Denying the Right to Return

by Riza Yehiya, 'Groundviews,' Colombo, December 8, 2015

Resettlement in Musali South and the Wilpattu Controversy
Shahul H.Hasbullah, Kandy Forum 2015.
124pp. ISBN 978-955-7902-00-5
Priced:Rs.500.00Denying the Right to Return is an in-depth academic study on the history of Musali South and the issues and problems of the displaced and the returnees. This study explores the historical, socio- economic, political and geopolitical aspects of the pre and post war status of the Musali South displaced communities. This study unravels the myriad of factors that contributed to dispossessing the Musali people and then denying them the right to return to resettle in their places of origin. In presenting this as a case study of the backgrounds to conflict and post conflict resolution, this in retrospect contests the allegations and the aspersions cast by environmentalists and chauvinists for misrepresenting the facts and failing to redress the quarter century of suffering of the Musali people for no reason of their own.


This book defines the problem and paraphrases it lucidly that any student of knowledge and those interested in understanding problems of post conflict societies would find this a classic example of building up a case methodically. Further. this book identifies the barriers to resolution and the challenges posed by ill-informed environmentalists and their backers and rebuts their questions scientifically with evidence thus establishing a case that justice need to be done to the Musali people.  This is a good read, presenting a case with a variety of supporting materials and graphic presentation of facts. It raises questions and systematically answers with strong facts and analysis. This can be a model guide to those who wish to document similar cases in support of conflict resolution.

The author, Dr. Hasbullah is a well-known personality among the IDPs in Sri Lanka. He is a Professor in Geography at the University of Peradeniya. He graduated from the Peradeniya University and holds an M.A and a PhD from the University of British Columbia, Canada. He is also a visiting scholar at a number of international universities and he was recently appointed as a Council Member of the University of Jaffna by the University Grant Commission. Apart from his many academic interests, he has a specific research interest in the focus areas of refugees, Internally Displaced People, land disputes and conflict resolution. In this area he has produced many research papers and has published many books. This book, Denying the Right to Return, is his latest research publication. This is an outcome of more than three decades of hard work digging deep into the problems, working along with the suffering people in his quest to find solutions.

October 2015 marks 25 years of the expulsion of Northern Muslims by the LTTE. Today the launch of this book coincides with the somber reminder of the two and a half decade suffering of the Northern Muslims as IDPs in spite of the war being over since six years ago in 2009. Their suffering is still perpetuating with no end in sight, they are relegated to be Old IDPs and as a result have been rendered a ‘forgotten people’. This book is a timely publication reminding the world of a simmering problem being shrouded by vested interests in post war Sri Lanka, partly by local geopolitics and by politically charged so called environmentalists. Presenting the Musali South as a case study helps to understand the problems and can help to develop this as a pilot project to solve the problems of the Old IDPs through a just and workable manner.

Delving deeper into the contents of this book, I must say that it is well structured within the eight chapters and substantiated with references, tables and diagrams in a concise and logical manner. The nature of the presentation of this bookcan make even an uninitiated reader to understand intricate, sophisticated and complex issues of the Musali People in a simple way. This gives the reader better understanding of the trajectory of incidences that befell upon a once simple humble people of Musali. They were living sustainably within their means and are uprooted from their lands and made into a forgotten IDPs living in squalor with no future in sight. For example in the introduction Hasbullah articulates that ‘the case of Musali South and Wilpattu, the debate arose over an issue of legality and legitimacy regarding the right to return of displaced people’ and then he states ‘The negative implications of the one-sided debate made an academic investigation of the case urgent’.  This is paradoxical, the Musali case is a failure of the Sri Lankan government to protect its citizens and maintain its writ on the ground in Musali when the LTTE challenged them. First and foremost these people are a victims of the governments’ failure to protect, then a victims of the LTTE, then a victims of local geopolitics and now a government misjudgment of the reality which is rendering Musali people a people without a land to belong to. Hasbullah succinctly notes that ‘the aim of this report is to disentangle the issues embedded…. in order to show how the right to return is mistakenly denied’.

In disentangling this knotty issue, he notes that ‘the issue became ethnicized as the resettlement plan was designed exclusively for Muslim returnees and was initiated by a Muslim politician’. Then he questions how ‘ with new evidence that has come up, the Wilpattu sanctuary has ceased to be the subject of debate, but the issues, concerns, controversy and unwanted tensions between communities continue to exist and are perpetuated’. This statement of his is a clear opinion that the problem of the Musali people is more than a mere post war conflict resolution but a profound post war reshaping of geopolitics on the ground should be accentuated. Unfortunately, these turns of events and failure to do justice to the suffering people can open new fronts of conflicts in our Society.

His vivid description of geography, diverse socio-economic and mixing of cultures in the region as depicted in the 2nd chapter, clearly shows that this community before the conflict, was a pluralistic community living sustainably within their means without harming the environment. Clearly, being indigenous people of the area and with their life style well adapted to the environment render the aspersion of the environmentalist of the issue of jungle clearance and Human Elephant Conflict falsified. Further vivid description of the interaction between the settlement areas, nonproductive forest & villus, Veppal sub-zone and the fish-rich coastal belt of Musali caters to a variety of socio-economic needs of the people helping them to do fishing, farming, agriculture and animal husbandry. These indicate prevalence of a self-sustainable community that has been living. Therefore resettling them back in their places of origin would not be a burden upon the society or the state. In fact denying them the right to return becomes a burden upon all stakeholders. This section also narrates about the ethnic makeup, population size, the geographical location and the vocations taken up by people of Mullikulam, Karadikkuli, Marichchukkaddi, Palaikkuli and Pukkulum. This description shows that victims of Musali South are not only predominantly Muslim but also Tamils and Sinhalese who are deprived of their right to return.  The population census cited in Table 1 in page no.19 shows that since population was first recorded in 1871 upto 1981, the population has grown from 386 to 2,290 people respectively. These are assumed to be indigenous Musali people hailing from centuries before. Similarly Table 2 in the same page shows the ethnic and occupational diversity of the people of Musali South in the year 1881.

This section also notes the historicity of the Tamil separatist movement beginning operation in Musali South as initiated by PLOTE and then overrun by the LTTE bringing Musali South under the LTTE Control. The internal strife between the militant groups made the initial emigration of people from Musali South and with the effective control by the LTTE and under their orders in October 1990, the Muslims of Musali South were evicted by the LTTE. Then again in 2007, Sri Lanka military advancing into Musali South chased the LTTE out but to the agony of other communities who were living there had to leave Musali South due to the military confrontation between the LTTE and Sri Lankan forces.

Table 3 in this section shows the sequence of events that led to the present plight of the people of Musali South. Chronological description of events depicts a clear picture of where the problems lie now.

Chapter 3 rebuts the allegation concerning ‘Unauthorized’ forest clearance for resettlement. It challenges the environmentalists’ version of the allegation, the calumny of the state agencies and the politicians for creating an issue out of a non-issue by declaring new forest reserves without the due process of law, without peoples’ consent and in the absence of the stakeholders’ presence in the region. The establishment of the military cantonment where Naval Agriculture Project is run in four sites which were paddy lands on permit formerly operated by the now dispossessed people. These once again show very clearly the failure of the previous government in their lack of good and transparent governance.

The final and the 8th Chapter makes the following ten point recommendations:

  1. A National policy on the right to return
  2. Facilitating the return and resettlement of the remaining displaced
  3. Resolving land issues and disputes through a national commission
  4. Establishing pasture land for cattle farming
  5. Demilitarization
  6. Revisit the Forest Reserve Act
  7. Access to Wilpattu Sanctuary
  8. Renovation and development of the Viyadi irrigation system
  9. Developing the fishing industry
  10. Re-establishing ethnic and communal cohesion: Measures have to be taken to bring about dialogue and internal cohesion

This book in a nutshell presents the case history of the people of Musali South with extensive evidence supported by historical facts, evolution of the conflict in the region, the failures of the respective governments, the oppression by the Tamil militancy, mis-representation of fact by the environmentalists misguiding the media and the Sri Lankan bureaucracy for failing to uphold law and order justly and equitably.

Having said these and complementing the Dr.Hasbullah for the masterly presentation of facts and figures in the book rebutting the challenges and building up the Musali Case, I see that there is room for further research to make this case more holistic. I am of the view that this research with all due respect to Hasbullah concentrates only on the issue of Musali people. I think that the people of Puttalam or the host communities have equally suffered collaterally as a result of this calamity upon the Musali people. Any delays in settling the problem of the people of Musali South would also as a consequence prolong the suffering of the host communities. Physical resources development of the host communities are long overdue and procrastination of solution to the IDPs would seriously affect developments in the host communities. This calls for an assessment of damage the host communities have undergone to make this analogy more holistic.

The present government views that physical resources development should be carried out all around the country in order to share with the people the development dividends and peace dividends to bring reconciliation through equity and justice. Leaving simmering problems like Musali South or perpetuating the sufferings of the host communities like in Puttalam would be counterproductive to development goals of the government. The government as the principal agency to maintain law and order and development in the country must act fast and the works of Dr.Hasbullah ‘The Right to Return’ can be taken as a model case study to develop the blue print for reconciliation, peace building and development.

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