Statement by the Citizens’ Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims by the LTTE
The Citizens’ Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province by the LTTE recently completed its second field visit to the North. The Commission conducted sittings in Musali, Nannatan, Mannar and Mannar Town. The commission met with the Bishop of Mannar, the Army Commander of Thalladi, the DS of Musali, the DS of Mannar, and the trustees of the Mannar Grand Mosque. The commissioners traveled by the newly opened Mannar -Puttalam road to Musali.
According to its findings the Commission wishes to issue the following statement.
There has been a considerable amount of furore over the opening of the Mannar -Puttalam Road. The one issue that has not been raised in the discussion is the use of the road by the people living in the areas closest to the road. The issue is especially pertinent to the case of the Northern Muslims.
The Northern Muslims living in large numbers in Mannar and smaller population groups in the other five districts of the North were expelled by the LTTE in 1990. Close to a hundred thousand members of this community have been languishing in resettlement centers in Puttalam, with only the most minor improvements to their lives. In the aftermath of the end of the war there is great hope among the Northern Muslim community of possible return, rebuilding of their villages in Mannar and elsewhere and reestablishing the historical presence of Muslims in the North. The Commission has been repeatedly told of the importance of the road for the Muslims of Mannar and other Northern areas.
The largest concentration of expelled Muslims lived in the Musali DS division, immediately North of Wilpattu. The Mannar -Puttalam road—then a road with restricted access for private vehicles only-- was used by Musali and Mannar residents prior to its closure during the conflict. And its opening has greatly eased the burden of travel time between Mannar -Musali and Puttalam.
From virtually the first encounter that the commission had as it entered Musali from the Wilpattu national park, the road was a subject of discussion for the returning Northern Muslims. The Commission found that the spontaneous and largely unassisted return that was now occurring owes much to the presence of the road. Prior to the opening of the road the journey from Puttalam to Musali required 185 kilometers of travel. After the opening of the road, the distance is only 100 kilometers. (The longer route to Mannar is 210km and to Marichchakada -Musali is 235km whereas the shorter route has shrunk the distance to 143km and 77km respectively.) The residents of Musali immediately North of the Wilpattu National park especially need the road since they will otherwise have to first travel north to Medawachchiya and then travel back south to their areas.
During the commission hearings, Northern Muslims repeatedly stated that the road was crucial for their return process. The Commission found that the road was especially important at this very early stage of resettlement where Northern Muslims were foraying into their native places while being compelled to maintain a tenuous link with Puttalam. The Commission found that the Northern Muslim attempts at resettlement were happening with the most minimal assistance and support of the state and in areas where housing and basic infrastructure facilities were lacking. The Northern Muslims, therefore are unable to bring their families—wives and young children—with them at present. Most of the villages have been completely decimated. There are no houses left. The areas are elephant and snake infested, there are limited schools with no proper facilities and health services. The Commission found that most live in temporary shelters and in public buildings. It was clear to the Commission that the easing of travel time had a fundamental impact on the quality of these people’s lives and on assisting to build up the Muslim community in the North.
However, the Commission recognizes the importance of environmental conservation and the threat posed by the precedence that such a government take over of reservation land could mean for the future of wildlife and general environmental protection in the country. It recognizes that the Wilpattu national park is a valued resource in this country and should therefore be protected.
The Commission is also troubled by the presence of an additional coast road and the rumours of a state plan to establish a tourist resort along the protected coastline from Kalpitiya to Silawaturai.
While the Commission is sympathetic to concerns of environmental conservation the Commission recommends an alternative to the complete closure of the road. While conservation of the country’s protected areas is important, the poorest and most marginalized of local populations’ concerns should also be taken into account and accommodated when possible. The Commission recommends that the road remain open and access be granted by special permission to residents of the adjacent areas, and that the usage be limited to a certain time of the day only.
Specific groups should be given access on a limited basis based on their residence and be charged a fee for the use of the road. Park authorities should administer access and no heavy vehicles that could damage the environment and threaten the flora and fauna of the area should be permitted to use the road.
In this regard the commission welcomes the recent intervention by the Northern Muslim community in relation to the case brought by a group of organizations calling for the closure of the road. The Commission has found that the Northern Muslims who were evicted have undergone a tremendous amount of pain in being displaced, and living in Puttalam for almost two decades. At this juncture where they are resettling in their native places, it is only reasonable that they are assisted by making the journey less circuitous. Further on principle, while environmental conservation is important, steps that are taken should not unduly burden those already marginalized by historical injustices.