LTTE chose strategic places to conveniently carry out maritime activities; even Mullikulum was one such place. If the Mahavamsa is to be believed do you think Vijaya landed through Mullikulum by chance? It is a strategically convenient, and geographically positioned for naval access, and essential to ensure national security.

We will not compromise this at any cost.”

He added that not all military bases in the North were permanent, “Some military camps are temporary, and they exist only until suitable accommodation at a location is properly constructed. People assume every camp is permanent; it is most certainly not. For instance the camps in Kilinochchi were temporary, Mullankavil is an identified area and the small satellite camps will be moved there once construction is over. We are a nation that has suffered from 30 years of war, and we are not going to suffer a similar fate in future. To ensure this, we have identified places of strategic significance and it is only in these places, that the camps are permanent.”

He then explained to The Sunday Leader that it was in fact not the military who were responsible for the displacement of these people, rather the authorities operating above the military responsible for land reallocation.

“Let me be balanced on this, I feel that these people should be given land somewhere, but it cannot be done by the Army or the Navy because the Military has no authority over land, rather the Ministry of Land perhaps. Ours is a military perspective, and the military perspective is national security, at all costs.”

The land acquisition Act of 1950 states that any land can be acquired by the government, even if it is help privately, if it is identified as suitable for public service. However these ‘public services’ are yet to be explicitly laid out, and so the terms for the acquiring property remain vague, leaving all parties involved, freedom to argue over the ultimate ownership of the land.

Rising population of the marginalized

Whilst the LTTE have been adamant to claim and segregate the North for them, the government claim the original inhabitants had no ownership to the land and were rather, benefactors of a state provided temporary land permit. The displaced Muslims in Puttalam however, believe the land is rightfully theirs, and feel that both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government are responsible for they have deemed as a ‘horribly unlawful eviction’

“We have been mistreated by both the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government. The military now occupy over half of our villages, forcibly taken from us by both parties in turns over history. We attempted a protest and built huts on the streets but the military tore them down. Alternative lands in the coastal regions were promised, so that we could also continue farming, but we are yet to receive anything” Hanifar, another refugee told The Sunday Leader.

“Regardless of when, precisely, Sri Lanka’s protracted conflict began, this conflict is most often cast as one between the majority Sinhalese and the minority Tamils. In this bipolar understanding of the conflict, the Muslim community seems to have no place, even though Muslims constitute close to 40 percent of the population in the conflict affected Eastern Province and have been expelled from the Northern province,” wrote Farzana Haniffa

Hanifar, like his friends and neighbours, has a family of six, including his wife. He told us that many of the Muslim families were of significant size, families with at least four children. It is clear that as the government procrastinates with appropriately resettling the displaced, that they are also facing the constant rise of the Sri Lankan Muslim population. This begs the question as to whether the Island can accommodate the growing number of IDP families and make one thing for certain, the longer the authorities put it off, the bigger, poorer and more displaced these families are going to get.
* Names changed to protect the identity of those interviewed

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