LLRC visits Puttalam: Tension between Northern Muslim IDPs and the host community comes to fore

by Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon

(January 09, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) met representatives of Northern Muslims, (IDP’s) who were driven away from the North in 1990 by the LTTE, and those from the host community of Puttalam on 7th January 2011. Although, the number of submissions were relatively low compared to other field visits, only 23 in all. Centre for Human Rights (CHR) observe, that there were clear indications of dissension which has begun to develop amongst those who were residing in the area formally, and those IDP’S arrived from Jaffna making the IDP’s arrived from the North, them resentful and fearful the Northern Muslims.

Representatives of Puttalam Muslims who host approximately 150,000 Northern Muslims (IDP’s), criticized that IDPs from North for not being willing to be flexible for integration into the host communities way of living. The traditional Muslims in Puttalam accuse that the IDP’s take only an opportunistic attitude. Further, many of the community leaders of Puttlam Muslims claimed that Northern Muslims have habits and practices which are traditionally shun by the host community and added that the government and the INGOs are only concerned about the IDP’s. The Commission was requested to change the mandate of INGOs to include the members of the host community in decision making process as they are desperate and keen for these issues to be addressed by appropriate authorities.

However, Northern Muslims claimed that lack of information and resources prevent them from going back to the North. Speaking before the LLRC some claimed that they preferred to stay in Puttalam citing better economic opportunities. Six schools have been opened for the IDPs and a large number of them have received housing through various projects.

Another reason for IDP’s staying back in Puttalam is the belief that they cannot survive without rations given by the government and the UNHCR. It is estimated that over 68,000 people still receive rations from the UNHCR and retaining an identity as refugees is more financially viable for the Northern Muslims than blending in with the host community in one of Sri Lanka’s poorest regions. CHR identifies this ‘dependant mentality’ as a major stumbling block in future resettlement of IDPs.

Voter Rights also came into the fore during the sessions as many Northern Muslims told the Commissioners that there is much confusion about a circular issued by the Department of Election on December 2010, states that this practice will be discontinued in the future and that the Northern Muslims should register either in Puttalam or move to the North. By all means it seems that this is a fair decree by the authorities, the IDP’s are caught between gulf of important decision at this juncture. In this regard many do not like to lose their voting rights in the North, as much as others are fearful that they will lose their rations by resettling.

All this is well and true. However, after thirty years of war, the crucial question remains, could any of the lessons now being learnt, actually have being predicted? Could any of this have been foreseen and avoided? Were there more accurate perceptions, assessments and analysis? Were other courses of action recommended? CHR perceives that clearly this an inter-cultural conflict of interest in a particular homogeneous unit living two distinctive provinces in the island. While respecting the cultural and traditional differences of these two groups of the same coin, the appropriate interventions with correct perspective modalities by the authorities should immediately resolve this prevailing situation in Puttalam.

This unique experience shows that an influx of a large number of IDPs into a new geographical area would have major impact on the host community. If the authorities do not handle this uprising carefully it might alienate one or both parties. Representatives from both parties requested the LLRC to find a solution for this problem before it escalates and CHR is paying close attention to what the Commission would recommend in its final report in May 2011.

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