South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

By: Shreen Saroor

President Rajapakse’s belated promise to resettle expelled northern Muslims by May 2010 will do little to ameliorate growing tensions with the Tamil community.

The civil war in Sri Lanka ended on 17 May 2009 with a grave human tragedy, and the plight of war-affected Tamil civilians remains distressing. More than eight months later, many displaced are still living under trees and in roadside tents, their kith and kin still missing. The dead, meanwhile, remain unnumbered; even many among the missing are locked up in detention centres or prisons. The government’s military victory over the LTTE has indeed brought relief to many, however – including the northern Muslims, whose sufferings and refugee lives have been neglected for almost two decades by observers of the Sri Lankan conflict.

In October 1990, during what is now referred to as the Second Eelam War, some 75,000 Muslims in the Northern Province (five percent of the province’s total) were dragged into Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict when they were expelled from their homeland by the LTTE. The rebels gave a 48-hour ultimatum for all Muslims to leave the province; in Jaffna, the provincial capital where the Muslims are concentrated, only two hours was allowed. Each family was allowed to take only SLR 500 and some clothes. Unable to get any transport until they reached towns further to the south, many walked for as long as three days; others were forced to flee without belongings.

Although the LTTE faced heavy criticism for this act of ethnic cleansing, LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was conspicuously silent on the issue during the peace negotiations of 2002-05. Further, none of the parties engaged in talks – including the Norwegian mediators – was willing to even 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 expelled Muslims’ return in comparison to Tamil internally displaced persons (IDPs) return during the last peace process, in 2002.

Today, however, the dissolution of the Tamil Tiger leadership that ordered the eviction in 1990 has brought new hope to the Muslims of finally being able to return to their homes. Recently, a group of 17 women from the North-Western Province district of Puttalam, where 70,000 northern Muslims have lived in exile since October 1990, organised what  they referred to as a ‘go and see’ visit to Jaffna District. Most of these young women were babies when their community was forced to flee, and had only heard from their elders about how they had once co-existed with the Tamils. One woman in this group, Mubeena, was five years old when her family was evicted; like her peers, she says she has always wanted to return and reconnect with her native place. Mubeena says that over the 19 years she has spent in the Saltern Camp II, she has never felt any sense of permanency. She also worries that until the Muslims return permanently to their northern homes, their suffering will continue.

Now-familiar Puttalam

The women’s undertaking had everything to do with seeking justice as well as finding the truth behind the stories and rumours that have been circulating – for example, that their lands and properties were being given to martyr families of the LTTE, or that other IDPs have been resettled on their lands. A report released collectively by the women in mid-December 2009, while recognising the voluntary and ad hoc nature of the return of over 100 families to Jaffna Peninsula, highlights one of the major stumbling blocks to their eventual return: government authorities are paying little heed to the needs of the returning Muslims, and seem biased in favour of recently displaced Tamils. Senior government officers, for instance, are said to be under-quoting Muslim returnee numbers, which would cut down massively on resource allocation and donor support required for resettlement.

The argument put forth in support of this partiality is that Muslims are already ‘well-settled’ in Puttalam, and that the government’s priority now is the war-displaced IDPs. In Musali, in Mannar District, government officers have aligned a Muslim-majority village as a subsidiary to a Catholic resettlement village, which was established after the eviction of Muslims. Again, this will drastically reduce the number of Muslims that are able to get a share of public-resource allocation. The women’s report also includes an example of how a top Jaffna civil officer briefed a group of visiting Australian journalists when asked about the return of northern Muslims. The community has not resettled in any significant way, the officer stated – rather, just a few individuals have returned in order to engage in trade, with one foot in Puttalam and one foot in Jaffna.

This has become a common refrain, insofar as addressing the international community is concerned. Many other international delegations in Jaffna and Mannar have likewise been told that Muslims have integrated well into the Puttalam population, and that their return to the north now has everything to do with seeking business opportunities or to sell their properties.

Some have even gone to the extent of saying that if all of the expelled Muslims were now to return to the north, such a mass influx would alter the ethnic composition of the area, since over the past 19 years the Muslim population is said to have grown at least fivefold. The reasoning for this spurt in population is the notion that Muslims were not part of the war and therefore did not get killed in large numbers, along with the community’s religious proscription against birth control. It is surprising that such a spurious claim would be put forward, and indicates the extent of the challenge facing the displaced Muslims in seeking justice.

International donors have picked up the refrain and tend to repeat that the displaced Muslims are well integrated in Puttalam, and that their return is not a priority. This notion is substantiated by a controversial survey done by the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, in 2004, which found that a majority of the displaced Muslims preferred to be integrated into Puttalam rather than return to their original homes. However, people fail to note that the LTTE was active at the time that the survey was conducted, and thus fears about returning were undoubtedly related to security and the possibility of yet another eviction.

The trustees of the Mohamadiya Mosque in Jaffna, in an interview with the group of women from Puttalam, underscored the partiality shown in the treatment of returnee Muslims. As noted earlier, the indifferent attitude of those in authority to resettle Muslims has even gone to the extent of under-quoting the numbers of Muslim returnees to the donor community. Around 105 families live in the vicinity of mosque, and the official version of this number (down to just ‘a few’) has blocked them from receiving systematic resettlement assistance.

Inevitably, such step-motherly treatment has raised the question of the feasibility of further resettlement of displaced Muslims in Jaffna, and stories to this effect now seem to be further discouraging Muslims from returning.

Courtesy Himal South Asia

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