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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Some observations on the Final Report of the Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province by the LTTE in October 1990

This report provides what will be the definitive account of the story of the Northern Muslims following on their expulsion from the Northern Province by the LTTE in October 1990. Faithful throughout to the narrative of the affected, and respectful in its well- nuanced references to earlier writings- Hasbullah, Thiranagama and others- its approach earns the reader’s respect and trust.
Commencing with accounts of pre- existing relations between co –existing Muslim and Tamil communities, the Report tightly states that.

“October 1990 was a water-shed in terms of both Muslim identity and Tamil identity in the North due to the horror of the expulsion. By driving the Muslims out of their homes, the LTTE finally created a mono-ethnic North.”

While the affected people’s  narrative uses terms such as “People from Batticaloa have come” it is clearly orders  from  the top that was responsible for this instance of  “Tamil Turning Terrorist” against Muslims, to use the report’s words. The creation of a mono- ethnic North was the Principal Objective of this exercise, not a consequence alone. The mind- set behind this, preying on civilians, find echo in the spectacle of the LTTEs destruction from behind of the civilian population seeking to escape from the war- zone in the final stages of the war in 2009.

The inaction of the Sri Lankan Army, though physically present in the North at the time of the expulsion, spoken to time and again in the narratives, is rightly seen by the Commission as an off-  shoot of the inaction of the State. The tragic outcome of this was that both Muslim and Tamil while being at that time very much under the domination of the LTTE, failed to see the commonality of their plight. The result was a single failure to come together against a common enemy, the LTTE.

This 230 page Report, vividly and with sympathy captures the experience of an ethnically- determined civilian population forcibly displaced. It recounts these peoples relationships- economic, social, religious and just plain peaceful co- existence wise, with neighbours prior to expulsion; identifies the problems they faced in displacement, how they faced up to them and who helped/hindered or just stood-by. It describes both the broadening of horizons and the acquisition of new skills, as well as the suffering through loss of family and material assets, and the all- pervading sense of uncertainty attendant on displacement.

Valuable insights lie in the section identifying Problems attendant on re- settlement, both problems at individual  level and problems faced as a community. Problems of re- claiming homesteads and farm- lands, problems of re- integration after a 20 year unwanted absence, problems  arising from the “natural increase” in both returning and resident populations in the absence of an attendant incremental development of the North’s resources; all these are amply depicted. As also the fact that all this has to be faced in the midst of Conflicting Perceptions:

Viz :  “We left because we were forced to and have suffered immeasurably in the intervening period.”

Versus  “You were away. You didn’t  have to suffer the depredations of the LTTE and the horrors of war.”

The courage,  determination and enterprise shown by this civilian population forcibly displaced by LTTE dictate its potent evidence of the vitality and cohesion of that community which will make them a power for good where ever they are. If, due to ties of marriage, employment, tenure of ownership, they decide to make their permanent residence in a part of Sri Lanka other than their area of origin, there should be full recognition by all quarters- administrative, judicial, cultural, that this constitutes the exercise of a Right of Citizenship of a Sri Lankan. Should he wish to re- settle in his area of origin, a like recognition of his right as a citizen to do so should undoubtedly be the basis of the provision of services to and assistance to him.

As they narrative eloquently puts it:

“We do not want to live like the displaced again.”

And, even more succinctly:-

“We can’t move backwards.”

Lands that have remained untilled, homesteads that have stood empty, worse still lands or homesteads that have been the refuge of and received the care of others who may well have come there on facing displacement themselves, and in any case themselves number among  the marginalized poor, pose challenges requiring sensitive solution.

At this juncture,  it is pertinent to remember that even the families of slain LTTEers, despite the grandiose words of the LTTE Boss, belong, objectively speaking, to the numbers of the poor and the marginalized.  Ethnically speaking they were Tamils of course- but there was little else to distinguish their circumstances of displacement and destitution from that of the Muslim poor displaced to Puttalam.

Bishop Rayappu Joseph is quoted in the Report as saying:

“The Tamils who stayed behind were displaced over 26 times, lost children to the LTTE, lost family members to death and disappearance, lost limbs etc.”

This is a timely reminder that the bulk of Tamils left in the North during the years of the war belong to the poor and the marginalized and it was they who were the cannon-fodder for the LTTEs grand designs.

The Report’s Recommendations are particularly apposite in this regard. They are:

“When issues faced by Muslim communities are shared by other communities, attempts should be made to articulate such issues on a common platform. Strategic partnerships for activism should be encouraged.”


“Muslim leadership should not be seen to be advocating for Muslim return alone. Especially the Muslim civil society leadership should find ways of working with the Tamil leadership in the respective areas of fostering a culture of collective work and co- existence.”

The solution of problems attendant on re- settlement need to be tackled as a national issue. This needs close consultation and  cooperation between the Government of Sri Lanka, Community and Political leaders at national and regional level, and the affected people. The approach recommended above, however, is signally absent in the New Structures and Procedures which have been put in place for the settlement of property disputes in the North.

The structure and procedures which have been put in place for the settlement of property disputes in the North constitute an instance of the promulgation by administrative regulation displacing age- old laws of property rights and succession rights that have cemented the bonds between citizens-especially in a community with its own customary personal laws. While admittedly solutions are difficult in the face of out- dated laws administered by an over- worked courts system  and area administrative officials who lack the tools for bringing about an equitable solution as required in the circumstances, this instance of the by- passing of  Parliament and attendant public scrutiny, leaves room for suspicion that the objective of this executively  promulgated exercise is the consolidation of the Army’s say in civil matters in the North, and that the enjoyment  of rights be by grace and favour.

The charge of “Creating a Northern Province in the North-Western Province”:There is both poignancy and cause for sorrow in the spectacle of social relations gone sour evidenced by a host community who has gone from so signal  a welcome of such a great multitude of the displaced into their midst to taking the step of petitioning the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (the LLRC) against what they term “The creation of the Northern Province within the North-West Province”.

As the Report clearly describes, the State’s response to the challenge of the delivery of services to the displaced was the provision of a framework of delivery distinct from that serving the Host community. This was a response based on a political imperative, that of keeping the displaced as a distinct constituency from the host community. The end- result of the continuance of this practice over 20 years was a divergence in the quality of services available to persons living in close proximity. The inevitable alienation and resentment felt by the host community was the spring board for action, which took the form of a presentation of a petition to the LLRC by the Trustees of the Puttalam Grand Mosque and the Puttalam Branch of the Jamiyathul  Ulama (Council of Muslim Theologians) as representatives of the host community, in protest against what they saw as the adverse effects of the creation of a Northern Province in the North Western Province. Chapter 8 of the Report on “The Host community’s perspective of the displacement” is essential reading for the greater comprehension of the damage brought about the states  mis-handling of a situation.

Whether it is the adverse effects of ethicized politics in Sri Lanka including political favoritism, or the adverse impact of male chauvinism on the women of the displaced community, the Report is courageously transparent in its examination of the Enemy- Within.
The Position of Women in displacement

A wide- ranging section of the Report deals with intra- familial relations as well as relations with the host community in the context of displacement. The sensitivity and integrity shown in its reliance on the testimony of the women themselves is admirable. As a study that high- lights cultural gradations in Muslim communities within a country and the challenges of adjustments attendant on displacement from one Muslim cultural context to another  Muslim cultural context,  this  Report will undoubtedly evoke interest in all engaged in the comparative study of the intra- action of religion and cultural in  relation to Rights. In fact, one of the Reports most discerning comments  is based on the Commission’s research in this regard.

“While the modern Muslim leadership is in general looking for some rights-based solution to their common problems of displacement, it is not clear to what extent the community will be supportive of such a perspective for addressing problems faced by community women.”

Transitional Justice

That this study has been undertaken in a context of transition in Sri Lanka greatly enhances its value. This is a time when new ways of thinking based on a spirit of inclusiveness are essential both at policy and implementation levels. The creation of a  self- confidant population looking with hope to the future requires this. The aspirations of both Muslim youth returning to the North and the increasing number of Tamil- speaking Sri Lankan youth who are identifying the North as a location of expanding opportunity for the profitable practice of skills acquired in other urban surrounding in the intervening years, can find fulfillment only in such an enabling context. Youth of Tamil- speaking communities in Colombo too, faced with an uncertainty of safe residence in the face of the GOSLs plans for physical transformation of Colombo, are now feeling the need to seek jobs and safe residence elsewhere. They increasingly look to the North.

In the North as elsewhere modern means of production will replace the old, bringing in its wake change in the traditional relationships of status and power. The preparation of returnees to face this with equanimity is a task in hand.

My thanks to the Law and Society Trust and its funders for the vision  shown in initiating this research.

Let us of civil society manifest a like vision and determination to bring to a successful outcome, the process to which this Report has given such a rich inception.


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