Rights & Resettlement

Understanding the Sri Lankan Northern Muslims’ Plight on the light of Ethnic Cleansing

Dr. Diotima Chattoraj
Researcher at University of  Brunei Darussalam – Brunei
Volunteer at UNICEF D.C. CAT Washington D.C.

Sri Lanka experienced 26 years of vicious fighting between the national government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended in May 2009 with the military defeat of the LTTE. With the claim to fight for the self-determination of Sri Lankan Tamils, LTTE fought
an ever-intensifying battle with the military forces in the north and east of the country, considered by the LTTE as the Tamil Eelam (homeland) (Chattoraj & Gerharz, 2019a). The war witnessed the death of hundreds, displacement of more than a million and destruction of physical and human infrastructures (Chattoraj, 2019). The Muslims, who formed the second largest minority community, were scattered throughout the
northern provinces. Although the LTTE claimed to represent all Tamil-speaking people which also included the Muslim population in the Tamil Eelam, serious differences were observed in the form
of increasing political opposition.
From the 1980s onwards, the Muslim population explicitly promoted its own political representation based on ethno-religious differences. Over the course of time, the complex relationship between Muslims and Tamils led to an emerging polarisation and also to violent
A decisive event which devastated inter-ethnic relations took place in 1990, when the LTTE expelled around 75,000-80,000 Northern Muslims, mainly from Mannar, Jaffna, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, and Mullaitivu districts (Chattoraj, 2017). They were forced to flee their homes in October 1990 when LTTE cadres went from village to village, announcing that Muslims had 48 hours to leave their homes or face reprisals. Many of them fled with only their clothes and a little money,
leaving behind as much as Rs.5,000 million ($46 million) worth of property and valuables (ibid). They took up refuge at the camps in the Northwestern provinces of Puttalam District. Other camps were established in Medawachiya, Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Colombo, Negombo, Panadura, and a few other places (Imtiyaz & Iqbal 2011). Initially, there were 113 refugee camps extending from Kalpitiya to Puthukudiyiruppu along the Puttalam Colombo Road (ibid.). Though most of them were hardly adequate to live in, still they managed to survive.
In the following years, the LTTE provided a couple of justifications for this mass expulsion, which resembles “an act of ethnic cleansing” (Chattoraj & Gerharz, 2019b). Muslim politicians considered the eviction of the Muslim community from the entire province as a political strategy of the LTTE and Tamils to establish a mono-ethnic Tamil state in the region. This expulsion had an impact not only on the demographic composition of that region, but also on other areas: some
displaced Muslims moved to Colombo and joined the relatively large Muslim community there, some sought refuge in other parts of Sri Lanka and the majority ended up in refugee camps in Puttalam, the district bordering the territory claimed by the LTTE in the north (ibid.).
Throughout the war, the displaced Muslims did not dare take the possibility of resettlement into account, fearing the incalculable reaction of the LTTE. At the same time, many of them refrained from registering themselves as residents in their new places because of the fear that this might forfeit their right to reclaim their property and resettle in the Northern Provinces (Haniffa, 2007).
Post-2009, Sri Lanka is struggling to find a way to accommodate minority interests within the democratic system. Although various economic reconstruction initiatives have taken place, feelings of having been left out are widespread amongst Muslims, especially in Jaffna. There is a high level of mistrust, reflected in the refusal of most of Internally Displaced People (IDPs) to return to their former homes, because of the traumatic experiences of being repeatedly expelled
(Chattoraj & Gerharz, 2019a). Many fear political and socio-economic disadvantage in the north, as they are disproportionally left out of repatriation schemes.
Yet, with the end of the war, gradually thousands of Muslims started returning to their homes in Jaffna (See Table 1.). However, they did not receive much help either from any NGOs nor from the Government. The rest are still living as IDPs in the North-Western province of Puttalam.
Table 1 Details of the Northern Muslim returnees. Data gathered from Northern Muslim Civil Society through my informant in Jaffna
District Population in 1990 In 2018 Jaffna 3417 Families and 10,600 Persons 690 Families 2340 Persons Mullaitivu 2900 Families and 11,450 Persons 860 Families 1960 Persons Kilinochchi 900 Families and 3600 Persons 360 Families 878 Persons Vavuniya 2100 Families and 9700 Persons 360 Families 1370 Persons Mannar 5500 Families and 38000 Persons 4800 Families 18,070 Persons Taken from Chattoraj (2021)
The main reason behind their return is the sense of belonging to their places of origin, signifying
the existence of an ‘intimate connection’ to the place. Returnees also express their obligations
towards the people of their homeland in Jaffna with respect to certain duties―which hints at the
social dimensions of belonging. Apart from a ‘longing’ for their places of origin in the physical
sense, a connection with the people living there also gets highlighted.
The minority Muslim community, comprising of 8% of the country’s 21.02 million population (Sri
Lanka, Department of Census and Statistics, 2019), was scattered in significant numbers in the
south, and constituted one-third of the population of the Eastern Province and a significant number
of them used to be in the north until their expulsion by the LTTE from the northern provinces in
October 1990.
However, they were victimised during the ethnic conflict although they had never been a
competing or conflicting party. Their mass expulsion from the northern province, by the LTTE,
was one of the greatest injustices meted out to them and has been considered as the most cruel and
inhumane episode which is synonymous with ‛ethnic cleansing’.
Since then, they have been going through a vulnerable life. The end of the war created high hopes
among this population that their displaced life would come to an end soon and as citizens of Sri
Lanka, they have the right to return and resettle in their original homes assisted by the government,
politicians and civil forces (Hasbullah, 2004). Continuously neglecting to help them resettle is a
denial of their right to live in their own lands (ibid.). Therefore, resettling them along with the
displaced Tamils would resolve their grievances and create room for the empowerment of their
lives, livelihood and improve relations with the other ethnic groups in the post-war era.
However, vulnerabilities exist within their community with different aspirations for their return
and the complex nature of protracted displacement. Those who do not own property and do not
have sustainable livelihoods considered to return to their original homes, whereas the others were
reluctant. Lack of proper assistance and basic amenities pose a serious challenge to the resettlement
of northern Muslims who have already returned to their original homes (Yusoff et al., 2018;
Chattoraj, 2017).
In 2011, several displaced Muslims registered to return to their original homes with the hope that
government authorities could make necessary arrangements and facilities, such as identifying and
allocating lands for their resettlement, initiating housing projects and expanding livelihood
opportunities (Yusoff et al., 2018). Furthermore, their areas were decimated and their homes were
destroyed during their long displacement. Further, families have expanded, and returning Muslims
need land, infrastructure and livelihood assistance. For them, scant information and little
discussion exist on their available choices of return or integration. Conditions in return sites are
poor and limited assistance means that they require time to rebuild their lives all over again. In
addition, the extent of assistance for families who are landless or are occupying land without proper
documentation (i.e. those families who were born and grew up in displacement and
are not able to make any land claims) is unclear (Fonseka & Raheem, 2011).
With the end of the war, several national and local developmental initiatives are being taken,
however, neither the northern Tamil political leaders nor the radical nationalist forces within the
Sinhalese-Buddhist community made meaningful initiatives to resettle the Muslims in their
original homes. Till date, most Tamils remain indifferent to the return of the Muslims, reflecting
the weakened Tamil-Muslim relations and a Tamil public sphere where little has been done to
rebuild them (Kadirgamar, 2015).
Unfortunately, the end of the war created no room for the improvement of the vulnerable lives of
the Muslims. The Muslims have always been targeted by the forces of Sinhala-Buddhist
supremacy in their campaigns for ending Halal certification, in the agitations for the boycott of
Muslim-owned businesses, and above all in the anti-Muslim riots of 2014 and 2018 that resulted
in the looting and burning of hundreds of Muslim shops and homes (Chattoraj & Gerharz, 2019b).
Finally, the 21st April (2019) Easter Sunday bombings by the Islamist group National Thowheed
Jamaath (NTJ2), drove the nail in their coffins. The outbreaks of violence that followed against
the Muslim community thereafter, has been aptly viewed as horrifying. One such impact is the
banning of the ‘Burqa’ and ‘Niqab’ (types of face cover) of the Muslim women (Chattoraj &
Gerharz, 2019b).

  1. Chattoraj, D. 2017. Ambivalent attachments: shifting notions of home among displaced Sri
    Lankan Tamils. PhD thesis: Ruhr-Universität Bochum. Available at: https://dnb.info/1144614422/34.
  2. Chattoraj, D. 2019. Emergence of a New Identity through Migration: A Comparative Case
    Study of Sri Lankan Tamil Women in Sri Lanka and Singapore. Nusantara: An
    International Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences 1(1):26-46.
  3. Chattoraj, D. (upcoming). Diasporic Search for Home: Displaced Sri Lankan Tamils.
    Springer: Singapore (In Press).
  4. Chattoraj, D., and E. Gerharz. 2019a. Difficult Return: Muslims’ Ambivalent Attachments
    to Jaffna in Post-Conflict Sri Lanka. Working Paper No.46 Institute of Asian Studies,
    Gadong: Universiti Brunei Darussalam.
  5. Chattoraj, D., and E. Gerharz. 2019b. Strangers at home: narratives of northern Muslim
    returnees in post-war Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka Journal of Social Sciences 42(2):113-126.
  6. Fonseka, B. and Raheem, M. (2011) Land issues in the Northern Province: Post War
    Politics, Policy, and Practices, Colombo:Centre for Policy Alternatives.
  7. Haniffa, F. 2007. Muslims in Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict. ISIM Review 19(1):52-53.
  8. Hasbullah, S. H. (2004) Justice for the dispossessed: The case of a forgotten minority in
    Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict, Sri Lankan society in an era of globalization: Struggling to
    create a new social order, pp: 221-240, Colombo: Vijitha Yapa publications, Colombo.
  9. Kadirgamar, A. (2015) The other Oppressed Minority, The Hindu [Online] 26th October,
    Available from: https://www. thehindu.com/opinion/lead/The-other-oppressedminority/article10176292.ece [Accessed: 30th June 2020].
  10. Minority Voices Newsroom (2014) Sri Lanka: The forgotten people: 24 years of forcible
    eviction of Northern Muslims [Online] Available from:
    yearsof yearsof-forcible-eviction-of-northern-muslims (Accessed: 10th June2020).
  11. Yusoff, M. A., Sarjoon, A. and Mohd Zain, Z. (2018) Resettlement of Northern Muslims:
    A Challenge for Sustainable Post-War Development and Reconciliation in Sri Lanka,
    Social Sciences, 7(7), 106.

Northern Muslim Civil Society’s Submission

on Justice and Accountability.

Northern Muslims:

In October 1990 the Muslims who have been living and coexisting peacefully with the Tamils in the Northern Province were forcibly expelled by the LTTE in an act that amounted to an ethnic cleansing. These Muslims, by a conservative estimate, amounted to between 75,000 to 100,000 persons in 1990. They have been living in protracted displacement since then.

Contrary to common perception these Muslims were not only expelled from the city of Jaffna but from all five districts of the Northern Province, largest number from the Mannar district. And they have not only sought refuge and live in Puttalam as commonly believed there are substantial number of evicted northern Muslims living in Negombo, Colombo and its suburbs, Thihariya, Panadura and Kurunegala areas too.

Having been forcibly expelled and not protected by the government these evicted Muslims could not return during the war. The fact that a few amongst those chose to return during and after the failed peace process in 2002 to 2004 went missing or were abducted was a deterrent to return as well.

Despite another misperception, most of the evicted Muslims together with their families that have grown and multiplied due to natural population growth entertain a desire to return provided they are made to feel welcome back, basic infrastructures and common amenities developed in the places of their original habitation and assurance of security and non recurrence of displacement.

Although there are no express or overt impediments, Northern Muslims’ return has been fraught with challenges such as unwelcoming bureaucracy, lack of state support to encourage or facilitate voluntary return and non-availability of lands to the landless amongst others.

Although the current regime’s stated commitment towards reconciliation and the on going public consultations to look at prospective transitional justice mechanisms have afforded an opportunity to place their concerns too on the table there has been a reluctance amongst the returned members of the Muslim community to come forward and openly engage in these consultations and place their issues.

The proposed mechanisms should take into consider minimally the following in relation to the 1990 Eviction:

  1. The Right to Truth:
    1. The ethnic cleansing has to be acknowledged by the government, Northern and Eastern Provincial Councils and the Tamil Political leadership.
    2. Within the Truth, Justice, non-recurrent and reconciliation mechanism a special division/unit to be set up to investigate, inquire and find the truth of this into the ethnic cleansing.
    3. Northern Muslims want to know the reason behind expulsion and want an open and official acknowledgement of the expulsion and the series of violent events that preceded it.
    4. We also want to know as to why government did not prevent it from happening and why there were no efforts to resettle Northern Muslims even after government recapturing parts of the north immediately after the eviction.
  1. Accountability:
    1. The loss of lives, injuries caused and resulted, loss of property, economic loss, loss of livelihood, should be accounted for and adequate remedies to be put in place
    2. Special court should investigate the 1990 ethnic cleansing of the Muslims as a war crime and crime against humanity and hold the guilty party accountable.
  1. Reparation:
    1. Commensurate with the longevity of the problem, current inflation together with economic loss should be identified in calculating compensations.
  1. Guarantee of non-recurrence:
    1. A National Resettlement Policy should, as a matter of priority, be formulated and implemented. A clear and equitable policy in relation to state land alienation should also be implemented. A series of affirmative actions (anti hate law, an independent commission to investigate discrimination and land committees at local level) to be taken to ensure protection and security of the communities that are numerically smaller in the regions.

Further under each of the proposed mechanisms following need to be considered:

  1. OMP should deal, investigate and report on the:
    1. Abductions and enforced disappearance of Muslim persons who went missing or made disappear at all times.
    2. Disappearance of Muslims happened before 1990, in 1990 and while they were in displacement as well caused by the LTTE, other armed groups, para-militaries and unidentified armed men.
    3. Many Muslims who were engaged in trade or other vocations that lead them to different areas in the east were abducted and/or made to disappear too.
    4. Temporal scope of the OMP to be from 1983 to till to date or at least till 2014.
    5. In 1990, at the time of Muslim eviction, number of Muslim men were detained by LTTE have not returned.
    6. A few Muslims who returned to the north during peace process time 2002 to 2004 went missing: this constructively prevented people from returning.
    7. The OMP in terms of situation the main coordinating office preferably to be in the N or E or autonomous branches to be set up in the N & E.
    8. Commissioners to have an equal representation from all communities
    9. OMP personnel to have an equal mix of members from the Tamil, Muslim and Sinhala communities.
    10. Proceedings to be held in Tamil wherever Tamil speaking persons approach the OMP and primary recording to be done in the language in which testimonies are given.
  1. Truth, Justice. Reconciliation and Non-Recurrence Commission:
    1. Eviction need to be investigated to find out the truth
      1. As to why eviction took place?
      2. Why did not the government prevent it?
      3. Why did not government show interest in resettling those evicted from areas which were recaptured?
      4. Why the government is not showing interest in facilitating voluntary return of these evicted Muslims even after 2009 or even after 2015?
    2. The background and systematic mass scale killings and abduction in the East that made the eviction possible should be investigated.
    3. It should also be investigated as to why Muslims from areas such as Musali Division, Erukkalampiddy and Tharapuram in Mannar Island, where they were preponderant majority also had to leave complying with the dictate of the LTTE to leave.
    4. The government should acknowledge that it failed to prevent and protect the northern Muslims from ethnic cleansing in 1990.
    5. Those perpetrated and responsible for this expulsion should be prosecuted and held accountable
  1. Justice: Special Court:
    1. Under the Special Court prosecution should take place as to why this expulsion happened, how it happened, the lead up to the expulsion, the mass scale killing of Muslims, abductions and systematically expelling.
    2. The non prevention by the government and/or it’s armed forces and law and order enforcement agencies have to be investigated and truth found out as well as use it to prevent recurrence of similar incidents in future.
    3. Special Courts of hybrid nature should be established and empowered, if appropriate through special procedure, to expeditiously investigate, inquire into, adjudicate and mete out justice on all matters relating to the Expulsion of the Northern Muslims, including those killed and made to go missing by the LTTE, para-military groups and the armed forces.
    4. The local judges and law officers assisting this court should comprise a fair percentage from among the Northern Muslim Community competent in Tamil language.
    5. The said Special Court and the Procedure it adopts should be compatible with internationally accepted standards, laws and procedure.
  1. This is imperative for even in the absence of guns and violence the bureaucracy which is more or less mono ethnic is trying to do the same, in that they are unwelcoming towards the Muslims, discriminate against the Muslims.
  1. Reparation:
  1. Eviction of the Northern Muslims should form an integral part of remembering the war related: that is any memorialisation to remember the dead, missing in war and war related destruction should explicitly include the Expulsion of Northern Muslims.
  2. A separate National Day should be dedicated to remember and/or memorialise the atrocities and the negative impact of the war, including the expulsion of the northern Muslims. If not a separate day to remember the expulsion of the northern Muslims should figure in the National and Provincial calendars.
  3. The Northern Muslims Expulsion should be factored in the national curriculum of schools. This is to ensure that the history is not distorted and to promote reconciliation in an open and informed manner.
  4. The above also would bring about an awareness of culture; customs and heritage, including religious customs that were celebrated in the North have been abandoned due to the expulsion and help restore them.
  5. Private lands and state lands that are adjacent to villages should be returned to their owners and to the villages to accommodate natural population growth.
  6. Reconstructions and restoration of all facilities, infrastructure and common amenities that are integral parts and necessary as basic needs to recommence return and resettlement; particularly those related to land, housing, livelihood, health, education, transportation, drinking water, sanitation should be undertaken by the government immediately to provide a conducive environment and an incentive to those want to return.
  7. For otherwise it would amount to another displacement if they are expected to pack their belongings and go with a meagre assistance to restart their lives – and that too without any concrete assurance and guarantee that they would not be displaced again.
  8. Lands sold under duress – duress here is environmental and as there was no option and no foreseeable value and dire economic need. Not asking for re-conveyance – but can consider re-conveyance if currently owned by public/corporate bodies such as church/temple/mosque
  9. The evicted were compelled to dispose their assets in their places of original habitations due to their dire economic condition and to sustain them in places of the displacement. Need a mechanism to look into whether can the government buy back and provide larger space – & Further
  10. Probable State lands and areas that would have been alienated to next of kin or to Muslims which would have facilitated community expansion have during the absence of Muslims been alienated to non Muslims. While acknowledging that those benefitted by such alienation should not be disadvantaged the fact that the difficulty, loss and non availability of state lands to Muslims where they would have liked ought to be acknowledged and rectified through a well thought out sensitive and effective policy of land alienation to these Muslims who are landless.
  11. Encroachment by non-owners due to the absence of Muslims need to be dealt through a conciliation mechanism owned and driven by community leaders supported by bureaucrats.
  12. Due to the absence of Muslims the demography has got altered in certain areas, this need to be addressed and rectified equitably.
  13. A National Policy that would facilitate voluntary return and resettlement in an equitable and in a manner that would address the specific nature and needs of the expelled northern Muslims should be formulated and implemented without delay.
  14. The government should ensure that all those who occupied and/or possessed lands on or before 01-01-1987 are given back and/or placed back in possession of the lands so occupied by them.
  15. To ensure the Muslims are treated equally and without discrimination in state land alienation. There is discrepancy and discrimination. In some districts in the North less extent of agricultural lands are being given to Muslims overlooking the provisions of relevant circulars.
  16. The fact that the number of the expelled Muslims in 1990 has increased at least by 5 folds due to natural population growth and family unit increase, has to be factored in when allocating state lands.
  17. The vast tracts of lands occupied by armed forces, particularly those that are adjacent to the villages and habitats where people lived and carried out livelihood prior to their expulsion should be returned for civilian occupation and cultivation.
  18. Compensation should be paid to the owners of private late that the armed forces and police are continuing to occupy.
  19. To review state land alienation done to those who were brought from other districts.
  20. The Puttalam – Mannar road via Wilpattu National Park should be open to facilitate voluntary return and economic recovery of Northern Muslims.
  1. Voting rights:
  1. Law relating to voter registration should be amended to be flexible, at least for about 5 years, with regard to the requirement of proof of residence to the returning Northern Muslims to enable them to register at the place of their choice as the returnees are not able to return as a family or at once.
  2. When carrying out delimitation and redrawing of boundaries, specially in areas of original habitation of Muslims in the North and East, should be carried out paying particular attention and taking into account of the then boundaries, existed population, composition, percentage and demography to ensure fair representation to the displaced and not to be disadvantaged by their displacement.
  1. To enact new laws and to strengthen the existing body of laws to ensure and guarantee non-recurrence of such heinous crimes against any community and/or individual.
  1. Additional Recommendations:
  1. Establishment of a Non-Discrimination Commission:

A Non-Discrimination Commission should be established to oversee and rectify all discriminatory practices by State Officials, Semi-State Officials, Judicial and Quasi Judicial apparatus and Administrative Officials.

7.1 A Conciliation and Dispute Resolution Mechanism:

A conciliation mechanism should be set up consisting of the experienced representatives of the communities together with officials and political representatives to resolve matters in dispute amongst inter and intra community members in relation to land disputes, boundary identification, state land allocation and other individual and collective rights claimed.