by People for Equality & Relief in Lanka, March 11, 2019
The Muslim population in Pulmoaddai has complained of Sinhala colonisation in surrounding areas, particularly since the end of the armed conflict in 2009. The expansion of Sinhala settlements, including along the B60 road and on land owned by Muslims, has alarmed the local population and increased tensions. The proliferation of military camps and Buddhist temples, on top of the settlements, are perceived by locals to be part of a wider effort to Sinhalise the region – dividing the previously contiguous Tamil-speaking populations on the Mullai-Trinco border.
The area is home to the Buddhist monk Thilakawansa Nayaka, a native of Hambantota currently based in Arisimalai, just south of Pulmoaddai town. According to Muslim and Tamil residents, the monk is behind the establishment of the Buddhist temples and Sinhala settlements in the region. He is currently engaged in appropriating land in Pulmoaddai and Thennaimaravaadi for the purpose of constructing Buddhist structures.
A Right to Information request reveals that these settlements were constructed with the consent of the National Housing Development Authority. However the Kuchchaveli Divisional Secretariat confirmed that they did not give permission and that they had given notice to vacate to those who intruded on the land. See full RTI response here. This confirms suspicion by locals that the state acts in contravention of the local authority.
To the north, the Navy camp SLNS Ranweli occupies one of the few roads leading to the coast. The camp was built after the end of the armed conflict on land originally owned by civilians. Another small navy outpost is located right on the coast, across Kokkilai town on the other side of the lagoon.
Further east on the B70, closer to the 13th Milepost, the 27 Battalion of the Gajaba Regiment is deployed in a camp.
South of Pulmoaddai, the STF occupies a large camp, while the Gajaba Regiment’s 27th Battalion B Company also has a camp in the area.
On the southeastern boundary of Pulmoaddai town lies Arisimalai, the location of a Buddhist complex, that can only be accessed with permission from the Naval Subdetachment Arisimalai. Another larger Navy camp is located around 200m further down the road.
Many of the military camps are located close to or even adjacent to Buddhist structures. In at least one case, the Navy camp Ranweli, the Buddhist Vihara has been constructed by navy personnel, on the land opposite their camp. Like the camp, this Vihara is also constructed on private land.
Arisimalai has seen a special focus by Buddhists, due to the presence of ancient ruins. Located in a majority-Muslim and entirely Tamil speaking area, it has seen the construction of a Buddhist temple and adjoining retreat, called Asiri Kanda Purana Rajamaha Viharaya on top of a hillock overlooking the beach. Access to the site is controlled by a Navy camp. The temple was constructed after claims that Buddhist artefacts were found, resulting in the government giving 500 acres for the temple in the early 80s. The aforementioned monk Thilakawanse Nayaka is the chief incumbent of the temple. In 2018 the monk complained about local people encroaching on temple land, and demanded more protection for the area. An official from the Archaeological Department, responsible for the region, also complained about Hindu temples being built and visited by locals. District Secretary Pushpakumara Nissanka said that the Arisimalai Temple has been requesting 500 more acres to be given to the temple premises, and that they decided to grant 25 acres under the religious lands act, while declaring 500 acres as an Archaeological Forest Reserve.
Several Buddhist shrines are dotted around the area. On a cliff, overlooking Pulmoaddai town and the Indian ocean, foundations have been laid for a large stupa.
Arisimalai is a fishing village, renowned for its beach’s large-grained sand (Arisi – rice in Tamil). PEARL researchers visited the area in December 2018 and January 2019. A sign by the Department of Coastal Conservation at the entrance of the path leading to the hill and the beach, warns visitors to abide by rules for the “ancient, sacred area”, including entering the jungle as it “disturbs monks who are meditating”. The path is only accessible with permission by the navy camp. The navy personnel stationed at the checkpoint prohibited us from taking our car up the path, saying that all vehicles had to be parked near the entrance. However, as we walked, a group of Sinhala pilgrims passed us in their van. Buddhist shrines were dotted along the path, which lead to a clearing on an elevation overlooking the Indian Ocean, where the construction of a stupa commenced recently.
Climbing down from the cliff, we reached Arisi Malai beach. The sand really was like rice. As we walked around, we could see the Buddhist temple in the forest, south-west of the beach. We climbed up towards it, passing a meditation bench overlooking the beach and a monk’s rest house. Here the paths were well-demarcated and clean. Signs in Sinhala and English warned against following some paths, saying they are only open to “venerable monks”. Walking further, we reached the temple. The Sinhala pilgrims we saw earlier were giving offerings to a monk, giving us uneasy looks. We hurried past them. As we walked back, we saw the Sinhala van parked right next to the temple.
Another statue was completed recently near Eramadu. Google streetview images from 2016 show a small shrine and few makeshift houses, while a February 2019 visit to the area found a larger newly built structure on the same site and an expansion of the settlement into proper houses.