Human Rights, IDPs and Refugees, Jaffna, Mannar, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Vavuniya

LLRC submission: The Citizens’ Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from the North by the LTTE in October 1990

[Editors’ note: Submission to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, 4th of November, 2010.]

Northern Muslims in Post Conflict Sri Lanka

  • The entire Muslim community of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province – numbering approximately  75,000 persons, were expelled by the LTTE in a systematic and organized manner during a two week period in October 1990.
  • Northern Muslims were 5% of the Population of the Province and hailed from the five districts  of  Jaffna Mannar Kilinochchi Mulaitiwu and Vavuniya
  • Today, many of them remain displaced in dire conditions in areas outside the war zone.  A 2006 UNHCR survey claims that there are 63,145 individuals living in 141 separate settlements in Puttalam district alone.
  • October this year marks twenty years since the expulsion.  And over one year since the war ended.  Today the Northern Muslims are anticipating return after twenty years in displacement and the time that has passed  since the expulsion has created conditions that are unique to the Northern Muslim experience.
  • Given that the LTTE is no longer a factor there is a real possibility of return without the threat of a repeated expulsion.
  • The possibility of resuming farming and fishing and moving out of a life of poverty in Puttalam and elsewhere seems an actual possibility for many.
  • Many are hoping for assistance to resettle and start livelihood activities and to rebuild Muslim communities in the North

Muslim Concerns Today

However, the government seems to understand displacement as limited to those who were displaced from the Vanni during the most recent engagement between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan armed forces. In fact his Excellency the President announced to the UN General Assembly that nearly 90% of displaced people have returned. This number does not include the Northern Muslims.

The Old Case Load

  • Being far down on the list of priorities of the powers that be is not a new experience for the Northern Muslims.
  • At the moment of their expulsion the reaction from the state, the NGO community or the International community was minimal.  And Northern Muslims depended on the Muslim host community of Puttalam for emergency assistance.
  • The overwhelming response of goodwill and cash after the tsunami and again in the aftermath of the LTTE’s defeat has only highlighted the fact that the Northern Muslims have always been and continues to be a low priority case load for the government, the humanitarian aid agencies and the International Community.
  • The lack of acknowledgement of their experience as well as their aspirations is causing great distress to the Northern Muslim community.

The Citizen’s Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province

Given that the expulsion remains inadequately integrated into the history of the Sri Lankan conflict, and Northern Muslims feel that the state has not adequately acknowledged Northern Muslims experience of Ethnic cleansing at the hands of the LTTE a Citizen’s Commission has been formulated to investigate the history of the expulsion, the displacement experience and the experiences of return.

Northern Muslims want the state to formulate a presidential commission of inquiry into the expulsion and it is hoped that the findings and recommendations of the commission as well as submissions such as this will persuade the state to formulate such a commission to ascertain and address the needs of the Northern Muslims.

This submission is based on the findings of the Citizen’s Commission

The Displacement Experience of the Northern Muslims is different from Most other displacement experiences in the country.  And the specificity can be understood as follows:

  • A large Tamil speaking population located into an area where the administrative language is Sinhala
  • Over 50,000 people suddenly moved to a poor marginal,  under-resourced district, and left there for twenty years with only minimal state assistance in the form of dry rations for the poorest segments of the community.
  • No hope of integration into the host community due to
    • Maintaining identity of displacement to access rations
    • Maintaining residence in the North and thereby losing all possibilities of accessing state services in Puttalam District and state jobs that come under the provincial administration of the North central province.
  • They have long been a  captive community
  • Due to inability to access government jobs other than through patronage.
  • Difficult to engage with administration due to language difference
  • Dependent on rations due to lack of livelihood options

Host Community Issues

  • No significant violent incidents BUT there are tensions
  • Very unhappily sharing limited resources
  • Labour able to work for less money due to rations.
  • Infringing on local university entrance quota
  • Assistance only to IDPs not for local poor
  • IDPs considered enterprising and better off. While locals are lagging behind

The Experience of Return

The Northern Muslims are returning spontaneously. Given that there is no plan or policy for their return it is somewhat ad hoc and they are facing numerous problems.

  1. Many places that they are returning to are secondary forests and require clearing . Example Rasoolputhuveli , Periyamadu,  (In Mannar district all places other than Mannar Island have to be cleared.)
  2. There are problems of snakes and wild elephants – Periya Madu, Marichchikatti, Kondachchi, Palakuli, Musali.
  3. They have received assistance in some places to build a shack -Kondachchi and Periyamadu. Roofing sheets promised by government.
  4. The shelter is inadequate and many are leaving families behind and are therefore accused of returning only for livelihood activities and not to resettle and that is somehow considered a low priority for assistance.
  5. There is no public transport to many of these areas. Marichchikatti and Kondachchi are examples
  6. There are also problems of infrastructure – no roads, Marichikatti Kondachchi Silawaturai, health care facilities and sanitation- Kakeyankulam.(MAdu Division)  (Schools are functioning in Periyamadu, Musali and Mannar theevu, not enough facilities for all those returning.
  7. People are selling what little they may have accumulated in the past twenty years to return to the North since they feel that livelihood opportunities in the North are better than in Puttalam. But many are suffering due to difficulties in starting up in a place that no longer welcomes them.  Fishermen in Silawatura are an example.
  8. Those moving to the North are compelled to discontinue rations in Puttalam in order to access them in the North.  However, there are long delays in providing rations to these people in the North in both Jaffna and Mannar.
  9. The following problems have been identified with regards to land.
    1. Identification of boundaries remains a problem
    2. Documentation regarding ownership is sometimes lost.
    3. Most have permit land
    4. Permit land has changed hands during the conflict
    5. Some have been coerced into selling their lands by the LTTE, other militant groups and their proxies.
    6. Some have sold their land for very low prices due to economic difficulties and because the war did not seem like it was ending. They now feel cheated and want some redress.
    7. Tenants have lost their rented premises.
    8. Some land and houses are occupied by others.
    9. Most houses are fully or partially destroyed.
    10. There is also the problem of the returning landless. Due to natural increase the Northern Muslim population is three to four times larger than at the time of the expulsion and how can the increased population be accommodated?

Why have you come?

As stated earlier the ground situation is such that Muslims do not always feel welcome in the North.

  1. The Tamil community leaders and government officials have generally welcomed the return of Muslims when talking to commissioners. However on the ground people feel that the administration is conducted by people who do not know the Muslims and are not sympathetic to their return. After all the North has been a mono ethnic place for twenty years. And integration may take longer than many of the Muslims anticipated.  Some speak of how when they return some Tamil neighbours ask them why did you come?
  2. The states own stepmotherly treatment of old IDPs is reinforcing the sentiment on the ground. The lack of assistance from the state is only exacerbating Muslims feeling of marginality and the local Tamil community’s own sense of entitlement to ask the Muslims – why did you come? The state must be seen to assist accomodate and facilitate Muslim return in order to ensure that the ethnic cleansing that occured in 1990 is over turned.
  3. The extreme militarisation of many of the areas – especially in Mannar makes the returnees uneasy. Many have mentioned that they fear for the safety of their daughters due to harrassment by soldiers. Soldiers following the movement of young women with their mobile phone cameras for instance have been mentioned. (At the same time it must be mentioned that in Kilinochchi, especially in the Nachchikuda area, people said that it was with the assistance of the military that they were able to resettle and start even the minimal livelihood activities that they were engaged in. )

The Question of Integration

There is also a significant section of the community that is not willing to return.

Those who did not have much in the North but have been able to improve themselves while in displacement and now own property and businesses are not willing to return.

Those who have married into the host community and have access to livelihood activities in Puttalam are not interested in return.

Some communities that have been displaced into places closer to Colombo with access to job opportunities do not want to go back.

Then women who have been abandoned by their husbands and have been compelled to raise their children on their own barely eke out a living in Puttalam and are not able to conceive of the cost of return.

Even in instances where they have land in the North they cannot think of moving back due to the nature of the environment there.  Clearing the land for cultivation and conducting cultivation requires the ability to live in tents in elephant and snake infested jungle and the women with children say that they cannot do it on their own.

Many poor women say that they have some ways of making ends meet in Puttalam and cannot anticipate a move.

Young people whose parents were from particular places with particular cultures of communal living do not want to return to those ways of life.  Example erukulampitya and Jaffna Those who have gone back were a little taken aback by the very small and crowded spaces of Jaffna for instance, and are unwilling to think about life there.

There are many more who are not clear about the comparative of advantages of staying and going. They have been in Puttalam and elsewhere for twenty years and have formed connections and ties and have material possessions about which they have to make difficult decisions. Some are wanting to wait and see.  One school master in the Kalpitiya region told us that it took him twenty years to get to the point in life in Puttalam that he now enjoys. He eels that if he goes back it will take him another twenty years to build up in the North. If the situation in the North improves many may move. For instance, they would like their children to take advantage of the low cut off mark for university entrance in certain sections of the Northern Province, they want to benefit from the development activities that have been planned.

It must be noted, however, that all of those who do not want to go back, or have not yet decided whether to stay or go also want the acknowledgement of their losses and want compensation.

New Developments that are of Concern

The following activities of the state are distressing the Northern Muslims and many feel that their predicament is not adequately appreciated by those making the rules.

  1. The latest circulars on voter registration have stated that there will be no more cluster polling in Puttalam and that they will have to vote in the North if they are registered there and if they want to vote in Puttalam they would have to register as voters of the Puttalam district.
  2. There will be a census in 2011
  3. The new local authorities bill aims to create wards in keeping with population numbers.  Currently, the Jaffna Municipal Council for instance, has representatives from the displaced community. And they are assisting in the return and resettlement of people. They fear that they may no longer be able to have representation if the bill is passed and implementation done speedily. What would then happen to Northern Muslims’ return? They would not have the meager representation that they currently have.
  4. The lack of information, lack of discussion about their options and the consequences of choosing this or that option is distressing many northern Muslims and they feel thta the state is not interested in their plight.

In summary then the Northern Muslims feel marginalised by the fact that the state has no policy on protracted displacement, no public acknoweldgement of the old IDPS and their needs,

No cash grants for resettlement assistance, no commitment to assist with housing, no provision to address damage to property due to twenty years of neglect due to no fault of their own,  no provision to address damage to social networks due to the conflict and the expulsion, no assistance with livelihoods, no plans for compensation. The northern Muslims are also distressed by the fact that they maybe absent from the government’s development plans for the North. They fear that they census and the local authorities bill may marginalise them by not taking into account the virtual limbo in which many of them currently live.

From the information that has so far been gathered by the commission and presented in this submission the commission recomends the following.

Have a uniform state policy on protracted displacement and a durable solution. This may be resettlement or integration with dignity into the host community.

  1. Provide the finances needed to implement such a policy on a durable solution.
  2. Provide clear information to Northern Muslims on such a policy and the means by which they can access assistance.
  3. On the ground
    1. Inform local officials to assist and accomodate Northern Muslim return.
    2. Formulate assistance package for protracted displacement.
    3. Provide livelihood assistance.
    4. Plan a return process in stages.
    5. Provide housing assistance.
  4. Appoint a land commission with an adeuqate mandate to address land issues.
  5. Plan a compensation or reparations package in keeping with international standards.

The Citizens’ Commission also recomends that the LLRC visit Puttalam to observe the conditions in which a majority of Northern Muslims continue to live and to provide the community with an opportunity of addressing the commission directly.