When discussing the northern Muslims’ expulsion and displacement and its minimal presence in
popular discourse and policy, as well as the poor mobilization of the population towards bringing
about significant change, a variety of factors need to be taken into account. These are
1. The specificity of Muslim politics in Sri Lanka.
2. Muslims’ shared language and difficult politics with the Tamil minority in the country.
3. Muslims’ marginalization within the discourse of the ethnic conflict.
4. Muslims’ recent assertions of religious exclusivity.
This chapter will attempt to address some of the above issues
Muslim Politics in Sri Lanka
Muslims’ political history in independent Sri Lanka prior to the change in the electoral system in
1987 was mainly about the non-assertion of Muslim specificity in the political arena. Muslims’
demographic conditions were such that they were unable to organize themselves as a political
party contesting elections. They were a minority of less than ten percent dispersed throughout
the island with few population concentrations significant enough to elect a representative on the
basis of ethnicity alone. There were often powerful Muslim members very close to the leadership
of the two national parties. Bathiudeen Mahmood and the SLFP of the 1960s and 1970s and
Dr. M.C.M. Kaleel and A.C.S. Hameed in the UNP in the 1980s are the most prominent. M.H
Mohamed was also prominent and was speaker in Parliament from 1989-1994 under the UNP
regime. Representation of Muslim issues in Parliament occurred through lobbying these ministers
to speak on behalf of these issues. However, the parties of which these Muslims were a part were
majority parties and their articulation of minority interests were coloured by the interests of
the majority as well as each parties own form of majoritarian politics. Therefore, the space for
articulating and addressing Muslim concerns was arguably limited. The Muslim MPs in the larger
parties managed to bring about necessary, Muslim friendly legislation in keeping with the needs
of the community as understood by the politicians. For instance, Razik Fareed brought about
legislation recognizing Muslims’ need for time off to pray on Fridays and instituted a special
state Muslim education stream with holidays in the month of Ramazan. (Haniffa 2009) However,
when Muslim interest began to emerge in the area of ethnic politics, the accommodation became
more difficult. As Ashraff once stated of national party MPs articulation of Muslim issues—
The Muslim members of Parliament are representatives of their respective parties and not
of the community. They only try to persuade the community towards their party point of
view and never try persuading their party or the government to which they are attached
towards the Muslim point of view. (Ashraff, 1987, p.66)
When Muslims became targeted in the conflict their national party politicians were incapable of
responding adequately. The Indo Lanka accord of 1987 was the most powerful indication of their
failure and augured the success of Muslim ethnic politics.
The extensive scholarly work on the northern Muslims has only partially succeeded in placing the
Muslim issue as central for either the search for a political solution or the resettlement of IDPs in
the aftermath of the LTTE’s military defeat in 2009. This is because little of the work has located
the expulsion within the country’s ethnic politics, and especially not in terms of the politics of
Muslims and Tamil Nationalism
The Muslim community of Sri Lanka is essentially a Tamil speaking community that has
eschewed a Tamil ethno linguistic identity in favour of an identity based on religion and race. In
terms of race, Muslims when under the British, claimed Arab ancestry much to the skepticism
of Tamil interlocutors who were convinced of Muslims’ Tamil ethnic roots. The first recorded
instance of Tamils claiming that Muslims were Tamil and Muslims refusing such a label occurred
under the British in 1889. Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a prominent Tamil intellectual claimed
in fact in an article submitted to the Royal Asiatic Society that the Moors were “ethnologically”
Tamil (Ramanathan, 1888) Muslims responded nearly a half century later claiming their Arab
roots and Islamic heritage. (Azeez, 1957)The political issue that gave rise to the debate was
resolved by the British in favour of the Muslims and since then the Tamil-Muslim difference has
become institutionalized in the island’s politics. For a majority of Muslims, there has never been
a question that they are a distinct social formation with only a few shared political, social and
linguistic interests in common with Tamils. However, for Tamil nationalism, the problem was
more complex. The assertion of a Tamil speaking homeland in the north and east could only be
done on the basis of the Muslim numbers as well; and one would have imagined – with Muslim
concurrence. Many generations of Muslims—especially in the eastern province-- saw common
cause with Tamils, albeit temporarily. The TULF and other Tamil parties have always had some
Muslim representation. Mashoor Maulana was a close associate of S.J.V. Chelvanayagam and
M.S.M Ashraff started his political career as a member of the TULF. However, the literature
emphasizes Muslims’ “self interest” over those periodic assertions of common interest and
common linguistic identity (McGilvray, 2008).
The small moments of political commonality shared by Muslims and Tamils too—although
brief—are worthy of note. The idea of a “Tamil speaking peoples” and the “Homeland of the Tamil
speaking peoples” are concepts coined by S.J.V. Chelvanayagam, the founder of moderate Tamil
nationalism (Wilson, 1994, p. 21). Chelvanayagam was held in great esteem by certain Muslim
politicians, including Ashraff, and his ideas too were considered useful. For instance, Muslim andTamil opposition to the state’s colonization of the east with Sinhalese from the south was enabled
by the concept of the homeland of Tamil speaking people. Further, the eastern Muslims’ own
affinity with their Tamil linguistic heritage, as well as the large number of Tamil literary figures
who hail from the east speak to a shared and greatly valued affinity to the Tamil language by
sections of the eastern Muslim community. Therefore the notion of a Tamil speaking peoples was
not one that was completely alien to the Muslims. Further, as Thiranagama and McGilvray have
noted, Tamils and Muslims of the north and east had more in common with regional neighbors
than they did with co-ethnics from other places.
However, the differences between Tamils and Muslims were also very strong and arguably,
insufficient effort was made by the leadership to bridge these differences to make the linguistic
commonality politically viable. The LTTE in its very narrow frame of reference could never
come to terms with the failure of this idea of the Tamil speaking people to find political purchase
for both communities; and they seemed especially incensed by the SLMC’s assertion of Tamil
Muslim difference, and considered the Muslims ethnic traitors. (Haniffa and Raheem, 2005).
While Muslim Tamil social and political difference were long accepted and established within
local politics, the LTTE ideology consistently dismissed Muslims claims of being different. As
stated earlier, the logic of a homeland of the Tamil speaking people’s includes the Muslims. And
it does not work so well in a context where the Muslims stridently assert their difference.
The first political moments at which Muslims assertion of a separate and particular political
identity crystallized were also very closely connected to the history of the conflict. In 1987 Sri
Lanka signed the Indo Lanka accord under Indian mediation whereby the provincial council
system was introduced as a solution to the ethnic problem. One of the basic conditions on which
the Tamil militants would not compromise was the concept of a contiguous Tamil homeland.
This involved the merger of the northern and eastern provinces. When the Indo Lanka accord was
signed and the merger of the north and the eastern provinces was agreed upon, Muslims felt left
out. Muslim communities of the east lost their majority status in the province. Ashraff, the leader
of the SLMC that was just emerging as a political force in the East vehemently argued against the
term ‘Tamil speaking peoples’ that was used as a justification for the merger. He argued that this
concept was a misnomer as far as the Muslims were concerned and had served only to facilitate
militant Tamil nationalist interests at the expense of the Muslims (Ashraff 1987, Haniffa 2008).
The SLMC in fact grew into a successful party with a strong vote base in the east on the wave of
Muslim sentiment against the merger.
The year 1990 was a year of some historical significance in the calendar of events of Sri Lanka’s
troubled politics. .The arena of conflict in the north saw the important exit of the Indian Peace
Keeping Force and the commencement of a round of peace talks between the LTTE and the
Premadasa regime. It was also the time when the government was consolidating itself in the
aftermath of the destruction of the southern insurrection that was set in motion by the Janatha
Vimukthi Peramuna. In relation to Muslim politics this was the time – ever since the Peace Accord
of 1987—where the first electorally successful Muslim political party was emerging under the
leadership of the charismatic M.S.M. Ashraff.
As already noted, Muslim political leadership has historically been concentrated in the South.
However, after the change in the electoral system in 1978, the possibility of small parties winning
seats in Parliament became greater. This augured the arrival of a variety of parties with small
constituencies and the SLMC was one of these.
It is perhaps fair to propose that the LTTE expulsion of Muslims was to an extent a reaction to
the SLMC position. Tamil nationalist ideology as personified by the LTTE strongly rejected the
assertion of Muslim difference. So much so that the rhetoric around the expulsion—the language
used by the LTTE during the expulsion and often repeated by the northern Muslims—was that
Ashraff was responsible for the LTTE driving Muslims out and by extension for the division
between the Tamils and Muslims. Our testimonies have several versions of the Ashraff story.
When people asked the local LTTE cadres why they were being told to leave they said—“go
and ask Ashraff.” In some cases they said – “go beyond Vavuniya; Ashraff will give you houses
there.” The uniformity with which the Ashraff story appears within the narratives is curious and
speaks to an LTTE strategy to perhaps undermine the SLMC’s emergence as a political force.
Of course, the expulsion only served to further strengthen the party’s claim that Muslims needed
their own ethnic representation in the North and East.
Additionally it must be remembered that the LTTE could also have wanted to benefit from the
wealth that the Muslims left behind. Testimonies recount whole fields full of tractors, motor bikes
and other machines that the LTTE confiscated from the Muslims. The LTTE also confiscated all
cash and jewellery from the fleeing Muslims and looted the homes of the expelled. This aspect of
the expulsion should not be forgotten in critiquing the LTTE’s act. LTTE apologists argue that the
expulsion is justified on the grounds of sound military strategy. They argue that it was a strategy
similar to that which was practised by the United States government during the 2nd World War
where the US government interned all Japanese Americans in appalling conditions in camps for
the duration of the conflict.7 In these arguments there is no discussion of the grabbing of wealth
and property from the expelled, the lack of proper notice to leave or the total absence of the
possibility of compensation. The non LTTE Tamil leadership’s lack of an adequate response at
the time of the expulsion, the Catholic Church’s inability to stop the expulsion when it occurred,
and its muted response at the time of the expulsion still remain large questions that require an
answer.8 Tamil nationalist politicians even today are inadequately prepared to respond to the
question of the expulsion and Muslim return. As Sharika Thiranagama too has recently argued,
the culpability of Tamils and Tamil nationalism in the atrocity committed against the Muslims by
the LTTE is yet to be fully addressed (Thiranagama, 2011).
The larger political context in the country is also relevant for an understanding of the situation.
In the aftermath of the Indo Lanka accord of 1987, the Indian Peace Keeping Force was brought
to Sri Lanka. Far from bringing about an end to the fighting the LTTE and the IPKF engaged in
8 The University Teachers for Human Rights’ reporting of the event was an important intervention and should be
noted as such at this point. Their report and analysis can be found at http://www.uthr.org/reports.htm
fierce fighting that affected civilians in a manner that was far worse than anything that happened
previously. During this time many Muslims too were forced to flee. The southern Sinhala polity
was largely in opposition to the Indo-Lanka accord and the presence of the Indian army in the
north; and this opposition was successfully mobilized by the Marxist oriented Janatha Vimukthi
Peramuna (JVP) into an armed insurrection. The JVP reigned with great brutality in the south and
the insurrection was finally stamped out with the government using counterinsurgency measures
of equal, if not, greater brutality. The year 1990 saw the tail end of the insurgency with the capture
of the JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera in 1989.
In 1990 the country was looking towards a new future with the UNP government sending the
IPKF home and then entering into talks with the LTTE. Talks commenced in February 1990 in
conjunction with the withdrawal of the IPKF from the north. However, they were not successful
– both sides accused one another of arming themselves while talking.
1990 also marked a moment of time when the relations between the Tamils and Muslims reached
an all time low. In August 1990, the massacre of Muslims in Kattankudi and Eravur took place.
There are also unconfirmed reports that the LTTE asked the Muslims of Kattankudi to leave on
threat of death. But they did not leave and the massacre of August 3rd is probably a consequence of
that. There were also reports that the LTTE wanted the pockets of Muslims scattered throughout
the north and east to vacate in order to consolidate the mono ethnic nature of the Tamil homeland.
While they were successful in their expulsion of Muslims from the north, it was less easy to
dislodge the larger, more powerful block of eastern Muslims.
As stated elsewhere in this report, the northern Muslims stated to the Commission that they informed
the ministry of defense and others – especially through the M.P for the Vanni, Mr. Aboobakr of
the LTTE’s threats to the Muslim community. They were given various assurances by Ranjan
Wijeyaratne, minister of defense. However, at the moment of the expulsion itself, there was very
little that either the army or the politicians were willing to do.
Ranjan Wijeyratne’s response to Halim Ishak’s request for an explanation, we have quoted at
length in chapter 6. Subsequent to the expulsion, the government took control of the Mannar
island and urged Muslims to return. Muslims too went back in small groups, but refused to return
en mass permanently due to fears of yet another expulsion. Testimonies recount that a few small
clusters of Muslims went back to Puthukudiyiruppu and Erukalampidy and also Uppukulam in
Mannar town. Newspapers from the times indicate that Muslims were waiting for some military
training and arms before they were willing to go back (Sunday Observer, 18.11.1990, p. 1).
Another factor that impacted the aftermath of the expulsion, and Muslim return was the position
of the SLMC regarding the Northern Muslims. Commission interviews with an SLMC member
close to Ashraff in the 1990s revealed that the party specifically did not encourage Muslim
return for political reasons. The party position was that Muslims could not return to the north
with dignity until there was a political solution to the conflict that included a power sharing
settlement for Muslims. Such a settlement included the Muslim administered South Eastern Unit
(Kalmunai Sammanturai Pottuvil) with the non contiguous administrative areas of the Northincluding Mutur and Musali. Therefore, even when the Northern Muslims called for assistance to
return immediately to the North, the SLMC was not encouraging and instead proposed a different
settlement option in Puttalam. Community leaders from among the Northern Muslims vehemently
opposed the settlements in Puttalam. But the SLMC, clearly, had other ideas.
Muslims of the north have been languishing in refugee camps and settlements for the past twenty
years with very little done to address their specific needs. For instance, no significant changes in
their living environment were made possible for the northern Muslims until Ashraff was made
minister of Ports Shipping Reconstruction and Rehabilitation. (See chapter 6) Then again, after
Ashraff’s death, we see a hiatus in terms of assistance until the emergence of Noordeen Mashoor
as a Deputy Minister of Rehabilitation and the Vanni District in 2002. Later on with the advent of
Risharth Bathiudeen as minister of Rehabilitation we see several improvements in the area – such
as the 1000 houses scheme of Quassimiya city in Puttalam, the establishment of the Secretariat
for Northern Displaced Muslims, creation of employment opportunities for the displaced,
improvement of health care and educational facilities in Puttalam, and improved infrastructure
facilities for resettlement villages. The World Bank housing scheme that proposed to build 4000
houses in Puttalam also commenced operations during his time in office.9
For a casual observer these might indicate inordinate attention paid to the Northern Muslims during
the course of their twenty years of displacement. However, in practice it means the following.
1. The fact that the Northern Muslim issue has been ghettoized within the Sri lankan context
as something that has to be administered separately from the administration of the larger
displaced population housed mainly in their districts of origin.
2. Assistance of any significance done only during the reign of Muslim parliamentarians –
thereby further marginalising the issue as a Muslim specific issue.
3. No understanding at the policy level of the specificity of the context of displacement and
therefore the different political dynamics that impact upon them.
4. The insufficiently thought through settlement processes in Puttalam that maintained
northern Muslims identity of being displaced without any opportunity for integrating
into the Puttalam host community.
Muslims’ Place within the Discourse of the Ethnic Conflict
The northern Muslim issue received very little attention during the failed peace process of
2001- 2003. Due to the fact that the main protagonists to the conflict were considered to be
the state and the LTTE, it was sometimes difficult to convince any of the parties concerned
including the Norwegian facilitators that the Muslims have to be included in discussions about
a settlement. There seemed to be little or no awareness of the necessity to consult Muslims even
though they were a significant demographic presence in the conflict areas. As discussed earlier,
9 The intention here is not to discount the contributions of other politicians like MPs Aboobakr, Douglas
Devananda and Provincial Counselor Dr. Illyas. Their contributions are recognized in chapter 6. The intention
of this section is to highlight the absence of state policy addressing northern Muslims at moments when
Muslim ministers did not hold powerful positions in government.
Tamil nationalist claims for a homeland were based on the inclusion of Muslim numbers and
Muslims had suffered great violence at the hands of the LTTE. It was not just the expulsion of the
Northern Muslims, but the massacres in the eastern province, as well as the ongoing harassment
of Muslims under the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002 that were significant moments of anti Muslim
sentiment on the part of the LTTE. Even in the face of all this evidence to the necessity of their
inclusion, Muslim leaders found it very difficult to get a hearing for their grievances. Therefore,
it should be recognized that there was very little space for Muslim issues to be raised within the
peace process as a whole. However, what little space that was available was also underutilized by
the Muslim leadership. The inclusion of Rauf Hakeem in the government negotiating team and
later Mrs. Ferial Ashraff in the team sent by the Rajapaksa regime were arguably not capitalized
upon to efficiently address the northern Muslims’ concerns (Haniffa 2011, p. 58-60).
According to McGilvray and Raheem, the Hakeem Prabhakaran meeting was one of the highpoints
of Muslim involvement within a peace process into which Muslims had to struggle to get a foot
in the door (McGilvray and Raheem, 2007, p. 32). However, in the agreement that was reached
between the two leaders, the issues faced by Northern Muslims were not sufficiently addressed.10
For instance, while taxation of the Eastern Province was addressed, the taxation faced by the
Northern Muslims when returning and trying to engage in livelihoods were not addressed. This
in effect put a stop to a successful Muslim return as the LTTE effectively crippled the economic
activities of the Muslims by taxing them exorbitantly. Also, while the meeting won an invitation
from Prabhakaran for northern Muslims to return, there were inadequate assurances regarding their
security. The member of the SLMC that we have referred to earlier also said that the agreement
between Hakeem and Prabhakaran indicates a discontinuity between the thinking of Ashraff and
the current SLMC leadership. Permitting the northern Muslim issue to be reduced to an invitation
to return was essentially a relinquishing of the Muslims’ political trump card, he said.
The reason for the minimal attention paid to the Northern Muslim issue by the SLMC may be
the following. The SLMC position during the peace process was one of attempting to secure
a foot in the door to raise Muslim issues, and when achieved, to articulate Muslims ground
level grievances in the east which were escalating daily and to present the Muslim version of a
settlement. As discussed above, the SLMC plan for a Muslim administrative area was based on
the South Eastern Unit of Kalmunai, Sammanthurai, Pottuvil as the administrative centre and
included the non contiguous areas of Muttur and Kinniya in the Trincomalee district, and the
Musali DS division in Mannar. The consensus among the community of Muslims from the north
and east regarding the South Eastern Unit and the non contiguous areas was not established,
and the SLMC did not want to draw attention to any differences within the polity and have its
representative position questioned. And arguably, the increasing violence in the east made the
party leadership more sensitive to the ground level concerns of the east rather than those of the
north at that time. And further, according to the SLMC insider from Ashraff’s time, the current
leadership’s understanding of the importance of the Northern Muslim issue for Muslim politics in
10 The LTTE did not keep to many aspects of the agreement. For instance, although the agreement also invited
Muslims in the East to cultivate their paddy lands, Muslims were not given access to their paddy lands on the
ground and were not given the security to cultivate.
general was not adequate, and is an example of the party’s failure to successfully strategize and
capitalize on the opportunities available.
The Homogenizing Imperative of the Piety Movement and its Impact on Activism
One other issue that is of importance for the understanding of Muslim politics in post colonial
Sri Lanka, and especially the manner in which they impact the situation of northern Muslims is
the piety movement. In keeping with the global Islamic piety movement, the Sri Lakan Muslim
community too saw the transformation of Muslim dress and demeanor and the manner in
which Muslims related to the world. The preoccupation of the Islamic piety movement was the
transformation of Muslim social life towards more Islamic practices as defined by the various
groups. The form in which the commitment to increased piety manifested itself in diverse
Muslim communities across the world was closely connected to the social and political factors
affecting their particular contexts. Haniffa argues that the piety movement among Muslims in Sri
Lanka was a consequence of the polarization that was happening between the Sinhala and Tamil
communities due to the violence of the conflict, and mirrored some elements of it. For instance,
the piety movement stressed religious exclusiveness at the expense of neighbourliness and other
sorts of engagements with ethnic and religious others. The nationalism that Tamil and Muslim
groups espoused was reflected among Muslims through the exclusivity of the piety movement
(Haniffa, 2008, p. 348). Therefore religion, and the transformation of the religious practices
within the Muslim community itself became the preoccupation of a large number of community
youth. The radicalization of youth that occurred towards politics within the Tamil community for
instance, did not occur within the Muslim community. Muslims reaction to the deepening ethnic
tensions in the country was to embrace the piety movement. According to Haniffa
Muslims in Sri Lanka feel beleaguered as a socially, politically and economically weak
minority within a context where interethnic relations have often been defined by violence.
Religious self assertion has energized the Muslim community in ways that the idea of
a Muslim political community—an extremely sensitive distant possibility as a second
minority-- has not been able to do….The dynamism of the religious revival within
Muslim society transformed Muslims’ relations with ethnic others in ways that mirror
and reinforce the polarization that has taken place amongst the different religious/ethnic
groups in the country during the last twenty years of conflict. But it also made Muslims
have a greater appreciation of their own social and political condition in a way that was
not possible under a beleaguered minority sensibility through which the Muslim political
elite has operated historically. (Haniffa 2008, p. 23)
During the early years of the piety movement, the attention was mostly inward towards reforming
“straying” elements of the Muslim community. Today too the imperative towards piety remains,
with different groups emphasizing different aspects of pious practice that are sometimes inconflict with one another. Many of these groups have assisted the northern Muslims; however,
their assistance has been in the realm of humanitarian and religious interventions—they build
mosques, and toilets, distribute hijabs and give IDPs their Zakath collections. Creating awareness
about the northern Muslims predicament among a larger Sri Lankan community or within
international institutions like the UN has been beyond the purview of piety groups. It is only
recently that the Muslim community – at least the civil society elements within the community—
have organized to effectively lobby towards politically addressing the problems faced by the
community. This new awareness is partly attributable to Muslims’ experience of exclusion in the
peace process of 2002.
Northern Muslim activists, through organizations like the Community Trust Fund (CTF), The
Research and Action Forum for Social Development (RAAF), the Rural Development Foundation
(RDF) and more recently the Mannar Women’s Development Foundation (MWDF), have done
work to raise the profile of the issue. The Citizens’ Committee of the CTF had a desk at the 2001
World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance,
in Durban South Africa. A.M Faaiz of the RDF attended the meeting of the UN working group
on minorities in 2003 and made a presentation on the Northern Muslim issue. And Dr. Hasbullah
of Peradeniya University and the RAAF has written consistently on the issue. However, these
interventions, as important as they were became just a few scattered acts that did not resonate well
with the overwhelming international presence of the issue of the Sinhala state’s discrimination
against the Tamil minority. Even the state began to capitalize on The Northern Muslims Issue to
undermine the LTTE propaganda only very late in the day. Even in that process the information
on the expulsion used by the state was often inaccurate.11 In some cases when the details of the
expulsion were not clearly articulated, it was interpreted among internationals as an example of
discrimination against another group of Tamils and not as victimization of a local minority by a
Tamil rebel group. The fact that Muslims are considered a separate ethnic and religious group in
Sri Lanka also needed to be emphasized for a proper understanding of the expulsion when viewed
from outside the country.
The above is a brief summary of Muslim political and social engagement with the rest of the
country in post independence Sri Lanka and contains some of the elements that constitute the
background and context of the expulsion. Any understanding of the expulsion as well as the
reason for Muslims exclusion from any significant state policy on return or long term IDP
resettlement requires this background. The Commission felt that the expulsion, the nature of
assistance rendered to the community during displacement, as well as their marginalization in the
peace process and current resettlement activities can only be understood if based on an adequate
appreciation of this context.
11 The state report to the ECOSOC made references to the northern Muslims. But much of the detail was
confused. For instance this document also contained the fairly common mistake of referring to the expulsion
as happening only in Jaffna and not the entire Northern Province. 45th Session of UNCESCR 1-9 Nov 2010,