Mannar: The Inside StoryJuly 28, 2012, 7:13 pm
As we were saying last week, what makes for good press is the accusation that a government minister tried to bring pressure on a magistrate thereby compromising the independence of the judiciary. This was what the whole country was alerted to and what the entire judiciary from the Supreme Court downwards and the whole legal profession stopped work over. For the entire judiciary to not function is an unprecedented situation never seen before in this country. Usually when a politician tries to influence the police or the judiciary, it would be to get a political catcher off the hook and the rest of the country is obviously looking at the Mannar incident as another high handed action by a government minister to bring duress on the judiciary and to help his political catchers.
In actual fact, the problem in Mannar that caused all this brouhaha has nothing to do with government ministers running riot in their personal fiefdoms. What we are seeing is the playing out of the Tamil-Muslim ethnic divide in Mannar which has been exacerbated due to lingering mistrust and dislike resulting from the three decade long war. The Mannar incident is not so much about Baithiudeen threatening a magistrate, but about Muslims rising up against what they perceive as a Tamil attempt to deny them justice even after the war. Even if the intimidation of the Mannar magistrate story is true and it is proven in courts that a government minister did in fact try to intimidate the Mannar magistrate by giving him a threatening phone call, that is just the symptom and not the disease.
The sequence of events
In 1990, the LTTE evicted Muslims from their village in Uppukulam in Mannar and they ended up living in huts in the Puttalam area with other Muslim refugees from Jaffna and other parts of the north. The village of Uppukulam had a ‘paduwa’ called Konthaipiddy adjacent to the village – a ‘paduwa’ is a "fisheries management zone" where their fishing wadiyas were put up and the boats are moored. For some years after the Muslims were evicted, this area remained unused. Then in 1999, some Tamil fishermen from Vedithaltivu were evicted from their village by the LTTE because they were using Vedithalthivu as a transit point to smuggle weapons. Vedithaltivu was in fact the LTTE’s most important arms transit points.
Naval presence was much greater in the eastern waters off Mullaitivu and Trincomalee and it was to the Mannar coast that the LTTE’s arms smuggling trawlers could come in virtually undetected. Not only were there hundreds of trawlers going out to sea from Mannar, there were also the thousands of Indian boats poaching in the Palk Strait, all of which could never be checked by the navy and it was easy for the LTTE trawlers to blend in with the real fishing trawlers and go about their business. The LTTE even encouraged the Indian poachers to come close to the Sri Lankan coast so as to provide them with cover. The LTTE brought even heavy artillery guns through this arms smuggling port in Vedithaltivu. The ammo and shells brought in through Vedithalthivu was transported into the Vanni in freezer trucks.
The Sea Tigers had to evict some Tamil families from Vedithaltivu to set up this arms smuggling point and the displaced Tamil fishermen, mainly Roman Catholics, were planted by the LTTE in another Catholic fishing village in Mannar Island called Pallimunai; but they could not stay there for more than a year owing to differences and disputes with the local population who were also Roman Catholics. Then they were taken to another Catholic village called Panankaddikoddu where too these people did not last more than a year due to conflicts emerging with the local population. Then in 2002, they were planted in a place called Thotaveli about nine kilometres away from Uppukulam. These Tamil fishermen settled in Thotaveli began to do their fishing from the Konthaipiddy paduwa. But by that time, some of the evicted Muslim families had come back to Uppukulam due to the ceasefire and they objected to the use of the Konthaipiddy paduwa by Tamil fishermen . (It should be noted that only the fishing paduwa of Konthaipiddy was in dispute and nobody had invaded the Muslim owned properties in the adjacent village of Uppukulam.)
Then the Sea Tiger leader for the area, Amudan, had intervened to settle the dispute and in his presence the representatives of the Fishermen’s Co-operative Society of Uppukulam and the Fishermen’s Co-op Society of Vedithaltivu signed a document to the effect that once the Vedithaltivu area was open for fishing again, the Tamil fishermen would leave Uppukulam and Konthaipiddy and go back. In this document which was handwritten in Tamil, it was specifically acknowledged that Uppukulam and Konthaipiddy belonged to the Muslims and that the Vedithaltivu fishermen could establish wadiyas only with the permission of the Uppukulam Fishermen’s Co-op society. Over the years, several extensions were granted to these Tamil-Catholic fishermen from Vedithaltivu to remain in Uppukulam and use the Konthaipiddy paduwa.
For example, on June 7, 2005, the Assistant Director of Fisheries held a discussion with the Uppukulam fishermen and granted permission for the Vedithaltivu fishermen to continue fishing from the Konthaipiddi paduwa for a further period. A discussion was held with TNA parliamentarian Selvam Adaikalanathan the same year and the Vedithaltivu fishermen were given a further year to fish from the Konthaipiddy paduwa. Then on June 15, 2006, at the request of the Assistant Director of Fisheries and MP Adaikalanathan, a letter was issued by the Fisheries Harbours Corporation authorising the Vedithaltivu fishermen to moor their boats in Konthaipiddy.
On November 23, 2006, the Government Agent (District Secretary) Mannar held a meeting attended by MP Adaikalanathan, the Divisional Secretary of the area, the Assistant Director of Fisheries, the Fisheries Inspector of Vedithaltivu, and the Uppukulam Fishermen’s Coop society, where it was once again confirmed that the Konthaipiddy paduwa belonged to the Uppukulam (Muslim) fishermen and that the Vedithaltivu (Tamil) fishermen were allowed to use it only due to humanitarian considerations. At this meeting however, the Uppukulam and Vedithaltivu fishermen were not able to come to an agreement but the latter were not prohibited from using the Konthaipiddy paduwa. On March 19, 2007, at a meeting presided over by the Mannar Government Agent, it was said that the Uppukulam and Vedithaltivu fishermen had temporarily settled their issues. However in the years after the war in 2009, all the former residents of Uppukulam (about 500 families altogether) came back to that area and problems re-emerged.
Tamil fishermen given marching orders
On March 7, 2011 the fishermen of Uppukulam handed over a petition to the Minister of Fisheries Rajitha Senaratne, requesting the settlement of the Konthaipiddy paduwa dispute. Following the appeal to the minister of fisheries, a major meeting was summoned on November 3, 2011, with the Assistant Director of Fisheries, the president of the Mannar District Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, representatives of the Pallimunai , Panankaddikoddu, Uppukulam and Vedithaltivu Fishermen’s Co-op Societies present. The decision was taken here that the Vedithaltivu fishermen should go back to Vedithaltivu to engage in fishing. The Vedithaltivu fishermen who were settled in Thotaveli and carrying out fishing through the Konthaipiddy paduwa should remove their gear before November 30, 2011. However, the Tamil fishermen from Vedithaltivu did not leave.
Problems continued and the police got involved. On June 7, 2012 the Mannar Superintendant of Police called a meeting attended by Vedithaltivu fishermen settled in Thotaveli and the Uppukulam fishermen and the Tamil fishermen from Vedithaltivu had promised to move out of Konthaipiddy if they were given an alternative location. Therefore, the SP Mannar had spoken to the divisional secretary about an alternative piece of coastal land and another meeting was summoned on June 11, 2012 and the Mannar Government Agent and the Mannar divisional secretary promised to get them a piece of land in the Pallimunai and Panankaddikoddu area and the Tamil fishermen had expressed their willingness to shift there and they had asked for a reasonable period of time to get the new place ready for use. The divisional secretary told them to vacate Konthaipiddy within a reasonable period of time. The Asst. Director of Fisheries decided that until the paduwa area is resurveyed and allocated, that the fishermen settled in Thotaveli should do their fishing in Vedithalthivu. The Pallimunai and Panankoddikaddu Fishermen’s Co-op Societies were asked to provide temporary facilities to the Vedithaltivu fishermen.
However, because the Vedithaltivu fishermen did not vacate Konthaipiddy, On June 26, 2012, a meeting was again held with the GA, the Assistant Director of Fisheries, the Senior Superintendant of Police, the president of the Mannar District Federation of Fishermen’s Associations and the Uppuveli and Vedithaltivu Fishermen’s Co-op Societies also present. The decision made was that the Tamil Vedithalthivu fishermen will moor their boats in the paduwa belonging to Pallimunai and Panankodddikaddu fishermen as a temporary measure and they were not to use the Konthaipiddy paduwa. They were also once again instructed to do their fishing in Vedithalthivu. They agreed to vacate Konthaipiddy paduwa within three days.
Mannar magistrate gets
Despite this decision, the Vedithalthivu fishermen had continued to use the disputed paduwa and on July 13, 2012, they had gone fishing through Konthaipiddy paduwa and on this day a group of about 20 Muslims had gone to Konthaipiddy to protest and in the course of the dispute, some of the wadiyas had been demolished by the Muslims. The police had received 17 complaints from the Tamil fishermen in this regard. Investigations were done into these complaints and on July 16, 2012, the B report bearing number 396/2012 had been submitted to courts. The police reported to courts that the suspects in this case had fled the area. Because of this disturbance of the peace, this dispute which had largely revolved around the GA, the divisional secretary and the Asst Director of Fisheries went to the magistrate’s court Mannar.
The report submitted by Gamini de Silva the DIG Northern Range to the IGP (Ref S/DIG/NP/OW/2012 dated 20/7/2012) regarding the incidents of July 13 says that the magistrates court instructed the police to submit a report on the demolition of several wadiyas in Konthaipiddy and the police had submitted a report to courts. Thereupon the magistrate had summoned both parties to be present in court but only the Tamil side had been present in courts and the Muslims had kept away. On this day, the magistrate had issued an order saying that the Tamil fishermen were to continue to use the Konthaipiddy paduwa for fishing and that the police should provide them with protection.
At this hearing, according to the Mannar SP’s report to the IGP, the police had requested that the courts make three orders. The first was that the Muslim community be prevented from organising demonstrations against the Tamil community because there could be a breach of the peace. The second was that the courts should order the District Secretary and the Divisional secretary to allocate an alternative place for the Tamil fishermen to do their fishing. And the third was that the Tamil people in question should leave the area as soon as an alternative location was provided for them. The magistrate had thereupon ordered that the two parties to the dispute as well as the Government Agent and the divisional secretary be present in courts on July 18.
But on July 18 once again, the Muslims were not present in courts. The counsel for the Muslim fishermen was present and he had pointed out to courts that according to article 44 of the Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Act (No. 2 of 1996) it was the Director of Fisheries who had the power to settle fishing disputes and that the Assistant Director of Fisheries Mannar had made so many rulings to the effect that the fishermen from Vedithaltivu should vacate the Konthaipiddy paduwa. According to the Mannar SP, the magistrate ordered that within the next three weeks the Mannar Government Agent and the Mannar divisional secretary had to find the Tamil fishermen an alternative location and that the moment another location is found, the Tamil fishermen should vacate the Konthaipiddy paduwa.
It was while this was going on inside the court house that the Muslims were demonstrating outside saying that the magistrate was not being impartial. The magistrate had in fact made a fair ruling on July 18 and if someone had come outside and told the suspicious Muslim demonstrators outside that the magistrate had ruled that the Government Agent had to find the Tamil fishermen al alternative place within three weeks and the moment such a place is found, the Tamil fishermen had to vacate Konthaipiddi paduwa, everything would have ended on a positive note and the Muslim demonstrators would have gone home happy that justice had at last been done to them.
But the Muslim community of Mannar entertained deep suspicions about the impartiality of the Mannar magistrate Judeson. Just last month (June 2012), the trustees of two Mosques in the area, in Adampan and Marichchikaddy had written to the Judicial Services Commission complaining about the Magistrate saying that he used offensive language in courts and requesting an investigation. The Adampan mosque had even asked for the transfer of Mr Judeson out of the area and further requested that the magistrate’s court and the district court function separately. They had also petitioned the Judicial Services Commission to the effect that ‘impartial’ judges be appointed.
The immediate cause for these letters obviously was that the district courts had jurisdiction over land cases and Judeson was also district judge. It is in this backdrop that this Konthaipiddy paduwa problem came up before Judeson. The Mannar Muslims and the Mannar magistrate had been on a collision course even before the wadiya demolishing incident of July 13 that brought the controversial Mannar magistrate into the picture with regard to the Konthaipiddy issue. The Uppukulam mosque authorities say that it was because they had serious misgivings about the impartiality of the judge that they organised a peaceful demonstration outside the courts on July 18.
Because he had got wind of the fact that there could be a demonstration outside courts, the police superintendant had got down additional personnel and ensured the security of the courts complex. On July 18 about 400 Muslims had demonstrated on the road against the decision of the court. Because of the racket made by the demonstrators, the magistrate had to stop the court proceedings for a while and the SP Mannar was summoned by him to his chambers and instructed to use force to disperse the crowd. The SP Mannar tried to talk the demonstrators into going away, but none of them would listen. Then the magistrate had called the SP into his chambers for the second time and he was instructed to disperse the crowd using force. The SP had come out and told the demonstrators that he will have to use force and to disperse before he is compelled to carry out the order.
At this time, the magistrate had come out of the court room and instructed the police to baton charge the demonstrators and shoot them below the knee if necessary and disperse them. The SP Mannar says in his report to the IGP that it was with the magistrate coming out and giving that order that the crowd had started pelting stones. (Up to that time, they had been only blocking the road and being noisy.) DIG Gamini Silva says that he kept in contact with the SSP Vavuniya (who was also on the spot) and the SP Mannar throughout the incident and that he had given strict instructions not to baton charge or shoot at the demonstrators. But as the demonstrators had begun to pelt stones at the courts he had instructed them to use tear gas.
Because the police cordon had been tight, none of the demonstrators had been able to get into the courts premises. They had pelted the police as well with stones after the tear gas was used and three police officers had been seriously injured and others had sustained minor injuries. The stones thrown by the demonstrators had damaged the High Court building which is not being used at the moment. Eighteen individuals had been arrested with regard to the disturbances and 13 have been remanded while five have been released due to the lack of evidence. (The Uppukulam mosque authorities for their part claim that those who were implicated and arrested for the disturbances outside courts on July 18 were not fishermen but Muslim community leaders who had not been involved in the demonstration. )
The next day (July 19), the magistrate had wanted to make a complaint so a police officer was assigned to write down the magistrate’s complaint which stated that the Industries and Commerce Minister Rishad Baithudeen had phoned him and said that his previous ruling (of July 15) on the Konthaipiddy paduwa was not satisfactory and he had tried to bring pressure on him. Moreover the magistrate had said in his complaint to the police that on two previous occasions as well, the same minister had phoned him and tried to influence his work in courts. He had provided the numbers of the phones that he had received calls from and the police were in the process of having the numbers checked.
When we look at what happened in the end, according to the Fisheries and Aquatic resources Act of 1996, the magistrate had no jurisdiction to give orders in relation to fishing disputes and what even the Mannar magistrate had ultimately done is to follow the same rulings that the Assistant Director of Fisheries had given with regard to the Konthaipiddy case – that the Tamil fishermen should leave the moment an alternative place is found for them. Thus, there was no need for anybody to phone him to make him change his ruling. The whole thing turns out to be a comedy of errors of sorts. The Muslim people were suspicious of the magistrate so they did not expect him to do justice by them but he did do justice to the Muslims in his ruling on July 18. Then instead of someone telling the demonstrators that the ruling had been in their favour, the Muslims outside had been allowed to continued to shout slogans believing that their interests were being undermined at that very moment inside the court house.
The continued shouting outside may have irked the magistrate no end. Even after he had ruled in the Muslim’s favour, he may have thought there was no reason for that demonstration and been led to believe that this was a case of harassing the courts, hence his repeated orders to the police. Finally, all this was due a whole series of misunderstandings. Neither party to this dispute are Buddhists, but the present writer can suggest a very appropriate dispute resolution mechanism used in the Vinaya for Buddhist monks, Tinavattaraka kamma – the covering over with grass method – where you just cover up the mess and try to pretend it never happened! After all this is a country that is just recovering from an ethnic war. Pedantically chasing behind the proverbial pound of flesh may not be the best way to deal with things. For Tamils to keep alleging that Minister Baithiudeen threatened the magistrate and for Muslims to keep harping on the fact that the Mannar magistrate actually gave orders to the police in public, to shoot them below the knee, may not be in the best way to go about it.
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