By Latheef Farook –
It appears that northern Muslims evicted from their homes and lands within 24 hours to suffer in extreme misery in refugee camps seems to be receiving some rays of hope after 25 years.
This is what one could gather from numerous calls by leading Tamil and Sinhalese politicians, ministers, academics , human rights organizations, journalists and many others including former LTTE leader to undo the damage done to Northern Muslims and improve Muslim Tamil relations.
For example criticizing the Tamil community for keeping silence the Tamil National Alliance,TNA, Member of Parliament, M.A.Sumanthiran said that” he does not approve the Tamil peoples’ silence over the Muslim people’s evacuation from the North which was nothing but ethnic cleansing.
He said“the international community will not accept that ethnic cleansing is in progress against us until we accept that we are also responsible for ethnic cleansing”. He questioned whether it is fair for them to neglect the Muslim community in Sri Lanka and request the international community to help ensure the rights of Tamil community.
“Australia must talk about us.US must talk about us. All states in India must talk about us. But we should not talk about the Muslims. Is this fair?” he questioned.
Added to this was the voice of respected academic and activist S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole who, in an article on Muslim Tamil relations, had this to state;
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.
What moved me to write this piece was Mr. 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.
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) . 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 seeks 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.
Meanwhile Friday Forum in Colombo urged the need for “credible and immediate resettlement policy for Northern Muslims. In a statement the Friday Forum stated that;
For both the Jaffna Muslims and the Northern Muslim community as a whole, what is needed first and foremost is a credible and immediate resettlement policy. This is a right for all those displaced during the war. Unfortunately, for the Northern Muslim community, when it comes to forging a resettlement process, they have for the most part been abandoned by the State and by the Muslim and Tamil political parties.”
As the country attempts to move towards reconciliation and a political solution, the Friday Forum calls for reflection about this tragic eviction. This is not merely about condemning the LTTE’s ruthless dispossession of an entire community. Rather, it serves as a crucial reminder of the deep divisions within our society that need to be recognized and addressed. Injustice against any community requires all of us to reflect and together find solutions.
Despite the war having ended over six years ago, in places like Jaffna the Muslims are in limbo, and their resettlement has for the most part been a failure. Of the close to 8,000 families that originate from Jaffna Town over 2,000 families registered for resettlement soon after the end of the war. However, only about six hundred families now remain in Jaffna, and that amidst tremendous social and economic problems. The loss of their original land and houses, most of which were destroyed, has complicated the resettlement of the Muslim community, and many are on the verge of giving up on their resettlement and returning to the camps in Puttalam.
There still seems to be little acknowledgement of their economic and infrastructure needs. They lack housing, land, jobs and even decent schooling for their children. When resettlement fails and families move between Puttalam and their places of return in Jaffna, the children’s education is a major casualty. In the Muslim quarter of Jaffna town, where a section of Muslims still live in camp-like conditions, problems of water, drainage and flooding during the monsoon rains add to their travails.
The Northern Muslim community needs resources, but with the process of return it also has to rebuild relations with neighboring communities. Rebuilding Tamil-Muslim relations is a priority to ensure successful resettlement as well as for future coexistence. The Tamil community in the North, in particular, should reflect on the suffering endured by the Northern Muslims and extend their support to the Muslim community. Moreover, as the Government prepares to initiate the long overdue process of reconciliation and a political solution, it needs to realize that such processes are inextricably linked to rebuilding relations between communities. The Friday Forum believes that addressing the problems of the Northern Muslim community is an essential and urgent part of working towards meaningful reconciliation throughout our country.
Addressing a gathering in Colombo Minister of External Affairs Mangala Samaraweera said;
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.
The history and suffering of Sri Lanka’s Northern Muslims is a microcosm of our post-Independence history.
They had peacefully lived, farmed and traded with their Tamil brethren for centuries. 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 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 wept 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 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.
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. 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.
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.
Meanwhile well known Sinhala journalist Victor Ivan called for the need to compensate the Muslim victims while Karuna Amman, former LTTE in the east, accused LTTE leader Prabhakaran and some close to him of being responsible for this crime and urged the need to resettle evicted Muslims.
This is the first time that such widespread support was expressed to resettle these unfortunate Muslim who were almost abandoned by Muslim politicians.