Pottuvil: Simmering pot of ethnic tension
By Wilson Gnanadass in Pottuvil
At a time when media attention and peace keeping efforts are understandably focused on Sri Lanka to bring an end to the ongoing ethnic conflict, a dangerous mix of developments is taking place in Pottuvil, in the south eastern part of the island.
Armed conflicts plague the northern part of Sri Lanka while a disintegrating economy along with human rights violations and even threats to freedom of expression are driving the south deeper into mayhem.
However, in Pottuvil, although life has returned to normal after the clash between the Karuna group and the Pradeshiya Sabha took place last month, beneath the surface tension lingers between different communities.
A deeper assessment into the life of all three communities shows that although there is a thirst for ethnic co-existence, there is a barrier separating them.
Still, Pottuville no doubt is a bustling town and Arugam Bay is certainly safer than Colombo, stated one hotel manager.
Division between Tamils and Muslims
From time immemorial, Tamils and Muslims have been living as members of one family in Pottuvil, a predominantly Muslim region. A record number of intermarriages have been reported from these areas. The dialects of the communities are mixed.
In between two major Muslim towns there are several Tamil villages, and Tamils and Muslims have mingled with each other for business, education and various other reasons.
However, today that relationship is strained. For the first time in the history, the Tamils celebrated their New Year festival without inviting the Muslims. Tamils working in Muslim shops were told to leave their jobs or else face the consequences.
The forced separation has disturbed and hurt both Tamils and Muslims. Muslims blamed the Karuna faction for the latest development, while Karunaâ€™s men blamed the Muslim politicians.
Both communities traded charges at each other without realising they were bringing about the separation of the century-old cherished bond.
Wittingly or unwittingly, the April 9 incident over a Pradeshiya Sabha (PS) building has dampened the relationship between the communities.
While the Karuna faction attempted to acquire the building by force, the Muslim dominated PS managed to retain the ownership of the building legally. The PS is dominated by Muslims. Tamils in the region are represented by only one member. To Karunaâ€™s men, this is a big hitch.
According to them, the Tamils are underrepresented and they claimed to be the sole representatives of the Tamils, a claim rejected by the Tamils.
However, Karunaâ€™s men pointed out that the Tamils were given step-motherly treatment by the majority Muslims, and added they were present to give the Tamils leadership. They also expressed anger at the Muslim politicians.
Karunaâ€™s men stated that all leading jobs in the town were given to the Muslims and the Tamils were being trampled, and vowed to correct this error.
Since the defection of Karuna from the LTTE in 2004, the correlation of the Tamils and Muslims has become estranged.
The Karuna faction established political quarters almost in every town in the east and in Pottuvil too an office was set up. The office according to eye witnesses has served as a â€˜Kangaroo Courtâ€™ to deal with issues pertaining to the day to day life of Tamils and Muslims.
In one instance, a 24-year-old man was beaten for three hours by three men of Karunaâ€™s group over a personal problem he had had with his wife.
On another occasion, a female who was employed in a Muslim shop under a Muslim for the past 10 years was asked to immediately step down with no reasons given.
Besides, the Muslims have also been issued summons by Karunaâ€™s men and have been questioned for hours. This has annoyed a majority of the Muslims since the Karuna group has even got involved in personal affairs of the people.
Senior Muslim citizens and even members of the clergy perceive these events initiated by Karuna group as a deliberate attempt to bring about a division between these two ethnic groups.
Shadow member of Pottuvil PS, A.M. Mohamed Thajudeen is of the view that the actions of Karunaâ€™s men are provocative and might at some point provoke the Muslim youth also to take up arms.
He said after the April 9 incident, the relationship between the two groups has been strained but added efforts were being made to rebuild the relationship.
He is of the view that this is a byproduct of government strategy since Karunaâ€™s group is allegedly supported by the state. â€œThe government should not ignore our appeals. We have lodged entries with the police against these men, but to no avail,â€ he said.
He said Karunaâ€™s men were not only getting involved in the PS matters but also into the personal affairs of the Muslims. â€œWhy are they getting involved in this fashion?â€ he questioned.
Muslims fear that they could be driven out of the east in a manner similar to how the Muslims in the north were chased out of their traditional habitat by the LTTE in 1990.
The Muslims have been confronted with an array of issues which they view as calculated efforts by the government to suppress them.
In Palayadivettai, Kirankovai, Muslims have been cultivating in nearly 502 acres of land for several years.
As cultivation began and business grew, the war broke out, forcing them out of this area. Several attempts to obtain permits from the divisional secretary to continue cultivation also failed due to the ongoing conflict.
During the period when Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe became prime minister and the Ceasefire Agreement was signed with the LTTE, the Muslim cultivators had returned to Palayadivettai to continue cultivation.
The District Coordinating Committee (DCC) that met in Ampara during this time has also decided to grant permits to the cultivators.
While the Muslims have been involved in cultivation since the, the present government decided to bring a halt to it.
The Wildlife Department that met on April 27 in Lahugala has decided to convert this piece of land that has been used for human cultivation into a land to grow vegetation for elephants.
This would bring an end to the cultivation being done by over 250 Muslim farmers who have been cultivating on this particular land and earning a living for the past 25 years.
In another instance, the Lahugala Pradeshiya Sabha chairman in a recent letter to the government has expressed his desire to incorporate three grama sevaka divisions of Pottuvil into the Lahugala Divisional Secretariat Division.
Muslims claim that the land coming under the three grama sevaka divisions have been used for cultivation by them for the past several years on an annual permit basis. They believe this is part of a programme by the government to expand the Shastrawela Temple in Panama.
Their woes do not end at that. In another instance, the Muslims have also faced harassment in Pasaradichenai.
Pasaradichenai is a 10-acre Muslim burial ground. However, settlers from the south have encroached on this land over the years. A survey has revealed that the Muslims have lost nearly three acres of land.
When a complaint was lodged with the police and relevant government authority, the cemetery had been divided among the communities proportionately. In this instance too the Muslims had to lose a couple of acres from their original burial ground.
Munai in Arugambay is a cultivation plot, where around 20 Muslim farmers owned lands and engaged in farming.
According to Yasimbawa Adam Bawa (51), he owned two acres of land in Munai but during the time when the LTTE drove Muslims out of the north in 1990, the Muslims in this area had also been chased out by the LTTE.
However after 1994, when the situation calmed down, he along with other Muslim cultivators had returned to their land. But to their dismay they had not been allowed to carry out cultivation by the Tamil and Sinhala settlers.
Bawa was also in possession of the government permit given to him by the district secretary but he said today he and other farmers were not allowed to engage in any farming in their own land.
Lack of confidence
If the 1990 mass exodus of Muslims from the north forced them to lose confidence in the LTTE, the massacre of 10 Muslims at Irathalvettu, Pottuvil on September 17, 2006 led to their losing confidence in the government too. The presence of Karuna group compounds this.
The Muslims in Pottuvil do not wish to accept that the massacre of the 10 Muslims was carried out by the LTTE.
According to Pottuvil Pradeshiya Sabha Vice Chairman M.B. Abdul Majeed, it is almost one year since this incident took place but the government is yet to complete its investigation. He added the manner in which one of the survivors, Meera Mohideen was being protected by the state casts suspicion on the government.
â€œIn between two predominant Muslim towns â€“ Pottuvil and Akkaraipattu â€“ there are several small Tamil villages. The Muslims keep shuttling between these two towns daily. If the LTTE wanted to kills us, they could have planted a claymore mine or set up a bomb in one of the busses plying in between these two towns,â€ he said.
â€œThe location where these 10 Muslims were brutally assassinated was surrounded by the Lahugala STF Camp, Sengamam STF Camp, Third Mile Police Post, Pottuvil Police Station, Arugam Bay STF Camp and Shastrawela STF Camp. How can one expect the LTTE to penetrate into this highly fortified area and commit such a heinous crime in broad daylight? This is questionable,â€ he added.
Be that as it may, the Sinhalese who have been deeply rooted in these areas for several decades also lead a life of poverty and distress.
For the grief-stricken fisher folk, life there is a constant battle. Some of them have gone there from the deep south to continue the legacy left behind by their fathers and forefathers, while for others it is a fresh start.
For a few others, their presence was not due to own choice but since they followed false promises by southern politicians. â€œOnly now we know we have been cheated,â€ they said.
D.V. Padmasiri arrived in Pottuvil 25 years ago. He is a father of three. He was forced to follow his parents from the south. His parents were engaged in fishing.
Life for Padmasiri is difficult. He talks of discrimination and not being able to gain what the Muslims gain. â€œThis is a worry for all of us,â€ he said.
He said life there, however, was free of tension. According to him there are no police, no government officials, no checks and no barriers. â€œWe do everything according to our wants. Nobody checks us,â€ he said.
Suranga Janakantha, father of one, has been living in Ulla, Pottuvil from childhood. He had come with his parents and enrolled himself at the only Sinhala school found in Pottuvil. The Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya caters to 120 Sinhalese students.
He is of the view the Sinhalese peasants were discriminated against by the majority Muslims.
â€œWe could not even get our due share after the tsunami. The government promised to construct houses for us. But all the government institutions here are dominated by the Muslims, and therefore we lost the chance of getting houses. For each house, the authority here dominated by the Muslims demanded Rs. 50,000 as commission. Where can we go for this money? Therefore, we decided to live in cadjan huts,â€ he said.
He said the Sinhala community is on good terms with the Tamil community but not with the Muslims since â€œthey are dangerous.â€