News Features

By Wilson Gnanadass in Puttalam
Clashes within the same community are not an uncommon phenomenon in the present world. Reports of such clashes have been heard from several parts of the world.
While some clashes are originated due to genuine causes, most others are politically influenced.

A fresh clash of this nature has erupted in Puttalam – a predominant Muslim district.
It appears though that the clashes are among the same race, they are for certain, motivated by politicians for their own political mileage.

Some of the actions taken by politicians today have resulted in both the indigenous Muslims in Puttalam and the Muslims who were part of the mass exodus in 1990, who took up residence in Puttalam, falling apart.

Basically, there is a clash between the local Muslims and the Internally Displaced People (IDPs) from the north, after the government continued to assist the IDPs, thus ignoring the locals – an act viewed by the locals as a deliberate move by the government.

Muslims en masse, were pushed out of the north by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 1990. There were nearly 100,000 who fled to safer areas.
Puttalam, a fishing village that was not densely populated at that time, was considered the best choice by the politicians to send the Muslims for settlement there.

Since 1990, both the locals and the IDPs have been living in harmony. Thanks to the locals, who were ever willing to share almost everything, including their own houses, to give solace to their own brethren who had been chased out of their own traditional habitation overnight.

The IDPs who fled from the north following the directive issued by the LTTE, arrived in Puttalam, with only the clothes they were wearing.
Sympathy coupled with empathy, propelled the local Muslims to provide the traumatised and the war weary IDPs, with their best, to ensure they felt at home.

At first it was living at the mercy of the locals for the IDPs. They respected the locals for their magnanimity. They even went to them with their begging bowls to fill the starving stomachs of the hundreds of children who were also chased out from the north by the LTTE.

The IDPs were the cynosure of all eyes. They received the sympathy of the entire nation, including the international community.
They then thought the mass exodus gave them a special identity in the world. They were put on the spot. They became ‘news makers’ in the local and international media.

The foreign media gave wide publicity and this motivated the donor agencies and other philanthropists to come forward to help them rebuild their own lives.
Soon, the IDPs saw themselves as an important sector, thus being able to create their own image despite being driven out of their own traditional lands.

They took every given opportunity to gain what they had already lost, following their ouster from the north.
In several ways, they were motivated to march forward without turning back. They found employment for the adults and schools for their children and started building their own houses with the money given to them by donor agencies and of course the government. This gave the IDPs assurance and confidence to build their economy and their livelihood.

Locals limp
The rapid development of the IDPs was never an irritation for the locals who continued to limp and struggle to make ends meet.
Having already shared most of their belongings, the locals had to continue their life with whatever that was left over.

The economy of the locals suddenly dwindled as they were forced to share common amenities like water, electricity and other basic facilities provided by the local government, with the new arrivals.

The facilities they had been enjoying alone for centuries had to be shared with an equal number of people from the north.
This obviously reduced the locals to a refugee status, whereby, they had to now go out with their begging bowls to outsiders for help.

While the IDPs were showered with all types of benefits and facilities, the locals had to depend on their own agriculture, business and fishing.
For instance, a local resident who fetched 10 kilos of fish, later caught only about three to four kilos as the sea and the lagoon where fish was in abundance, were shared by the IDPs.

The gradual transformation of the once rich and wealthy locals into a poor status, gave them hopelessness and a sense of rejection. The more the locals became poor, the more they grew frustrated and dejected.

The real clash
The upward mobility of the IDPs and the gradual deterioration of the livelihood of the locals have today resulted in both sectors at each other’s throats.
Fingers are pointed at politicians who have contributed to this present chaos in Puttalam.
The locals who did not wish to express their anger and emotional pain in public have now come out in the open, after Minister of Resettlement and Disaster Rishard Baduideen decided to pump more money to build brand new houses for the IDPs, in most areas, adjacent to the huts inhabited by the locals for years.

A Kuwait aided project to resettle 500 IDPs and another World Bank project to provide houses to 7,000 IDPs and further moves by the government to build more houses to the IDPs have annoyed the locals who say their living conditions have been the same since time immemorial.

One of the main grouses of the locals is that they were prevented from growing further, economically and otherwise, because of the mass exodus in 1990.
The IDPs who entered Puttalam empty handed today control trade and agriculture in Palavi–Thillayadi, Kalpitiya, Norachcholai and Pulichankulam. The IDPs also control 50 % of the business in the main Puttalam town.

For instance, 500 houses have been built through a Kuwaiti assisted project, with toilet facilities to the IDPs.
These houses are situated in Alkasimi village, now called ‘Alkasimi City.’ This city, only a few kilometers away from the main town has a hospital, school, playground, shops and other facilities. These facilities are exclusively meant for those living in ‘Alkasimi City.’

The people living here are mostly from Dhara Puram in Mannar, a village where Minister Baduideen was born.
Astonishingly, this city is run from the budgetary allocation set apart for the Northern Province.
However, the same ‘Alkasimi City’ enjoys water, electricity and other amenities including the drainage system from the Puttalam local council.

One wonders how powers of a particular province could be exercised in another different province!
Besides, if the locals had to turn to the hospital at ‘Alkasimi City,’ then they need to get special approval, which the locals say, could be impossible.

With the setting up of this new hospital for the IDPs in ‘Alkasimi City,’ the locals have already been deprived of having their own hospital. According to the government regulations, there cannot be two national hospitals in the same district or location.
Therefore, the locals pointed out that this action by the minister has deprived them of health facilities.

Sheer violation
According to S. A. Ehiya, Wayamba (Northwestern) Provincial Council Member and Minister coordinating the work of the Chief Minister in Puttalam, this is a total violation.

He pointed out that since the arrival of the IDPs, the locals had been reduced to a refugee status.
“The IDPs have stolen our business, education and agriculture, employment in the government sector, textile industry, transport sector and many other facilities. They managed to do this because of political influence. Why is this?” Ehiya asked.

He said while the IDPs grew without any major problems, the locals had to toil and sweat for their daily bread.

He said the fact that Puttalam could not return Ministers and Members of Parliament due to its small size in population, the northern ministers and MPs have constantly tried to bulldoze their way through.

“This is a serious problem. A student from the IDP camp could study well because everything is offered to him free of charge. The food, books, shelter and all other facilities are free. He/she could think free and enter universities. While our boys have to study with lots of restrictions,” he said.

He said of the 26 students who were selected for the university entrance from the Puttalam district, only four were from the local community. “We are very upset over this,” he pointed out.

He said while the Puttalam health sector received medicine to cater to only the Puttalam population of around 100,000, the same quantity of medicine had to be shared with another 100,000 IDPs.

“What happened was our local people were without medicine. Is this not a violation and a total discrimination?” he queried. He said the IDPs received money when they were pregnant, got married or attained age and were given sewing machines and food stamps free of charge.

“What has the government done to uplift the living standards of the local people? They have been suffering for centuries. And today, adding to the misery, brand new houses are built for the IDPs, adjoining the little mud hut of a local. Is this justice?” he queried.

For 36 year old Fathima, mother of six, it is atrocious. She pointed out that a labourer’s job that is in demand for Rs.500, is executed by an IDP for Rs. 200 or 300.
“So, don’t you think we are losing our jobs? These people are willing to do our job for any price. They have no value for money because they get everything free. But this has severely affected our economy,” she said.

M. P. Sirajdeen (67) said while the MPs and ministers directly helped the IDPs, nobody bothered to help the locals.
“This is a curse for us. Since 1989, we have not had a MP for us. And this is what we have gained out of this,” he said.
H.A.C. Niroshini (26) a Sinhala local lass, also said the living standards of the locals have not improved for the past several years because of the arrival of the IDPs.

A native of Puttalam, Nishoshini said she could not, along with her parents, simply construct a toilet or even get other facilities from the local authority, while the IDPs managed to build their castles so rapidly. W.P. Gamini Wickramasinghe, a shop owner also echoed similar sentiments and said the locals were ignored while the government constantly paid attention to the plight of the IDPs – an act he said was in violation of their basic human rights.

However, S.S. Jaseem, (36), father of three and also the chief camp officer attached to the ‘Alkasimi City’ charged that the locals were jealous.
Admitting he was a distant relation of Minister Rishard Baduideen, Jaseem observed the IDP’s condition improved fast owing to their courage and commitment while the locals’ living standard remained the same due to disunity and lack of understanding.

“If we, the people of Mannar can produce ministers, why can’t the people of Puttalam do the same? They have failed because they are not united. They are a bunch of jealous people and that is why they are not growing,” he thundered.

Living in a modern house built on a ten perch land at ‘Alkasimi City,’ Jaseem pointed out the people living in the city had nothing to do with the locals anymore. “This is why our minister separated us from the locals. In fact, this city is administered by the northern authority,” he admitted.

Even among the IDPs, those hailing from Mannar have been well fed while others are still languishing in make shift camps.
Saltern Sahira No. 1 – IDP camp is a classic example. There are 118 families living in deplorable conditions.
According to the deputy leader of the camp, I. Nafaiz, the government has deliberately decided not to resettle the people living in this camp for its own mileage.

His observation is that this camp is kept alive as a model camp by the government to earn foreign money.
He said all the foreign diplomats and ministers were escorted to this camp by the government to seek their support.
“If this camp is rehabilitated, then the government will have no other camps to show the foreign aid contributors and earn money. So, today we are caught up in this situation while others are moving forward,” he said.
He boldly admitted that the arrival of the IDPs has severely affected the livelihood of the locals. “We blame the government for this,” he charged.

R. Fowzan (46) said Minister Rishard Baduideen was totally concentrating in uplifting the life standard of only those hailing from his village. “This is very unfair,” he lamented.
He said the government has requested Rs. 22,000 for water connection. “But from where can we find this money. While the favourites of the ministers get free water and electricity connections, we are charged,” he said.

Bleak future
By and large, the future of the indigenous people of Puttalam looks bleak, with the new arrivals, gobbling almost everything that is put to the locals.
The locals now are planning to agitate and lodge their protest in public.
A resolution, condemning the construction of houses in the ‘Alkasimi City’ is to be moved in the north western provincial council shortly.

Also, the provincial council is seriously planning to protest against another move by the government to recruit volunteer teachers from among the IDPs who, according to council members, are not qualified for this post.
The council is also planning to introduce new laws to enable locals to obtain jobs and other perks first from the local council and the provincial council.

The World Bank (WB) that introduced a project to construct 7000 houses has already come under pressure by the locals. The WB had to stall its activities due to recent pressure by the locals.
If corrective measures are not taken forthwith, another problem related to race/cast or even language could erupt slowly but surely.
The locals therefore call upon the government to take note of their grievances and offer a quick remedy before it is too late.