Residents of the area have expressed concern over allegations made by the media that Muslims living in the area have encroached on the land, as the area around the Muhudu Maha Vihara in the Pottuvil area of the Ampara district has been declared an archeological site.
“I was born and raised in this area. I am now 73 years old. The land on which we live has been given ‘Jayabhoomi’ land deeds by the Chandrika government. As far as I know, we have never encroached on the archeological sites except for protecting them,” said Abdul Qadar Asanar Lebbe, a senior citizen living in the area.
In April alone, more than 20 news items and articles had appeared in Sinhala newspapers on the Muhudu Maha Vihara issue. During the same period, such misinformation was broadcast several times in news reports on Sinhala television channels. Most of them indicated that the area was occupied by Muslims and settled illegally. The video of the visit to the area of famous musician Iraj Weeraratne last year and various fake news items posted on social media about the area are other reasons for the public outcry over the Muhudu Maha Vihara issue and the racial tension in the area. The people of the area are concerned about the reportage and telling that all these are untrue and reported only one side of the story.
Background of the controversy
In 1951, following the discovery of archaeological evidence in the Manmalai area, the Sri Lanka Department of Archeology declared and gazetted 72 acres of land in the area as an Archaeological Zone without a land survey plan.
Then, 14 years later, in 1965, 40 acres of land was handed over to the people and only 30 acres 03 Route 02 Perches of land was acquired by the Department of Archeology through a gazette notification with a land survey plan demarcating the area.
The Archaeological Task Force for the Eastern Province was recently established by President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa and a delegation led by the Defense Secretary recently visited the Muhudu Maha Vihara in Pottuvil to observe the situation. Following this, the Land Survey Department took measures last June to survey and demarcate 30 acres of 03 Route 02 Perches of land. However, the Viharadhipathi of the area intervened and insisted that the boundary stones to be placed on the 72 acres of land. The people in the area feared that the measurement of 72 acres of land would be an attempt to expropriate their native lands and agitated.
There are land deeds
According to Pradeshiya Sabha Chairman M.S. Wasit, the residences of about 300 Muslim families are located within 72 acres of land. The lands on which these 300 families live are legally owned by them. They have land deeds for this. But if 72 acres of land is acquired by the Archaeological Department, 300 families who have been living for a hundred years will lose their habitats. It is because of this fear that people are expressing their opposition,” he said.
Misrepresentation of the media
With this background, the people are dissatisfied with the rumors that are being circulated that Muslims have illegally occupied the land.
Musharraf Mudunabeen, a lawyer and current parliamentarian, commented on this during a recent demonstration in Pottuvil, “It is a matter of concern that the issue of the Muhudu Maha Vihara in general is inciting racism. The fact that the media has also supported this has exacerbated the issue. The media has failed to point out that it was the Muslims living in the area who have preserved and maintained this archeological site for so long. Rather it is absurd to try to portray Muslims as land grabbers. It is a Muslim person who acts as the guard to the archaeological site today. Politicians, officials and the general public in general gave their full consent even to build a Buddhist shrine on the land. That being the case, is it fair to forget our actions in good faith and in what sense portray us today as racists and fundamentalists?” he questioned.
Meanwhile, the People’s Alliance for Land Rights has demanded that media should only publish verified fact and refrain from using inciting terms such as ‘encroachers’, destroyers of public property’ and ‘extremists’. The facts must be presented in a responsible manner with respecting media ethics. The Alliance also stressed that media should not provoke further divisions and partisanship in an already divisive environment.
Did not oppose the Muslim people
Meanwhile, commenting to the international media on the matter, the Chief incumbent of the Muhudu Maha Vihara, Warakapola Indratissa Thera, said, “Different leaders have diverse views on the Muhudu Maha Vihara which is not true. The so-called archeological sites in Sri Lanka are ancient temples. Here is an old temple with a history of 2300 years. So the monks have more ownership over the shrine than the archeology department. There is no need for anyone to cause racist and religious problems in this case. Archaeological artifacts are hidden within the lands here. It is not our intention to attack or expel Muslims from here. Our mission is to preserve archaeological artifacts. Let it be 72 acres or more. Its main purpose is to preserve these artifacts. It seems to me that Muslim politicians have taken up the issue in order to garner their preferential votes because it is election time. Muslims have preserved this shrine throughout the history. So the Muslim people do not have to panic. If injustice is done to them during the archeological excavations, I will bring justice to them. ”
The matter is currently in court. The court also has imposed an interim injunction on land acquisition in the Muhutu Maha Vihara area in view of the general election conditions. So, reporting only one-sided stories without knowing the depth and breadth of an issue pending in court will only would lead to a rift between the two communities who have long lived in harmony in the area. Can the media be a cause this?