By Jehan Perera –
The 25th anniversary of the Muslim expulsion from the north was observed last week through a number of events, including in the north. The most high profile commemorative event took place in Colombo with a panel discussion held under the aegis of the SLMC and its leader Minister Rauff Hakeem. The key speakers were political leaders from all communities and included Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, Resettlement Minister D M Swaminathan and TNA parliamentarian M A Sumanthiran. There were also prominent civil society representatives who spoke on the occasion including law lecturer N Selvakkumaran of Colombo University, independent researcher Mirak Raheem and Shreen Saroor who represented the voice of the displaced northern Muslim community.
The strong sense of goodwill that permeated the discussion was manifested by TNA parliamentarian Sumanthiran’s pledge that he would speak up louder on the issue even though he has spoken loudly about it in the past. The government representatives in their speeches made it clear that they wanted to heal the wounds of war and repair the damage to the victims to the extent possible. Minister Samaraweera addressed the “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.” He referred to the notion of majoritarianism that made a majority community unwilling to accept a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society in which the majority will not discriminate or oppress the minority.
The narrow defeat of the Rajapaksa government in January was by a multi ethnic and multi religious majority. This was repeated more convincingly in August and bodes well for the future, but it is a victory that needs to be protected. As pointed out by Minister Samaraweera the eviction of the Muslims of the north was a manifestation of a majoritarian mindset in which there was a “belief that the power of the numerical majority was a justification for violating the rights of individuals and minority groups.” This is a weakness that Sri Lankan society, manifested in both the north and south, that needs to overcome both through a long and never ending process of education at all levels of society and also through the establishment of a state that applies the Rule of Law equally to all.
At the current juncture Sri Lanka faces many serious challenges including on the economic and international fronts. The economy is heavily burdened and is the primary concern of most people who are struggling every day to meet the challenge of balancing their budgets. But for Sri Lanka to be stable and peaceful, which is the pre-requisite for economic take-off, it is necessary to preserve and grow the multi-ethnic and multi-religious majority both in Parliament and outside in the society at large. This will be the surest guarantee that the country will never again descend into inter-community conflict on the scale that occurred in the past. In order to ensure this, it is important to each and every community and the individuals that comprise it feel that the Sri Lankan state is treating them equitably as members of their communities and equally as individuals.
At the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Northern Muslim expulsion, Minister Swaminathan gave a pledge that the government would ensure that all Muslim families who lost their homes in 1990 would be compensated. He said that the government would build them pre-fabricated houses with furniture, which shows the intention of the government to compensate them on the most generous terms and speedily. While the sentiments of goodwill came through clearly the question is whether this proposal has been rigorously considered, both in terms of financial costing and other implications. There also appears to be lack of clarity over the number of those who still remain displaced. Minister Samaraweera referred to a figure of around 80 percent of the original 75,000 displaced Muslims continuing to remain displaced. However, Minister Swaminathan made an assertion that based on figures given to him by government departments in the North, there were only 2800 families that remain displaced.
While the costs of providing pre-fabricated and furnished houses for 2800 families may have been budgeted by the government as being affordable, the cost of providing this same facility to 10,000 families will be significantly more. The number may be still larger as there will have been the natural increase in the number of households living displaced after 25 years as children form their own families and require separate houses. The discrepancy in numbers cited by the two ministers brings into question what definition of displacement is being used. Many displaced Muslim families have gone back to their original places of residence to register themselves with the government authorities in those areas. Their applications to reclaim their lost properties may have been accepted. But this does not mean they are no longer displaced. They may not have been able to come back to reside in their original places of inhabitation from which they were expelled.
Shortly after the end of the war when I went to Jaffna, I met with several displaced Muslims who had been urged by their political leaders to go back and claim their properties, but who were finding it very difficult to restart their lives. There was no enabling environment for that. Colombo University’s Selvakkumaran referred to this reality when he said “There should be genuine programmes to promote mutual respect and understanding between these people and those who are living there. The return of the displaced people should not be seen and viewed by those who are living there as an intrusion into their lives or livelihoods.” He also pointed to the need for “provincial council and its administration as well as local authorities” to take meaningful steps to ensure “provision and establishment of infrastructure facilities such as schools, mosques and places for engaging in trade and vocation.”
There is also another important factor that needs to be kept in mind. This is the sense of relative deprivation that may arise if one set of deserving people are given good quality houses while those in neighboring communities do not get similar benefits. The northern Muslims were displaced from areas where other war-affected people also live. Those people who belong to the other communities must not feel that they are being left out or left behind to live in poorer quality housing. Civic activist Shreen Saroor pointed to the divisions within the Muslims themselves between those who had been displaced and those who were not displaced. If the sentiments of neighboring communities are not considered in the resettlement process, it could set in motion the possibility of new inter-community and also intra-community conflicts. Even if they are not provided with the new pre-fabricated houses, their areas could be provided with the same level of infrastructure support referred to by Selvakkumaran above.
One of the important messages to come out of the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Muslim expulsion was by independent researcher Mirak Raheem. He pointed out the larger context in which the expulsion of the northern Muslims took place. A few months previously in June, 600 policemen of Sinhalese ethnicity had been separated out and executed by the LTTE after they had been ordered to surrender by the Sri Lankan government that was desperately trying to sustain the ceasefire with the LTTE. This was followed a few months later by the army entry into the Vantharamoolai welfare camp where some 40,000 displaced Tamils were staying in, and 158 were taken out never to be seen again. All communities in the war-affected areas became victims and today they all await justice. It is therefore important that the government response to the injustices faced by the different communities, and by each and every individual, should not be ad hoc, but should be well planned and cohesive. Goodwill is the necessary first step, and is the welcome hallmark of the present multi-ethnic and multi-religious government, but it needs to be cohesive and holistic in approach, and one in which all aspects are taken into consideration.