‘I am above communal considerations’
Select extracts from the Hansard of Minister Rishad Bathiudeen's speech in Parliament on August 8, 2012
“Sir, my electorate and I have been making media headlines in the past few weeks and I would like to make use of this opportunity to set out the real facts with regard to the events that took place in Mannar.
“I am a Member of Parliament elected by the people of Mannar. My electorate is made up of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. It has been my honour to represent them and to represent their heartburn and anguish.
“I make this statement with responsibility and with a sense of duty. I say this because the people of this country must know and they have the right to know the true facts, about the real victims and the real culprits of what happened and what is happening in Mannar. That alone can ensure that the Rule of Law prevails and that justice is done in this country.
“That is being described as a clash between the Muslims and the Tamil Catholics, but that is only what we see on the surface. Underneath the surface, there is a bigger battle, a bigger struggle between two forces, to which I will refer later on.
“Before I was appointed the Minister of Industry and Commerce by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, I held the portfolio of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services. The Tamils of the Northern Province would recall how I, as the Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, spearheaded the government’s programme to resettle the displaced Tamil people in the Northern and the Eastern Provinces with great vigour and enthusiasm under the guidance of Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa.
“However, I had to carry out the task of resettlement under a highly risky condition. I should also mention that on my request as a Member of Parliament and the chairman of the District Coordinating Committee of the Mannar District, the Ministry of Economic Development, under the guidance of President and Basil Rajapaksa, reconstructed the Madhu Church damaged during the terror campaign by the LTTE to the pleasure of the clergy. On a similar request made by me, the Thiruketheeswaram Hindu Kovil reconstruction had to be carried out to the chagrin of a section of the very clergy. I am mentioning this to show that I have always acted far above ethnic or communal considerations. Nearly 500,000 Tamils were resettled in the North and the East when I was the Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services, even while the displaced Muslims from the North remained in refugee camps.
“Sir, in 1990, long before the words ‘ethnic cleansing’ were used or known in Sarejevo, in our own little island, the LTTE cleansed the North of the Muslims.
“Thus, the Muslims of Mannar, including the fishermen of Uppukulam, were forced to leave their homes. Mannar is not a recent Muslim resettlement. It is one of the earliest Muslim settlements in Sri Lanka. The fisherfolk in Mannar are successors to these early settlers. However, to the LTTE’s genocidal and narrow view, all that meant nothing; the ‘traditional homelands’and the birthplace of others did not matter. What mattered to them was the ethnically cleansed ‘Tamil Eelam.’ It was an LTTE dream. But, it was our nightmare and more so, for a majority of the Tamil people.
“For 22 years, these Muslims have lived as refugees since they were evicted from their lands. There are those who are obstructing their return and resettlement. They are giving effect to the LTTE decree that Mannar should be without Muslims. I do not think that any Member of this honourable House will accept that. I certainly will not.
“So, this is not about Tamils, Catholics or Muslims, about those who want to live in peace in a united Sri Lanka and those who want to divide it. Therefore, every peace-loving citizen, whether Sinhalese, Tamil or Muslim, Buddhist, Catholic, Christian or Hindu, who believes in a united Sri Lanka must and will support the cause of the Muslim fishermen of Uppukulam who want nothing, but to earn their living through honest means and to live in peace.
“But, for 22 years, the Muslim fishermen of Uppukulam in the Mannar District have been deprived of their lands and fishing rights. Twenty two years is too long. It is not something that can sit quietly in our conscience. It troubles me and it will trouble all of you that for 22 years, people lived as Internally Displaced People and even after the return of peace, they still remain as IDPs.
“Sir, in 2002, a small group of Muslims returned to Mannar, to their fishing hamlet in Uppukulam in Konthaipiddy hoping to regain their livelihood in their birthplace. However, any hope of resettlement was dashed when the LTTE intervened through its local warlord, Amudan, a sea tiger, and forcefully settled a group of Tamil Catholic fishermen from Vidataltivu in Uppukulam. It was a continuation of the LTTE strategy to keep Mannar for the LTTE and its henchmen.
“However, when this forceful settlement occurred, the Muslims managed to obtain a written undertaking that the fishermen of Vidataltivu would return to their lands once normalcy returned. So, even when they came to settle in Konthampiti, both sides understood it to be a temporary arrangement. However, three years have gone since the end of the war in May, 2009. It is three years since the country returned to normalcy and yet the fishermen of Uppukulam have not been given back their lands that the LTTE took away forcefully. For three years, since May, 2009, the Vidataltivu fishermen, on the orders of the LTTE remnants, have been preventing the Muslims from regaining their traditional fishing Vadiya and the pier.
“The Muslim fishermen of Uppukulam were promised in writing by the Vidataltivu fishermen in 2002, that on any occasion they would leave Uppukulam.
“But, the Vidataltivu fishermen would not leave Uppukulam. The decree of the LTTE remnants continues to have force in Mannar as that of the LTTE. Who is controlling them and giving them orders? These are the questions for which weneed answers.
“So, what did the fisherfolk of Uppukulam do? Did they resort to force and violence? Despite all the sufferings, the Muslims of Mannar, like Muslims all over Sri Lanka and all peace-loving communities living in thisIsland, have tried to resolve their differences through non-violent means. The Uppukulam fishermen maderepresentations to all authorities concerned to resettle the Vidataltivu fishsrmen in their native place in Vidataltivu or to find them an alternative location. Theyhad made representations to me and also to other Members of the Vanni District. After three years they saw no success. How long more should the Muslim fishermen of Uppukulam wait to retrieve their own land? How long more should they wait to restart their shattered lives?
“Sir, it was in this backdrop,that meetings were held by the authorities in Mannar on June 7, June 11, and on June 26, 2012. The Vidataltivu fishermen were offered alternate locations and were requested to shift and even after promising to do so, they did not shift. What is noteworthy is that almost half of the original group of Vidataltivu fishermen have returned to their original places in Vidataltivu. So, why is the balance group remaining? Is it because they want to cause problems or is it that someone else is using them for causing problems? Just as much as the fishermen of Uppukulamare victims, so are the fishermen of Vidataltivu. They are being used, to this day, as pawns in a game waged by powerful forces pushing the LTTE agenda.
“It was in this background that on July 13, 2012, two Muslim fishermen had reportedly informed the Vidataltivu fishermen not to go out for fishing that day as some Muslim fishermen wanted to come to the Vadiya to talk to them. This request, I learnt subsequently, had been ignored by the Vidataltivu fishermen, which had allegedly provoked about a dozen of Muslim fishermen to take back possession of the Vadiya, in the course of which some cadjan huts in the Vadiya had been damaged.
“Although the Police complaint states that there is aclaim that around Rs.1.4 million worth of fishing equipment was damaged, according to the Government Agent, the Divisional Secretary, the District Fisheries Director and the Police, no damage had been caused toany of the fishing equipment, gear or boats lying at the shore. However, this isolated incident was used to exaggerate incidents internationally.
“Furthermore, statements of 17 Vidataltivu fishermen had been recorded naming a number of Muslims of the area, who had nothing to do with the incident, as having participated in it and thereby angering the entire Muslim community in Mannar.
“Furthermore, the Muslims in Mannar believe that the damage caused to the Vadiya was partly by a Vidataltivu group led by one person called Ronald Reagan. I am told that this man Ronald Regan, who is also a fisherman, is at the bottom of the problem, prevailing on other Vidataltivu fishermen not to move out. Who is advising him? Who is directing them not to move out? These are the questions that need answers and the Muslims of Mannar are demanding a Commission of Inquiry President Mahinda Rajapaksa to find answers to these questions. Muslims have reasons to believe that some Tamil religious leaders of the North with close connections to the war-time LTTE are inciting the Vidataltivu fishermen not to move out.
“However, let me also say that the unfortunate incidents in Mannar could have been avoided if the relevant authorities had paid due consideration to complaints of the people of Mannar.
“Let there not be the slightest doubt that I have the utmost respect for the Judiciary. The judges of our country are well-known and respected for their integrity, dedication and ability.
“I am tabling* copies of the letters sent by the Mosque authorities to the Secretary ofthe JSC.
There are six letters sent by the mosque authorities from those areas.
“Mr. Presiding, Members, I regret to note that to date,the Mosque authorities have not received from the Secretary even an acknowledgement to these letters. Of course, it is the Secretary who should have acknowledged these letters and placed them before the JSC headed by Her Ladyship the Chief Justice of our country.
“As to what decisions are taken on these representations are matters entirely for the Hon. Members of the JSC, if the Secretary of the JSC had placed them before the Commission. But, some response to those who made the representations in the broader interest of justice and fair play may have helped calm the agitated sections of the public. Justice, we have been told must not only be done but also must appear to be done.
“The Chief Justice who is the Chairperson of the JSC is known for maintaining high standards and she, as the first lady Chief Justice, took office at a difficult time when people were losing faith in the judicial system.
“She has done much to rebuild the confidence.
“Therefore, I feel that if these complaints which were addressed to the Secretary of the Commission were brought to the attention of the Chief Justice and the other judges who are Members of the Commission, they would have taken prompt action. I remain confident of the judiciary in Sri Lanka”.