The Displaced Northern Muslims of Sri Lanka (I)

Special Problems and the Future

by ARM Imtiyaz (Temple University, USA ) &  by MCM Iqbal (Sri Lanka Civil Service (retired))


(August 10, Washington DC, Sri Lanka Guardian) It has been widely established as fact that ethno-political conflict and civil war between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka have generated immense sufferings among the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic groups at the level of the masses. However, very little has been discussed about the plights of the Muslims of the North and East, particularly the former who became victims of the Sri Lanka’s long running ethnic conflict. In October 1990, the entire Muslim population of Jaffna, Vavumiya, Mullaitivu, Mannar and Kilinochchi districts in the northern region were evicted from their homes at gun point and turned into Internally Displaced Persons overnight by the Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam). Muslims of the North claim that they have some basic and important problems to be solved. This study attempts to identify some of the special problems of the expelled Northern Muslims who are languishing in the state supported refugee camps in Puttalam district. A questionnaire on the special problems of the Northern Muslims was circulated to the North Eastern youth, students, unemployed Muslims, and farmers. The population of the target group was selected randomly. More than 250 questionnaires were issued. Ninety percent of them responded to the questionnaire. Interviews were also conducted over the phone with an educated section of the Northern Muslims. Finally, solutions are suggested to the protracted ethno-political conflict based on power-sharing and easing the special problems of the Northern Muslims.


On 18 May 2009 the Sri Lanka’s Sinhala-dominated military announced that Velupillai Prabhakaran, the founder and leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), was dead.1 This development on the war front effectively signalled the end of an ethnic war which has killed over 100,000 peo-ple, mostly minority Tamils, forcibly displaced hundreds of thousands more internally, and forced nearly a million Tamils to flee the country. The news of Prabhakaran’s death gave immense relief to the Muslims of Sri Lanka, particularly the Muslims of the North and East. On 19 May 2009, sections of the Muslims of Colombo and their organizations organized a procession ‘to commemo-rate the war victory and end of the bloody war’.2

Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese victimized the Muslims of Sri Lanka, particularly the Northern and Eastern Muslims: thousands of Muslims were expelled force-fully from Jaffna in October 1990; 300 Eastern Muslims were killed at prayer time inside their mosque in 1991 and Muslim wealth was confiscated in the Jaffna, Baticolaoa, and Amparai dis-tricts of the North-Eastern Province (Imtiyaz, 2009).

This paper will review some special problems of the Northern displaced Muslims of Sri Lanka who comprise only 4 percent of the Tamil dominated Northern Province. To understand the prob-lems of the Northern Muslims, this study will address the following questions: What are the special problems of the Muslims of the Northern Province? Could an arrangement of settlement in their original land be arrived at the present political context?

General Remarks on the Sri Lanka Muslims or Moors

The Muslims, who practice Islam and speak Tamil, are a significant section of the minorities in Sri Lanka. They constituted 7.9 percent of the island’s total population in 2001. 3 The term Moors was used by the Portuguese in the 16th century to refer to people they regarded as Arab Muslims and their descendants. The term was applied based on religion and had no role in identifying their ori-gin (Vasundra Mohan, 1987: 9).

Muslims were scattered along the coastal areas of Sri Lanka but some of them had moved into the interior. The majority of the Muslims (62%) live outside the North and East of Sri Lanka in the South region, amidst the Sinhalese. Thirty-eight percent of them, however, have long established themselves in the Tamil dominated North and East, the region the Tamils claim as their traditional homeland.4 The Muslims from the Northern region constituted only about 4 percent of the Northern Province. They were engaged in trade, agriculture, fisheries, teaching and skilled trades like tailor-ing to earn their living. The Muslim destiny of the North was intertwined with that of the Tamils.

In the East, the Muslims claim to be a majority in Amparai district of the Eastern Province which is part of this region. 5 The demographic complexity of the Eastern Province – once predomi-nantly Tamil speaking – is today a volatile mix of Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim populations. This makes it a veritable ethnic tinderbox. Since approximately 38 percent of the country’s Muslims live in the East, it makes them a significant opposition group to the Tamil Tigers’ homeland campaign.

The Muslim identity in contemporary Sri Lanka developed a non-Tamil identity based on Islam (McGilvray, 1997). The radically shifting political development and ‘political fortunes throughout the course of Sri Lankan history have made them realize that their identity lies in holding fast to the religion of Islam and not to any ethnic category’ (Ali, 2006: 375).

Muslims of the North and East blame the Tamils for their being compelled to seek a distinct identity based on the Islamic religion. The demographic anxiety and competition to control eco-nomic and land resources as well as elite oriented power politics were cited as major factors in the ethnic disharmony and violence between the Tamils and the Muslims of the North and East (Imtiyaz, 2009). This was a key factor in the formation of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) in the mid 1980s at a time when the Muslims had established informal and formal contacts with the Sri Lanka state forces to fight against the Tamil Tigers.

However, the Muslims living in the South and West regions, have not shown any such inclina-tion to support an exclusive Muslim party, despite being increasingly marginalized by the majority Sinhalese. There are two major reasons for this: (1) the Muslims outside the North and East believe that the Sinhalese-dominated United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) accommodate the needs of Muslims and its political elites by offering some significant and not-so-significant ministerial portfolios and positions, in addition to substantial business benefits enjoyed by the elites; and (2) unlike their brethren in the North and East, these Muslims are not being confronted with organized violence by the Sinhala-Buddhist extremist groups, targeting their identity and existence.

However, several Sinhala-Buddhist extremists have claimed that Muslims outside the North and East express sympathies to the ideology of violent Muslim groups which are strategically and ideologically linked to global Jihadi movements. These groups, according to the Jathika Hele Urumaya (JHU), are the ‘Malik Group, Osama Group, Deen Malik Group and Mujahideen Group’, and ‘are some of the Muslim terrorist groups operating in Maligawatte’.6

Special Problems of the Displaced Muslims of the Northern Province

Northern Muslim Expulsion

The Muslim community of the Northern Province was expelled en masse by the LTTE in October 1990. The mass expulsion of the Muslims from the North was carried out in the following manner. On 22 October 1990, quite unexpectedly, the LTTE announced over loudspeakers in the streets of the Muslim settlements in the Northern Province that the Muslims must leave their homes, villages and towns, leaving all their valuables behind, or face death. The ultimatum was that Muslims should leave this region within 48 hours from the 22 of October 1990. In Jaffna town the time given was only two hours.7 ‘On 27 October 1990, I was working in the fields. LTTE cadres came and asked us to leave the place within two hours. We took a few clothes in plastic carrier bags and walked a long way’, said an elderly man now living in a Puttalam camp.8

There is no official estimation of the numbers of expelled Muslims from all of the Districts in the Northern Province. Some say it could be around 60,000.9 But some Muslim opinions give dif-ferent numbers and put the number of Muslims from the North affected by the Tamil Tigers’ action as high as 100,000. However, according to a report published by Department of Census and Statistics, Census on Population and Housing, Colombo, 1981, the entire Muslim population of the Northern Province in 1981 was 50,831 (Jaffna District – 12,958; Mannar District – 27,717; Vavuniya District – 6,505; and Mullativu District – 3,651).10

If the figure of 100,000 displaced Muslims, as the Tamil opinion points to, is to be believed,

one of two demographic miracles must have happened in Jaffna between 1980 and 1990. First, there should have been a large scale immigration of Muslim population into Jaffna region between 1980 and 1990. Or second, an unprecedented birth of Muslim babies should have occurred for 10 years due to some kind of divine blessing.11

Any reasonable-thinking Sri Lankans, including Muslims, were aware that neither of the two miracles had happened; therefore, it is misleading to put the expelled Northern Muslim number as high as 100,000.

The LTTE did not officially release any logical reasons for the Muslim expulsion. However, one reason, according to LTTE watcher DBS Jeyaraj, was suspicion of a possible conspiracy by the Northern Muslims against the LTTE.12 ‘It was suspected that the security-intelligence apparatus could be using Muslim businessmen traveling frequently to Colombo as agents to engage in sabo-tage or act as spies. Preemptive action was required it was felt’.13

Muslim–Tamil Relations in the North before the Ceasefire Agreement

Muslims of Sri Lanka live in almost every part of Sri Lanka with a concentration of them in the Eastern Province. Though many of the Muslims in the South can also speak Sinhala in addition to Tamil, those in the North and the East speak mainly Tamil. In the North they lived mainly in the Districts of Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi, generally as close-knit groups. In a report of the University Teachers for Human Rights it was stated that:

… in every way Muslims and Tamils in the North had been traditionally totally integrated into local life as interdependent communities. There were Muslim traders, tailors, iron mongers, labourers and scholars. More recently, several of them took to farming in the Killinochchi area. As part of the arena of culture and scholarship, Muslims formed an important component of the University of Jaffna. There was no conflict at all.14

In the late 1950s the Mayor of Jaffna was a Muslim (the late MM Sultan, Proctor and Notary Public), though there were only two members representing the Muslims living within the Jaffna Municipal Council limits, while the Municipalities of Kurunegala and Galle, in spite of being areas with a majority of Sinhala people, had Muslim Mayors in the late 1950s and early 1960.15 Such was the amity with which the Muslims were regarded among the Sinhalese and the Tamils amongst whom they lived.

Until the Osmaniya College was established in Jaffna in the 1960s, Muslim students of Jaffna had no option but to attend the Hindu or Christian Schools in the District for their secondary educa-tion. The first Muslim member of the then Ceylon Civil Service was a product of the Jaffna Hindu College which is one of the leading schools in the country.16 Subsequently this school produced two other Muslim Sri Lanka Administrative Service Officers. Another Muslim member of this service was a product of the Vaideswara Vidyalayam, a Ramakrishna Mission school in Jaffna. The Jaffna Central College, a leading Christian school in Jaffna produced a Sri Lanka Education Administrative Service Officer and an advocate of the Supreme Court, among others, who are Muslims. These Muslim students had no problems attending these schools where they were quite comfortable in the company of Tamil students and teachers.

It was the same in Mannar, Mullaitivu and Vavuniya, as far as the education of the Muslims are concerned. There were many seafaring Muslims from places like Erukkulampity, Musali and Pesalai and a few others engaged in cultivation in areas such as Musali and Veppankulam in the Mannar District, Thanneeruttru in Mullaitivu and Vaddakachchi in Kilinochchi. The leading trad-ers in Jaffna, Mannar and Mullaitivu were Muslims. In all these areas there was absolute amity between the Tamils and the Muslims until the ethnic conflict gained ground and fouled the relation-ship among the three major communities in Sri Lanka.

With the passing of the Act of Parliament in 1956 making the Sinhalese language, the official language of the country replacing English, the seeds of discord between the various communities, particularly the between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, in Sri Lanka were sown.17 The events that led to the infamous ethnic riots of 1958, 1977 and 1983 were all the consequences of this discord. The various efforts taken subsequently to bring about amity between the Sinhala and Tamil com-munities did not bring the desired results. The Muslims, especially of the North and the East were also affected equally by the language policy of the successive governments. This led to some of them joining hands with the Tamil political parties in their fight against discrimination. After the general election of 1960, the Federal Party, which was also known as the Tamil Arasu Kadchi, became the principal representatives of the Tamils and had two Muslim Members of Parliament elected by the Muslims of the Eastern Province.

In January 1960 the Federal Party called for a civil disobedience campaign and started a picket in front of Government offices and asked the Tamils not to co- operate with Government officers working in Sinhala. Subsequently, in February, they began the second phase of this non-violent agitation and called upon the entire population of the North and East, including the Muslims, to join in the campaign. The campaign spread to Mullaitivu, Mannar and the Eastern Province. It is reported that a large number of Muslims led by lawyers and businessman joined the satyagrahis in Jaffna (Sivanayagam, 2005: 85). In Batticaloa, Mr MC Ahamed, MP for Kalmunai ‘exhorted the Muslims to join the civil disobedience movement and thousands of them led by the 2nd M.P. for Batticaloa Mr. Macan Markar participated in the campaign’ (Sivanayagam, 2005: 86).

Such was the amity that existed between the Muslims and the Tamils at that time when turbu-lence started to brew between the Tamils and the Sinhalese, that it was no surprise that the then government viewed this amity with envy. It has been alleged that this prompted the government to scheme to divide these two communities to weaken the Tamils fighting against discrimination. Many attempts were made to entice the Muslim population to support the party in power. Consequently, Kalmunai which is a Muslim stronghold, returned a UNP candidate to Parliament at the subsequent general election. By this time Tamil youth had become restive and militancy had germinated. They saw that it was the only way in which they could win their rights. Some Muslim youth from the North and the East joined these militants.

To be Continued  

Source: Journal of Asian and African Studies


1. Sri Lankan leader’s victory declaration: (accessed 5 August 2009).
2. Muslims marched to salute the war heroes, (Tuesday, May 19, 2009 1:10 PM)
3. Department of Census and Statistics – Sri Lanka, Statistical Abstract of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka: (accessed 3 May 2011).
4. Ibid.
5. Ibid.
6. We want Muslim terrorism probed – JHU Front: mp_gl_sum.set_newsid?p_news_id=10995 (accessed 9 December 2008).
7. An internal paper entitled ‘The return of Muslims displaced in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka’, submitted and presented to a Special Meeting of the Sub-Committee on Immediate Humanitarian Needs of the North and East (appointed by Sri Lanka Peace Talks) in Killinochchi, Sri Lanka on 29 February 2003.
8. Swaminathan Natarajan, Sri Lanka’s forgotten displaced Muslims: (accessed 12 November 2010).
9. Interview with Mohamed Nasrullah (58) from Northern Province. He currently lives in Canada. The interview was held on 18 August 2010.
10. Sri Lanka population by ethnic group and district, Census 1981, 2001: abstract2010/chapters/Chap2/AB2-11.pdf (accessed 3 May 2011).
11. Sachi Sri Kantha, Expulsion of Jaffna Muslims; Part 1 the numbers: article/3566 (accessed 24 March 2005).
12. Many Muslim anti-social elements were inducted as homeguards. These sections collaborated with the security forces in promoting anti-Tamil violence. In some cases Muslim homeguards were responsible for Tamil civilian massacres. Some Tamil hamlets and villages were destroyed by Muslim homeguard-led mobs. They were given covert support by sections of the security forces.
13. DBS Jeyaraj, Ethnic cleansing in the Northern Province: NorthernProvince_1030.html (accessed 2 May 2011).
14. The expulsion and expropriation of Muslims in the North, Report 6, Chapter 3: Reports/Report6/chapter3.htm (accessed 23 November 2010).
15. They were the late MM Sheriff (Dorai) and the late Mr ARM Thassim.
16. That was the late AMA Azeez who later became the Principal of the Zahira College and was appointed a Senator.
17. MCM Iqbal, The beginning of the ethnic problem in Sri Lanka – violation of language rights: http:// (accessed 15 October 2010).

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