The eviction of Muslims caused a serious rupture in the coexistence of Tamils and Muslims in the North. The Tamils in general could not dissociate themselves as a group from this heinous act or condemn it openly when it was unfolding perhaps due to fear of reprisals from the LTTE. Small groups of Tamils, however, pleaded with the LTTE to stop the eviction but their pleas did not move the LTTE. Now when a section of the evicted Muslims is in the process of resettling in Jaffna and have begun to stabilise themselves in socio-economic terms, the doors to a renewed coexistence are slowly opening. A genuine process of coexistence can begin only if the members of the Tamil community are willing to interrogate, even belatedly, their narrow nationalism and their silence in the face of the LTTE’s militarism which allowed the LTTE to commit an act of ethnic cleansing. The coexistence of Tamils and Muslims in the North depends largely on how these two communities work together in addressing the challenges the returning Muslims are faced with. This piece is an attempt to reflect upon the question of the return, the social, economic and political challenges the evicted Muslims face in their resettlement and their implications to ethnic coexistence in the North.
Since the civil war’s end in May 2009, northern Muslims have started returning in substantial numbers. But many Tamils who remained in the North have not welcomed their return. Political and economic rivalries between Tamil and Muslim communities persist. Northern Muslims are disappointed 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 the allocation of resources and the development support required for resettlement. When confronted over 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 Tamils. It is certainly true that the plight of war-affected Tamil civilians remains distressing especially in the Vanni. A decade after the end of the war, many still lack land, housing and other basic needs and continue to struggle for truth and justice in a dangerous, militarised space. These needs are critical, but addressing them should not forestall northern Muslims’ right to collective return. The suffering the two communities experienced during the civil war, instead of alienating them from one another, should lead them to empathise with one another and commit themselves to pluralistic coexistence.
On one occasion, when journalists asked Tamil government officers and religious leaders about claims that returning northern Muslims have not received adequate assistance, the leaders responded that the Muslim community had not returned in any significant way and that only a few had returned to engage in trade. In a dismissive, unsympathetic tone, these leaders stated that the Muslims are keeping one foot in Puttalam and one foot in the North. While it is true that some Muslims do not want to return to the North, their desire to maintain their connections in Puttalam reflects the obstacles that impede their resettlement. With their lands overtaken by jungles and made uninhabitable, 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 is there no basic infrastructure but they are also not welcomed by government officers or even neighbours. Most of the Tamils, after 30 years of separation, do not recognise their former neighbours. A new generation has grown up amidst the war which has no memories of the coexistences of Tamils and Muslims in the North. The few (mostly in Mannar) who received decent resettlement assistance have been able to return mainly owing to the political patronage of a former minister. For new families that 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, the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was conspicuously silent on the issue during the peace negotiations of 2002-2005. At a press conference in 2002 during the peace talks, the late Dr. Anton Balasingham, the political ideologue of the LTTE, with the LTTE leader V. Prabhakaran on his side, stated that the LTTE had already apologised to the Muslims for the eviction. However, Dr. Balasingham’s statement sounded hollow and tokenistic at a time when Muslims were facing severe obstacles to their resettlement in the North. Further, none of the parties engaged in talks — including the Norwegian mediators — were willing to recognise 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 of expelled Muslims in comparison with 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 the evicted Muslims no longer want to resettle in the North 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 the religious proscriptions among the Muslims against birth control have combined to create a boom in the Muslim population over the last 29 years, thus making a full return an unfair burden on Tamils who remained and suffered through the war. Such claims reeking of chauvinism highlight the extent of the challenge northern Muslims face in seeking justice. They indicate that a section of the Tamil civil society too is actively involved in constructing the ‘returning Muslim’ as the over-populating, outsider-Other that poses a threat to the existence of the Tamils in the North.
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 United Nations’ (UN) refugee agency, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (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 with yet another eviction looming on the horizon. The LTTE’s violence against Tamil dissident activists and the attacks on LTTE-sympathisers by the military and Tamil militant groups associated with the government, which continued despite the ceasefire agreement, created fear among the Muslims and stalled their hopes of returning to the North during the peace talks.
Government officials and Sinhala nationalist commentators often bring up the plight of northern Muslims when criticising the LTTE or its claims to Tamil Eelam, but few genuinely consider what happened to those forced to flee and what must be done to bring rejuvenation in their lives. 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 into the Sinhala majority as we reel from Islamic terror. They criticise the formations of ethnic collectives in the North and East. There is no small irony there. In 1990, many southern Muslims portrayed the expulsion of the Muslims as a punishment for living like Tamils and not being pious enough. These themes were repeated during Friday sermons at some mosques, where imams (leader of prayers at a mosque) claimed that Allah was punishing northern IDPs for not being Muslim enough. What they failed to understand was that the Tigers were expelling northern Muslims only on the basis of their religious identity. Northern Muslims not only have a right to practice Islam but also to reclaim the 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 Official Inquiry on Sri Lanka (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 itself to starting transitional justice processes through the UN Human Rights Commission Resolution 30/1 in 2015, it likewise did not commit to addressing earlier events like the eviction of the northern Muslims. 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 recognise northern Muslims’ loss in any form. Within the Tamil community, only a few voices emphasised that the transitional justice processes acknowledge the crimes committed against the Muslims and address the grievances of the evicted Muslims. There was hardly any coverage of the submissions made by the evicted Muslims during these sessions in mainstream Tamil media. One Tamil politician who termed the forcible expulsion of the Muslims as an act of ethnic cleansing at a commemoration event held in Jaffna faced vicious vilification from chauvinistic forces within the Tamil community.
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 (not even an investigation report was released by the Election Commission). Their buses were stopped at Chettikulum prior to the attack in Medawachchiya, and the police kept them (detained) in custody for hours. Election Commissioner Prof. Ratnajeevan Hoole visited the police station and instructed the 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 again 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 2020 August parliamentary election. Over 6000 Mannar voters cast their ballots in Puttalam at special polling booths. Despite this positive development, the Assistant Elections Commissioner in Mannar has since instructed the district’s grama sevakas (village officers) 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”. To date, many of such returnees are unable to register not only to vote but also to receive their due share of government assistance in the North due to constant and unnecessary scrutiny, by politically motivated government officers, of their dual living places.
Unlike war-displaced Tamils, who experienced multiple displacements within the Vanni, forcibly evicted Muslims were compelled to live away from the war-torn areas where their homes were located. It is true that the Muslims were spared the massacres and terrible losses that the Tamils of Vanni underwent during the height of the war. But this must not be used to disqualify northern Muslims from returning when it is viable and claiming their rightful properties and other rights related to resettlement. To avoid any further suspicion and distrust growing between northern communities, it is imperative to recognise the just nature of the northern Muslims’ right to return alongside other resettlement and development programs that are underway 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 them 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.
In the Musali region of the Mannar district, the evicted Muslims who tried to resettle in their lands and access the lands that they have historically benefitted from for various everyday purposes were falsely accused of destroying the Wilpattu Forest. The late Prof. S. H. Hasbullah’s book Denying the Right to Return (2015) exposes the politics behind these spurious allegations and demonstrates that a chauvinistic environmentalist discourse was set in motion to vilify the returning Muslims as a threat to the environment and to deny their right to access their lands and the surrounding eco-systems for their livelihood purposes. This is a new challenge the evicted Muslims have been battling for the past few years without much support from other communities and activists.
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. In a powerful gesture towards reconciliation and renewed coexistence, a group of Tamils, including academics, civil society activists, human rights activists and feminists, put out a statement in 2011 condemning the eviction. The statement stressed the importance of self-introspection on the part of Tamils and called for dialogue between the Tamils and Muslims. This gesture was later reciprocated by a group of Muslim activists and leaders in a statement they released which focused on the atrocities the Tamil community had suffered during the war. Such gestures and the coming together of Muslims and Tamils as collectives like the Jaffna People’s Forum for Coexistence keep our faith in inter-ethnic dialogue and reconciliation alive in a context of increasing ethnic polarisation.
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 have been welcomed and were seen as an attempt to secure rights for the country’s two largest minorities. In the August parliamentary election, organisations representing the Muslims of Killinochchi and Jaffna openly endorsed a couple of the TNA candidates and voted for the TNA. In February 2020, the P2P march organised by Tamil civil society groups and political parties made a clarion call against the government’s decision to cremate the remains of the Muslims who die of the COVID-19 disease. Despite these laudable political moves, most Tamil leaders and intellectuals have yet to demonstrate their solidarity for the cause of the expelled northern Muslims. The idea that the North and East are the traditional homelands of the Tamil people creates a hierarchy of ethnicities within the region and discursively denies the Muslims and Sinhalese who live in the region the full rights of belonging. This process of ‘othering’ continues as an exclusivist feature of the Tamil self-determination project. Those who call for Tamil nationalist self-determination in the North and East of the island are yet to realise that the eviction of Muslims is a consequence of this dangerous nationalist imagination. In order to build an inclusive future in the North-East, Tamil nationalism should give way to a new discourse of resistance that places the coexistence of multiple communities at its center.
The privations that the Tamil community experienced during the civil war and the intense militarisation, displacement and economic deprivations amidst which the northern Tamils had to live their lives rendered them an oppressed community. Muslim armed groups created by the state in the East to defeat Tamil militancy turned violent against Tamils in the Eastern Province. The Tamils saw these groups as the paramilitary wings of the Sinhala-Buddhist state and caste doubts about the Muslim community’s commitment towards the political liberation of the Tamils. However, the situation in the East was more complicated. The massacres of Muslims by the LTTE in Eravur and Kattankudy were totally unwarranted. They led to a severe deterioration in the Tamil-Muslim relations in the East. The scars caused by these massacres and the memories of the involvement of Muslim home guards in some of the massacres that took place in Tamil villages in the East continue to pose a challenge to reconciliation between Tamils and Muslims in the East.
During the post-war years, leading Muslim politicians defended the government in the international arena when the Rajapaksa regime faced allegations of war crimes and genocide from the Tamil community. The political leadership of the Muslim community failed to take a consistent stance against the Sinhala-Buddhist character of the state and thereby alienated the Tamil community. These factors did not allow much political space for the Tamils to reflect upon the plight of the evicted Muslims. There is a need for the Muslim community to understand and empathise with the trials and tribulations that the Tamils went through during the war years and introspect into their relationship with the state and successive Sinhala chauvinist regimes that governed the island. Blaming the Tamil community as a whole for the eviction will not take the Muslims anywhere on their quest for renewed coexistence in the North.
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 resistance to their return. This is a situation that will only lead to further communal strife between the Muslims and Tamils of the North and benefit majoritarianism, undermining the long-term interests of the Tamils and their long-sought political aspirations. It is in the interest of both communities — with the support of the international community and sympathetic Sinhalese — to prioritise deeper cooperation and a sustained effort to work through their separate — but deeply intertwined — grievances and suffering.
 ‘Was The Presidential Election Free And Fair When Colombo Returning Officer Called Sajith Premadasa The Son Of A Donkey, Asks Prof. Hoole’, Colombo Telegraph, (28 November 2019) <https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/was-the-presidential-election-free-and-fair-when-colombo-returning-officer-called-sajith-premadasa-the-son-of-a-donkey-asks-prof-hoole/> accessed July 2021.
 ‘An appeal to the Tamil Community and its civil and political representatives’, Sri Lanka Brief, (6 January 2012) <https://srilankabrief.org/an-appeal-to-the-tamil-community-and-its-civil-and-political-representatives/> accessed July 2021.
 The ‘Pothuvil to Polikandy’ rally or ‘P2P’ was a five-day march for justice held across Sri Lanka’s north and east. Meera Srinivasan, ‘Analysis | A long march in Sri Lanka — to register protest, forge a new alliance’, The Hindu, (9 February 2021) < https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/a-long-march-in-sri-lanka-to-register-protest-forge-a-new-alliance/article33792547.ece> accessed 22 September 2021.