Muslims have a right to know from the LTTE leadership
By Ahsan Habib Lincoln
Six years after the October 1990 eviction of Muslims from the Northern Province, Nadesan Satyendra, son of eminent and distinguished Queens Counsel S. Nadesan wrote a carefully worded article justifying the crime, maintaining that there was a “substantial basis” for the actions of the perpetrators.
He poses two pertinent questions.
“What then were the 'difficult circumstances' that led to the evacuation?
“Was the action that was taken proportionate to the danger that the Muslim presence constituted to the Tamil struggle?”
The second question stems out of an answer given by LTTE leader Prabhakaran in an interview with the BBC in 1993: “Jaffna is their (Muslim's) own land. Unfortunately, difficult circumstances have rendered these Muslim people refugees. We very much regret that this has happened."
Then Satyendra examines the issues: the circumstances that led to the expulsion and whether the actions were commensurate with the dangers posed in the context of (in his own words)
- The assertion of Muslim identity;
- The exploitation of Muslims by the Government in the 80s; and the deliberate use of Muslim home guards against Tamil civilians and other incidents of violence against Tamil civilians etc.
- The dangers of allowing the Muslims, who had divided loyalties, to remain in Jaffna in the face of resumption of hostilities between the Government and the LTTE in 1990.
Quoting from a judgment delivered by the US Supreme Court in 1943, dealing with the treatment of US citizens of Japanese origin during the 2nd World War Satyendra concludes “In the case of the LTTE, it was a guerilla movement facing a Sri Lanka government which had already shown its willingness to exploit the Muslim ethnic identity, to indulge in dirty tricks and to recruit Muslim Home Guards, to quell Tamil resistance to Sinhala rule. To use the language of the US Supreme Court, many may conclude that there was a 'substantial basis' for the action taken by the LTTE to evacuate the Muslims from Jaffna.”
LTTE leader Prabakaran however presents different view and says “In those circumstances, in the interest of the security of the Muslim people, we requested them to temporarily leave Jaffna. But once the war ends and a peaceful atmosphere prevail, we will permit them to settle again in Jaffna.” (Interview with BBC in 1993)
In another interview with the BBC in 1994 Prabakaran elaborates on this issue “Jaffna is their own land. Unfortunately, difficult circumstances have rendered these Muslim people refugees. We very much regret that this has happened. Today, because of the war situation, 300,000 Tamils are living as refugees in the Jaffna peninsula. Because the Sri Lanka Army has seized by force Tamil villages and settlements, particularly in the islands off the Jaffna peninsula and in west Valigamam, Tamils from these areas have had to leave their homes and become refugees, in their own homeland.
A substantial portion of these displaced Tamils have found asylum in places where Muslims had lived before. If the Sri Lanka Army evacuates from these Tamil villages which it had seized by force, these displaced Tamils will be able to return to their homes. If such a suitable climate is established, we will agree to the return of the Muslim people.”
Preamble to the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) recognizes Muslims as a group that is affected though not a direct party to the conflict. The CFA takes within its jurisdiction the security of civilians and their property and the parties pledged to abstain from hostile acts against the civilian population, including such acts as torture, intimidation, abduction, extortion and harassment in accordance with international law.
In this backdrop LTTE Chief Negotiator Anton Balasingham addressed a public meeting at Pudukudiruppu in April 2002 and the Tamilnet reported that he had admitted that the expulsion of the Muslims from Jaffna was a political blunder, which could not be justified. Balasingham had reportedly said that the LTTE leadership was willing to re-settle them in the northern district when cease-fire is stabilized and normalcy is restored.
He added “We do recognise the unique cultural identity of the Muslim community. Linguistically, economically and territorially the Muslims and the Tamils are inextricably inter-related and therefore they have to co-exist as brothers in the northeast. Let us forget and forgive the mistakes made in the past. Tamil Eelam is also the homeland of the Muslims and we have to live in harmony and amity to promote peace and prosperity in the region,” (Tamilnet 05.04.2002)
Balasingham went one step further at the inaugural sessions of the peace negotiations held in Thailand, in his opening address he stated –
“Normalcy of civilian life is slowly and systematically returning to the northeast of Sri Lanka, the homeland of the Tamils and Muslims, the region that has faced the brunt of the armed conflict.”
Confronted with varying views from the LTTE leadership, other Tamil leaders and Tamil Diaspora, Muslims are still perplexed as to what led to the seemingly sudden decision of the LTTE and why the plan was executed with such ferocity and precision. Eye witnesses and those experienced the process of expulsion recall that they were allowed to take only few hundred rupees and nothing else.
Muslims have a right to know from the LTTE leadership what were the “difficult circumstances” that led to the expulsion of tens of thousands of innocent women, children, and aged, sick, disabled.
Sixteen years on and still living away from their homes the fate of these 125,000 evicted Muslims now hangs in the balance with no concrete moves by the warring parties for a political solution.
One redeeming fact is the continued assurances by the leadership of the LTTE and other Tamil political leadership that the Muslims would be allowed back once normalcy returns and the goodwill extended to the returnees by the Tamil people of the North after the CFA. In spite of dangers and hardships the evicted Muslims are very anxious to get back and start life anew in their birth places even now provided a firm guarantee is given for their safety and security.
Even if Muslims are invited back or conditions return to normal it will be an extremely difficult task to move them to their villages or town and re-settle them. The magnitude of the task was described by Dr. S.H.Hasbulla, an academic and a social activist in his paper entitled “We may now go home”: Muslim Refugees from Northern Sri Lanka”. (2002) He sums up “As most Muslim settlements in the north had been completely destroyed, the task of re-building the physical environment is virtually one of establishing a new settlement in the locations of old Muslim settlements. Participation of refugees themselves in the planning process is most essential. The international community should offer full support and repatriations in resettlement and rebuilding efforts in recognition of the fact that these refugees had experienced a forcible expulsion that has lasted 12 years.”
At a time various organizations are “commemorating” the 16th years of the expulsion the evictees are still wondering what hit them in the month of October 1990 from the blues. It is over to you Mr. Prabakaran.
Ahsan Habib Lincoln is the Presidium Member of Jatiyo Party (Ershad), former MP and Chairman of District Council in Bangladesh.
- Asian Tribune -