Sri Lanka: The Forgotten People: 24 years of Forcible Eviction of Northern Muslims
Over 75 Muslims expelled from their native districts of Northern Sri Lanka by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) within a short period of time in October 1990 have still been living in a state of protracted displacement out of the Northern Province for the past 24 years.
The minority Muslim community comprises about 8 percent of the country’s population of 20.2 million, according to the Department of Census and Statistics in Srilanka. This community is present in significant numbers in the south, in the east it constitutes one-third of the population of the Eastern Province. There used to be significant numbers of Muslims in the north until their expulsion by the LTTE from the Northern Province in October 1990.
Within the context of the 26 year conflict in Srilanka, the expulsion of these people by the LTTE stands out one of the major human rights violations in term of scale, impact and its explicit tones of ethnic cleansing. Virtually the entire Muslim population in the north was ordered to vacate its homes within 48 hours but Jaffna District where they only were given two hours to vacate, by the LTTE; in North, where Muslims constituted over 1.6 percent of total population and the durable solution remains one of the key post conflict challenges.
The population of the community has almost reached one hundred thousand. Apart from the psychological shock and pain, The Muslim community is met with massive economic losses due to the forcible eviction. According to a survey conducted by Mr. M.I.M. Mohideen, the losses of residential properties, commercial and industrial establishments, agricultural lands, religious institutions, gold and jewelry, livestock, and so on amounts to around US $112 million. In the post war-context, though the return to the area of origin has become possible for internally displaced persons in 2009, the resettlement issue of the Northern Muslim community is complicated and still remains unresolved.
While the government’s special projects and practices are on progress to develop the North, whether these development activities ever ensure that they have equal access to resources, land, employment, housing opportunities and the protection of their rights in all aspects while building reconciliation and trust among ethnicities in Northern Srilanka, is a pertinent question.
On the other hand, the lack of an adequate response by the government to the expulsion compelled the Northern Muslims to depend on the resources of fellow Muslims. While the Muslim community of Puttalam was able to respond to the emergency in 1990, the need to continue to support the population for twenty years has seriously drained the resources of the community and has affected relations between the host community in Puttalam and the Northern Muslims. The state must also acknowledge the difficulties faced by the host community and consider the possibility of compensation.
The Expulsion remained marginal within the discourse of the conflict and the many peace processes due to a combination of factors—namely the lack of community mobilization, the insufficient attention paid to get recognition at national and international levels through publicizing the issue by Muslim politicians and the fact that northern Muslims own interests became secondary to the interests of the Muslim political parties. The response of the Sinhala, Tamil leaderships and the state in general was also inadequate. The northern Muslims seem to have been caught up in the struggle to access state and NGO resources for the community and have not sufficiently stressed the importance of making the issue one of global prominence.
There is an inadequate appreciation of the natural increase of the population of the community that has grown considerably since 1990, at the policy level and the necessity of accommodating the larger numbers in planning for northern Muslim return and resettlement. The Community has come across a variety of problems regarding their protracted displacement and issues of land. The government must take the necessary measures to address the many conflicts that prevail over land. Measures must be taken to enact special legislation as necessary in order to do so. Returning Muslims face a number of challenges in establishing communities back in the north. They require greater state endorsement and more support and engagement from civil society and the NGO community.
A presidential commission on the issues of forcible eviction is a long term expectation of the Northern Muslims and a durable solution could only be achieved through the recommendations of the commissions, they hope. Sri Lanka has constituted Commissions of Inquiry on various issues during past decades as instruments to investigate and prevent human rights abuses. However, failure to investigate on the issue of forcible eviction, led the Northern Muslim community to being destitute and despair on durable solutions. It has also made more complicated their resettlement process. A recommendation of the Lesson Learned Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) says that “Durable solutions could be achieved through the creation of a uniform state policy aimed at resettlement of Muslim IDPs and/or integrating them into the host community”. The Puttalam area was compelled to support a sudden increase in population as well as their continued presence for twenty years. Therefore the district must also be officially recognised as a war affected area and development measures instituted. These measures should be designed to benefit both the displaced community and the host community.
There is no a dawn of the black October till a Presidential Commission of Inquiry is formed that the innocent community seeks for justice on their forcible eviction apart from the developments.
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