Religious leaders who have accepted our invitation, Commissioners, Partner Organisation Representatives, Representatives of the Law and Society Trust Colombo Office, staff of the LST Puttalam Office and Northern Muslims living as displaced persons in Puttalam. October 2010 marks twenty years since the entire Muslim community of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province were ethnically cleansed from that province in the LTTE’s bid to create a mono ethnic homeland. We are here to commemorate this event and to share with you some of the findings of the commission project. It is twenty years since the beginning of the period of sadness for the Northern Muslims. We must also not forget that this time has been a time of sadness for Sri Lanka as a country. We as a country have faced thirty years of terrible destruction. The complete decimation of the people and landscape of sections of the Northern and Eastern Province, the wiping out of a generation of Sinhala youth in the military, the destruction of hundreds of lives of persons of all communities due to bomb blasts in Colombo and elsewhere and the militarization and brutalization of our entire society also happened during this time. Today, due to the end of the war, there is some hope that we can expect a brighter future. There are of course many problems, but we can at least be thankful that most of the guns are silent and a new era is dawning. And part of that brighter future, that new era should be a durable solution for you, the Northern Muslims. This durable solution should be either the possibility of return to the North with dignity, or the possibility of settling down – not as IDPs but as citizens with all the rights and entitlements due to you-- in the places that have been your home for 20 years. Bringing about such a durable solution, however, is not easy to do.
All communities of this country have faced terrible hardship in the past thirty years and let us take two minutes commemorate those that died, those that lost their limbs, and those, like most of you hear who lost their homes and places in which they lived, as well as their future, their dreams and their culture their home place and their peace of mind. As I said, all communities in this country have suffered. And some have had their suffering addressed, through acknowledgement from the state, through out pouring of sympathy from the population at large and the media and have received assistance to rebuild their lives, and compensation. But many have not. Northern Muslims are among those that have received little of the above – either acknowledgement from the state, the larger population or the media, and very little in terms of state assistance to rebuild their lives, resettlement allowances and compensation. Today, the government is taking great steps to address the problem of those displaced during the government’s most recent fighting with the LTTE. The new IDPS. However, old IDPS, the largest among them the Northern Muslims, and the people displaced for even longer than twenty years by the Jaffna High Security Zones are not coming up on any one’s agenda in any significant way. Therefore, as I said, bringing about a durable solution is not easy.
The neglect experienced by the Northern Muslims is not new. It is not just in comparison to the new IDPs that the Northern Muslims seem neglected by the state. Even at the moment of the expulsion the response of the state was grossly inadequate. The Northern Muslims had to depend on other Muslims, the Puttalam host community in particular for emergency assistance. Additionally after the huge devastation of the tsunami the whole country, including the Northern Muslims saw the outpouring of sympathy assistance and housing projects that came Sri Lanka’s way. None of that same enthusiasm good will or energy was directed towards recovering the great loss of the Northern Muslims and no one, not the state, the NGOs or the international community seem interested in the issue. Why is this? The people of the Vanni are a population brutalized and traumatized by war and seem to require urgent attention and due to the global financial crisis the money that is available for assistance is also growing smaller and smaller. In this instance, the northern Muslims are victims of someone else’s judgment about who’s needs are more urgent. So why is it that the Northern Muslims continue to receive so little attention, so little help? We could as many have done blame our leadership. Perhaps our political representatives did not do enough to persuade the state to address Northern Muslim issues. This is a good argument. And although many politicians have done many activities—for instance, the MPs Noordeen Mashoor, Aboobaker, M.S.M Ashraff, and most recently Minister Rishard have made attempts to address Northern Muslim needs in some way possible, we can say that it has been too little and sometimes too late. And in some cases their help has not been of positive consequences. For instances for a long time Muslim politicians’ vision was more eastern specific and did not want to acknowledge the difference between the Eastern, and Northern Muslims aspirations regarding their futures. Then, more recently politicians have taken advantage of the captive nature of Northern Muslims lives and helped only those that politically supported them.
But there are some larger sociological and structural issues too that are to be blamed. For instance, those who supported Tamil nationalism and the LTTE have tried systematically to down play the expulsion. Larger civil society in Sri Lanka could not come to terms with it because it undermined the power of the argument about majority discrimination against the Tamil minority. This was an instance of a minority organizations, fighting against injustice perpetrating a crime against another minority. In addition it was difficult for those outside Sri Lanka to understand – at a glance—that the Muslims were a distinct community in the country. In India there are Tamil Muslims. It is difficult for many to understand that Tamils and Muslims are two distinct communities in Sri Lanka. Therefore popularizing the Northern Muslims’ predicament was not just about getting the information out. That has been done. It was about adequately explaining this information and there is more work needed in that area. Sinhala and Tamil are categories based on language. The fact that Muslims are categorized with Sinhala and Tamil is peculiar to Sri Lanka’s history. But it is not clear to outsiders and requires an explanation. More than all of this, activists from the Northern Muslim community and Muslim civil society are only just beginning to get organized to successfully represent issues facing Muslims. Successful lobbying is still to take place and lots of work needs to be done in this area. This commission process has been set in motion to address this particular problem. We, representing Muslim civil society in Colombo have, through the Law and Society Trust initiated this activity in partnership with Northern Muslim civil society activists in the RDF, CTF and People’s Secretariat. We have gathered together a group of prominent and eminent members of Civil Society representing all ethnicities to form this commission. The Commissioners – who are all from outside the Northern Muslim community—will help to broaden the perspective through which the problems of Northern Muslims are viewed and help with the dissemination of information regarding their concerns. We are hoping that this civil society initiative will contribute towards the greater visibility of the issue to bring about some positive changes for the community – either towards resettlement or towards integration with dignity into the places you currently reside in. We are also hoping, in addition, that there will be a sufficiently significant record of your experience, of the expulsion, the displacement and now of return, that it will forever remain in the memory of the Muslim community as well as become part of the history of the greater Sri Lankan community.
We have been working on this effort for over two years now in the hope that we could complete our findings in time for the 20th year commemoration. Unfortunately we have not been able to complete the report on time. But we have found out a lot of significant information that we want to share with you. We learnt about the displacement experience, the expulsion itself, and the resettlement process. WE have heard about the kind of life you lived in the North, the history and culture that you lost for twenty years and the challenges you face in trying to rebuild a new community in the North. We have heard about the sadness of the losses that you have suffered. Given the novel perspective of our commissioners – all with vast experience in the different fields that they specialize in we have been able to develop some new insights and ask new questions about your experience, and some of these I will share with you today. We have noted that your displacement experience is different from many other experiences of displacement experienced by those affected by war in this country. Unlike most displaced from the Tamil community you were compelled to move to a different district with different people, language and culture where those that you were compelled to live with did not understand your problems and were not sympathetic to your predicament. We have heard about your good and sometimes troubling relationships with the host community and we have heard from you about the host community’s generosity at the time of your greatest need. And we have heard from the host community about the many advantages that you have brought to this place. We have also heard the host community’s perspective on having to house such a large contingent of fellow Muslims on a badly resourced area with very minimal assistance from the government. And we are sensitive to their suffering and their concerns. We have also heard about the pain of the label “ahadi” and hope that you will soon be rid of it. We have heard about the difficulties you have faced living as a Tamil speaking community in an area where the administration and all government services are provided in the Sinhala language. This is not something that many displaced communities in this country have been compelled to face.
We have noted how you have received little encouragement to integrate with the local population due to the need to maintain the identity of displacement to access rations; and the possibility of losing entitlements to compensation within a district based registration system. Politicians too have not encouraged registration in Puttalam since the realignment of ethnic ratios in any district is a politically contentious issue. Given that access to state resources is made through the District and Provincial administration we have noted that maintaining a Northern Muslim identity has impacted on your ability to access jobs and services in Puttalam. We have seen that in some places Northern Muslim settlements are not served by the local municipality since they are not considered residents of the North Central Province or the Puttalam District. We have heard about the concerns of women and girls- of how they suffered and continue to suffer due to lack of privacy and security in the crowded conditions of camp life. We have heard of issues around the safety of girl children, and since travel to school is considered unsafe in certain camps, girl children are prevented from finishing their education. We heard also that early marriage in such instances were common. We have heard about the advanced state of women’s education in the North, especially in Mannar prior to the expulsion and the great service that educated women rendered to their community. We have heard about the independence of women in Mannar who were able to cultivate home gardens and generate an income for themselves. We have also heard of how difficult it has been to transition into providing labor for other people’s land. We have heard about the manner in which families have been scattered all over the country, and communities have been lost. And how many of you have been compelled to live among strangers without the support networks that you were accustomed to. We have heard about the concerns of youth and their expectations of better prospects in the North and their eagerness to return in search of a better future. Some have wanted to remain in Puttalam among those that are familiar but they worry about the hugely limited opportunities that Puttalam in turn offers them. They somewhat apprehensively look towards the greater opportunities that the North may offer them. We have noted that while the possibility of return was welcomed by many the question of return was complicated. We found that many were eager to return, like those from Thalaimannar pier, and were confident of a better life in the North. The place was currently bustling, schools were good. They anticipated the resumption of the ferry service and the only regret was that they had invested in property in Kalpitiya and someone had to look after that. In relation to other areas people were not so sure. Some areas in Mannar-- in Musali and Mannar island-- the Muslim villages are reduced to secondary forest and there is no evidence of people’s houses. Some mentioned that it took them twenty years to reach a level of satisfaction with life in Puttalam. That it might take a similar amount of time for them to be comfortable again in Mannar. Others who used to be farmers worried about the future of their children. None of them farmed in Puttalam and their children did not know how to hold a knife or wield a shovel. What were their options if they were to leave for the North?
We noted land was a significant issue from the several matters that were raised. The lack of state land in certain areas to accommodate the expanded numbers, the settlement of other ethnic communities in land traditionally considered to be Muslim lands in certain other areas, the fact that lands were sold during the conflict to Tamil residents of those areas at very low prices, complicated ownership conflicts, and further, the plight of those who were landless was told to us. We heared that many of you have permit land with no legal right to sell. However ownership has unofficially changed hands many times and now poses a problem. We saw that places in Musali, in the Mannar district have turned into secondary forest. And identifying property boundaries is difficult. This is true of certain areas in Mullaithivu as well and is probably true to some extent in all the places from which the northern Muslims were driven out. We also heard about problems in accessing rental properties where the landlords were no longer willing to rent to Muslims. We noted that access to land was a difficult issue to which a solution needed to be found. One other issue that came up was wether the the plans for Uthuru Wasanthaya or the Northern Spring development projects currently planned and instituted by the government included the interests and aspirations of the Northern Muslims. Many complained that the government’s current resettlement initiatives were geared towards resettling those displaced during the final military offensive between the forces and the LTTE. There was no policy about and little assistance for those who were displaced prior to that. The Commission is in fact in possession of a circular that states that money from UNHCR assistance programs are available only for those displaced after 2006. People also expressed their concern regarding the lack of information regarding the military’s taking over of land owned by civilians and what if any compensation will be given.
We found that many are not clear as to what their rights are, and the expectations for the state to provide for them are high. Many are being told that if they were granted a house in Puttalam they may not be entitled to a house in the North. People are wondering if this is indeed the case. People are not sure about how to decide on whether to stay or go. While the commission encountered many that were very emphatic about not going, it was not clear if they would in turn register as Puttalam residents. There was a serious dearth of information about the need for and consequences of such decisions and people were wary of making such choices. The lack of a clear policy on the part of the state was exacerbating the confusion felt by the people. We have visited Mannar, Jaffna & Kilinochchi and experienced first hand the difficulties that are being faced by those of you who have returned. We have heard about the difficulties of the community among whom you will have to live again. The lack of sympathy of the state institutions, and actors, the difficulties of conducting livelihood activities, the minimal state assistance with rations and restarting livelihoods, how people have to mortgage or sell what they have struggled to build up for twenty years in order to go back.
What I have stated so far is a brief summary of a year’s worth of work, the commission report will include this information as well as recommendations to the state to take measures to address your pressing concerns. We also have more plans for the information that we gathered we plan to disseminate it as widely as possible. But before that let us share with you the plans we have for the information that we gathered.
1.We have already applied to the government’s lessons learnt and reconciliation commission and we will appear before them on November 4th to present our findings.
2.We have written of the Northern Muslims to the UN reports submitted by NGOs
3.We have written statements to the News Papers on behalf of issues important to the Northern Muslims. On of these was the statement against the proposed closure of the Mannar Puttalam road.
4.In the next phase we plan to publish a report with this information in all three languages.
5.In the next phase we plan to take this information to ministry secretaries, INGOs and other concerned institutions
6.We plan to take the issue to the UN in New York and Geneva
7.We plan to create a website with the findings of the report.
8.With our news letter we will also keep you informed about what we are doing.
We want the Northern Muslim issue to be something that the country and the world knows about and thereby we hope that the day to day problems that you face will be addressed at least to a minimal extent. Twenty years have passed since the expulsion happened. Our intention is to prevent the passing of another twenty years before a durable solution to the Northern Muslim problem is found. In the meantime I take heart in the following lines of Northern Muslim poet Uwais Ghani, and I hope you will too. Gani says in one of his poems. Although we are displaced
We bloom as Wild jasmine