By Azra Ameen
Several Muslim families who have faced prolonged displacement due to the country’s three-decade war, have been languishing in temporary shelters for years. Minister of Industry and Commerce, Rishad Bathiudeen, recently drew attention to the plight of these long-term IDPs, most of who are Muslims, from the North and East evicted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the late 80s and in 1990.
In an interview with Ceylon Today, Minister Bathiudeen, explains the current situation of Muslim IDPs and highlights the recent attacks on Muslims, which came in light of the Dambulla mosque controversy. The issue has caused much concern in the community.
Following are excerpts:
Q: What is the current status of the Muslim IDPs? There are allegations that the government has not paid enough attention to them?
A: The LTTE began its systematic ethnic cleansing of the North in 1985, by forcibly occupying Muslim properties. They ordered the Muslim population in Mannar to leave in October 1989, and a year later on 30 October, 1990, the LTTE evicted the entire Muslim population of about 75,000 from Jaffna, giving them only two hours to evacuate the peninsular. The forcibly evicted Muslims have been living with their relatives or in camps for the displaced, since 1990.
The UNHCR has termed those displaced prior to 2008, as ‘old IDPs’, including the large number of Northern Muslims, who were forcibly evicted from their homes by the LTTE. The distinguishing of ‘old IDPs’ and ‘new IDPs’, has led to the ‘old IDPs’ losing out on much of the humanitarian assistance currently provided for IDPs by various groups.
Since the end of the conflict, hundreds of Northern Muslims, who had been evicted over 20 years ago, and had been living as IDPs, started returning to their lands.
They have, however, met with a series of problems in trying to do so, and there have been little recognition of the issues involved in the resettlement process of these ‘old IDPs’.
The UNHCR is providing assistance only to ‘new IDPs’, whereas 90% of the Muslims do not fall into such a category. Even the NGOs are willing to provide assistance to those who are recognized by the UNHCR as ‘new IDPs’. None of the Muslim families receive the livelihood support, shelter and sanitary facilities. None of the Muslim schools have been reconstructed. Villages still look like jungles.
Even in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report suggestions have been provided to take policy decisions to resettle the Muslims in the North, but the government has not taken any initiative.
Q: Do you think the Minister of Resettlement or the government officials share the same sentiments as you?
A: It is three years since the present Resettlement Minister assumed duties, but it is a shame to say that he has not visited the areas of the North, which have to be resettled. The minister has to take up this resettlement issue seriously. After the war, no meetings on this issue have been held in those areas. Why is the government not paying any attention to this? It is only when you visit the areas that you really understand the sentiments and realize the pathetic state of the people who are suffering.
Q: So far, how many Muslims have actually been resettled?
A: From the beginning there were 35,000 families and 120,000 persons affected. Some 20,000 families, 84,000 persons have returned to their original lands. Around 15,000 families are yet to be resettled.
Q: Is the TNA lending its support to the resettling of these people?
A: They are just randomly proclaiming at meetings and in the media that they are supporting the resettlement, but up till now, nothing has been done. They are assuming that their part is over since most of the Tamils have been resettled. It is the Muslims who have not been resettled so far. So, they are not much interested in it. Through political propaganda, we can find out they are against the Muslims being resettled and living a peaceful life. It is the LTTE who chased them in the 1990s. They do not have feelings towards the Muslims.
Q: What is the issue between the Bishop of Mannar and you?
A: The Bishop of Mannar has blocked the Muslims from being resettled. He has also written to the President against the Muslims. It’s quite shocking to hear that he has asked the Catholics not to sell land to the Muslims during resettlement. I spoke about this in Parliament. I didn’t attack him personally. I don’t have anything against him. When I was the Minister of Resettlement, I resettled all the Tamils in the North. By the time I was to resettle the Muslims, there was a change in the Cabinet of Ministers. After that, no one took an initiative to resettle them. Therefore, when I was taking the initiative again, that’s when the Bishop obstructed me from resettling them. He spoke against me at meetings and in the media. I don’t have a grudge against him. My only expectation is to resettle my people. They are all my relatives. I was also an IDP. It is with their votes that I became a Minister.
Q: What is your party's position regarding the Eastern Provincial Council elections?
A: At the last election, we were with the government and we extended our maximum support. One person from our party will contest at the Eastern Provincial Council elections this time. The government still hasn't officially informed us about the elections. Only after the official announcement is made, will we decide if we are to forge an alliance with the government or not.
Q: People in the Eastern Province say they expect a Muslim candidate to become the Chief Minister this year. What is your view on this?
A: Yes, I seriously think that we should accept their request. It is only in the Eastern Province that a Muslim can become a Chief Minister, since the majority in those areas are Muslims. The last time, the government gave a chance to a Tamil, and we accepted it without any problem. So this time, the government has to give a chance to a Muslim candidate.
Q: What is your idea about the Northern Provincial Council Elections?
A: Still the resettlement in those areas is not over. The demining process is still not complete. How can they have elections with all these? A group of people in the North had appealed to the courts to refrain the government from having elections till the resettlement is over. So the court has given an order to expedite the process of clearing the mines and resettlement. The local government elections itself didn’t take place, so how can they have provincial council elections?
Q: During the last few months, mosques have encountered a serious problem. What is your view on that?
A: Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious country. Our Constitution states that all religions, no matter what, should be safeguarded. But now, the Muslims are facing problems. This has cropped up all of a sudden. It started in Dambulla and was followed by a series of events. We cannot allow this to happen. We need to put an end to it. Yes, I agree we are a minority, but that doesn’t mean that we have to undergo the brunt of everything that is taking place.
The continuous attacks made on the mosques and other Muslim religious institutions in the country is quite disrespectful, and has violated the rights of the Muslims in the country. These attacks are raised by anti-government conspirators, who are waiting to ruin the peace and harmony in the country. They are waiting to incite communal issues within the communities, which the government is failing to address. Many Middle Eastern countries have also condemned the attacks on the mosques.
Q: What was the outcome of the discussion with President Mahinda Rajapaksa on demolishing the Dambulla mosque?
A: At the Cabinet meeting I met the President and made a request to form an Inter-Ministerial Committee to solve the issues that are currently affecting the Muslim community in Sri Lanka, as no proper solution has been taken by the government, and the problem of demolishing the Dambulla and Dehiwala mosques are still pending. However, the President didn’t agree to form an Inter-Ministerial Committee, but instead agreed to form an All Party Committee to solve the repeated issues that are taking place against mosques.
Q: You are quoted in the media as saying that you will quit the government, if the mosque issue is not solved. How seriously are we to take that comment
A: It is not only due to the mosque issue. If the Muslims are not resettled with immediate effect, I will be compelled to quit from politics. I have decided, if these issues are not addressed accordingly, I will not contest in the next general elections. I will fight till the end to resettle my people, but there is no way I can do it if the government, international community or the NGOs are not coming forward and supporting us. I can’t be the single man doing it. They need to support me and together we have to get this done. This is what I have decided. We will see what happens. I still have no plans as to what I will be doing after that. The Muslims were chased out from their homelands during the war. If the President takes pride in saying that he won the war, he also has to take charge to resettle the people.
Seventy nine mosques in the North were demolished during the war. So many Muslims have lost their homes and are living in IDP camps and in temporary shelters in other areas. No one has taken the initiative to re-construct these mosques or houses which were demolished during the war.
Q: As the Minister of Industry and Commerce, what development activities have you accomplished in the LTTE liberated areas?
A: We are in the process of establishing industries which could in time provide job opportunities to the unemployed. We are coordinating with many foreign countries to export products based in the North and East. Our ministry, with the help of the private sector, has started establishing new industrial zones in Achchuveli, Mannar, Vavuniya and Batticaloa.