Muslim lands forcibly occupied by the Tamils in the Eastern Province

by M. I. M. Mohideen

A peculiar phenomenon in the North East is that a Muslim village is interspersed with a Tamil village and vice versa. Substantial share of lands owned by the Muslims are adjacent to the Tamil villages. Due to the increase of population, Muslims and Tamils are facing shortage of lands. As scarcity of lands become acute, tension between the two communities increase, mainly because of the fears of expansion. As a result of this particular socio-economic factor new rules and regulations evolved among both communities, which forbade members of one ethnic group to sell the land to the other ethnic community. This is indicative of a desire by both ethnic communities to ensure their separate identities in a situation where they had co-existed for centuries.

There have been intermittent clashes over the years on comparatively trivial issues such as Muslim farmers being harassed by Tamils when they pass through Tamil areas, waylaying of vehicles, robbing of paddy and cattle belonging to the Muslims. After 1983 ethnic violence, it was found that the Tamils in the Northern and Eastern provinces have started to forcibly occupy the lands belonging to the Muslims in areas close to the Tamil villages.

A delegation of Sri Lanka Muslim Congress led by its leader Minister Rauf Hakeem met the LTTE delegation led by Mr. V. Pirapakaran in the Wanni on the 13th of April and discussed the Muslim land question. The leader of the LTTE gave an assurance that all lands belonging to the Muslims that are now being forcibly occupied by the Tamils would be returned to the Muslims as soon as possible.

The land rights question is one of the most critical issues which is obstructing peace and reconciliation between the Tamil and Muslim people in the North East of Sri Lanka. At the second meeting of the peace talks in Thailand between the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) and the Liberationí Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) from 31st October to 3rd November 2002, the LTTE has announced that they would be interested in returning the lands and the properties to the owners at the end of the harvest. There are about 490 locations in the North East where the Tamils are forcibly occupying about 100,000 acres of agricultural lands belonging to 30,000 Muslim Families.

SLMC National Leader Minister Rauf Hakeem, had substantive discussions with the members of the LTTE team during the peace talk in Thailand and came to a good understanding of the problems. The LTTE was prepared to seriously address the issue and requested that a register of claims be prepared which would then be subject to verification. Subsequently Hon. Rauf Hakeem requested the Muslim Rights organization to prepare a register of Muslim Lands forcibly occupied by the Tamils in the North-East. Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe the Chairman of the Foundation for Co-Existence provided support and guidance and facilitated the programme. The Muslim Rights organisation had undertaken the study with the following objectives.

Systematically enumerate the land claims of the Muslims in the East by visiting each and every location in the 3 districts.

Prepare a register based on field investigations on a professional basis.

The registration exercise involved the distribution of 20,000 forms and folders by 36 Village Enumerators, 3 District Coordinators and 3 Assistant District Coordinators who are the permanent residents in the areas concerned. They have filled the comprehensive questionnaire with regard to individual claims, the actual date of ownership and the manner in which the land was forcibly taken over, the extent of the land, their deeds, permit or any other documents to the land. Details of buildings, machineries and livestock kept in the properties are some of the other informations which have been recorded. The Muslim Rights organization had obtained the assistance of the North East Muslim Peace Assembly, the Ullemas - Muslim Theologians, Trustees of the Mosques and active youths in predominant Muslim areas in Ampara, Batticaloa and Trincomalee Districts of the Eastern Province. All forms and folders were collected, checked case by case and attested by Justice of Peace. The information collected was documented in several Volumes.

Volume l: Project Report

Volume II: AM/R - Ampara District Register.

Volume II: AM/DS - Ampara District, Divisional Secretariat Register

Volume II: AM/T - Ampara District, Title Claims

Volume II: AM/P - Ampara District, Permit Claims

Volume II: AM/PLR - Ampara District, Paddy Land Register Claims

Volume III: BT/R - Batticaloa District Register

Volume III: BT/DS - Batticaloa District, Divisional Secretariat Register

Volume III: BT/T - Batticaloa District, Title Claims

Volume III: BT/P - Batticaloa District, Permit Claims

Volume III: BT/PLR - Batticaloa District, Paddy Land Register Claims

Volume IV: TR/R - Trincomalee District Register

Volume IV: TR/DS - Trincomalee District, Divisional Secretariat Register

Volume IV: TR/T - Trincomalee District, Title Claims

Volume IV: TR/P - Trincomalee District, Permit Claims

Volume IV: TR/PLR - Trincomalee District, Paddy Land Register Claims

The project was funded by USAID - OTI and covered a period of seven months from 24th April 2003.

There is no doubt that in many instances these land claims will be the subject of mediation. However, as a first step the register of land claims lays the basis for verification.

The resolution of the land question in the North-East would benefit more than 22,000 families - 103,000 men, women and children and will establish the basis for conflict resolution and help peaceful co-existence between the Tamils and Muslims. It would certainly go a long way to heal one of the worst wounds at the heart of the relations between the two communities.