By Shreen Abdul Saroor –
In October 1990, some 75,000 Muslims in the Northern Province (about five percent of the province’s total) were forcibly expelled from their homeland by the LTTE. In some places the rebels gave only about a 48-hour for Muslims to leave the province. Beginning in Chavakachcheri on October 15th, Muslims were evicted in their entirety (mass) throughout Mannar, Mullaitheevu, Killinochchi, Jaffna, and certain parts of Vavuniya by October 30th. Families were allowed to take only 500 rupees and some clothes; some were forced to flee without any belongings at all. Unable to get transport until they reached towns further south, many walked for upwards of three days. My family was among them—as a student in Colombo at the time, I waited anxiously for news as my family members fled our home in Mannar. To date this community’s sufferings have not been recognized officially and there has been no adequate support for return or reparations. Three decades of neglect and misunderstanding by local residents, government officers, international donors, and southern Muslims have left northern Muslims feeling there is no one left to trust.
Since the civil war’s end in May 2009, northern Muslims have started returning in substantial numbers. But many who remained in the north have not welcomed their return. Political and economic rivalries between Tamil and Muslim communities persist. Northern Muslims assert that government authorities pay little heed to the needs of returning Muslims and give preferential treatment to resettled Tamils. Senior government officers, for instance, are said to under-quote Muslim returnee numbers, which significantly reduces allocation of resources and the development support required for resettlement. When confronted about this perceived bias, government officers in the North respond that Muslims are already ‘well-settled’ in Puttalam, so the government’s priority should be on the war-affected. It is certainly true that the plight of war-affected Tamil civilians remains distressing. A decade after end of the war, many still lack land, housing and other basic needs and continue to struggle for truth and justice in a dangerous space. These needs are critical, but addressing them should not forestall northern Muslims’ right to collective return.
I have attended meetings in Mannar and Jaffna where journalists have asked Tamil government officers and religious leaders about claims that returning northern Muslims have not received adequate assistance. These leaders responded that the Muslim community has not returned in any significant way—only a few have returned to engage in trade, they argue, while keeping one foot in Puttalam and one foot in the North. While this assessment is often correct, the choice of northern Muslims to maintain their connections in Puttalam reflects the obstacles standing in the returnees’ path. With their lands overtaken by jungles and made inhabitable, people cannot be expected to leave completely the places where they have lived for 30 years before new homes and livelihoods can be established. Not only there is no basic infrastructure but also, they are not welcomed by government officers or even neighbours, most of whom, after 30 years of separation, do not recognize their former neighbours. The few (mostly in Mannar) who received decent resettlement assistance have been able to return mostly through the political patronage of a former minister who established a political career based on the eviction. For new families who return, accessing their lands and providing decent schooling for their children are daunting enough, leave alone the challenges in accessing livelihood assistance and jobs.
Mistakes upon mistakes
Although the LTTE faced heavy criticism for their act of ethnic cleansing, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was conspicuously silent on the issue during the peace negotiations of 2002-2005. Further, none of the parties engaged in talks – including the Norwegian mediators – was willing to consider the right to collective return of the northern Muslims as one of the primary conditions for establishing normalcy in the north. This was the main reason for the low rate of return for expelled Muslims in comparison to Tamil internally displaced persons (IDPs) who returned during the 2002 peace process.
When international delegations inquire with the government about the plight of northern Muslims, they have been told that Muslims have integrated well into the Puttalam population, and that their desire to return to the north now stems from business opportunities or a desire to sell their properties. A few non-Muslim religious leaders go so far as to say that if all of the expelled Muslims were now to return to the North, it would alter the ethnic composition of the area. They spuriously suggest that Muslims being outside the war zone and religious proscriptions against birth control have combined to create a boom in the Muslim population over the last 29 years, thus making full return an unfair burden on Tamils who remained and suffered through the war. Such claims highlights the extent of the challenge northern Muslims face in seeking justice.
Echoing the government’s refrain, international donors commonly claim that displaced Muslims are well integrated in Puttalam, so their return is not a priority. They often rely on a controversial 2004 survey done by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, which found that a majority of the displaced Muslims preferred to be integrated into Puttalam rather than return to their original homes. What the international community fails to note is that the LTTE was active at the time the survey was conducted, meaning fears about returning were undoubtedly related to security risks and the possibility of a return to war and yet another eviction.
At the start of his first term, in late 2005, President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to appoint a presidential commission to inquire into the expulsion of the northern Muslims – a promise he never fulfilled. At an event commemorating the end of the war, the former President stated: “When the innocent Muslims were harassed and forcibly evicted from the north by the LTTE, no one came forward to stop this displacement … Now, with my government putting an end to terrorism, all efforts will be made to resettle the Muslims by May 2010.” The speech marked the first time that a senior government official made a categorical statement on evicted Muslims. Even so, the former President failed to prioritize northern Muslims’ right of return in his rapid, post-war nation-building process. A decade later, with the Easter Sunday attacks stoking anti-Muslim sentiment and prompting a Rajapaksa return, Muslims question whether there is any point in once again engaging with the government in the hopes of gaining support and recognition of their plight.
Government officials and Sinhala nationalist commentators often bring up the plight of northern Muslims when criticizing the LTTE or claims to Tamil Eelam, but few genuinely consider what happened to those forced to flee and what must be done to make them whole. Northern Muslims have faced the same hatred as the broader Muslim community in recent years. For 30 years and counting, only northern Muslim politicians consider their plight, while all others ignore it. Today, some southern Muslim politicians are questioning Muslim nationalism and urging Muslims to politically assimilate with the Sinhala majority as we reel from Islamic terror. They criticize ethnic-group politics found in the North and East. There is no small irony there. In 1990, I heard many southern Muslims say that the expulsions were punishment for living like Tamils and not being pious enough. These themes were repeated in Friday sermons at some mosques, where imams claimed Allah was punishing northern IDPs for not being Muslim enough. What they failed to understand was that the Tigers were expelling us only on the basis of our faith. Northern Muslims not only have a right to practice Islam but also to reclaim northern heritage that closely linked them to the northern Tamils; no one has the right to force them to choose.
In the transitional justice period from 2015 to 2019, early efforts to redress northern Muslim grievances through the proposed mechanisms were abandoned. The OISL Investigation launched by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, only probed the period from the 2002 February ceasefire until 2011. This meant that earlier crimes, such as the LTTE’s ethnic cleansing of Muslims from the north, were ignored. When the Sri Lankan government committed to transitional justice through UNHRC Resolution 30/1 in 2015, it likewise did not commit to addressing earlier events. Northern Muslims nonetheless took it upon themselves to play an active role in the public hearing led by the Consultation Taskforce on reconciliation mechanisms, but to no effect. As a result, the current reparation policy does not specifically recognize Northern Muslims’ loss in any form.
Already suffering the effects of 30 years of neglect, northern Muslims have recently faced assaults on their basic democratic rights. During the November 2019 presidential election, northern Muslims who traveled from Puttalam to vote in Mannar came under attack, with their buses fired at on the way to Mannar at Tantirimale early morning on 16th November 2019. After voting they were attacked again that evening by Sinhala mobs in Medawachchiya; many women and children were injured but to date no inquiry has been held (nor even an investigation report by the Election Commission). Their buses were stopped at Chettikulum prior to the attack in Medawachchiya, and police kept them (detained) in custody for hours. Election Commissioner Prof. Ratna Jeevan Hoole visited the police station and instructed police to send the women and children home with a police escort, but officers refused. Late that evening, as the women and children made their way back to Puttalam, they were attacked. Many injured voters did not seek medical treatment, fearing reprisals. Based on this violence, the Election Commission agreed to set up cluster voting booths in Puttalam when these voters participated in the recent parliamentary election. Over 6000 Mannar voters cast their ballots in Puttalam by going to special polling booths. Despite this positive development, the Assistant Elections Commissioner in Mannar has since instructed the district’s Grama Sevekas to only register voters who are permanently living in Mannar. When questioned by civil society activists, he asserted there could be no “floating voters”: people who live in Puttalam must register and vote in Puttalam. The same assistant commissioner said just before the Presidential election, “Mannar voters who are living in Puttalam are banned to come in hired private buses to cast their votes”.
Unlike war-displaced Tamils, who experienced multiple displacements within the Vanni, forcibly evicted Muslims were compelled to live away from war-torn home areas. Thus, it is a fact that they have been spared of the massacres and terrible losses that the Tamils of Vanni have undergone. But this must not be used to disqualify northern Muslims from returning when it is viable and claiming their rightful properties and other resettlement rights. And to avoid any further suspicion and distrust growing between northern communities, it is imperative to recognise the justice of the northern Muslims’ right to return in parallel with other resettlement and development programs that are ongoing in the north. Already, some Muslims who have returned to the North have found their village boundaries changed, resulting in the loss of their community rights to land. When government officers alter the boundaries of villages, they take away public lands – allocated to build public schools, burial grounds, places of worship, playgrounds or even grazing land for animals – and redistribute it for new settlements. Forced to live away from their land for decades, displaced Muslims have had no say in how these decisions have been made and have suffered additional losses as a result.
What can be done?
Even as a handful of Tamil politicians and few community and diaspora members have been sympathetic to the issue, the Tamil polity as a whole has long kept silent on the 1990 Muslim expulsion. In a September 2009 meeting on minority concerns with then President Rajapaksa, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) for the first time publicly raised the concerns of the northern Muslims. When the TNA won the Northern provincial council elections in 2013 it appointed a Muslim to one of their bonus seats as a councillor to demonstrate its positive approach towards the Muslim people of the North. Efforts by a small number of TNA MPs’ to directly address these issues has been welcomed and was seen as an attempt to secure rights for the country’s two largest minorities. In August’s parliamentary election, the Killinochchi and Jaffna Muslims openly endorsed a couple of the TNA representatives and voted for the TNA. Despite this laudable political move, most Tamil leaders and intellectuals have yet to demonstrate their solidarity for the cause of the expelled northern Muslims.
As things stand, Muslims are returning to the north without expecting much from anyone, simply in the hope of restarting their lives from scratch and co-existing once again with their Tamil brothers and sisters. They have advanced few demands, apart from modest ones for equal treatment, access to their lands, basic livelihood activities and swift clearance of their land that has turned into jungles. It is imperative that Tamil government officers and politicians in the north recognise that evicted Muslims have the right to reclaim their properties and livelihood opportunities in their native places, irrespective of whether their families choose to continue to live elsewhere. As trust builds, more northern Muslims will feel safe to return and reclaim their ancestral lands and cultural heritage. At the moment, however, there seems to be a collective resistance to their return. This is a situation that will only set in place further communal strife between the Muslims and Tamils of the north and benefit majoritarianism, undermining the long-term interest of the Tamils and their still-unmet political aspirations. It is in the interest of the both communities – with the support of the international community and sympathetic Sinhalese – to prioritize deeper cooperation and a sustained effort to work through their separate – but deeply intertwined – grievances and suffering.