Ignoring two decades

Ignoring two decades

´Hope´: By Chandraguptha Thenuwara

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.

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.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.

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.

Parallel resettlement
Recent months have seen a flurry of resettlement activities of those who spent much of 2009 in government-controlled camps. Those actions on the part of Mahinda Rajapakse's government in resettling the displaced from the Vanni and facilitating access to north – most importantly, the opening of the A9 Highway and promising to lift security restrictions in certain parts of the Jaffna Peninsula – may be due to heavy international pressure, or even constitute part of President Rajapakse's attempt to gain Tamil votes in the presidential elections this January. At the same time, there are several concrete development programmes based on this resettlement. Yet incongruously, the government's three-year investment programme for the Northern Province, the 180-day plan of rapid resettlement of war-displaced citizens, and the vadakkin vasantham (Spring of the North) programme do not recognise the rights of the northern Muslims, nor do they even include statistics on them.

At the start of his first term, in 2005, President Rajapakse promised to appoint a presidential commission to inquire into the expulsion of the northern Muslims – a promise that was still pending as Sri Lanka went to the polls. Nonetheless, as part of his election campaign, the president did participate in the All Ceylon Muslim Congress Northern Convention, in December 2009. There, he 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."

This timeframe is significant. Even though the speech marked the first time that a senior functionary has made a categorical statement on evicted Muslims, the president failed to recognise the return of the Muslims as one of the priorities in his rapid, post-LTTE nation-building process. Instead, he wanted them to wait until both the presidential and parliamentary elections were over. This continued second-class treatment is exactly why northern Muslims feel they cannot trust anyone in the government – even the Resettlement and Disaster Relief Services Minister, Rishad Badiudeen, who is from the northern Muslim community.

For his part, Minister Badiudeen has likewise asked Muslims who were trying to return to Mannar District not to rush, but rather to wait until the government came up with a programme. But now, even though there is no impediment to their return, the government has imposed restrictions on Muslim returnees to certain parts of Musali division in Mannar District, quoting security reasons while at the same time going ahead with plans to move Sinhalese from the border villages of Mannar. It has already allowed Sinhala fisherfolk access to the Musali coastline.

There has by now been intense politicisation of northern Muslims' right to return – within Muslim political parties and Sinhala and Tamil nationalistic politics, as well as beyond. In 24 December 2009, Jamal Bawatneh, a former minister of Muslim affairs of Palestine, made an appeal to the Sri Lankan Muslims and others who supported the Palestinian struggle to re-elect President Rajapakse, who he said was a close friend of the Muslims. It should be noted that it has been a regular practice of Rajapakse's government to send Minister Badiudeen on fundraising trips to West Asian countries, during which the plight of the northern Muslims under the LTTE was regularly highlighted.

Unlike recently displaced Tamils, who have experienced multiple displacements within the Vanni, forcibly displaced Muslims have lived away from war-torn areas for almost two decades. Local NGOs estimate that there are about 70,000 expelled Muslims in Puttalam, 75 percent of whom want to return to the north. While about 25 percent of these have now established themselves within the host community (and these certainly have to be given the choice of staying where they are), this should not be used to deny or postpone the returning rights of tens of thousands of other Muslims. Rather, it is imperative to recognise the urgency of the northern Muslims' right to return in parallel with that of the displaced Tamils, in order to avoid any further suspicion and distrust growing between these two communities.

Already, Muslims who have returned to Mannar have been faced with certain alterations to village boundaries, causing them to lose 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 IDP resettlements. As such, if Muslims are only allowed to return at a later date (or after the establishment of the Tamil IDP villages), they fear that the public lands traditionally available for Muslims will be lost. Tensions have also risen among returned Jaffna Muslims who have come back to inherit the unsettled utility bills of other displaced, who had occupied their houses during the war.

There have also been more-nebulous losses. Muslims who visited Manthai West (north of the Mannar mainland) were disappointed to see that the Muslim character of the villages from which they were expelled had been erased by the LTTE. Burial grounds and mosques have been completely demolished, and LTTE bunkers and bases have been constructed by converting mosques, schools and individual Muslim homes. Many land permits have also been re-issued by the LTTE-run judicial system and, so far, there has been no government support to reclaim these lands. In the meantime, widespread allegations of financial corruption by those associated with Minister Badiudeen and his close association with the government are seen by many Tamils as proof of biases against them. This has added fuel to the brewing Muslim-Tamil tensions in the north.

Political capital
In a September 2009 meeting on minority concerns with President Rajapakse, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), for the first time, publicly raised the concerns of the northern Muslims with a head of state. Even though a handful of Tamil politicians and few diaspora members have been sympathetic to the issue, the Tamil polity as a whole has long kept a deliberate silence on the 1990 Muslim expulsion. Now, the TNA's effort to directly address these issues is being perceived as an attempt to get due rights for the country's two largest minorities in the context of the 2010 presidential elections – a campaign in which neither presidential candidate has shown any signficant commitment towards settling minority grievances through a power-sharing process. 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. As the presidential campaign heated up, the Muslim political leadership, as usual, placed the northern Muslims' right to return on their agenda in the hopes of political gain. (Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem unconditionally supports opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka, while Rishad Badiudeen is a strong supporter of President Rajapakse.) But none has yet stressed the importance of this community's right to return in parallel with the other displaced communities.

For their part, the northern Muslims who have returned have advanced few demands, apart from modest ones for equal treatment, access to their lands, basic livelihood activities and swift clearance of landmines. However, even their simple demand of opening the Mannar-Puttalam road – which would facilitate their return, cut in half the four-hour journey, and help them market their produce – is not being met. There is speculation among the northern Muslims that the government is keeping this road closed deliberately, in order to move Sinhalese from the border villages into traditionally Muslim villages.

It should be noted that those Muslims that have decided to return have given up their IDP registration in Puttalam, which automatically terminates their entitlement for a monthly food subsidy. Their willingness to give up many years of living in one, by-now familiar, place clearly shows their desperation to get back and stand on their feet after two decades of humiliation and dependent living. It is also imperative to 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. At the moment, however, there seems to be a collective resistance from every angle to stop their homecoming – a situation that will only set in place further communal strife between the Muslims and Tamils of northern Sri Lanka.

~ Shreen Saroor is an activist who works with war-affected women in the Sri Lankan north.

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