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Archaeology officials claim political, ethnic, religious interference over digs in East

  • Allege Tamil political parties inciting communities

BY Dinitha Rathnayake

Interferences of a political, ethnic, and religious nature in connection with archaeological excavations currently being conducted by the Presidential Task Force (PTF) on Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province are, according to sources including at the Department of Archaeology, increasing as Tamil political leaders allege the continued weaponisation of archaeology through land grabs taking place under the guise of archaeology heritage management, The Morning learnt.

According to sources and the Department of Archaeology, political influence is being exerted by Tamils over the excavation activities that are still in progress.

Speaking to The Morning yesterday (2), Archaeology Director General Senior Prof. Anura Manatunga said the PTF would continue its work in areas in the Batticaloa, Ampara, and Trincomalee Districts until the end of this month, adding, however, that there were certain ongoing issues with the Tamil community over these matters during the past months.

“We don’t have any religious issues when we work. These sites can belong to any religion. As a department, we only try to protect these sites,” he said.

However, according to Prof. Manatunga, certain political parties are attempting to give a different interpretation to these issues and have provoked the Tamil community in the areas. “At the moment, we are conducting our mission in the Chenkalady area.”

Concerns have been raised in the Eastern Province over the archaeological excavations; however, the Department of Archaeology has already identified hundreds of archeologically valuable places in the Eastern Province which have not yet been gazetted together with the sites located in other areas of the country.

The Department’s conduct of the identification of new sites has been criticised by the Muslim and Tamil political leaders in the province, claiming that the all Sinhala Buddhist PTF is attempting to erase a piece of history by distorting the historical and archaeological sites in the province.

An incident occurred in Vantharumoolai, Batticaloa on 29 October, where an attempt by the Department of Archaeology to take over a land in the Eastern Province used by Tamils for agricultural activities had been thwarted due to protests by the people in the area. The team had arrived at the site in Vantharumoolai to survey a 16-acre paddy field with the Gana (Ganesha) Devi Kovil (shrine) where the people of the area worship at.

According to reports, a few Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs were also present at the location. When The Morning inquired about the incident, Prof. Manatunga said yesterday that the incident is under control and that department officials are carrying out their work at the moment.

Furthermore, allegations have been levelled against the said PTF, claiming that it has identified Buddhist places of importance in Thiriyai, Thennamaravadi, Kuchchaveli, and Kumpurupiddi, and that stones have been laid along the boundary lines of such lands.

However, according to the Department and the PTF, 528 archaeological sites, 120 movable antiquities, and a total 648 archaeological areas have been identified in the 14 Divisional Secretariat (DS) Divisions in the Batticaloa District. The exploration work has been carried out by four exploration teams, and archaeological sites have been identified and recorded in the two DS Divisions of Thambalagamuwa and Serunuwara in the Trincomalee District, while two exploration teams have been assigned to the remaining DSs.

However, the report revealed that even though the identified archaeological sites, monuments, and movable artefacts should be expeditiously secured, no such programme has been planned and that, as a result, antiquities scattered in the Batticaloa District are being distorted, displaced, and destroyed by human activities.

Speaking to The Morning, Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) Batticaloa District MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam said that archaeological sites have become a political tool.

“At the moment, the Department is trying to obtain lands from the Tamil community which they have used for over 100 years. This Department is trying to archive most of the farmlands and lands belonging to Tamil temples. How fair is that? How can they give these lands to archaeological sites?” he questioned.