Northern Muslims’ right to return – whose responsibility is it?
By Shreen Saroor
Thirty three years have passed since the eviction of the northern Muslims. In October 1990, some 75,000 to 100,000 Muslims in the Northern Province, about 5% of the province’s total population, were forcibly expelled from their homeland (places of traditional habitation) by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In some places, the rebels gave only about 12 hours for the Muslims to leave the province. Beginning in Chavakachcheri on October 15, Muslims were evicted in their entirety throughout Mannar, Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi, Jaffna and certain parts of Vavuniya by October 30. Families were allowed to take only Rs 500 and some clothes; some were forced to flee without any belongings. Unable to get transport until they reached towns further south, many walked for more than three days. To date this community’s sufferings have not been recognized officially and there has been no adequate support for return or reparations. Over three decades of abandonment, neglect and misunderstanding by local residents, government officers, Muslim politicians and international human rights community have left the northern Muslims feeling there is no one they can trust.
The eviction of Muslims caused a serious rupture in the coexistence of Tamils and Muslims in the North. The Tamils could not dissociate themselves as a group from this heinous act or condemn it openly when it was unfolding, perhaps due to fear of reprisals from the LTTE. Small groups of Tamils, however, pleaded with the LTTE to stop the eviction but their pleas did not move the LTTE.
Now, when some of the evicted Muslims are in the process of resettling in North and have begun to stabilize themselves in socio-economic terms, the doors to a renewed coexistence are slowly opening. A genuine process of coexistence can begin only if the members of the Tamil community are willing to examine, even belatedly, their narrow exclusivist nationalism and their silence in the face of the LTTE’s militarism, which allowed the LTTE to commit an act of ethnic cleansing. The coexistence of Tamils and Muslims in the North depends largely on how these two communities work together in addressing the challenges the returning Muslims are faced with.
Since the civil war’s end in May 2009, northern Muslims have started returning in substantial numbers but the challenges are manifold. Political and economic rivalries between the Tamil and Muslim communities is a major reason for it. Senior government officers, for instance, are said to under quote Muslim returnee numbers, which significantly reduces the allocation of resources and the development support required for resettlement. When confronted over this perceived bias, government officers in the North respond that Muslims are already well settled in Puttalam, so the government’s priority should be on the war affected Tamils.
It is certainly true that the plight of war affected Tamil civilians remain distressing, especially in the Vanni. Fourteen years after the end of the war, many still lack land, housing and other basic needs and continue to struggle for truth and justice in a dangerous, militarized space. These needs are critical but addressing them should not forestall the northern Muslims’ right to collective return. The suffering the two communities experienced during the civil war, instead of alienating them from one another, should lead them to empathize with one another and commit themselves to pluralistic coexistence. Delaying or discriminative treatment in addressing the northern Muslims collective return and meaningful reintegration will inevitably delay the much needed long term reconciliation and relative peace to the region.
Already suffering the adverse effects of 33 years of neglect, northern Muslims have also faced assaults on their basic democratic rights. During the November 2019 presidential election, Northern Muslims who travelled from Puttalam to vote in Mannar came under attack, with their buses fired at on the way to Mannar at Tantirimale. After voting they were attacked again that evening by Sinhala mobs in Medawachchiya; many women and children were injured but no inquiry has been held (not even an investigation report was released by the Election Commission). This attack is influencing the non-cooperation of election officials and other government officials when it comes to registering returning Muslims and those wanting to return to vote in Vanni.
Even when transitional justice was mooted from 2015 to 2019, early efforts to redress the northern Muslims’ grievances through the proposed mechanisms were abandoned. The investigation launched by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Official Inquiry on Sri Lanka (OISL) 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 government committed itself to starting transitional justice processes through the UN Human Rights Council’s Resolution 30/1 in 2015, it did not commit to addressing earlier events such as the eviction of the northern Muslims, who nonetheless took it upon themselves to play an active role in the public hearings led by the Consultation Taskforce on Reconciliation Mechanisms and made numerous suggestions including on larger issues of truth, justice and reparations but to no effect. As a result, the current reparation policy does not specifically recognize the losses of northern Muslims in any form. Within the Tamil community, only a few voices demanded that transitional justice processes acknowledge the crimes committed against the Muslims and address the grievances of the evicted Muslims. There was hardly any coverage of the submissions made by the evicted Muslims during these sessions in mainstream Tamil media. One Tamil politician who termed the forcible expulsion of the Muslims as an act of ethnic cleansing at a commemoration event held in Jaffna faced vicious vilification from chauvinistic forces within the Tamil community.
Northern Muslims are disappointed that government authorities have paid little heed to the needs of returning Muslims and are now demanding that President Ranil Wickremesinghe appoint a commission to investigate their issues. First of all, one needs to understand why the politicians who represented them did not influence the successive governments that they were serving as ministers to appoint a commission on the expulsion of the northern Muslims. Secondly with the long history of local commissions and their insignificant delivery, why are they demanding yet another political show at the cost of taxpayers’ expenses? Instead, the call should be acknowledgement and actions to overcome impacts of expulsion including rebuilding links with the Tamil community and working together towards building a more just and equitable future.
The government has been pushing for a truth commission to negate the March 2021 UN Human Right Council resolution that established an accountability project to collect and prepare evidence of international crimes committed in Sri Lanka for use in future prosecution. There is heavy resistance from victims and women’s groups from North and East questioning the motives of the proposed truth commission. On October 17, the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation Bill was tabled after establishing an interim secretariat for unity and reconciliation a few months ago, possibly with some international donor support. One wonders whether leaders of the northern Muslim community who are clamouring for a local commission (another delaying tactic) would look into a possibility of incorporating northern Muslims’ collective right to return into any of these efforts even at this late stage. Or why cannot these leaders mount a legal challenge since the collective return of the northern Muslims and the challenges attached to it are continuing violations of their constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights that are denied by the government officials in the north? In any forthcoming elections, the northern Muslims have to think seriously and use their franchise to choose a new leadership that could take forward their issues genuinely as a right based issue and demand accountability for eviction, full access to their ancestral homeland and proper reparation that includes the recognition of the injustice committed to them not only at the point of eviction in October 1990 but also with regard to their collective return and the state’s failure to redress it.
– Shreen Abdul Saroor is a human rights activist and one of the founders of Mannar Women’s Development Federation (MWDF) and Mannar Women for Human Rights and Democracy (MWfHRD) in Sri Lanka and this article was originally featured on groundviews.org