The recent attack on the Mannar Court House, contemptible as it is and fully deserving condemnation, underscores a deeper reality – that of the internally displaced Muslims, whose plight the government and the relevant bodies seem all too happy to shove under the proverbial carpet.
The Mannar attack comes in the backdrop of Muslim fishermen evicted from Uppukulam by the LTTE, trying to reclaim their lands, now occupied by Tamil fishermen. The mounting angst of a community who lost both their lands and their livelihoods and received no redress even three years after the war ended, saw a group of fishermen forcibly take possession of their fishing grounds on 13 July, which eventually led to the Mannar Magistrate’s order and the resultant melee.
While violence in any form, no matter how justified the cause, can never be condoned, the grievances of the Uppukulam fishermen find ready resonance among thousands of Muslim IDPs in the North and the East, many of who took to the streets on Friday, bringing into focus the increasingly myopic manner in which the government is addressing the issue, seemingly deep sixing the return and resettlement needs of the Muslims to focus only on those displaced during the final phase of the war.
There is no refuting the fact that a larger number were displaced in the North and forced into makeshift camps during the last few days of the war. There is also no refuting that the high numbers could not be detained in overcrowded conditions for long, not under the critical watch of the global community. But, neither the numbers nor the fact that displaced were detained in camps justify the haphazard resettlement programme based on what is increasingly appearing to be a ‘show the world’ gesture, aimed at portraying ‘government benevolence.’
We don’t intend debating state compassion towards the masses. But, what has become increasingly evident is that in pursuit of displaying a honky dory post-war scenario, the government has embarked on a rather ad hoc and skewed resettlement programme that has more or less discounted the needs of those displaced more than a quarter century ago, ergo the Muslims from the North and East.
In fact, the Minister of Resettlement is on record saying the government is currently not concerning itself with the Muslim IDPs, but that its attention is focused on the Menik Farm, as the IDPs are living in camps, not in houses.
Where a displaced person lives does not change the fact that he/she has been displaced. According to the UN Refugee Agency, the status of the IDPs are not measured by whether they live in camps or houses, but by the fact that they have been forced to flee from their home or place of habitual residence due to conflict, natural or man-made disasters. And since they have not crossed borders and since they are citizens of Sri Lanka, the primary responsibility for their protection and assistance lies with the government. This means the needs of the Muslim IDPs are as important as those of the Tamil IDPs, perhaps more so, as they’ve been refugees for longer.
Several thousand of Muslims chased out of the North and East in the mid 80s and early 90s, including the Uppukulam fishermen, have been living with relatives and friends, in rented houses and in wooden shacks since their eviction, hopeful that one day they would be able to return to their ancestral lands and reclaim their lives and livelihoods.
It is understandable that three years after the war ended, these displaced would be outraged at the manner in which their predicament is being treated as inconsequential and their demands dismissed out of hand, simply because their desperation does not fit in with what the government deems as ‘desperate.’
There is no disputing that IDPs, no matter when they were displaced need to be resettled or helped to return to their homes, and given the necessary assistance to re-build their lives. But this is not something that can be done in an ad hoc manner. What’s needed is a proper commission to address the issues of IDPs as a whole and formulate a mechanism whereby the losses are assessed and compensated, needs identified and the displaced are either allowed to return to their old lands or resettled elsewhere.
There will only be resentment, if resettling is done in a manner that favours some and neglects the others. And we’ve already seen in Mannar what can happen when simmering resentments burst into flame.