In October 1990, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) expelled the entire Muslim population of the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Within a period of 2 weeks the LTTE systematically chased out close to 75,000 Muslims residing in the districts of Kilinochchi Mulaitiwu, Jaffna, Mannar and Vavuniya.1 The LTTE expulsion of Muslims from five Northern districts in October 1990 has not been adequately integrated into any mainstream historical narrative in Sri Lanka. Most commentators routinely get the date of the expulsion wrong and few give the expulsion the status of a highly significant historical event that it warrants. Northern Muslim civil society leadership has worked hard to highlight the issue and have had to face numerous obstacles including the disinterest of the larger civil society community in Sri Lanka. The Law & Society Trust in partnership with three Northern Muslim organizations, namely, Rural Development Foundation (RDF) People’s Secretariat (PS), and Community Trust Fund (CTF), and an advisory group of prominent Muslim civil society actors conducted a truth seeking initiative in the form of a Citizens’ Commission. The objective of the exercise was to produce authoritative documentation of the expulsion and its consequences that is sanctioned by the community, and to list the community’s grievances through a document endorsed by a Commission consisting of eminent civil society actors. The Commission’s broadly defined terms of reference looked at a) the history of the expulsion, b) the experience of two decades of displacement, and c) experiences of resettlement.
The LST’s involvement with the Citizens’ Commission project has a long history. The idea first emerged in 2003, with the transitional justice working group process. During that time the failed peace process of 2002-2005 still seemed to hold some promise and organizations were pursuing ideas of transitional justice with the assistance of the International Center for Transitional
1 Dr. S.H. Hasbulla’s work has been the one exception. Hasbulla a Northern Muslim himself and for a while, a member of the advisory group to the Commission participated in a survey of the expelled Muslim a year after the expulsion. The result was the invaluable volume Muslim Refugees: The Forgotten People in Sri Lanka’s Ethnic Conflict. This report and the Commission project itself owes much to the content of this book that provides invaluable information on the villages from which the Northern Muslims were driven out, and the journey away from the North under trying circumstances. It also provides information on the losses suffered by the community. The Work of Dr. Hasbulla and the more recent account by Dr. Catherine Brun are the only two comprehensive accounts of the Northern Muslim experience that can be considered to provide some significant insights into the expulsion and its consequences. While the Northern Muslim displacement experience is well researched it is unfortunately not done so in a manner that garners sympathy for the Northern Muslims within the Sri Lankan context. Section 2 of this report briefly engages with the reasons for this difference.
Justice. (ICTJ) During the failed peace process, one of the issues that became clear was the manner in which the Muslim community had been affected by the conflict, and the fact that they had few fora if any in which to make their grievances and expectations known. The issues faced by Northern Muslims seemed to be marginal even within the discussion of Muslim issues that highlighted the suffering of those in the Eastern Province. One of the ideas that emerged during that time was the possibility of engaging in some community based transitional justice initiative for the Northern Muslims. In 2006, Dr. Farzana Haniffa the current project manager and convenor was Commissioned by the ICTJ to conduct community consultations in Puttalam, and also some consultations with stakeholders in Colombo to ascertain if such a process would be useful to the community. A second round of consultations specifically targeting women within the community was undertaken with assistance from the Asia Foundation. It is in the aftermath of these consultations that the LST began to seek funding for the project in 2007. In 2008, with the assistance of CORDAID HIVOS joint assistance program, the Northern Muslim Commission project was entered into. While CORDAID/HIVOS provided close to 70% of the funding, French Catholic Committee Against Hunger & for Development (CCFD), a Church based organization from France provided the shortfall. CCFD also funded a second year of the Commission work for the publication of the report and dissemination and advocacy from the report.
The Northern Muslim displaced population in Puttalam has been the subject of a wide variety of research projects, MA dissertations and a few PhD projects. Much of this attention has been due to the fact that they constitute a displaced population housed outside the conflict affected provinces of the North and East and are easily accessible to local and foreign researchers. The North and East, sometimes even requiring Ministry of Defense clearance, was often harder to access. While much of this work has been interesting and valuable, it has not contributed significantly towards greater visibility for the Northern Muslim issue at the policy level within Sri Lanka or internationally or greater state or civil society interest in addressing the problems faced by the Northern Muslims.
Many of these otherwise excellent works pay insufficient attention to the manner in which Muslims’ position as a minority community, their marginalization in discussions about the conflict, and the manner in which the fairly recently asserted ethnic politics—while providing a platform in which to air Muslims’ grievances were also holding the Muslims politically captive—and are limiting the manner in which their issues can be articulated and addressed. Further, few of the works also pay attention to Muslims’ history in the north, or the politics between Muslims and Tamils in the history of the country. It was hoped that a Commission of this nature will rectify the above and also provide a document that presents the expulsion and its consequence from the perspective of the northern Muslims and has as its main focus the alleviation of the difficult conditions in which a majority of them live. The purpose of the Commission therefore was twofold; first, to produce authoritative documentation about the expulsion and its consequences that is endorsed by a group of eminent activists and academics, and secondly to produce this documentation through a participatory and inclusive process with members of the Northern Muslim community in a manner that participating members of the community would feel a sense of ownership with the final report as well as the advocacy work that was done in their name. For reasons stated earlier, northern Muslims are all too familiar with researchers who come to meet them; few of whom have bothered to return and inform the community of the work done with their stories.
The Commission was mindful of this problem and conducted all aspects of the Commission work through a consultative process. The Law and Society Trust worked in partnership with three Northern Muslim organizations. Community Trust Fund (CTF), Rural Development Foundation (RDF) and People’s Secretariat (PS), were partners to the process and participated in almost all planning meetings held in Colombo and Puttalam. The Commission also called upon the expertise of an advisory group of Northern Muslim activists including Shreen Saroor, Jensila Majeed and Juwairiya Mohamed .
1. Initial Planning: With funding from the International Center for Transitional Justice, Dr. Farzana Haniffa conducted consultations with the Muslim community of Colombo and with representatives of the psycho social community on the feasibility and the usefulness of conducting a project of this nature with the northern Muslim community. Additionally Dr. Haniffa made several trips to Puttalam and met with different segments of the northern Muslim community to ascertain their opinion with regards to a truth seeking project. The planning for the project was based on some of the findings from these consultations. In addition to the information gathered from the consultations above, a further set of consultations were conducted with women members of the community to ascertain their perspectives on the expulsion and return and whether they would find a truth seeking exercise useful. This process was funded by the Asia Foundation and resulted in the publication ‘Twice Removed: Northern Muslim women in Puttalam’ (LST Review Volume 19, Issue 250, 2008).
The ICTJ also sponsored a trip for Dr. Haniffa to attend the launch of the Report on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Greensboro North Carolina, which was itself a community based truth and reconciliation exercise about an event in 1976 that had divided the community of Greensboro. The Greensboro process, as well as the community based initiative that was conducted in Ardoyne, Northern Ireland by the Ardoyne Commemoration Project were possible models for an initiative with the northern Muslims in Sri Lanka. However, upon reflection, Dr. Haniffa recommended that the project be of a slightly larger scope than those of either Ardoyne (which consisted of a community of about 5000 persons), or Greesboro. In the case of Greensboro, truth and reconciliation was a fundamental concern. In Sri Lanka, while truth and reconciliation were important, they needed to be part of a larger national initiative and not within the limited purview of the current Commission. Therefore, the project in Sri Lanka emerged as a Citizens’ Commission of Investigation. However, the manner in which the Greensboro process was planned and set in motion, the staffing and logistical arrangements, the report writing etc. inspired the decisions made for the Citizens’ Commission as well. In early 2007, Dr. Haniffa started initial discussions with groups in Puttalam about a possible partnership for a truth seeking project. The informal meetings became the groundwork for the project. It was during this time that the document listing the Commission’s mandate was produced. (See Annex 2) The document broadly calls for an investigation into the expulsion, the displacement experience and the experience of return. The document initiated at that time was maintained as an unfinished list of possible issues to cover in order to permit the addition of issue that emerged while the Commission was conducting its investigations.
2. Grounding the Project in the Community: One of the main intentions of the project was the involvement of the community in important decisions about its methods and its directions. The intellectual resources of the LST as well as the international funding that the organization was able to harness was utilized to frame the project and provide direction. However, all decisions about the issues that needed to be highlighted, the manner in which data should be gathered so that it is representative of all the Muslim communities of the north, were done giving priority to the northern Muslim perspective. All project decisions were made at monthly planning meetings attended by the partner representatives and the LST Commission staff. An advisory group (comprising Muslim activists from Colombo and the northern Muslim community were also consulted and invited for all planning meetings. After agreements were signed with the Commissioners, they too were invited for the planning meetings. The logistical arrangements for the activities themselves, finding a rental space for the LST office in Puttalam, hiring of northern Muslim staff in Puttalam to run the office and conduct the testimony collection, were done with the partners directing the process. Interviews for the positions were held at the offices of the partner organization with the participation of partner representatives. All decisions were made by the panel consisting of the project convener and the partner representatives. The location of Commission visits, identification of communities to be visited and invited to sittings were again done in consultation and keeping with the needs identified by partner representatives and members of the advisory group. Planning meetings were held in Colombo throughout the duration of the project and periodic visits were made to Puttalam by the secretariat staff to monitor the working of the Puttalam office and the data collection. In this manner, constant communication was maintained with the partners, the advisory group and the Commissioners and staff.
3. Preparations for Data Gathering: The Commission report is informed by three kinds of data. Secondary data from newspapers and other publications, testimonies collected by researchers, data from hearings at which Commissioners were present. As the project got under way one of the first tasks undertaken was the gathering of published information in all three languages. Three researchers were hired for a period of one month to collect all available documentation with Colombo based research institutions as well as the newspaper coverage of the expulsion in each of the three languages. This information was invaluable in politically and historically situating the issues covered in the report.
The testimony collection was done by 11 researchers based in Puttalam. It was decided collectively that the researchers would be educated young persons from Puttalam with— at a minimum—Advanced Level qualifications and some computer literacy and work experience. It is expected that the skills and experience that they gained through the project will be of use to the community in the future. The researchers were expected to collect two testimonies per day for three days of the week and transcribe their collection on the remaining days. Three full day trainings with the researchers were conducted by Dr. Hasbullah and Dr. Farzana Haniffa. The researchers were given an exposure to the issues of importance to the northern Muslim community, and the importance of the task they were undertaking. They were also informed of ethical and psychosocial considerations, and how to administer the broad questionnaire. The Questionnaire itself was designed using --Giving Voice—practical guidelines for implementing oral testimony projects published by the Panos Oral Testimony Program of the Panos Institute in London. (See Annex 3) A broad format was utilized in order to capture more than the expulsion and displacement experience, but of the north in general and memories of their way of life. Researchers were asked to explain the nature of the project and the manner in which the information in their testimony will be used. The researchers were also instructed to obtain written permission to use the information in the testimonies by getting those interviewed to sign a consent form. We also attempted to photograph each of those who gave testimonies. Many were happy for us to use their names but did not consent to the use of a photograph.
When considering ownership, the issue of representation also became one of importance. The Northern Muslim community consists of sub communities from five different districts. Consequent to the expulsion some issues have merited representation on the basis of a collective northern Muslim identity. In some cases this has lead to a non representation of the very different experiences of those from the different districts. Therefore, an effort was made to ensure that there was adequate representation of persons from all the districts in the composition of the research team, and additionally, that testimonies were obtained from as wide and representative a group of northern Muslim displaced persons as possible. The Commission collected 391 testimonies. 206 females and 185 males were interviewed and documented, among them 26 individuals were from the host community, 10 resettled people from Jaffna and one person from Mullaitivu. Four interviews were conducted with Northern Muslim activists. Another 12 individuals who were between the ages of 12- 15 during the time of expulsion were interviewed.
4. Selection of Commissioners: the composition of the Commission was of utmost importance to the success of the project and therefore a set of criteria was proposed at a planning meeting attended by the partners.
The Commissioners should represent all ethnic communities
Women should be represented in adequate numbers
Commissioners should have a history of engagement with progressive causes
Be sympathetic to the predicament of the northern Muslims.
Represent a perspective that would enhance the findings of the Commission.
They should not be politicians.
The names of possible Commissioners were suggested at a planning meeting and the following persons were requested to become Commissioners and accepted.
5. Commission Sittings: Commission sittings were organized in keeping with the need to cover the issues that were identified as important in the terms of reference. Therefore one sitting each was conducted in Colombo and Negombo to give persons in those areas a chance to meet with the Commission. The rest of the sittings were held in Puttalam, where a large percentage of the Northern Muslims resided in displacement for close to twenty years, and in selected areas in the North.
The Commission process consisted of sittings conducted with the participation of at least one Commissioner. These included visits to Puttalam, Anuradhapura, Vavuniya and Negombo where displaced communities had settled as well as to Mannar, Kilinochchi and Jaffna where Northern Muslims had returned to. Mullaitiwu was also on our list of places to visit but we could not do the visit due to delays in getting security clearance. (See Annex 9 for greater details on the Commission sittings and issues covered).
6. Writing the Report: A decision was taken at the outset that the writing of the report— perhaps the most arduous task in the entire process – would be the responsibility of one person alone. The report of the Greenboro Truth and Reconciliation Commission too was written by one individual who worked as the Executive Editor of the project. In this case the writing was done by Commission Convenor and Project Manager Dr. Haniffa. The reason for the use of this model was the example of other local citizens’ Commission initiatives that have petered out without a report due to an absence of a clear demarcation of this role. Therefore it was decided that while the Commissioners input would be sought at every instance, the major responsibility of the writing would be less on the Commissioners and more on the secretariat. In July 2010 an outline of a possible report was presented to the Commissioners, partners and advisory group. Feedback from this process was utilized and a second presentation was made nearly a year later to the Commissioners with a more fleshed out version of the report. The report itself incorporating the feedback from the second meeting was circulated to the Commission and Partners and advisory group in September 2011 and a half a day seminar conducted to incorporate their feedback into the report.
The Commission collected a wealth of information through the testimonies, the desk research, and the Commission sittings, and doing justice to this information in a manner that will shed light on the predicament of the northern Muslims as well as others – such as the host community who were also profoundly impacted by the expulsion—was a challenge. The report therefore is long and consists of eleven chapters.
The Chapter Headings are as follows:
1. The Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province: Background and Methodology
2. Writing the Northern Muslims into History
3. The Social and Political Context of the Displacement
4. Life in the North during Wartime
5. Expulsion Stories
6. State response to the Expulsion and Two Decades of Displacement
7. Specificity of Northern Muslims Displacement experience
8. Host Community Perspective on the Displacement
9. The Loss of a Way of Life.
10. Return and Resettlement
11. Conclusions and Recommendations
Chapters 4, 5 and 9 were drawn entirely from northern Muslims accounts of life in the north. These were done to illustrate the manner in which Muslim communities too were affected by the fighting between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military as well as between militants and the Indian Peace Keeping Force, and the conflicts between the many militant groups. We also wanted to include expulsion stories from as many different locations as possible to illustrate both the uniformities – they were all expulsion orders – as well as the significant differences. In Jaffna they were allowed very little time to move out. Organization of information was done in keeping with the terms of reference and the findings. We looked to articulating the very different experiences of the 5 districts from which Muslims were driven out. Therefore, in many chapters that deal with life in the north prior to the expulsion and the expulsion experience itself, great care has been taken to represent as many perspectives from the different districts as possible. The more thematic chapters are organized according to the issues.
7. Ethical Considerations: as stated earlier the testimony collection process included a consent form that the persons were asked to sign. We recorded their basic information as well as their consent or refusal of consent on this form. In most chapters, names and places of origin have been used. However, in certain cases, where we felt that the disclosure of the name may have negative consequences for the individual concerned, we have refrained from using their names. We have exercised our own discretion in assessing the possible risk to individuals despite being given permission to use their names.
8. Some Limitations: We chose the process of mobilization and of informing people through the community based groups over an engagement through the newspapers. This was made for purposes of reinforcing the participatory aspect of the project—we wanted to enter communities by way of our partners, and also to save on the cost of newspaper advertisements. In retrospect, it may have been better to have employed both methods. Sometimes our partner representatives were not as good in delivery of the information as we had anticipated.
The quality of the information and testimonies that we have are not uniform and some places may therefore seem to be better illustrated than others. Many of the examples that illustrate the chapters were drawn from both the testimonies and the Commission sittings. The testimonies were also of varied quality depending on the researcher collecting the testimony, the respondent’s own level of interest in the interview and their own skill at narrating the events of their lives. We also encountered severe problems of translation given that due to budgetary concerns many of the people we used for translations were not professionals. Therefore some testimonies were clearer and seemed to offer richer narratives than others. These were used more often. Since this was a fact finding exercise we used the names of the people when picking examples from the testimonies. Therefore, some of the same people’s names appear quite frequently in the report. It is hoped that this would not be taken to mean bias towards any one perspective over others. In our coding of testimonies we attempted to include as many different perspectives on any given issues as we could.
The Commission has not captured the perspective of the local Tamil community that witnessed the Muslims moving out and experienced the destruction of their shared community life as well. They were also compelled to continue to live under the yoke of the LTTE. This important omission occurred as the issue did not emerge in any of the early discussions that were conducted with the relevant stakeholders. There was a call to capture the LTTE’s reasoning behind the expulsion- but not of the experience of Tamil neighbours.
While the project has been in the pipeline for a very long time, the actual activities were not undertaken for various reasons until well into 2009. During that time the political landscape within the country was changing rapidly and a feeling of uncertainty prevailed. By the time the first testimonies were being collected the war was close to being won by the security forces and the mood among Northern Muslims in Puttalam and elsewhere was one of cautious optimism. By the time the Commission sittings commenced in August 2009, the government had claimed military victory over the LTTE and many were anticipating the dividend of peace. The possibility of return seemed close and for the first time, since the expulsion, the LTTE was no longer a factor and the re-establishment of Muslim communities in the North seemed imminent.
However, many were soon disappointed. There was international attention and pressure upon the government to resettle the massive numbers that were displaced during the government’s final military engagement with the LTTE. Close to 300,000 people were confined to camps under extremely egregious conditions and the government priority was seen to be the settlement of the “new IDPs”. The old IDPs, those displaced prior to the 2008 escalation of military activity seemed to disappear from the government’s priorities. No government statement, no policy directive seemed to take the Old IDPs into account. This was true of both the government and International aid agencies. In fact, the UNHCR signed an agreement with the government to provide cash assistance to returning IDPs who were displaced after 2008. The Northern Muslims, numbering close to 200,000 constituted the bulk of the old IDPs. However, it must be noted that they were not the only ones. The High Security Zone of Jaffna --- that includes the areas of Manipay, and Tellipila.--- and those displaced from the area also constituted an old IDP issue that the government showed little interest in addressing.
As a consequence of the above conditions, many of the Northern Muslims who appeared before the Commission and gave testimonies to the Commission researchers emphasized their problems within the current context; what choices were they being compelled to make? What was the situation in the north? What were their rights in their places of origin? What were their rights in the place where they have been living for twenty years? Problems of infrastructure, problems of rations, and problems of engagement with the Tamil community took centre stage. Eliciting information about other issues required greater effort and more sustained engagement. The collection of testimonies from Northern Muslims according to a set of questions helped bridge the gap.
During the project period three newsletters were produced in English and Tamil and one in Sinhala. The primary objective of the newsletter was the production of some information regarding Commission activities mid project to be shared with the Northern Muslim community in Puttalam and elsewhere. We later decided to use the newsletter as a wider advocacy tool to popularize the Northern Muslim issue among the wider Sri Lankan society. The first newsletter was done entirely in Tamil. The second was done in Tamil and English and third was done in all three languages with selected articles fully translated into the Sinhala language.
The Commission convener, Dr. Farzana Haniffa presented a portion of the Commission’s findings to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in November 2010. This was followed up with a letter outlining more recent developments in April 2011. The opening of the Mannar Puttalam road through the Wilpattu wild life sanctuary was a very important development for the northern Muslims. However, its opening was contested by animal rights and environmental activists. The Commission made an intervention by releasing a statement asking for greater consideration of the rights of communities who have traditionally lived close to or sometimes inside the sanctuary and have a long history of coexistence with the environment providing no danger to the animals or the jungle. See Annex 6 for the statement. Anushka Fernando researcher with the Commission from May - August 2010 wrote an article on the importance of the road. The article can be found at: http://groundviews.org/2010/08/26/ where-do-they-go-from-here/
The Commission Secretariat was located at the Law and Society Trust. The staffing of the Commission during its first full year of engagement with the community consisted of Dr. Farzana Haniffa, Project Manager and Convener, Ms. Kaneeza Faris, Coordinator (Colombo), Mr. Haris Rasheed, Coordinator (Puttalam) and the Researchers Ms. S.M. Ilmunissa, Mr. N.M. Imas , Ms. S.H.S. Janna, Mr. N.M. Rameez , Mr. M. H. M. Sabreen, Ms. A.H.S. Sifaniya, Ms. S.H. Zareena Begum, Mr. M.G. Jamees , Ms. J. Jamila, Ms. T.F. Jeneera and M.S.M. Musthakeem. Anushka Fernando and Nafiya Khalik joined the project as researchers later on.
One of the most striking features of almost all the meetings attended during the Commission process, and the sittings that were held was the energy and the enthusiasm with which people engaged with the Commission. There was also an undertone of impatience and frustration in some of the engagements since many of those who spoke with the Commission had also spoken to many others and people wondered at why so little had changed for them regardless of the many that had heard their story. People uniformly had a lot to say, had many grievances to air, many memories and experiences to share, and demanded that we make the government pay attention to them. As one of the Commissioners stated in the aftermath of a hearing, it was clear that not much of the energy of these people has been mobilized in successful activism. It is within such a context that this project emerged. It is hoped that the report and the advocacy resulting from it will help to improve the lives of all the northern Muslims who contributed their time and energy towards this endeavor. It is also hoped that the report which will be translated into Tamil and Sinhala will help improve the community’s own strength and ability to conduct advocacy work.