By Mangala Samaraweera –
I would like to thank the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress for organizing this commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the Expulsion of Muslims from the North. At this historic juncture, when Sri Lanka is grappling with its past and creating a constitutional framework for true peace, this tragic episode in our history, and the anguish that persists to this day, needs to be remembered and addressed.
I would like to particularly thank Minister Rauff Hakeem for his vision and leadership in organizing this event – it is a privilege to be invited here to speak a few words. The SLMC has a long and chequered history of advocating on behalf their community’s rights. Both the late Mr. Ashraff and Minister Hakeem have boldly voiced the grievances and concerns of the Muslim community in Cabinet, in Parliament, in the press and in their travels abroad. The SLMC’s fact-finding and reporting efforts during the Aluthgama Pogrom and surrounding attacks were particularly bold.
The history and suffering of Sri Lanka’s Northern Muslims is a microcosm of our post-Independence history. In October 1990 the LTTE gave 75,000 Muslims under forty-eight hours to leave their ancestral homes across the North and take nothing more than their clothes and 500 rupees to live in IDP camps – where an estimated 80 percent remain 25 years later.
They had peacefully lived, farmed and traded with their Tamil brethren for centuries. In fact, some Muslims initially helped the LTTE and many more were sympathetic to their cause. The bonds between the communities were close. Therefore, the LTTE’s sudden order came as a surprise to many. It was a crime that shocked the conscience of the entire country.
The LTTE’s justification echoed the age-old line of majorities towards minorities: they, the majority, had been lenient, generous and considerate, while the minorities have been treacherous and ungrateful. In this case, the Tigers alleged that the Muslims’ specific crime was colluding with the state and the Indian Peacekeeping Forces.
But underlying the arguments about Muslims being a fifth column and a security threat to the LTTE was something more pernicious. It was a belief that the power of numerical majority was a justification for violating the rights of individuals and minority groups.
The North of Sri Lanka was as much home for its Muslim population as it was for its Tamil population. Both communities had as much claim as the other to live there and these claims were not contested. The two communities had lived together for centuries in peace.
But the LTTE believed that the Tamil population’s numerical majority gave it the right to expel the entire Muslim population. It was not just the LTTE, few Tamils criticized the LTTE while many justified their actions; even today Muslims returning to their homes face majoritarian resistance from Tamil bureaucrats.
The story is of course many-sided. Numerous Tamils weeped when their Muslim neighbors left, hiding valuables on their behalf and helping them in what little way they could. But as a whole, the majority community, failed to stand in solidarity and protect the rights of the minority community in their midst.
The expulsion occurred because the LTTE was unable to accept a society based on equality and freedom; they were unable to accept that North was multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious. They were unable to celebrate diversity. They were even unable to have the basic decency to give the community they exiled a few extra days or weeks to leave and to take their heirlooms and title deeds with them.
The racism and majoritarianism undergirding the LTTE’s expulsion of Muslims from the North is not something isolated to the Tamil community. It prevails to this day among all communities in our society. Just as the LTTE was unable to accept a multi-ethnic North, extremists in the South are unable to celebrate our country’s diversity – much the less accept that Tamils, Muslims, Burghers and Malays are as much a part of Sri Lanka as the Sinhalese.
Especially since the end of the war, which should have ushered introspection, magnanimity and healing, majoritarianism in the South raised its ugly head. The government indulged in an orgy of triumphalism based on equating Sri Lanka’s identity with the Sinhala-Buddhist community, and relegated the minority communities to the place of unwanted guests.
They ignored the grievances of those in the North and the South and trampled on their rights. The Aluthgama Pogrom and the hundreds of smaller attacks surrounding it were a clear signal to minorities that they were not only second-class citizens but that the state had abdicated from discharging its basic responsibilities towards them, including safeguarding their person and property.
In fact, it is this scourge of majoritarianism that is at the very centre of our post-Independence failure to build a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka that is united and undivided both on the map and in its citizens’ hearts and minds. Each and every ethnic, religious, class and caste group discriminates and oppresses in areas where they form a majority whether it be in the North, South, East or West.
At this critical moment in Sri Lanka’s history the lessons of the expulsion have much to teach us. Since Independence we have failed to establish a society where all citizens feel equal and free and, as a result, instead of peace, conflict has prevailed.
The end of the war presented a historic opportunity for all our communities and leaders to demonstrate true leadership by breaking away from the past and beginning the task of building a truly united Sri Lanka. Just as Muslims and Tamils lived together as brothers and sisters in the North for centuries; prior to Independence in 1948, Sri Lanka had many centuries of ethnic amity and peace.
Of course, there were disturbances, like the 1915 riots, but they were isolated and rare. Even before the colonial era, Sri Lanka enjoyed a highly syncretic culture – there is evidence that Buddhism was widely practiced by the Tamils of Jaffna, Tamil was spoken by the kings of Kandy and there are some indications that the language of court was Tamil; Muslims generally speak both Sinhalese and Tamil and thus it could be argued that they are the most Sri Lankan of all the ethnic groups. They were also functionaries at the Dalada Maligawa and participated in the Kandy Esala Perahera. The religious and cultural practices of Sri Lanka’s many communities indicate a high degree of tolerance and borrowing.
We need to understand why that amity broke down, and why it broke down to the extent that war and violence followed.
The challenge for us today is to learn from our past failures, remedy mistakes and move forward. This is a rare opportunity we cannot miss. Speaking in Parliament last Friday I said, “Sri Lanka has yet another window of opportunity to come to terms with its past and move on. Extremists in the North and in the South have been defeated in the recent elections, two of the most liberal minded leaders since independence are leading the country and the two main parties, for the first time in history, have formed a national unity government. This is a moment we cannot afford to lose.”
But it will not be an easy or a pleasant process: we will have to look critically at our own faults and strive hard to hear the voices of others. It will require courage and commitment. But I am confident it can be done.
The TNA recently announced that it would be leading its own community in a process of introspection. The SLMC, welcoming this statement, indicated that it would do so as well. The National Government comprising of both the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party have committed themselves to guiding the entire country in this difficult process of dealing with the past.
As for the Government of Sri Lanka – as you are aware- we are now beginning to lay the foundations for peace and reconciliation through truth-seeking, accountability, reparations and non-recurrence. Already the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, the Ministry of Resettlement and other government agencies are taking steps to assist in this process, and just yesterday I met with civil society, including representatives of the Muslim community, to discuss the consultations process necessary to design the mechanisms to implement this process.
Muslims will be an integral part of the truth, justice, reparations and non-recurrence process. Muslims’ grievances and concerns will be a part of the consultations, design and operationalization of the domestic mechanisms; including the Commission for Truth, Justice, Reconciliation and Non-recurrence, the Judicial Mechanism, the Office of Missing Persons and the Office of Reparations. Together with the Ministries and government agencies, these mechanisms, will provide much needed relief to the daily struggle of the thousands of Muslims who remain in IDP camps, are struggling to return to their homes or are dealing with the losses of loved ones.
These mechanisms will not only address the suffering and grievances of members of the Muslim community, they will also address the grievances and concerns of members of the Sinhala and Tamil communities and the concerns of other minority groups.
At this historic moment, let us not be afraid to engage in meaningful dialogue aimed at finding solutions to problems as opposed to pointing fingers, heaping blame and scoring political points at the expense of future generations. Let us design, define and create our future by our hopes and aspirations, and not be held back by the fears and prejudices of the past. Let us not be afraid to dream.
*Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s speech at the Commemoration of the 25th Anniversary of the Muslims of the Northern Province