Saturday 31 Aug. witnessed the gathering of a few hundred persons at Trimmer Hall at 3:30 PM. The event was chaired by Ahilan Kadirgamar for The Forum for Tamil Muslim Relations.
Proclaimed the banner on the stage, “Forum for Tamil Muslim Relations – Justice, Equality, Relations,” drawing our attention to the need for concerted efforts at justice for the displaced Muslims, and help to resettle them. Senior Lecturer Dr. Ms. S. Krishnakumar of the University of Jaffna read out a statement by the Women’s Forum on Tamil Muslim Relations which will go into a book. Kadirgamar and other speakers lamented how the return of the displaced refugees to their original homes had been abysmally slow. Many had been living as refugees for 25 years, i.e., almost a generation, and their return to Jaffna was a return to a strange place for their children who see their areas of refuge like Puttalam as their real home now. Out of an estimated 8,000 refugee families originating from Jaffna, 2,200 have registered their desire to return, and out of these, only 600 are living in Jaffna amidst difficulties.
How wide the gulf has grown was seen when Ms. A. C. Jancy, the Principal of Khatheeja Girls’ School, described in her speech in perfect Tamil, how a Tamil had asked her if she spoke Tamil. It reminded me of an incident in my own life of how separate communities living together can be so ignorant of each other. In Nigeria in 1979 or so, I was invited to a function at the home of a former Hindu Mayor of Jaffna. All were seated on the floor for their lunch just like at Tamil Christian functions. Yet, just for me, a table was laid out with cutlery.
What moved me to write this piece was TNA Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran’s speech which responded to that by Professor S.H. Hasbullah of Peradeniya University who asked for an official response from the Tamil National Alliance to the enormity visited on the Muslim people. Mr. Sumanthiran made some points I have rarely heard expressed by elected representatives of the Tamil people. What he said needs to be placed on public record and widely heard. He said, among other things, that
- The Muslims are a separate people with their own traditions and way of life
- Tamil attempts and assertions to declare Muslims who are Tamil speaking as Tamils like the Tamil-speaking Hindus and Christians who comfortably call themselves Tamil, are wrong. It is for Muslims to say who they are and choose what to call themselves.
- He is an MP from the Federal Party which in its constitutions loudly proclaims the right of Muslims to self-determination
- When the Muslims of the North were asked to vacate within 48 hours leaving behind their homes and all their hard earned savings and property, it was indeed ethnic cleansing.
- It is self-serving rhetoric to shout for the army to vacate the lands they occupy and make way for displaced Tamils to return, when we ourselves will not lift a finger to help Muslim refugees return to their homes in Jaffna.
- We Tamils cry about genocide over what happened in 2009, but so long as we Tamils deny that what was done to Muslims was ethnic cleansing by us, no one will listen to us.
- Justice and the right to assurance of non-recurrence for Tamils must go hand in hand with the same for Muslims.
That far greater attention than given now, is needed to settle the problems of the refugees once and for all was clear from things said and unsaid at the meeting. After speaker M.A.C. Moubin described how before their exodus, Muslims were taunted at school by derisory phrases like Choni and Kaakaa, another Tamil speaker instead of showing any sympathy denied that and asserted how well Tamils had treated Mulims and what happened was an aberration. As one who schooled entirely in Jaffna at mission institutions, the fact that I never had a Muslim classmate till I went to university, shows how well Muslims were treated and what little access they had to good schools, and that Tamils have much to gain by being exposed to Sri Lankan institutions. Not only did my world expand through new Muslim friends after I moved South, but I also witnessed in the South far worse descriptions of Muslims by my new Tamil friends such as Mukkaal (three quarters) which were outside the genteel speech of mission schools. Denying how badly Muslims were treated is to pour oil on fire, and takes us back to our more primitive origins.
The Sri Lankanness of these problems was forcefully made by Mr. C. Maliyadde (Director General of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation at the Presidential Secretariat) who had come all the way from Colombo at the insistence, he said, of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge. He was accompanied by his colleague Ambassador D. Casie Chetty. Mr. Maliyadde said that if we substituted Hambantota for Jaffna and Sinhalese for Muslim, the same problems can be seen elsewhere and that we should treat this as a Sri Lankan problem and seek a common solution. The point is very valid in that we do need each other to expand our horizons and vision. Yet it needs to be balanced with the fact that Tamils and Muslims have a history of atrocities against them and preservation of identity is not only a cultural right but also affords safety. Hitting the balance will take political commitment, astuteness and daring as done by Mr. Sumanthiran
The evening showed on the positive side that much needs to be done as seen from the fact that only one TNA MP was present and no Chief Minister or provincial minister. The presence of former Chief Minister A. Varadaraja Perumal was a pleasant exception. Many who should have come and thrown their weight behind the problems faced by Muslims if they really cared, instead sent excuses to be read out. Worse, in the city of Jaffna where there are hardly any Muslims after the evil visited on them on 30 Oct., 1990, there were more Muslims than Tamils present at the function. The Jaffna Muslims are therefore indeed still alone and Tamils need urgently to do something about it.
The evening ended with a short, moving skit by Red Face Performing Group highlighting how returnees are sent from pillar to post as they seek to register themselves and claim what is only theirs.