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Competing for Victim Status: Northern Muslims and the Ironies of Sri Lanka’s Post-war Transition

Author: Dr. Farzana Haniffa

Professor  Department of Sociology University of Colombo visiting fellow in Commonwealth studies at the Center for South Asian Studies at the University of Cambridge


The northern Muslims together with all protracted IDPs displaced prior to 2008 became a low priority caseload for return and resettlement assistance in the aftermath of the ‘end’ of the war in Sri Lanka in 2009. Framed in terms of an ethics of ‘greatest need’ connected only to funding availability, all old IDPs lost out in the resettlement process. This paper attempts to decentre this idea of economic limits and humanitarian need by discussing the manner in which such ideas of ‘greatest need’ actually emerge from discourses about victimhood that are part of an ethical humanitarian project to which local politics are irrelevant. This paper will show, however, that these initiatives consistently intersect with local power hierarchies and local ideas of legitimacy and belonging. Therefore, this paper will look at the manner in which the war related victim discourse of international humanitarianism, helped to exacerbate northern Muslim’s own marginality and continued exclusion from the north. This paper will also look at the manner in which victimhood narratives are mobilized in Sri Lanka by electoral politics and displaced IDP activists themselves, and will speculate about the efficacy of the victim identity for political and social transformation during this time of transition in Sri Lanka.


In October 1990, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam1 (LTTE) expelled the entire Muslim population of five districts in the North of Sri Lanka. Close to 75,000 northern Muslims were summarily evicted and most of their assets confiscated. In January 2012, less than three years after the end of the war, a representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) field office in Mannar, north-western Sri Lanka, told me that the northern Muslims were not among the priority caseloads of internally displaced persons (IDPs). This was the first time I had officially heard this claim. She explained the position to me in the following terms: ‘Vanni2 IDPs have nothing; the northern Muslims have a plan B, because they have had assistance for 20 years.’ Then she also told me that ‘the northern Muslims have a right to return, but assistance is a different matter.’

This statement took me aback because it pointed to the substantial disjuncture between the perspective of local human rights activists and researchers and that of humanitarian agencies (led by UNHCR) regarding the predicament of northern Muslims on the issue of local integration and return. Despite substantial evidence3 regarding the ambivalent relationship of most northern Muslims IDPs to the areas they were compelled to live in for over 20 years and the fraught and difficult relations between them and the local Muslim community, the UNHCR insisted that ‘local integration’ must have occurred owing to years of assistance and aid delivery.

With the end of the war in May 2009, aid delivery prioritised the thousands displaced in the final stages of the war; all those displaced prior to 2008 were rendered low priority caseloads. This manifested itself most clearly in the UNHCR cash grant for returnees for which only the ‘new’ IDPs were eligible. I was taken aback by the UNHCR delineation of their position on northern Muslims because I had assumed its position on ‘old’ IDPs was an act of omission not commission, and as being based more on government priorities than UN interests. The fact that the UNHCR had clearly worked out a narrative about why it should not assist northern Muslims was a surprise.

I have chosen to understand the UNHCR’s position on northern Muslims as part of the humanitarian establishment’s problematic hierarchisation of victimhood in Sri Lanka. This, I argue, is influenced not by any specificities of the context but by a philosophically specific delineation of victimhood within international humanitarian discourse.4 As I will show in this paper, UNHCR’s position was problematic in Sri Lanka because while it drew from a logic of humanitarian assistance that had very little to do with the local context, it helped reinforce prevailing ethnicised notions regarding return that caused distress to the local populations and boded ill for prospects of post-war reconciliation.5

The UNHCR representative’s position was surprising to me because I was just emerging from a two-year project documenting the ‘social suffering’ of the displaced northern Muslims. The project took the form of a Citizens’ Commission of Investigation precisely in order to address the insufficient attention paid in narratives of the Sri Lankan conflict to the story of northern Muslims. Though difficult and long delayed, one problem the project did not encounter was a lack of sympathy from its interlocutors – the Sri Lankan human rights community.6 However, it should be noted that despite repeated requests, the UNHCR was never available for a meeting with the Commission. Conceived as a community-based ‘truth telling’ transitional justice project, the Commission articulated the northern Muslims’ experiences of expulsion and protracted displacement as well as their expectations of and encounters during return in its report entitled The Quest for Redemption: the Story of the Northern Muslims (QFR 2011). In so doing it sought to legitimise the claims to suffering of northern Muslims in a country replete with different and competing notions of victimhood.

The notion of victimhood that QFR illustrated and victimhood deserving of humanitarian intervention according to UNHCR were clearly different. In fact the UNHCR and the northern Muslims used different definitions of ‘displacement.’ As I will show, for UNHCR, ‘displacement’ was a technical term indicating need, but for northern Muslims it was a political term that had defined them for over 20 years (Brun 2008). The manner in which the UNHCR framed its position and operationalised it had consequences beyond humanitarian aid delivery. Its policies and the underlying justification seriously undermined the efforts of local actors and activists to raise the profile of the northern Muslim IDPs.

Background: Northern Muslim IDPs and the Sri Lankan Context

Since their expulsion from the Northern Province by the LTTE in 1990, northern Muslims have constituted a community in protracted displacement with large numbers concentrated in the economically depressed areas of Puttalam District in north-western Sri Lanka. In years of war and periods of peace that followed, their return was always compromised by the possibility of another expulsion (Hasbullah 2001). The defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 augured the first real instance of possible return in large numbers. However, neither the state nor international humanitarian actors shared the enthusiasm of northern Muslims who wanted to return. Five years on, despite on-going resettlement and development work in the war-affected North and East, the return of northern Muslims is beset with problems.7

The government – for the first two years after the end of the war – concentrated on resettling the ‘new’ IDPs who had been displaced since 2008 in a manner that paid scant attention to restoring a decent standard of living. Their return was riven with problems of security, the lack of sustainable livelihoods, minimal consultation of IDPs and little transparency. Moreover, the peace itself was securitised, by a heavy military presence and the militarisation of governance in the conflict areas, and all civilian activities were viewed with intense suspicion. While the state continues to publicly highlight the massive infrastructure projects completed in the North as post-war reconstruction, many have argued that this has benefitted the people minimally (Thahir et al. 2014).8

The post-war return of Muslims began in this strained and difficult context where a suspicious military watched over a war-fatigued and resentful Tamil civilian population. Additionally the North was mono-ethnic for 20 years and many had all but forgotten the presence of a substantial community of Muslims in the area. Northern political and civil society leaders are adjusting slowly and sometimes reluctantly – amidst dealing with the many other post-war problems– to the prospect of Muslim return. Muslim villages were decimated and their homes destroyed during the 20 years of displacement; additionally families have expanded and returning Muslims’ need for land, infrastructure and livelihood assistance is great. Currently there are many disputes between the returning Muslim and Tamil communities over land and rights to engage in livelihoods.

Some northern Muslims built up fairly successful lives in Puttalam where the community settled in large numbers after their expulsion. But others eked out an existence with great difficulty given the economic backwardness of the region; some were also missed by housing assistance programmes.9 But most secured access to basic necessities such as schooling, some transportation and minimal health care. Return is therefore a fraught prospect for many of them – even those committed to rebuilding their lives in the North. They want – and in certain instances are compelled by circumstances – to maintain their linkages with Puttalam while attempting to resettle in the North. The lack of housing, basic infrastructure, schools, etc., in the North makes return a difficult short-term prospect.10

As the Citizens’ Commission process documented, prior to their expulsion, the Muslims, especially the middle-classes, had been a community with considerable social capital, some political capital and economic power (QFR 2011Thiranagama 2011; Mohideen in Thiranagama). Many owned large tracts of land and most had access to well-functioning schools, mosques and other social institutions.11 But virtually all Muslims were rendered destitute by the expulsion, and as Thiranagama (2011) notes, were compelled thereby to think of themselves as ‘northern Muslims,’ a group identity that arguably did not exist prior to the expulsion. They were unable to recover much of what was stolen by the LTTE, and therefore they expected not only to return and assistance to return but also at least a discussion regarding compensation for the losses they suffered.12 Therefore large groups of northern Muslims were committed to the reestablishment and restoration of their communities in the North and wanted the government to deliver on their expectations. The UNHCR position, however, reflected a singular lack of awareness and interest in the northern Muslims despite all of the readily available information.

I explore this problem of ‘misunderstanding’ outlined above using two specific ideas. Firstly, using Giorgio Agamben’s idea of ‘bare life,’ I delineate the logic UNHCR in Sri Lanka used to hierarchize recipients of its aid – both the northern Muslims and the Vanni IDPs. This logic dictated that victims most worthy of assistance are those that are only capable of suffering but not politics or speech. Such victims can only be either sacrificed or saved and are themselves incapable of action. The politics that motivate northern Muslims to ask for redress for their expulsion and assistance to realise their right to return are irrelevant and illegible within such a framework. Such a depiction made it possible and legitimate for UNHCR to read northern Muslims as somehow misrepresenting their own predicament as victims.

Secondly, I also argue that the predicament of northern Muslims, including their aid seeking behaviour that UNHCR found objectionable, was itself ‘formed’ by two sets of governmentalities – those of humanitarianism and that of the state in the middle of a conflict. I use the term governmentality in its fullest Foucauldian sense – that of a technique of ruling and controlling populations formulated by and generative of a sense of ethics, a set of actions and a mode of behaviour.

The UNHCR Understanding of Victimhood

The UNHCR representative’s position on northern Muslim IDPs was further reinforced in a subsequent conversation with the head of mission in Colombo. He told me that the prioritisation of ‘new’ IDPs was a government prerogative and not that of the UNHCR, which I was told was also beset with funding difficulties. But it was also indicated to me that the UNHCR would actively lobby against the government prioritising anyone other than the Vanni IDPs for assistance. Apparently, according to the UNHCR’s agreement with the government, not just the northern Muslims but also all ‘old’ IDPs were declared a low-priority caseload. The head of mission also said that, despite this agreement, the UNHCR was being pressured by the Minister of Industry and Commerce, a Muslim politician, to assist returning northern Muslims.

The UNHCR was resentful of the pressure placed on it by government Minister Rishad Bathiudeen to assist returning northern Muslim IDPs in Mannar and Mullaitivu districts. Bathiudeen, a northern Muslim himself, was Minister of Resettlement at the time the war ended in 2009. Given the politics of that time, Bathiudeen was compelled in the midst of much anger and resentment to ask fellow northern Muslims, also his constituency, to wait until the resettlement of the Tamils was completed. Then in late 2010 and early 2011, Bathiudeen began to pressure the UNHCR and INGOs. According to UNHCR officials, Bathiudeen would call up UNHCR head and field offices and insist that they provide non-food relief items (NFIs) to returning northern Muslims. The UNHCR and other humanitarian actors who were subject to it resented the minister’s pressure; the humanitarian community insisted on their own ‘objective’ criteria. Tensions mounted to such an extent that Bathiudeen’s political party even threatened to take legal action against the UNHCR for neglecting to provide support to returning Muslims.13

The UNHCR representatives in conversation with me also accused Bathiudeen of undermining the agency’s assistance to Tamil IDPs in Mannar and other places by making claims that the Muslims were entitled to the land there. This was a reference to a land dispute in the Sannar area in Vidathalthivu, Mannar district that was just emerging in early 2012; the UNHCR field officer had also discussed the case with me in January 2012. The case of Sannar was one among many emerging disputes over land and livelihood opportunities between returning Muslims and Tamils that still persist and require urgent redress. In the case of Sannar what was clear was that – as documented later by Raheem and Thangarajah (2013) – the UNHCR analysis was insufficiently informed by the ethnicised complexities of the context.

UNHCR also claimed that the northern Muslims were appearing in Mannar only to access the assistance package and available six-month supply of dry rations and were not sincere about return. UNHCR representatives stated that when they arrived unannounced at resettlement locations to distribute NFIs there were several instances when there was an 80 per cent ‘no show’ i.e., northern Muslims were engaged in an ‘insincere return movement’, coming to their villages or areas of origin only to collect assistance materials meant for returnees and take it back with them to where they currently lived.

Subsequent to my research, a report by Mirak Raheem has reiterated the complexities of return for protracted IDPs all over the country. Observing that the humanitarian agencies, the state and the durable solutions framework sees return, relocation and local integration as mutually exclusive options that IDPs can access, Raheem points out that many protracted IDPs regularly choose a combination of the three:

[W]hile Government and humanitarian actors and the Durable Solutions Framework itself view return, local integration and relocation as mutually exclusive and one time choices, protracted IDPs often see these choices differently. They see in these options a combination of several possibilities and their choices often reflect a mix of options subject to the situation and an assessment of various factors, opportunities and risks. Hence, for example, IDP families may return in phases or even opt for two settlement choices for a period of time but these complexities have not been recognised in policy (Raheem 2013: 6).14

Given their history, and their material needs, many northern Muslims sought to have a foothold in both their recently opened up areas of origin in the North and Puttalam and other places where they had lived post-expulsion. After 20 years of being displaced they were wary of immediate return to the North, because of the destruction of their houses and lack of infrastructure, such as water and sanitation, roads, public transportation, schools and health services in these areas. As one northern Muslim IDP stated to me, ‘We don’t want to live under trees. We don’t want to be displaced again.’ They, however, registered as returnees given that they were no longer able to maintain their registration status as northern IDPs in Puttalam, and access to assistance was conditional upon such registration.15 Therefore, some maintained a household in Puttalam while male members lived in shacks in villages of origin in the North and began to engage in cultivation. Many returnee families that we encountered all across the Mannar region spoke of sections of the family staying on in Puttalam. In one instance, an IDP in Kalpitiya spoke of the mosque there deciding that 50 per cent of the community would return to the North while 50 per cent of them stayed back; in that way, if ‘the troubles’ occur again, they said, they could mitigate and minimise its impact.

UNHCR’s analysis of Vanni IDPs as having more immediate and urgent needs than the northern Muslims is understandable given the severe bombardment of the Vanni during the last stages of the war in 2009. In doing so, however, UNHCR also felt compelled to neglect the issue of protracted displacement in the country; it also had to embrace a narrative (based on assumptions of local integration and years of assistance) that could justify or explain its neglect of the northern Muslims. I would like to understand why this was so through recourse to more global discussions on the ethics and logics of contemporary humanitarian interventions. As Didier Fassin (2012) has explicated using Agamben’s idea of ‘bare life’, the beneficiaries of humanitarian intervention are considered a part of the nameless, faceless and voiceless multitudes defined only in terms of their inability to act, their bodily abjection and their removal from politics. These multitudes waiting to be ‘saved’ are only defined in terms of biological ‘life’ (Fassin 2012: 145).16 The object of humanitarian intervention according to Fassin, following Agamben, is this mass of humanity – not their politics or their histories but only their bodies and wounds. Fassin argues further that the humanitarian transformation can in fact be generalised to a larger governmentality, which he calls biolegitimacy (Fassin 2009).

I am arguing here that the UNHCR compulsion to disallow northern Muslims a victim status results from a combination of many issues including the requirement to prioritise need in the context of a funding crunch; however, I am also arguing that the basis on which the choice was made reflected an identification of ‘need’ only in relation to ‘bare life.’ As Fassin notes, the humanitarian relationship is based on a particular identification of life at risk. They intervene in places where ‘life is not worth a dollar,’ focussing on those considered at risk of physical disappearance and incapable of maintaining their own existence (Fassin 2012: 23). As the UNHCR field worker stated of the Vanni IDPs – ‘they have nothing.’ Further, as Fassin states, ‘The reasoning and speaking subject disappears and becomes theoretically and practically irrelevant to the humanitarian aid-providing discourse’ (Fassin 2012: 145).

The problem is not only that such victim identification leaches the political life out of the persons thus identified, but also that anyone who asserts a more complex identity is considered an imperfect victim not worthy of assistance. The northern Muslims had created a political and social identity outside the category of IDP and UNHCR staff had no framework to comprehend it. Lisa Maalki also produced a similar analysis of the humanitarian’s requirement of abjection albeit using a different more postcolonial framework in the 1990s (Maalki 19951996), studying the Hutu refugees in Tanzania, states:

In his or her case, wounds speak louder than words. Wounds are accepted as objective evidence, as more reliable sources of knowledge than the words of the people on whose bodies those wounds are found. So the ideal construct, the “real refugee,” was imagined as a particular kind of person: a victim whose judgment and reason had been compromised by his or her experiences. This was a tragic, and sometimes repulsive, figure who could be deciphered and healed only by professionals, and who was opaque even (or perhaps especially) to himself or herself (Maalki 1996: 384).

In treating the Vanni IDPs as ‘bare life’ not only are the humanitarians – UNHCR and others – leaching out the history and humanity of those whose ‘lives’ they are preserving, but are also disembedding them from the political, social and historical context within which they and others who are not identified as similarly abject continue to function. This decontextualisation has had damaging consequences for the northern Muslims and for all IDPs in Sri Lanka whose only legitimate claim to assistance is as abject bodies and not as political subjects.

UNHCR officials stated that they consciously adopted a strategy of arriving unannounced without scheduling distribution visits due to northern Muslims’ ‘insincere return movements.’ They wanted to catch the IDPs out, in the act of being absent when they had registered as returnees. UNHCR spoke of this ‘insincere return movement’ as a morally reprehensible action and an indictment of the entire community of northern Muslim IDPs. I read UNHCR’s policing of IDP movements and the morality attributed to it as part of the governmentalizing nature of humanitarian interventions.

Maintaining their connections with the North while living in Puttalam was difficult for many northern Muslims and was done under trying circumstances. They needed to travel to the North not just to access rations but to access their local authorities, doing so at great cost and inconvenience. But many persisted since it was important that they were legible to the state. In addition to the empirical reality of keeping alive multiple options regarding residence I see northern Muslims as caught between multiple systems of governmentality (Fassin 2007). As IDPs whose registration expires in Puttalam after more than twenty years, northern Muslims felt compelled—as efficiently subjectivised individuals—to access registration in the north (and access the aid that came with it). In the logic of humanitarian governmentality however, their abject status was tied to them living under the polythene and tin sheets of the NFI kits and their refusal to abide by these sets of rules invited moral disapprobation.

UNHCR officials also claimed that after 20 years it was ‘unrealistic’ to define all northern Muslims as IDPs and that many of them are well on their way to being integrated into the Puttalam Muslim community. They also stated that after 20 years of assistance, they would have that ‘plan B’ that Vanni IDPs lacked. Thiranagama has noted that owning a house in Puttalam has helped restore a sense of home while in displacement (Thiranagama 2011). Brun, however, has documented the manner in which the very institutional mechanisms, and bureaucratic procedures that named, categorised, located and assisted northern Muslim IDPs also helped maintain their distinct status as a community of visitors to Puttalam who will eventually return to the North (Brun 20082003). The report of the Citizens’ Commission (QFR 2011) has documented more recent post-war tensions between the IDPs and local populations in certain parts of Puttalam. Many local Muslim community groups have long resented the IDP ‘incursion’ into their lands, resources and state allocations, and want them to leave (Thiranagama 2011QFR 2011Haniffa 2008). The Puttalam area, where northern Muslims were compelled to settle, was (and remains) one of the poorest in the country (FLICT 2009),17 and was ill equipped to deal with the large influx of IDPs (Brun 2008Shanmugaratnam 2000Hasbullah 2001).

The northern Muslims’ place in the politics of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) has also impacted their status as transients. Under the SLMC of M.H.M. Ashraff, the victimhood of the northern Muslims took on a specific political lustre. Ashraff took the position that the northern Muslims could only return with dignity when a comprehensive solution to the question of Muslims in the North and East was found–in other words, when a political settlement, for Muslims that constituted a Muslim administrative unit in the Southern part of Ampara district was agreed upon. Therefore the SLMC leader never campaigned for immediate northern Muslim return and in fact institutionalised the claim that they could not return without a guarantee against another expulsion. Ashraff, however, recognized the possible protracted nature of their displacement and provided northern Muslims with housing assistance. In 1994, the Ministry of Ports, Shipping, Reconstruction and Resettlement, of which Ashraff was the minister, utilised the Unified Assistance Scheme for some displaced Muslims in Puttalam to purchase land and build permanent houses. However, within the SLMC narrative too, the northern Muslims remained temporary residents of Puttalam anticipating political change (Thiranagama 2011QFR 2011Brun 2008).18

Contrary to narratives of 20 years of sustained aid provision, less than 10 years after their expulsion, international humanitarian agencies had ceased defining northern Muslims as abject deciding instead that they were self-supporting and no longer in need of assistance (Brun 2003: 390). For example, rations provided by the World Food Programme were phased out beginning in 1999, and by 2002 the Danish Refugee Council considered the Puttalam IDPs to be ‘fully integrated’ into the local community. However, as Brun documents, they continued to be registered as voters of the north while living in Puttalam,19 and therefore unable to access provincial government jobs in the areas and membership of local fisheries associations (Brun 2003: 392).20 

The government was committed to maintaining them as a separate population category with limited rights in these areas of refuge. With the WFP phasing out, the government took over the distribution of rations but with little regularity or updating of its value until by 2010 it was little more than symbolic. Under humanitarian governmentality, meeting the ‘bare life’ requirement of being able to feed themselves was considered adequate to define the northern Muslims as having integrated and no longer abject in status. Political disempowerment, lack of livelihood, exclusion from peace processes, and non-acknowledgement of their expulsion were not regarded, even then, as worthy of humanitarian intervention. Managing the displaced population was left to the governmentality of a state in the middle of an ethnic conflict.

Let me end this section by returning once again to Fassin’s use of Agamben to understand humanitarian intervention in Iraq. Discussing how medical practitioners and the affected population were conceptualised and operationalized by Médicin Sans Frontiers within the matrix of humanitarian medicine in Iraq, Fassin states:

Physically, there is no difference between them; philosophically, they are worlds apart. They bear witness to the dualism conceptualized by Giorgio Agamben and discussed earlier, between the bare life that is to be saved and the political life that is freely risked, between the zoe of “local populations” who can only passively await both bombs and humanitarian workers, fearing the former and mistrusting the latter, and the bios of those “citizens of the world,” the aid workers who come, with courage and devotion, to render them assistance… What it signifies is, for humanitarian actors, the freedom to sacrifice themselves for a just cause, and for local populations, the condition of being sacrificeable in the war. In contemporary societies this inequality is perhaps both the most ethically intolerable, in that it concerns the sense given to life, and the most morally tolerated, since it forms the basis for the principle of altruism (Fassin 2012: 231).

As Fassin explains, the world is divided into those who have politics and those who do not. Those who are therefore entitled to be political are the ‘citizens of the world’ that must reside on the humanitarian side of the hierarchy and not on that of the victim. The ‘political’ in the case of local populations is at best irrelevant and, at worst, wrong, misguided, deceptive or evil. It is for this reason that the UNHCR could assert without irony that northern Muslims, who had been registered and recognised by the state as IDPs for 20 years, thinking of themselves as IDPs was simply ‘unrealistic’ or wrong. Indeed, senior UNHCR officials in Colombo were unaware and unwilling to accept that most northern IDPs were registered as voters in the North for the entire duration of their displacement—an established, often cited and fairly well-known fact. What I would like to emphasise is not the incompetence or the culpability of the UNHCR officers; what is more distressing is that the philosophical basis of humanitarian assistance renders such decisions and such perspectives perfectly and dangerously normal.

Humanitarians’ insistence of maintaining a status of being non-political is relevant to this discussion. Here a recent description of the differences between transitional justice practitioners and humanitarian actors is instructive.

Displacement actors, and humanitarians in general, have a more immediate and focused mandate than transitional justice proponents. Their fundamental objective is to save lives while remaining impartial and neutral; while they may be explicitly committed to particular values, including human rights principles, they typically do not take sides in political debates and conflicts. Humanitarians must be willing to work with, or around, state and non-state actors to deliver critical aid to those in need. In contrast, transitional justice actors are often perceived as taking sides in matters concerning state and non-state actors, which can create unease among humanitarians. Transitional justice is inherently a political process, one that calls for public recognition of wrongdoing and various forms of accountability, including criminal justice. It implicates individuals as well as institutions and therefore provokes political resistance. Notions such as protection and durable solutions, for example, are predicated on the protection and restoration of human rights. However, this rights-based approach is contested by humanitarians because of the potential for its political nature to undermine neutrality (Campbell 2012: 66).

The claims of humanitarianism to being non-political are not new. However, the claims to neutrality by humanitarians mask the effects of the close relationship between humanitarian agencies, governing regimes and militaries. At one level they are compelled to work closely with regimes and militaries at war in the negotiation of spaces for aid delivery. But at another level the state’s recognition of the logic of humanitarianism is borne out in the way it is mobilised for military purposes–the ‘humanitarian’ military operations of Kosovo in 1999 and Mullivaikal in Sri Lanka in 2009 are cases in point.

A convenient non-political neutrality enables humanitarian actors to assume the freedom and an ethical imperative to intervene in humanitarian crises generated by human rights abusing regimes without recognising that their presence contributes to maintaining and legitimising such regimes. For instance, in the process of aiding the abject Vanni IDPs there was little or no emphasis on human dignity, and the UNHCR participated in the government’s highly problematic and less than transparent resettlement and the dire conditions to which the Vanni IDPs were often compelled to return. That many women heads of household suffered added indignities both from men within their communities and the military was overlooked by humanitarian agencies due to their preoccupation with maintaining access to communities and continuing their work. It is unclear if this need for access was really in order to alleviate suffering or to maintain the agencies’ own relevance.

As I have also attempted to show in this paper, far from being non-political or non-partisan the assumptions of humanitarian actors regarding their neutrality are inherently political and in fact dangerous. Assuming local integration of northern Muslims as a justification for prioritising Vanni IDPs resonated strongly with particular political positions. In refusing to recognise the return of northern Muslims as one worthy of assistance, and assuming local integration despite publicly available knowledge to the contrary, UNHCR echoed and amplified positions of local Tamil authorities who sometimes asked returning Muslims: ‘Why have you come?’ (QFR 2011). Their position also resonated with certain elements of the Tamil leadership that claimed that the expulsion was in fact a ‘blessing in disguise’ (QFR). While sections of the Tamil leadership have accepted the criminal nature of the LTTE’s act (see further below), the expulsion of Muslims is not an ethically clear issue to many Tamil nationalists. By privileging and restating the point about Muslims having been integrated into Puttalam, the UNHCR was also contributing to further consolidating ground-level discourses regarding the illegitimacy of Muslim return to the North. The UNHCR position was not only convenient for remaining LTTE sympathisers who did not see the expulsion as morally reprehensible but also for the Sri Lankan state, which has consistently ignored Muslim concerns in relation to the conflict.

On the ground, these assumptions translated into specific problematic interventions. For instance, faced with competing claims to land from Muslim and Tamil returnees in Sannar, Mannar district, UNHCR took the side of Tamil returnees (Interview, UNHCR field officer, January 2012). The dispute over the Uppukulam village fishing harbour (Raheem and Thangarajah 2013) was another case in which UNHCR did little to mitigate the emerging tensions between Tamil and Muslim returnees to the North over conflicting claims over livelihood resources. Humanitarian actors’ limited understanding of context and politics, and their consideration of these factors as irrelevant to their mandate, caused enormous distress to the northern Muslim population. As one IDP in Kalpitiya, Puttalam district, who was trying to return to Talaimannar in Mannar district stated: ‘UNHCR – it was like they were telling us not to go back to the North. They did not help us at all.’21

The Politics of Victimhood

As Fassin (2012) has theorised, victim populations also internalise their identities and are committed to the little largess that such identification may promise. In addition to humanitarian agencies’ ‘bare-life’ definition, the victimhood of northern Muslim IDPs has been framed and mobilised, including by them, in a gamut of different ways. Moreover, persons affected by conflict may mobilise their stories of victimhood for political purposes, towards memorialisation or healing, to access aid and to seek justice for atrocities. Such mobilisation may be understood in terms of different forms of subjectivisation in response to different modes of governmentality. Informed by this literature on victimhood and theories of governmentality, this section will discuss some further elements relevant to the framing of northern Muslims’ victimhood within the Sri Lankan context of war, displacement and minority marginalisation.

Victims are never without any agency; and today, more than ever, victim politics is recognised as playing a substantial part in the manner in which political conflict and suffering are understood (Jeffery and Candea 2006Ochs 2006Jeffery 2006Yildiz and Verkuyten 2011). The mobilisation of the international community by Tamils on the issue of state terror against Tamils in Sri Lanka, from the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 1983 to the end of the war and after, is illustrative of the mobilisation of victimhood. The Citizens’ Commission and the QFR too were instances of highlighting experiences of victims for purposes of greater visibility. Such articulations often mobilised bio legitimacy using the rights discourse and, given the nature of the Sri Lankan context, the lens of ethnicity. Uyangoda, using Charles Taylor’s formulation, described the polarised positions among Sri Lanka’s three main ethnic groups regarding state reform as ‘worlds of solitude’ (Uyangoda 2006). I want to argue that victimhood represents yet another discursive milieu in which these worlds of solitude exist, and moreover, that they are informed by drastically different notions of ethics and justice.

Globally, many victims groups have mobilised narratives of victimhood to influence policy and draw attention to their particular experiences. Jeffery and Candea (2006) call special attention to the manner in which some victims groups, too, mobilise a non-political ontological status that considers suffering somehow prior to politics (Jeffery and Candea 2006Jeffery 2006). They too seem to be cultivating the ‘bare-life’ definition of victimhood described above to maximise possible advantages. Laura Jeffery (2006) documents the manner in which representatives of the Chagossians displaced from Diego Garcia embrace a notion of victimhood that is disengaged from the larger politics of the Chagossian archipelago in order to simultaneously maintain patronage relationships with the British state, displaced community groups in the Seychelles, and also anti-imperialist and anti-militarisation activists in Mauritius. While each of these three groups have their own politics and are often oppositional to one another, the Chagossian victims group studied by Jeffery persists in maintaining a stance that endorses none of their claims, keeping engagement with all of them open to ensure that any possible benefits that may accrue to the Chagossian community are not undermined. Another way in which victimhood gets mobilised is evident in the way the Turkish Alevi community in Europe draw upon a common experience of oppression to assert both a collective Alevi identity and commonality with other minority communities (Yildiz and Verkuyten 2011).

Julianna Ochs (2006) notes the manner in which two spatially and temporally disconnected modes of victimhood are mobilised in support of the actions of the Israeli state and the Zionist project when Israeli victims of the Intifada are framed and described as being similar to victims of the Holocaust. Ochs describes also the manner in which such mobilisation is critiqued for incommensurability within Israel, pointing to the many discourses and counter-discourses prevailing within the same polity.

Ballinger (2004) discusses the commensurability of victimhood in the context of memorialising a history of atrocities and violence in the Trieste region of Italy during the Second World War. Two communities—the majority Italians and the minority Slovenians—compete for the status of ‘most affected’ during the last phases of the war. Memorialisation of the war is contested around two incidents of extreme violence during the war: the massacre of mostly Slovene anti-fascist activists and the ethnic cleansing of non-Slovene Italians by occupying Yugoslav troops. While the overthrow of fascism is celebrated, some claim that this silences the many reprisal killings by communist forces. Both the Shoah–the Jewish experience of the holocaust – and the breakup of the former Yugoslavia accompanied by acts of ethnic cleansing resonate with the claims and counterclaims put forward by the Italian and Slovenian groups. Groups that embrace a particular form of victimhood are also often blind to other forms of victimhood or commensurate experiences of suffering that do not recognise their own as primary (Biner 2006; Ballinger 2004).

Constantly defined as not quite victims in comparison, first, to Tamils living in the war zone prior to 2009 and, second, to survivors of the bombardment of the Vanni in 2008–2009, the northern Muslims have a history of struggling to articulate their suffering in a manner that is acknowledged by both state and inter- or non- governmental bureaucracies. Although they were suddenly and summarily expelled, impoverished, stripped of their possessions, and their claims to home, the northern Muslims have long been considered the ‘better off’ IDPs. The reason for the distinction is that they found themselves in a situation of displacement outside the conflict zone implying greater access to aid from humanitarian agencies and state services alike (Brun 2008). Their necessities for ‘life’ were seen to have been provided for by humanitarian agencies and later the state. In the contest over commensurability, therefore, the northern Muslims constantly lost out, with serious political effect.22

In the East, when the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was articulating the need for stakeholder status to Muslims in the peace process that began in 2002, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian R. Sampanthan opposed it arguing that Muslims did not participate in the armed struggle and therefore did not deserve a stake in the settlement (Haniffa and Raheem 2006). In 2009, when the Citizens’ Commission was conducting its inquiries, the Bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph, stated that the Muslim expulsion by the LTTE was in fact a ‘blessing in disguise’ because they did not have to live through the multiple displacements, loss of limbs, and disappearance of family members that the residents of the North had to go through. According to the Bishop, the Tamils suffered far more on these counts (QFR 2011). Then, more recently, speaking in relation to the conflict over the use of a fishing harbour between displaced Tamils and Muslims returning to Mannar, the Bishop refuted the returning Muslims’ right to the harbour by claiming that the Muslims were in fact not fisher people, but well-established business people coming to Mannar from Puttalam,23 a claim that was echoed by a Tamil NGO and peace activist in Mannar.24 Further, sections of the Tamil leadership also assumed that the northern Muslims are ‘well settled’ in Puttalam and should not be coming back to Mannar or the North in general. All of this indicates a refusal to recognise Muslim victimhood, let alone admit commensurability.25

As documented in the QFR, the lack of adequate state acknowledgement and the Tamil nationalist justification of the expulsion were issues that impacted northern Muslims’ victim narrative and influenced their strategies. In a context where local civil society activists have been skeptical of state-sanctioned commissions or fact-finding exercises in relation to human rights violations, the northern Muslims have, in fact, wanted very much to have the state acknowledge their experience of victimhood. Research into prior attempts to conduct inquiries into the expulsion revealed that the government of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga had considered the institution of such a state commission, but that it had been shot down. The basis yet again, was another competing claim to victimhood; state representatives had wanted to have the victimhood of the Sinhalese, such as the LTTE’s expulsion of Sinhalese communities from Jaffna in the aftermath of the July 1983 riots, too reflected in the mandate of any such commission. The northern Muslim representatives in turn were reluctant to consider these two experiences as commensurable and had rejected such an initiative.26 Northern Muslims, then, disallowed from other victim narratives have sometimes asserted their own victimhood as exclusive.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), despite all its faults, is valued by northern Muslims for finally being a state mechanism that acknowledged their experiences. Although problematic in its composition and widely criticised by human rights groups for the limitations of its mandate as well as findings, the LLRC surprised many by the manner in which its report stayed true to the testimonies of those that appeared before it (de Mel 2013). The fact that the story of the northern Muslims features with minimal distillation and more or less as it emerged before the LLRC means that the northern Muslims figure substantially in the LLRC’s report. There is recognition of their suffering and specific recommendations are made to rectify and address it. The government, under pressure from the UN Human Rights Council in 2012, committed itself to the implementation of the LLRC’s recommendations, and policy formulation to address problems of the northern Muslims as recommended by the report is also part of the larger action plan adopted.27 However, despite the fact that it finally acknowledges northern Muslim victimhood, there is an element of ethnic specificity that is problematic in its approach. Sri Lanka lacks specific legislation to safeguard rights of IDPs and in such a context formulating policy with reference to northern Muslims alone is problematic and can only be read as symptomatic of the overly ethnicising imperative of the state.


The ‘northern Muslims’ have been named, framed and formed by their experience of expulsion (Thiranagama 2011). However, the political mobilisation of their victimhood status by northern Muslims has not moved beyond a repeated articulation of the expulsion experience and the protracted displacement narrative. Most media attention on the northern Muslims has been limited to articulating their predicament as just this one story: displaced since 1990, they languished for nearly 20 years in abject conditions in Puttalam. Even northern Muslim cabinet minister Rishard Bathiudeen is not calling for overturning ethnic cleansing but resettlement for the northern Muslims who are in abject poverty and thus anticipating a better life after return.28 Unfortunately, there is no discourse in Sri Lanka of their return as a process of transitional justice. Return is understood only as resettlement and not as an issue of justice and reconciliation. Muslims therefore are trapped in repeatedly asserting the need for return and resettlement as also, ironically, as an issue of ‘bare life.’

Arguably, the difficulty faced by northern Muslims in getting an adequate hearing for their own suffering has resulted in some of them becoming blind to the suffering of others. The Tamils in the North are, for the most part, seen only as those that benefitted from their expulsion; people returning today–20 plus years later–speak of recognising their furniture in Tamil neighbours’ houses and their cattle in the neighbours’ herds.29 One Muslim NGO worker said that he did not see why Tamils were being helped in Jaffna because every family in Jaffna had remittances from the diaspora, whereas Muslims had nothing.30 Further, while Muslims see the high visibility of the Tamil predicament in the international media and the priority given to ‘new’ IDPs who are invariably Tamils, the fact that over 60,000 Tamils displaced from the High Security Zones of Jaffna are also ‘old’ IDPs living in extremely abject conditions often escapes their attention.

The government and international actors must share some responsibility for their failures to ensure a process of transition that is just and empowering in post-war Sri Lanka. This includes failures with regard to overturning ethnic cleansing, reconciliation, reparations, mourning and healing, demilitarisation, and development in war-fatigued communities. The northern Muslims, then, have been compelled to assert their victimhood in order to qualify for assistance within a narrow field of possibilities. Two decades of being forced to adjust to the vagaries of humanitarian aid and its ad hoc nature has given rise to a ‘take what you can get when you can get it’ mentality. Many therefore–activists included–remain trapped within a discourse of claiming victimhood–a consequence of humanitarian governmentality of the state and are wary of moving beyond it.

The northern Muslims constitute a population of over 200,000 and many are indeed in need of assistance but the point, however, is that there is little space today to speak of the different experiences within the community. Circumstances have compelled northern Muslims to side-line narratives of resilience and strength; even in the QFR this information appears almost in spite of itself. With victimhood being the preferred mode of engagement with the outside, not only are northern Muslims compelled to identify as a collective, leaving little space for a more nuanced discussion of victimhood and survival and undermining more positive representations of the community.

Moreover, the manner in which the transition from war to post-war is being managed in Sri Lanka’s North and East has foreclosed the positive role northern Muslims could play. For instance, as a community that has weathered displacement and exhibited resilience and have had the benefit of access to education infrastructure in Puttalam during the war, returning northern Muslims have skills that can be utilised for the economic development of the North. The northern Tamils, after decades of dealing with brutal militaries and negotiating with a reluctant state have their own sets of skills and resources that may complement those of the returning Muslims. Both communities’ different experiences of the war bring different capabilities that maybe of great benefit to one another. However, the manner in which development of the North is conceptualised is not in keeping with enhancing the quality of life of the people but instead focussed on large infrastructure projects, which have been documented as promising little for the local people (Thahir et al. 2013).31

One recurring trope in northern Muslim accounts of the expulsion that needs to be capitalised on is that of good relations between Muslims and their Tamil neighbours prior to the expulsion. In the Muslim narrative, the perpetrators of the expulsion were not the Tamils but the LTTE, often cadres brought in from outside (QFR 2011Thiranagama 2011). While the challenges outlined above have somewhat muted this narrative today, it could provide a basis to enable Muslim and Tamil communities to continue to find ways of peacefully resolving their differences in everyday settings.

Post-war Sri Lanka has been characterised by widespread disquiet connected with labour strikes, student unrest, deterioration of law and order, extreme political corruption and malpractice and heightened ethnic political polarisation. Additionally, the rise of hitherto dormant fringe elements, such as the rampaging monks of newly-formed Buddhist nationalist groups and their spectacular targeting of Muslims, poses more challenges to contend with. As this paper goes to press presidential elections have been held in Sri Lanka, a new president and prime minister are in office and the future holds much promise. It is hoped that this change will result in a more democratic and egalitarian space for all citizens in the country.


1An armed group that fought the Sri Lankan state for an independent Tamil state for some 30 years.

2The Vanni is a general term for the area in the northern province of Sri Lanka consisting of the districts of Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya. An area that was largely LTTE-controlled, virtually its entire population was displaced during the final phase of the war.

3See Shanmugaratnam 2000; Zackariah and Shanmugaratnam 2001; Hasbullah 2001; Brun 2008; Haniffa 2008; Thiranagama 2011; Quest for Redemption (QFR) 2011.

4Following Fassin 2012; and Maalki 1996.

5The old vs. new IDP distinction and the problems it entails are not new to Sri Lanka. Similar situations prevail in Georgia (see http://www.unhcr.org/4ad827f59.pdf); Kenya, where there is a category called Integrated IDPs

(see http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/research/files/reports/2013/05/kenya%20displacement/idp%20municipal%20authorities%20kenya%20may%202013%20final.pdf); and the Democratic Republic of Congo (see http://www.irinnews.org/in-depth/70996/41/drc-peace-deals-fail-to-improve-the-lives-of-2-2-million-idps).

6The institution that supported the project – the Law & Society Trust – the group of commissioners who were activists and academics from different ethnicities, the advisory group of northern Muslims and the funders were all convinced both of the suffering and the politically abject status of the northern Muslims, and the importance of highlighting their history (QFR 2011Haniffa 2011Thiranagama 2011McGilvray and Raheem 2007).

7The latest problem is the manner in which the Sinhalese extremist group Bodu Bala Sena labels housing projects for northern Muslims as a Middle Eastern colonisation project of a wildlife reserve.

8See Sarvananthan (2014). Also see Thahir et al. (2014) for an account of northern and eastern people’s negative perceptions regarding ‘development’ in their areas.

9For example, during our visits to Puttalam in 2012 we encountered an entire village in Nuraichcholai that was originally driven out from Illanthaikulam, Mannar district, who had not received housing assistance. Of 85 families in the village, only 20 had permanent housing. Very few had their own toilet and most were compelled to share facilities with 4–5 families. There are of course many stories that are similar to those of the people of Illanthaikulam.

10For a more effective delineation of northern Muslims’ relationship to ‘home-place’ both in Puttalam and the North, see Thiranagama 2011.

11One middle-class northern Muslim stated that most of the Mannar people owned large amounts of property – either in terms of land or buildings, due to Muslims’ reluctance to keep money in banks. Therefore, they invested their earnings in property, much of which they lost or could not use due to the expulsion.

12In fact, the Erukkulampiddy mosque committee in Mannar district informed us that if they received compensation for the losses that they suffered due to the expulsion, they would not need any resettlement assistance from the government.

13See Abeywickrema (2012)

14A durable solution should, according to the IASC framework, be understood not just as a process of emerging from a state of ‘bare life’, but should ideally include elements of community and politics that contribute towards making life socially meaningful to a person or community. In the northern Muslims’ experience with humanitarian actors the mere provision of assistance for existence was considered sufficient for ending people’s needs.

15The state no longer supported IDPs in Puttalam after December 2010. Circulars to that effect were sent, discontinuing the allowances to grama niladharis who were previously tasked with attending to IDP needs.

16In Homo Sacer (1998 [1995]: 4), Agamben interprets Aristotle’s use of bios and zoe to make this distinction foundational of his theory of bio-politics. Reformulating Michel Foucault’s concept, he writes that ‘the entry of zoe into the sphere of the polis – the politicization of bare life as such – constitutes the decisive event of modernity and signals a radical transformation of the political-philosophical categories of classical thought. What becomes important then is not “man” as a social and political animal but as constitute of “life”. The saving, protection and care of this life becomes paramount and often the only concern. The reasoning speaking subject disappears and becomes theoretically and practically irrelevant to the humanitarian aid providing discourse.’

17Kalpitiya and Mundel, where there are large concentrations of IDPs, are classified as two of the ten poorest DS divisions in the country.

18The political importance of the northern Muslims shifted after Ashraff’s death in 2000. After the Ceasefire Agreement of 2001, the LTTE presence in the Eastern Province and their attempts to undermine Muslim economic activity increased. During that time the northern Muslims faded from the SLMC’s political agenda. In 2002, during the SLMC’s meeting with Pirapaharan, the SLMC failed to insist that the northern Muslims be exempt from LTTE taxation. They won such an exemption for the East, but not for returning northerners. (Haniffa 2011Haniffa and Raheem 2006).

19They were still registered as voters in their places of origin in the North.

20This was a pre-requisite to undertake fishing in the area.

21Interview in Puttalam, February 2012.

22The importance of Muslim refusal of Tamil nationalism on this particular question regarding commensurability should be taken in to account. For an account of Muslim and Tamil nationalism, see Haniffa 2011; Thiranagama 2011; McGilvray and Raheem 2007; Haniffa and Raheem 2006.

23Meeting with Bishop Rayappu Joseph, October 2012. At this meeting Bishop Joseph acknowledged that the Muslims were affected materially by the expulsion, but insisted that nevertheless Tamils were affected to a far greater extent.

24Meeting with peace NGO in Mannar, October 2012.

25Sharika Thiranagama’s work on the expulsion is a powerful indictment of Tamil silence on the issue (Thiranagama 2011). Some salutary recent developments are also promising. M.A. Sumanthiran, TNA MP, recently spoke of the necessity of acknowledging the expulsion as a crime. Additionally, acknowledging the findings of the Citizens’ Commission and the QFR, a group of Tamil intellectuals released a statement that took the incommensurability crisis head on and even apologised to the Muslims for the expulsion (See Island, 5 January 2012).

26Interview with northern Muslim activist, October 2011.

27The policy has yet to be formulated and it is unclear if the government will see it through. However, the circumstances have been such that the issue remains on the government agenda.

28This is not to reduce the experience of northern Muslims who continue to be in difficulty, remain destitute and have fallen through the cracks in various assistance programmes.

29Interviews in Mannar, 2011; and Puttalam, 2013. I see these testimonies as an indication of Muslims claiming both a continuity with their past experience in the north and of course a suspicion of narratives of Tamil victimhood. The point therefore, is not whether the furniture ‘actually’ survived or if the cattle were ‘really’ from the herds of twenty years ago.

30While there are northern Muslims working abroad who send back money, there is very little evidence of large migrant networks from among the northern Muslims. Unlike for ethnic Sri Lankan Tamils, mass migration has not been an option pursued by Muslims.

31See, for instance, a recent article by economist Muthukrishna Sarvananthan, 2014.

Author Information

This paper is based on a longer research paper ‘Competing for Victimhood Status: Northern Muslims and the Ironies of Post-War Reconciliation, Justice and Development’ published by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES), Colombo, in July 2014. This work emerges from my long engagement with members of the northern Muslim community, including as part of the Citizens’ Commission project and from research I did in 2012 for the Law & Society Trust and for the Norwegian Refugee Council-Internal Displacement Monitoring Center.

Author’s Note

This paper is part of a Special Collection of papers on Conflict, Transition and Development emerging from a Symposium convened by the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA), Sri Lanka, and the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) in September 2014.


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Curtesy : https://www.stabilityjournal.org/

Thirty Years On: Pain of the Northern Muslims is Forgotten


on 10/12/2020

And home isn’t here and home isn’t there” – Deborah Landau, The Last Usable Hour

Every story of ethnic cleansing is heart breaking. Some of them have been almost forgotten, overlooked in favour of others that were on a larger scale but they were just as driven by hatred and unsettling prejudices as any.

In the larger context of the many humanitarian crises that beset Sri Lanka during and after the long, bloody ethnic conflict, it is unfortunate that the well-orchestrated ethnic cleansing achieved through the forcible expulsion of the Northern Muslims from their traditional homeland three decades ago is virtually forgotten. This destitute community remains voiceless, with their struggle for justice shunned by both Tamil and Sinhala nationalists, being marginalised the Muslim community and put on the back burner by central and regional political powers. A “nakba” in the true sense of the term.

Nakba means catastrophe in Arabic and is an apt term to describe the humanitarian disaster that occurred because of the expulsion. The people who were affected reject the perception of the displacement as an event that concluded and continue to see it as a way of life. Thus, to the Northern Muslim community, a group identity that arguably did not exist prior to the expulsion, this nakba has been “an ongoing journey of pain, loss, and injustice. They (Northern Muslims) have been named, framed and formed by their experience of expulsion.”

Forced evictions constitute a violation of human rights and are generally discriminatory or lead to discrimination; therefore states have a responsibility to ensure the protection of rights and lives and the return of the displaced. As Shagul Hasbullah argues, “The Muslims who lived for centuries in the northern province have the right to return and resettle in their traditional villages. Continuously neglecting to help them resettle is a denial of their right to live in their lands.”

Black October 1990 began in the Jaffna peninsula with the expulsion of the Muslims of Chavakachcheri on October 15 and ended with the Muslims of Jaffna town on October 30. Some 75,000 Northern Muslims from five districts were dragged into Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict when they were forcibly expelled from their Northern homeland by the LTTE under threat of death. They were given 48 hours (in some instances only two hours) to leave their homes, being allowed to take only Rs. 300 per family and some clothing. Everything, including packets of milk powder for toddlers was confiscated. The abruptness of this warning and the severity of its decree characterised LTTE operations, for they neither entertained any pleas nor accommodated questions.

After expelling the Muslims, the LTTE cordoned off their homes with ropes, giving the impression that it was only temporary and that their property would be protected until they returned, which proved to be an illusion. Many of the victims walked for as long as three days, only being able to get transport when reaching border towns further South. Estimates of the economic loss were colossal (around Rs. 5,000 million) in properties and livelihood. The locals in Puttalam (not only the Muslims but also the Sinhalese) were great hosts. However, an environment of tension, hostility and sometimes violence arose between the displaced Muslims and the host population due to resource shortages and other compelling factors.

It is also shameful that this systemic injustice has not been adequately incorporated into any mainstream historical narrative in Sri Lanka. The Citizens’ Commission of Investigation articulated their story, concerns, expectations of and encounters during return in its report, “The Quest for Redemption: the Story of the Northern Muslims.” In so doing, it sought to legitimise the claims to suffering of Northern Muslims in a country replete with different and competing notions of victimhood.

Consequently, an entire generation of Muslims was born and raised in refugee camps. While some of the territory where their homes had been located came under state control in the years following their eviction, fear kept most of the Muslim population away from the North. The return of the expelled Muslims became complex as they are characterised by not just a separate religious identity but also a separate ethno-cultural identity. Shattered by the trauma of eviction and languishing in the squalor of camps for years, they yearned for a return home. However, this proved a bitter experience. There appeared to be a collective resistance to their return. Only a few registered Muslims were able to return, and they faced difficulties in regaining their lands and rebuilding their damaged houses, properties and other basic facilities.

Abandoned by All

Northern Tamil leaders and political leaders in the South chose to leave the Northern Muslims in the lurch. Radical nationalist forces within the Sinhalese Buddhist community openly challenged resettlement of the refugees. Even the Muslim community was found wanting in taking up their cause seriously, although they lent emotional and material support through various charity initiatives.

It was a pity that the harrowing eviction of Northern Muslims and its consequences are seldom discussed in Tamil politics in Jaffna, let alone any meaningful action taken to remedy the injustice. Tamil civil society institutions hardly expressed their opposition to the eviction or voiced sympathy toward the Muslims. However, the TNA condemned it during the ceremony in 2015 to mark the 25th anniversary. The lack of Tamils’ support for the return and permanent resettlement of Northern Muslims showed the absence of trust between the two ethnic groups even though they shared many common features and practices.

There was a lack of visible bitterness against Tamils. The Muslim victims realised that it was the LTTE that was responsible for their predicament and the reasons for it. In fact, some Muslims had passed their valuables such as title deeds to trusted Tamil neighbours. However, the public voices were drowned in the face of LTTE tyranny and the silence of the political leadership. The expelled Northern Muslims constantly reminded the Tamils that “The North is our Homeland too.”

Indifference of the Government

At least one third of Muslims live in the conflict-affected North and East and thus had a significant interest in the outcome of the war. However, the Muslim factor was ignored in the conflict resolution; they had no representation at the peace talks. The 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) was a disappointment to the Muslims. The end of the war in May 2009 brought some hopes for a return but the absence of a resettlement policy, an unwelcoming Tamil bureaucracy and severed relations with the Tamil community crippled the process. The government failed to protect the Muslims in the government controlled areas in the face of the expulsion orders of the Tigers. Even President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s promise to appoint a Presidential Commission to inquire into the expulsion was never fulfilled.

The Northern Muslim IDPs have always been a low priority for the government in respect of their return and resettlement assistance. The government and the NGOs did not establish any concrete programme to facilitate the settlement of displaced Muslims. Assistance for displaced Muslims was scant. Without a credible resettlement policy, there is little support from the state for these families to return. To make matters worse, hardly any Muslims in Jaffna were beneficiaries of the housing project sponsored by the Indian government, amidst strong allegations of an unsympathetic local Tamil bureaucracy blocking the grants. When these Muslims attempted to acquire the deeds to of their lands and to settle there, they faced difficulties from local bureaucrats, public and politicians.

Going Forward

The Northern Muslims have been compelled to assert their victimhood in order to qualify for assistance within a narrow field of possibilities. A society will be judged on how it treats its poorest and most vulnerable citizens. Merely remembering the nakba of the Northern Muslims will be meaningless if a new plan for post war resettlement, ethnic reconciliation and a political solution that is recognised nationally and internationally is not formulated and implemented. It is time for the political elite – both Sinhala and Tamil – to evolve a more inclusive resettlement framework. It must accommodate diverse concerns and grievances, including socio-economic ones, on the permanent resettlement of the Northern Muslims.

There is also no single, precise, durable solution to end displacement. Belonging to two homes, not just return to their place of origin and even integration in the present place of displacement may become the preferred durable solutions. But the victims should be able to freely choose among them. Any measures undertaken to provide durable solutions should be identified and prioritised through appropriate consultation with those affected by the displacement. In an environment where reconciliation is being talked about nationally and globally, there is an imperative need for rapprochement between the Tamils and Muslims of the North.

In the context of the challenges posed to national reconciliation with the rise of majoritarianism and racism, post Easter Sri Lanka has much to contend with. However, unless honesty, sensitivity and understanding from all communities and stakeholders are practiced in post war development and reconciliation in dealing with minority issues, including the permanent resettlement of Northern Muslims, there is no hope for Sri Lanka to move forward.

Curtesy: www.groundviews.org

கறுப்பு ஓக்டோபர் 30 வருடங்கள் உருண்டோடிவிட்டன, நாம் எங்கே நிற்கின்றோம்? சிறீன் சரூர்

1990 ஆம் ஆண்டு ஒக்டோபர் மாதம், வடபுல முஸ்லிம்கள் 75000 பேர் இரண்டு வாரக் காலப்பகுதியினுள் அவர்களின் வாழ்விடங்களை விட்டு பலவந்தமாக விரட்டியடிக்கப்பட்ட துயரம் நடந்தேறிய ஒக்டோபர் மாதத்தினைக் கருப்பு ஒக்டோபர் என்றால் அது மிகையாகாது. என் குடும்பமும் அவ்வாறு வெளியேற்றப்பட்ட குடும்பங்களில் ஒன்றுதான். அதிகமான குடும்பங்கள் 500 ரூபா பணத்துடன் சில உடுதுணிகளை மாத்திரமே எடுத்துச் செல்ல அனுமதிக்கப்பட்டன. சில குடும்பங்கள் வெறுங்கையுடன் வெளியேறியிருந்தன. தென் மாகாணத்தின் எல்லையினை நெருங்கும் வரை போக்குவரத்தினைப் பெற்றுக்கொள்ள முடியாத மக்கள் பல நாட்கள் நடந்தே ஊரைக் கடந்திருந்தனர். இற்றைவரை எம் சமுதாய மக்களின் துன்பங்களும் துயரங்களும் அடையாளம் காணப்படவுமில்லை ஆற்றப்படவுமில்லை. மூன்று தசாப்த காலமாக உள்ளூர்க் குடியிருப்பாளர்களும் அரசாங்க அதிகாரிகளும் சர்வதேசக் கொடையாளர்களும் தெற்கு முஸ்லிம்களும் காட்டிய புறக்கணிப்பும் புரிதலின்மையும் நம்புவதற்கு யாருமில்லையே எனும் உணர்வினை இந்த வடபுல மக்களின் உள்ளங்களில் விதைத்துவிட்டன.

அடுக்கடுக்காய்த் தவறுகள்

இனச்சுத்திகரிப்பினை மேற்கொண்டதற்காகத் தமிழீழ விடுதலைப் புலிகள் கடுமையான விமர்சனங்களுக்கு முகங்கொடுத்தபோதும், 2002 முதல் 2005 வரை நடந்து முடிந்த சமாதானப் பேச்சுவார்த்தைகள் அனைத்திலும் விடுதலைப் புலிகள் தலைவர் வேலுப்பிள்ளை பிரபாகரன் இவ்விடயம் தொடர்பில் எதுவும் கூறாது காத்த மௌனம் கயமையின் உச்சம் என்பது சொல்லித்தெரியவேண்டிய ஒன்றல்ல. பேச்சுவார்த்தைகளில் ஈடுபட்ட நோர்வே நாட்டுத் தரகர்கள் உள்ளிட்ட எந்தப் புண்ணியவானும் வடபுல முஸ்லிம்கள் அவர்களின் வாழிடங்களுக்குக் கூட்டாகத் திரும்பிச் செல்வதற்கான உரிமை பேச்சுவார்த்தைக்கான முன்நிபந்தனை என்பதைக் கருத்திற்கொள்ளவே இல்லை. 2002 ஆம் ஆண்டு சமாதானச் செயன்முறையின் போது தம் சொந்த மண்ணில் குடியேறச் சென்ற உள்நாட்டில் இடம்பெயர்ந்த தமிழ் மக்களுடன் (ஐடிபிக்கள்) ஒப்பிடுகையில் முஸ்லிம்கள் திரும்பிச் சென்றமை மிகக் குறைவாகக் காணப்பட்டமைக்கான பிரதான காரணம் இதுவேயாகும்.

வடபுல முஸ்லிம்கள் வெளியேற்றப்பட்டமை தொடர்பில் விசாரிக்க ஜனாதிபதி ஆணைக்குழுவினை நியமிக்கப்போவதாக முன்னாள் ஜனாதிபதி மஹிந்த ராஜபக்ச 2005 ஆம் ஆண்டின் பிற்பகுதியில் வாக்குறுதியளித்தார். 2009 இல் யுத்தம் முடிவடைந்தமையினை நினைவுகூர்ந்து நடத்தப்பட்ட நிகழ்வொன்றில் அவர் பின்வருமாறு குறிப்பிட்டிருந்தார்: “வடபுல முஸ்லிம்கள் துன்புறுத்தப்பட்டு அவர்களின் வாழிடங்களை விட்டுப் பலவந்தமாகப் புலிகளால் விரட்டியடிக்கப்பட்டபோது அவர்களின் இடப்பெயர்வினைத் தடுத்து நிறுத்த யாரும் முன்வரவில்லை..… இப்போது எனது அரசாங்கம் பயங்கவரவாதத்தினை முடிவுக்குக் கொண்டுவந்துள்ள காரணத்தினால், 2010 மே மாதமளவில் முஸ்லிம்களை மீளக் குடியமர்த்த சகல முயற்சிகளும் மேற்கொள்ளப்படும்.” அவரின் எந்த வாக்குறுதியும் நிறைவேற்றப்படவில்லை. யுத்தத்திற்குப் பின்னரான தேசத்தினைக் கட்டியெழுப்பும் துரித செயன்முறையில் வடபுல முஸ்லிம்களின் உரிமைகளை முன்னுரிமைப்படுத்த முன்னாள் ஜனாதிபதி மஹிந்த ராஜபக்ச தவறிவிட்டார்.

களத்திலே, யுத்தம் முடிவடைந்ததைத் தொடர்ந்து வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்கள் தம் சொந்த வாழிடங்களை நோக்கித் திரும்ப ஆரம்பித்ததும் பதற்ற நிலை உருவாக ஆரம்பித்தது. வன்னியினுள் பல்வேறு இடப்பெயர்வுகளை அனுபவித்த யுத்தத்தினால் இடம்பெயர்ந்த தமிழ் மக்களைப் போலல்லாது பலவந்தப்படுத்தப்பட்டு வெளியேற்றப்பட்ட முஸ்லிம்கள் யுத்தப் பிரதேசங்களிலுள்ள தங்களின் இடங்களில் இருந்து விலகி வாழ நிர்ப்பந்திக்கப்பட்டதுடன் தமிழர்கள் அனுபவித்த பயங்கரமான இழப்புக்களையும் அனுபவிக்காதவர்களாக இருந்தனர். இதனால் முன்னர் ஒன்றிணைந்து வாழ்ந்த சமுதாயங்கள் வளங்களுக்காகப் போட்டிபோடத் தொடங்கி அவநம்பிக்கையுடன் வாழும் நிலை உருவானது.

2015 முதல் 2019 வரையான இடைமாற்ற நீதிக் காலப்பகுதியின் போது சூழ்நிலை தொடர்ந்தும் மாறாமலேயே இருந்தது. முன்மொழியப்பட்ட பொறிமுறைகள் மூலம் வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்களின் துயரங்களைத் தீர்ப்பதற்கான ஆரம்பகால முயற்சிகள் கைவிடப்பட்டன. யு.என். மனித உரிமைகளுக்கான உயர்ஸ்தானிகர் அலுவலகத்தினால் மேற்கொள்ளப்பட்ட OISL விசாரணை, 2002 பெப்ரவரி யுத்தநிறுத்தம் முதல் 2011 வரையான காலப்பகுதியினை மட்டுமே ஆராய்ந்தது. ஆனால் 1990 இல் நடத்தப்பட்ட முஸ்லிம் மக்களின் வெளியேற்ற நிகழ்வு போன்ற முன்னைய குற்றச் செயல்களை ஆராயாமல் விட்டுவிட்டது. யு.என் மனித உரிமை கவுன்சில் பிரகடனமான 30/1 இன் மூலமாக இடைமாற்ற நீதிக்கு இலங்கை அரசாங்கம் கடப்பாடு கொண்டபோதும் இவ்வாறான முன்னைய நிகழ்வுகளைத் தீர்த்துவைக்கக் கடப்பாடு கொள்ளவில்லை. நல்லிணக்கப் பொறிமுறை பற்றிய கலந்தாலோசிப்புச் செயலணியினால் நடத்தப்பட்ட பொது விசாரணையில் முனைப்பான வகிபாத்திரத்தினை வகிக்கும் பொறுப்பினை வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்கள் தம் கடமையாய் வரித்துக்கொண்டனர். ஆனால் கிடைத்த பயன் எதுவுமில்லை. இதன் காரணமாகத் தற்போதைய இழப்பீடு வழங்கும் கொள்கை வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்களின் இழப்பினை எந்த வடிவிலும் தனித்துவமாக அங்கீகரிக்கவில்லை.

இன்றைய சூழ்நிலை

30 வருடங்களாக ஏற்கனவே துயர வாழ்வு வாழ்ந்து வரும் வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்கள் தங்களின் அடிப்படை ஜனநாயக உரிமைகள் மீது தாக்குதல் தொடுக்கப்படும் நிகழ்விற்குத் தற்போது முகங்கொடுத்து வருகின்றனர். 2019 டிசம்பர் ஜனாதிபதித் தேர்தலின் போது வாக்களிப்பதற்காகப் புத்தளத்தில் இருந்து மன்னாரிற்குச் சென்றவர்கள் மீது அன்றைய தினம் காலையில் தாக்குதல் நடத்தப்பட்டது. இவர்கள் திரும்பிச்சென்ற பஸ்சினைப் பொலிசார் செட்டிகுளத்தில் அன்று பின்மதியம் பல மணி நேரம் தடுத்துவைத்தனர். அவர்களைப் பொலிஸ் பாதுகாப்புடன் வீடுகளுக்கு உடன் அனுப்பிவைக்குமாறு தேர்தல் ஆணையாளர் பேராசிரியர் ரத்னஜீவன் ஹுல் வழங்கிய அறிவுறுத்தல்களைப் பெலிசார் புறக்கணித்தனர். இறுதியாக பஸ்கள் விடுவிக்கப்பட்டபோது மதவாச்சியில் வைத்து சிங்களக் காடையர்கள் பஸ் மீது தாக்குதல் நடத்தினர்.1 பழிவாங்கப்படலாம் என்ற காரணத்தினால் காயமடைந்த பெண்களும் சிறார்களும் சிகிச்சையினை நாடவில்லை. இத்தாக்குதல் தொடர்பில் அரசினால் எவ்வித விசாரணைகளும் நடத்தப்படவில்லை. தேர்தல் ஆணைக்குழுவினால் எவ்வித விசாரணை அறிக்கையும் வெளியிடப்படவுமில்லை. கடந்த கால அனுபவத்தில் இருந்து கற்றுக்கொண்டு அண்மைய பாராளுமன்றத் தேர்தலுக்கு தேர்தல் ஆணைக்குழு புத்தளத்தில் கொத்தணி வாக்களிப்பு மையங்களை அமைத்தது. 6000 இற்கும் மேற்பட்ட மன்னார் வாக்களர்கள் புத்தளத்தில் வாக்களித்தனர். இவ்வாறான சாதகமான முன்னேற்றங்கள் இருந்தபோதிலும் மன்னாரில் நிரந்தரமாக வசிக்கும் வாக்காளர்களை மட்டுமே பதிவுசெய்யுமாறு மாவட்ட கிராம சேவையாளர்களை மன்னார் உதவித் தேர்தல் ஆணையாளர் அறிவுறுத்தியிருந்தார். நிலையான இடமற்ற வாக்காளர்கள் என எவரும் இருக்க முடியாது என்றும் புத்தளத்தில் வாழ்பவர்கள் அங்கேயே பதிவுசெய்து அங்கேயே வாக்களிக்கவேண்டும் என்றும் அவர் குறிப்பிட்டார்.

வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்கள் புத்தளத்துடன் தம்மை நன்கு ஒருங்கிணைத்துவிட்டனர் என்றும் தற்போது அவர்கள் திரும்ப விரும்புவதற்கான ஒரே காரணம் வியாபார வாய்ப்புக்களைத் தேடுவதற்காகவோ அல்லது தங்களின் சொத்துக்களை விற்பதற்காகவோ அன்றி வேறில்லை என்றும் அரசாங்க அதிகாரிகள் தொடர்ந்து வாதிட்டுவருகின்றனர். வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்கள் எவ்விதமான குறிப்பிடத்தக்க வழிகளிலும் திரும்பி வரவில்லை என்றும் வெகு சிலர் மாத்திரமே வியாபாரத்திற்காகத் திரும்பி வந்துள்ளனர் என்றும் கூறும் அதிகாரிகள் வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்கள் புத்தளத்தில் ஒரு காலும் வடக்கில் ஒரு காலும் வைத்தவர்களாக வாழ்ந்து வருகின்றனர் என வாதிட்டு வருகின்றனர். இக்கருத்தினைப் பிரதிபலிக்கும் சர்வதேசக் கொடையாளர்களும் திரும்பிச் செல்லலுக்கு முன்னுரிமையளிக்காது இடம்பெயர்ந்த முஸ்லிம்கள் புத்தளத்தில் குடியேறி அங்கு நல்ல நிலையில் வாழ்ந்து வருகின்றனர் என்று வாதிட்டு வருகின்றனர். இடம்பெயர்ந்த முஸ்லிம்களில் பெரும்பான்மையானவர்கள் வடக்கிலுள்ள தங்களின் வாழிடங்களுக்குத் திரும்பிச் செல்வதை விட புத்தளத்தில் தொடர்ந்தும் வாழ்வதையே பெரிதும் விரும்புகின்றனர் எனக் கூறும் சர்ச்சைக்குரிய 2004 ஆம் ஆண்டின் யுஎன்எச்சிஆர் அறிக்கையினை இக்கொடையாளர்கள் நம்பி வருகின்றனர். 2004 ஆம் ஆண்டில் தொடர்ந்தும் விடுதலைப் புலிகளின் கட்டுப்பாட்டில் வடக்கிலுள்ள தங்கள் வாழிடங்கள் இருந்தபோது திரும்பிவரும் முஸ்லிம்கள் எதிர்நோக்கிய ஆபத்தின் காரணமாகவே இவ்வாறான அறிக்கை வழங்கப்பட்டது என்பது குறிப்பிடப்படவேண்டிய ஒன்றாகும்.

திரும்பிச் செல்பவர்கள் புத்தளத்தில் ஒரு பிடிமானத்தினை வைத்துள்ளனர் என்பது உண்மையாகும். ஆனால் இம்மக்களின் பூரண மீள்திரும்பலைப் பாதிக்கும் தடைகளை இந்த யதார்த்தம் பிரதிபலிக்கின்றது என்றால் அது மிகையாகாது. இம்மக்களின் காணிகள் காடுகளாக மாறி அவற்றில் குடியேறி வாழ்வதே சாத்தியமற்றதாக இருக்கும் நிலையில் இம்மக்களுக்கு மீள்குடியேற்ற உதவிகள் வழங்கப்படுவதற்கான எச்சாத்தியமும் தென்படாத சூழ்நிலையே நிலவுகின்றது. இவ்வாறான சூழமைவில் இந்த மக்கள் 30 வருடங்களாக வாழ்ந்த இடங்களை விட்டுச் சடுதியாகத் திரும்பிச் செல்ல முடியாத நிலைக்குத் தள்ளப்பட்டுள்ளனர். திரும்பிச் செல்லும் இடங்களில் அடிப்படை வசதிகள் இல்லை என்பது ஒரு புறமிருக்க இவ்வாறு திரும்பிச் செல்லும் மக்களை அரசாங்க அதிகாரிகளும் வரவேற்கத் தயாராக இல்லை என்பதுடன் இம்மக்களின் முன்னாள் அயலவர்கள் கூட இவர்களை வரவேற்கத் தயாராக இல்லை என்பதே யதார்த்தமாக இருக்கின்றது. 30 வருடப் பிரிவின் பின்னர் இந்த அயலவர்களில் பெரும்பான்மையானோரால் இம்மக்களை அடையாளம் காண முடியவில்லை என்பது இங்கே சோகத்துடன் பதியப்படவேண்டிய ஒன்றாகும். இச்சவால்களையெல்லாம் தாண்டிப் பூரணமாகத் திரும்பிவந்தவர்களுக்கு (பெரும்பாலும் மன்னாருக்கு) வழங்கப்பட்ட தாராளமான மீள்குடியேற்ற உதவிகளும் வெளியேற்றப்பட்டமை தொடர்பான பிரச்சினைகளை நீண்ட காலமாக முன்னுரிமைப்படுத்திய முன்னாள் அமைச்சர் ஒருவரின் அரசியல் ஆதரவும் திரும்பலுக்கான ஊக்கிகளாக அமைந்தன. திரும்பி வந்த அதிகமானவர்களைப் பொறுத்த அளவில் தங்களின் காணிகளுக்குச் செல்வதும் தமது பிள்ளைகளுக்குச் சிறந்த பாடசாலைக் கல்வியினை வழங்குவதும் பாரிய சவால்களாகக் காணப்படுகின்றன. இவற்றின் மத்தியில் வாழ்வாதார உதவிகளையும் தொழில்களையும் பெற்றுக்கொள்ள இம்மக்கள் எதிர்நோக்கும் சவால்களைப் பற்றிச் சொல்லத் தேவையில்லை.

கள மட்டத்தில் பார்க்கையில், தமிழ்ச் சமுதாயத்திற்கும் முஸ்லிம் சமுதாயத்திற்கும் இடையிலான அரசியல் போட்டியும் பொருளாதாரப் போட்டியும் இன்னும் தொடர்கின்றது. முஸ்லிமல்லாத சமயத் தலைவர்கள் முஸ்லிம்கள் பூரணமாகத் திரும்பி வந்தால் அது வடக்கின் இனத்துவச் சமனிலையினைக் குழப்பி யுத்தத்தினால் தப்பி பிழைத்த தமிழ் மக்களுக்கு இன்னும் சுமையினை ஏற்படுத்திவிடும் என்ற இனவாத அச்சங்களை மூட்டிவருகின்றனர். அதேவேளை திரும்பிவரும் முஸ்லிம்களோ அரசாங்க அதிகாரிகள் தங்களைக் கவனிப்பதில்லை என்றும் மீள்குடியேறியுள்ள தமிழ் மக்களையே விருப்புடன் கவனிக்கின்றனர் என்றும் குற்றஞ்சாட்டி வருகின்றனர். சிரேஷ்ட அரசாங்க உத்தியோகத்தர்கள் திரும்பி வரும் முஸ்லிம்களின் எண்ணிக்கையினைக் குறைத்துக் கூறுகின்றனர் என்றும் திரும்பி வருபவர்களுக்காக ஒதுக்கப்பட்டுள்ள வளங்களை இதனால் குறைக்கின்றனர் என்றும் இம்மக்கள் நம்புகின்றனர். திரும்பி வரும் மக்கள் தங்களின் கிராமங்களின் எல்லைகள் மாற்றப்பட்டுள்ளதைக் கண்டுள்ளனர். இதனால் காணிக்கான சமுதாய உரிமை இழக்கப்படுகின்றது. இந்தக் கிராமங்களில் அரசாங்க அதிகாரிகள் புதிய குடியேற்றங்களுக்கு வசதி செய்வதற்காகப் பொதுக் காணிகளை மீள விநியோகித்து அவற்றினைப் பாடசாலைகள் கட்டுவதற்கும் மயானங்களை அமைப்பதற்கும் வணக்கத்தலங்களை அமைப்பதற்கும் மேய்ச்சல் நிலங்களுக்கும் கூட ஒதுக்கியுள்ளனர். ஆனால் பல தசாப்தங்களாக ஊரை விட்டும் தம் நிலங்களை விட்டும் வெகு தொலைவில் வாழ நிர்ப்பந்திக்கப்பட்ட இடம்பெயர்ந்த இந்த முஸ்லிம் மக்கள் தாம் வாழையடி வாழையாக வாழ்ந்த கிராமங்களில் இந்தத் தீர்மானங்கள் மேற்கொள்ளப்படுகையில் அவற்றிற்கு எவ்வித பங்களிப்பும் வழங்க முடியாதவர்களாக இருந்த காரணத்தினால் இப்போது மேலதிக இழப்புக்களுக்கு முகங்கொடுக்கும் நிலைக்கு உள்ளாகியுள்ளனர்.

தெற்கிலும் நிலைமைகள் சொல்லுந்தரத்தில் இல்லை. விடுதலைப் புலிகளை அல்லது தமிழ் ஈழம் பற்றிக் விமர்சிக்கையில் அரசாங்க அதிகாரிகளும் சிங்களத் தேசியவாத விமர்சகர்களும் வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்களின் தலைவிதி பற்றிப் பேசுகின்றனர். ஆனால் ஆண்டாண்டு காலமாகத் தாம் வாழ்ந்த சொந்த வாழிடங்களில் இருந்து பலவந்தமாக விரட்டியடிக்கப்பட்ட இந்த முஸ்லிம்களுக்கு உண்மையில் என்ன நடந்தது என்பது பற்றியும் அவர்களின் வாழ்விற்கு இனியாவது ஓர் அர்த்தம் கொடுக்க என்ன செய்யப்படவேண்டும் என்பது பற்றியும் இதயசுத்தியுடன் பேச வெகு சிலரே உள்ளனர் என்பதே உண்மையாகும். அண்மைக் காலமாகச் பரந்த முஸ்லிம் சமுதாயம் முகங்கொடுத்துவரும் அதே வெறுப்பலைகளையே வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்களும் கால காலமாகச் சந்தித்து வருகின்றனர். சோகங்களுடனும் விரக்தியுடனும் ஏமாற்றங்களுடனும் கழுத்தறுப்புக்களுடனும் காட்டிக்கொடுப்புக்களுடனும் 30 வருடங்கள் உருண்டோடிவிட்ட நிலையில், வடபுல முஸ்லிம் அரசியல்வாதிகள் மட்டுமே இடம்பெயர்ந்த முஸ்லிம்களுக்காக வழக்காடி வர ஏனைய அனைவரும் இம்மக்களின் துயரத்தினைப் பேசாப் பொருளாகவும் சொல்லக்கூடாத கதையாகவும் புறக்கணித்துவரும் வன்ம வெளிப்பாட்டினை நாம் கண்கூடாகக் கண்டு வருகின்றோம்.

தென் புல முஸ்லிம் அரசியல் தலைவர்களும் இதற்கு விதிவிலக்கல்ல. உயிர்த்த ஞாயிறு தாக்குதல்கள் பற்றிய இவர்களின் சொல்லாடல்களில் முஸ்லிம் தேசியவாதம் பற்றி வினா எழுப்பி வருவதுடன் சிங்களப் பெரும்பான்மையினருடன் முஸ்லிம்கள் அரசியல் ரீதியாக ஒன்றிப் பிணையவேண்டும் எனவும் வேண்டிவருகின்றனர். வடக்கு மற்றும் கிழக்கில் இடம்பெற்றுவரும் இனத்துவக் குழும அரசியலை இவர்கள் விமர்சித்து வருகின்றனர். இதில் சிறிய முரண்நகை என எதுவும் இல்லை. வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்கள் மார்க்க பக்தியின்றித் தமிழ் மக்களைப் போல் வாழ்ந்தமைக்குத் தண்டனைதான் அவர்கள் வெளியேற்றப்பட்டது என நாக்கூசாமல் தென்புல முஸ்லிம்கள் கூறிய ஏராளமான கதைகளை நான் 90 களில் கேட்டிருக்கிறேன். இதே கதைகளே வெள்ளிக்கிழமை குத்பாப் பிரசங்கங்களிலும் மீண்டும் மீண்டும் ஒலித்தன. வடக்கு இடம்பெயர்ந்த முஸ்லிம்களை அல்லாஹ்தஆலா தண்டிக்கின்றான் என்ற தங்களின் கண்டுபிடிப்பினை இமாம்கள் பறைசாற்றி வந்தனர். விடுதலைப் புலிகள் முஸ்லிம்களை வெளியேற்றியமைக்கான ஒரே காரணம் முஸ்லிம்கள் இஸ்லாமியர்களாக இருந்தமையேயன்றி வேறொன்றுமில்லை என்ற உண்மையினைத் தென் புல முஸ்லிம்கள் புரிந்துகொள்ளத் தவறியமை ஒரு துன்பியல் நிகழ்வாகும். இஸ்லாத்தினைப் பின்பற்றுவதற்கான உரிமையினை மாத்திரம் வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்கள் கொண்டிராது தலைமுறை தலைமுறையாக வட புலத் தமிழர்களுடன் எம்மைப் பிணைத்த அந்தச் செழுமையான பாரம்பரியத்தினை மீளக் கோருவதற்கான உரிமையினையும் கொண்டுள்ளனர். தெரிவினை மேற்கொள்வதற்கு அவர்களை நிர்ப்பந்திக்கும் உரிமை யாருக்கும் கிடையாது.

என்ன செய்யப்படலாம்?

தீர்க்கப்படாத இப்பிரச்சினை தொடர்பாக வெகு சொற்பமானவர்கள் அனுதாப உணர்வு கொண்டிருந்தாலும்கூட, ஒட்டுமொத்தத் தமிழ் அரசியல் சமூகமும் முஸ்லிம்கள் 1990 இல் வெளியேற்றப்பட்டமை தொடர்பில் நீண்டகாலமாக மௌனம் காத்துவருகின்றமை இங்கு பதிவுசெய்யத்தக்க உண்மையாகும். 2009 செப்டெம்பரில் அந்நாள் ஜனாதிபதி ராஜபக்சவுடன் தமிழ்த் தேசியக் கூட்டமைப்பு நடத்திய சந்திப்பின்போது இப்பிரச்சினையினை முதற்தடவையாகப் பகிரங்கமாக எழுப்பியது. 2013 இல் நடைபெற்ற வடக்கு மாகாண சபைத் தேர்தலில் கூட்டமைப்பு வெற்றிபெற்றதும் அதற்குக் கிடைத்த போனஸ் ஆசனத்தினை முஸ்லிம் ஒருவருக்கு வழங்கியது. இவ்வாறான அணுகுமுறைகளை வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்கள் வரவேற்றனர். அண்மைய பாராளுமன்றத் தேர்தலில் கிளிநொச்சி மற்றும் யாழ்ப்பாண முஸ்லிம்கள் தமிழ்த் தேசியக் கூட்டமைப்பு பிரதிநிதிகளுக்குப் பகிரங்க ஆதரவினை வழங்கியிருந்தனர். மெச்சத்தக்க இந்த அரசியல் நகர்வினைத் தாண்டி, பெரும்பான்மையான தமிழ்த் தலைவர்களும் புத்திஜீவிகளும் வெளியேற்றப்பட்ட முஸ்லிம்களுடன் தமது கூட்டொருமையினை இன்னும் வெளிக்காட்டவில்லை என்பது கவனத்திற்கொள்ளத்தக்கதாகும்.

நிலைமை இவ்வாறிருக்க, யாரிடமிருந்தும் எதையும் பெரிதும் எதிர்பார்க்காது தமது வாழ்வினை மீண்டும் பூச்சியத்தில் இருந்து ஆரம்பித்து தமிழ் உறவுகளுடன் சகவாழ்வு வாழலாம் என்ற ஆர்வத்துடன் முஸ்லிம்கள் வடக்கிற்குத் திரும்பிக்கொண்டிருக்கின்றனர். சமமாக நடத்தப்படுவதற்கான வாய்ப்பு, தமது காணிகளை அணுகுவதற்கான சந்தர்ப்பம், அடிப்படை வாழ்வாதார உதவிகள் மேலும் காடு மண்டிக் கிடக்கும் தமது காணிகளைத் துப்பரவுசெய்தல் போன்ற சாதாரண கோரிக்கைகளுக்கு அப்பால் இம்மக்கள் விடுத்திருக்கும் முக்கியமான வேண்டுகோள்கள் சொற்பமானவைதான். வெளியேற்றப்பட்ட முஸ்லிம்கள் அவர்களின் சொந்த இடங்களில் தங்களின் சொத்துக்களை மீளக் கோருவதற்கும் வாழ்வாதார உதவிகளைப் பெறுவதற்கும் உரிமையினைக் கொண்டுள்ளனர் என்பதையும் தற்காலிகமாக இவர்களின் குடும்பங்கள் வேறு இடங்களில் வாழும் தெரிவினை மேற்கொண்டிருந்தாலும் இந்த உரிமை அவர்களுக்கு உண்டு என்பதையும் தமிழ் அரசாங்க அதிகாரிகளும் அரசியல்வாதிகளும் அங்கீகரிப்பது இன்றியமையாததாகும். நம்பிக்கை வேர் பிடிக்கும்போது, திரும்பி வருவது பாதுகாப்பானது என அதிகமான வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்கள் உணர்ந்து தங்களின் பூர்வீகக் காணிகளையும் கலாசாரப் பாரம்பரியங்களையும் மீண்டும் கோருவார்கள். எவ்வாறாயினும் இம்மக்களின் திரும்பலுக்குத் தற்போது கூட்டு எதிர்ப்பு இருப்பதாகவே தென்படுகின்றது. இந்த நிலைமை வடக்கு முஸ்லிம்களுக்கும் தமிழர்களுக்கும் இடையில் மேலதிக இனப் பிளவினை உருவாக்கி, பேரினவாதத்திற்கு நலன்சேர்த்து, தமிழர்களின் நீண்டகால நலன்களையும் அவர்களின் இன்னும் பூர்த்தி செய்யப்படாத அரசியல் அபிலாஷைகளையும் கீழறுக்கும். சர்வதேச சமுதாயத்தின் உதவியுடனும் அனுதாபமிக்க சிங்கள மக்களின் உதவியுடனும் இரண்டு சமுதாயங்களினதும் நன்மைக்காக இம்மக்களின் வெவ்வேறான, ஆனால் ஆழமாகப் பிண்ணிப் பிணைந்த துன்பங்களையும் துயரங்களையும் தீர்ப்பதற்காக உறுதியான ஒத்துழைப்பும் நீடித்த முயற்சிகளும் முன்னுரிமைப்படுத்தப்பட வேண்டும்.

1 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/

Black October – 30 years since, where are we?

Shreen Saroor- Human Rights Activist and Lobbyist 
By Shreen Saroor

In October 1990, some 75,000 Muslims in the Northern Province (about five percent of the province’s total) were forcibly expelled from their homeland by the LTTE. In some places the rebels gave only about a 48-hour for Muslims to leave the province. Beginning in Chavakachcheri on October 15th, Muslims were evicted in their entirety (mass) throughout Mannar, Mullaitheevu, Killinochchi, Jaffna, and certain parts of Vavuniya by October 30th. Families were allowed to take only 500 rupees and some clothes; some were forced to flee without any belongings at all. Unable to get transport until they reached towns further south, many walked for upwards of three days. My family was among them—as a student in Colombo at the time, I waited anxiously for news as my family members fled our home in Mannar. To date this community’s sufferings have not been recognized officially and there has been no adequate support for return or reparations. Three decades of neglect and misunderstanding by local residents, government officers, international donors, and southern Muslims have left northern Muslims feeling there is no one left to trust.

Since the civil war’s end in May 2009, northern Muslims have started returning in substantial numbers. But many who remained in the north have not welcomed their return. Political and economic rivalries between Tamil and Muslim communities persist. Northern Muslims assert 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 allocation of resources and the development support required for resettlement. When confronted about 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. It is certainly true that the plight of war-affected Tamil civilians remains distressing. A decade after end of the war, many still lack land, housing and other basic needs and continue to struggle for truth and justice in a dangerous space. These needs are critical, but addressing them should not forestall northern Muslims’ right to collective return.

I have attended meetings in Mannar and Jaffna where journalists have asked Tamil government officers and religious leaders about claims that returning northern Muslims have not received adequate assistance. These leaders responded that the Muslim community has not returned in any significant way—only a few have returned to engage in trade, they argue, while keeping one foot in Puttalam and one foot in the North. While this assessment is often correct, the choice of northern Muslims to maintain their connections in Puttalam reflects the obstacles standing in the returnees’ path. With their lands overtaken by jungles and made inhabitable, 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 there is no basic infrastructure but also, they are not welcomed by government officers or even neighbours, most of whom, after 30 years of separation, do not recognize their former neighbours. The few (mostly in Mannar) who received decent resettlement assistance have been able to return mostly through the political patronage of a former minister who established a political career based on the eviction. For new families who 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, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was conspicuously silent on the issue during the peace negotiations of 2002-2005. Further, none of the parties engaged in talks – including the Norwegian mediators – was willing to consider 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 for expelled Muslims in comparison to 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 Muslims have integrated well into the Puttalam population, 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 religious proscriptions against birth control have combined to create a boom in the Muslim population over the last 29 years, thus making full return an unfair burden on Tamils who remained and suffered through the war. Such claims highlights the extent of the challenge northern Muslims face in seeking justice.

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 UN’s refugee agency, 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 and yet another eviction.

At the start of his first term, in late 2005, President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised to appoint a presidential commission to inquire into the expulsion of the northern Muslims – a promise he never fulfilled. At an event commemorating the end of the war, the former President stated: “When the innocent Muslims were harassed and forcibly evicted from the north by the LTTE, no one came forward to stop this displacement … Now, with my government putting an end to terrorism, all efforts will be made to resettle the Muslims by May 2010.” The speech marked the first time that a senior government official made a categorical statement on evicted Muslims. Even so, the former President failed to prioritize northern Muslims’ right of return in his rapid, post-war nation-building process. A decade later, with the Easter Sunday attacks stoking anti-Muslim sentiment and prompting a Rajapaksa return, Muslims question whether there is any point in once again engaging with the government in the hopes of gaining support and recognition of their plight.

Government officials and Sinhala nationalist commentators often bring up the plight of northern Muslims when criticizing the LTTE or claims to Tamil Eelam, but few genuinely consider what happened to those forced to flee and what must be done to make them whole. 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 with the Sinhala majority as we reel from Islamic terror. They criticize ethnic-group politics found in the North and East. There is no small irony there. In 1990, I heard many southern Muslims say that the expulsions were punishment for living like Tamils and not being pious enough. These themes were repeated in Friday sermons at some mosques, where imams claimed Allah was punishing northern IDPs for not being Muslim enough. What they failed to understand was that the Tigers were expelling us only on the basis of our faith. Northern Muslims not only have a right to practice Islam but also to reclaim 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 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 to transitional justice through UN HRC Resolution 30/1 in 2015, it likewise did not commit to addressing earlier events. 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 recognize Northern Muslims’ loss in any form.

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 (nor even an investigation report by the Election Commission). Their buses were stopped at Chettikulum prior to the attack in Medawachchiya, and police kept them (detained) in custody for hours. Election Commissioner Prof. Ratna Jeevan Hoole visited the police station and instructed 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 attacked1. 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 recent parliamentary election. Over 6000 Mannar voters cast their ballots in Puttalam by going to special polling booths. Despite this positive development, the Assistant Elections Commissioner in Mannar has since instructed the district’s Grama Sevekas 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”.

Unlike war-displaced Tamils, who experienced multiple displacements within the Vanni, forcibly evicted Muslims were compelled to live away from war-torn home areas. Thus, it is a fact that they have been spared of the massacres and terrible losses that the Tamils of Vanni have undergone. But this must not be used to disqualify northern Muslims from returning when it is viable and claiming their rightful properties and other resettlement rights. And to avoid any further suspicion and distrust growing between northern communities, it is imperative to recognise the justice of the northern Muslims’ right to return in parallel with other resettlement and development programs that are ongoing 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 it 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.

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. 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 has been welcomed and was seen as an attempt to secure rights for the country’s two largest minorities. In August’s parliamentary election, the Killinochchi and Jaffna Muslims openly endorsed a couple of the TNA representatives and voted for the TNA. Despite this laudable political move, most Tamil leaders and intellectuals have yet to demonstrate their solidarity for the cause of the expelled northern Muslims.

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 a collective resistance to their return. This is a situation that will only set in place further communal strife between the Muslims and Tamils of the north and benefit majoritarianism, undermining the long-term interest of the Tamils and their still-unmet political aspirations. It is in the interest of the both communities – with the support of the international community and sympathetic Sinhalese – to prioritize deeper cooperation and a sustained effort to work through their separate – but deeply intertwined – grievances and suffering.

1 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/

Pathetic plight of returning Mannar Muslim Refugees Ignored by the government, UNHCR and NGOs

(Latheef Farook– 2016)

Muslim settlements in Mannar dates back to more than one thousand years. In her book “The Muslims of Sri Lanka” eminent historian Dr. Lorna Dewaraja explained that by 9th century Muslim settlements were established in the coastal areas including Mannar. Muslims in and around Mannar area were descendants of early Arab traders who came for trade. They settled down and integrated well with the local people and continued their life in peace and harmony as traders, fishermen and farmer. This situation continued uninterrupted until racism of the two major communities, Sinhalese and Tamils, began raising their ugly heads which later turned this paradise of a country into one of the worst killing fields in Asia.

Sandwiched between these two communities Muslims remained the most peaceful people in the island and the Mannar Muslims were no exception. They lived in harmony with their Tamil neighbours. These centuries old traditional lifestyle was disturbed with the advent of Tamil militancy especially the LTTE, the so called freedom movement turned into one of the worst fascist killing machines in modern history.

From the very inception Muslims kept out of this conflict between the two communities. However they were dragged into the conflict to pay a heavy price. Mannar Muslims, around 7600 families with more than 36,000 people, were subjected to immense hardships and difficulties by the LTTE gangs. These atrocities climaxed on 30 October 1990 when the LTTE driven them out of their homes and lands together with  rest of the Muslim population in the north at very short notice. In the north Muslims were given two hours while Mannar Muslims were driven out within two days. This was an unprecedented crime in modern history and even majority Sinhalese never resorted to such heartless ethnic cleansing of Tamils in the south despite merciless LTTE atrocities.

In their extensive report on the plight of evicted Mannar Muslims activist Anberiya
and Mujib pointed out that they were stripped of their belongings, lands, and houses and permitted to take only Rupees 500 with them. They were not permitted to take any document including their birth certificates, title deeds to their lands and houses and other such valuable things. This has caused severe hardships to them in claiming their properties.

The plundering of the possessions from their homes followed soon after their enforced departure. The physical, economic, social and psychological suffering to which the entire Northern Muslim population was subjected was immeasurable.

Northern Muslims claim that the Government was aware of the imminent eviction but failed to take action against the LTTE despite the presence of the Army. The International Non-Governmental Organization and local Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) were also silent observers of the eviction process. Following the expulsion majority of the Forcibly Evicted Persons (FEP) travelled to Puttalam where they were sympathetically received by the Muslims who provided them space for shelter, food and other basic needs during the initial days of displacement. According to well-known researcher M.I.M.Mohideen about 82 % of the Northern Muslims ended up as refugees in Puttalam district.  A small minority went to places such as Anuradhapura and Kurunegala. Then President R. Premadasa did not want the Northern Muslims to settle in Colombo District.

Their sufferings during the past two decades in the refugee camps in appalling conditions were immense. They survived on the paltry dry ration provided by the government. With normalcy returning in the aftermath of the crushing defeat of LTTE in May 2009 Mannar Muslims started returning to their neglected lands and abandoned homes in small numbers only to see their property being destroyed and the lands turned into thick jungles. There is hardly any basic facility to start with. Most of them needed assistance to clear their lands and rebuild their houses.

They needed government assistance to restart their lives. However in a shameful decision the UNHCR, a wing of United Nations which legalizes   wars against Muslim countries worldwide, declared them as old internally displaced people, IDPs, and started rehabilitating the Tamil war victims. Thus the Mannar Muslim’s hopes were dashed.

It is worthy to remind that British Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs David Miliband and French Foreign Minister followed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon rushed all the way from London, Paris and New York to see the conditions of Tamil IDPs in the aftermath of the LTTE defeat. However none of them went to see the plight of Muslim refugees in Puttalam.This speaks a lot for their indifference towards the plight of Muslim refugees not only in Puttalam but the millions of Muslims who were made refugees by their so called war on terrorism.  

However Mannar Muslims started returning to their lands, but the Government was not supportive. There was no mention of the return of Northern Muslims, or for that matter ‘old’ IDPs at large, in the 180 day resettlement plan of the government. On 18th August 2009 Government published an advertisement calling for all Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs)– including Northern Muslims – wishing to return to register, but there is no information about the modalities of the resettlement process. To-date the State has not given any policy direction based on the replies to the advertisement.

Musali Muslims

According to are port prepared by Dr H.S. Hasbulla and his team “Muslims formed 68 percent of the population, before they were evicted, in the   Musali Divisional Secretariat of the Mannar District. There were 22 prominent Muslim settlements spread over an area of 486 square km. Musali was blessed with land and sea resources.  A major irrigation system, which was somewhat equal to the Giant Tank called Akathimurippu was the base for agricultural activities of the Muslim farmers of the area.  This irrigation system had 65 minor sub tanks supplying water through a 12 km stretch for major canals that sufficiently irrigated a total of 5800 acres of agricultural land.  Needless to say, a strong socio-economic and cultural infrastructure sprang from this economic base.  However the entire system of civilization in Musali is now in a state of ruin.  The region is now fully covered by secondary forest.  No traces of any permanent buildings are found in this area. Tanks and irrigation canals have been silted and damaged almost completely.  It is a shock to see the enormity of the devastation in Musali. They took a great deal of risk to return to their places of origin in Musali despite threat of wild animals and landmines (e.g., Chilawathurai).  Now almost all the Muslim villages have some returnees .These returnee have already begun to encounter a host of problems including shortage of food, inadequate shelter, lack of medical facilities, poor schooling for their children and bad infrastructure.  

Mannar Island Muslims 

In the Mannar Island, most of the former Muslim concentrations are limping back to normalcy with Muslim refugees returning.  Only about 15 percent of the total displaced Muslims have returned to date places such as Puthukuddiyirrupu, Erukkalampiddy, Uppukulam, Tharapuram, Karisal, Talaimannar, Kataspathiri (Pesali) and Moor Street of Mannar Town.  Surprisingly, the cease-fire agreement did not encourage the Mannar Island Muslims to return home as they do not have shelter for immediate occupations and most of the remaining houses are not in habitable conditionwhile others are occupied. Landmines in Talaimannar remain yet another problem. The returnees feel insecure and vulnerable because only a small number had returned compared to the number of Muslims who lived there before they were displaced.  In the midst many of Muslim residents of Mannar Town sold their houses and other properties.  Returnees have also reported fears about possible restrictions on religious and cultural practices as well.

Commerce and Industry Minister Rishad Bathiudeen explained in detail the present plight of Mannar Muslims in an interview with Ceylon Today. 

He explained that United Nations Human Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, has termed those displaced prior to 2008, as ‘old IDPs’, resulting in them  losing  much of the humanitarian assistance currently provided for IDPs by various groups. Since the end of the conflict, hundreds of Northern Muslim refugees started returning to their lands. They face series of problems and there have been little recognition of the issues involved in the resettlement process. 

The UNHCR is providing assistance only to ‘new IDPs’, whereas 90% of the Muslims do not fall into such a category. Even the NGOs provide assistance to ‘new IDPs’. Under this program none of the Muslim families receive livelihood support, shelter and sanitary facilities. No Muslim school was reconstructed. Villages still look like jungles. 

He added that even the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report suggested the need for policy decisions to resettle the Muslims in the North, but the government has not taken any initiative. He explained that it is three years since the present Resettlement Minister assumed duties, but shame to say, that he has not visited north, which need to be resettled. The minister should take up this resettlement issue seriously. After the war, no meeting on this issue was held in those areas. Why is the government not paying any attention to this? It is only when you visit the areas that you really understand the suffering of Muslims there.  

Minister Bathiudeen also accused “the Bishop of Mannar of blocking the resettlement of Muslim sand even written to President Mahinda Rajapaksa against the Muslims. It’s quite shocking to hear that the Bishop has asked the Catholics not to sell lands to Muslims during resettlement. I spoke about this in Parliament. When I was the Minister of Resettlement, I resettled all the Tamils in the North. By the time I was to resettle the Muslims, there was a change in the Cabinet of Ministers. After that, no one took any initiative to resettle them. Now I am taking the initiative but the Bishop is obstructing them. My only expectation is to resettle my people. They are all my relatives. I was also an IDP. It is with their votes that I became a Minister”. 

He said seventy nine mosques in the North were demolished during the war. No one has taken any initiative to re-construct these mosques or houses which were demolished during the war.

“This issue can only be sorted out with the help of the government and the NGOs. I have decided, if these issues are not addressed accordingly, I will quit politics and not contest in the next general elections.  If President Mahinda Rajapakse takes pride in saying that he won the war, he also needs to resettle the people” said Minister Bathiudeen. The government is silent perhaps they know Muslim politicians who sold their souls for positions and perks and dropped the community would not raise these issues.