The Displaced Northern Muslims of Sri Lanka (2)

Special Problems and the Future

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

(August 12, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In March 1990 the LTTE encircled the Jaffna Fort and in September 1990 they succeeded in taking control of the Jaffna Peninsula. This was followed in October 1990 by the expulsion of the Muslims from all the Districts in the North, although the Muslims of the Northern Province by and large had cordial relations with the Tamils of the Northern Province. A section of the Northern Muslims had a tactical understanding with the LTTE as well, despite their strict reservations about the LTTE’s wider separatist agenda.

Nesiah has this to say about the expulsion:

The details of the constraints imposed on the victims varied from location to location depending on the brutality of the local leadership of the LTTE but nowhere were those who were evicted able to sell, transfer or otherwise secure or dispose of their property or to take with them cash or other movable possessions. The operation was carried out quickly and with such ruthless efficiency that there was little or no resistance.18

When the expulsion took place the Muslims leaders of Sri Lanka at that time were mute obser­ vers to events. They could not make the Government intervene and stop this outrage on the Muslims who lived in their midst. About 72,000 persons had to flee for their lives and take up residence in hurriedly established refugee camps in the Puttalam District. Other camps were established in Medawachiya, Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Colombo, Negombo, Panadura, and a few other places. Despite the outrage that had been perpetrated on these Muslims, a majority of them do not harbour any animosity towards the Tamils. Instead they blame the LTTE for their plight.

Table 1 gives a breakdown of the number of Muslims who were expelled in 1990.

Post Displacement Period

Some of the Muslims who were expelled from the Northern Districts were transported up to a cer-tain point in Lorries. Others had to walk long distances. Those from Mannar had to wait for their turn to get into the boats of local fisherman to get to Kalpitiya in the Puttalam District. When the expelled Muslims reached areas where there were concentrations of local Muslims who were sym-pathetic to them, they decided to take up residence in such areas. Sheds were put up in some places. In other places abandoned buildings were made available for them to occupy, as in the case of the oil mill camp on the Kurunegala Road in Puttalam. Vast stretches of the coconut estates of the local Muslims were made available for occupation by the displaced Muslims. In Colombo they were accommodated at the community centre in Punchi Borella and at a government building in Crow Island, Mattakuliya. The Government Agent of the respective districts took a count of those who came to reside in their respective areas as internally displaced persons and made the statistics avail-able to the Commissioner General of Essential Services, who in turn arranged for the supply of dry rations to them.

Initially in the Puttalam District alone there were 113 refugee camps extending from Kalpitiya to Puthukudiyiruppu along the Puttalam Colombo Road. At the outset most of the families were provided with cadjan thatched huts to live in. The cadjans were replaced on a regular basis by the Red Cross Society while several other INGOs such as FORUT, Save the Children’s Fund, OXFAM, UNICEF, UNHCR, and local NGOs such as the Rural Development Foundation, the Community Development Fund, the Integrated Voluntary Service Organization, the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, Sarvodaya, Service Civil International, Italian Health Corporation, Muslimart and such other organizations provided other services. Among the services provided to them were the supply of cooking utensils, the provision of sanitary facilities and clothing, conducting medical clinics, supplying water, pre-schools etc. The Government continues to provide dry rations with the help of the World Food Programme.

Most of the welfare centres were hardly adequate for a family to live in. The cadjan roofs often leaked. The inmates had to sleep on the floor on the mats provided by NGOs. During the rainy season the floors became soggy and there was no choice but to lie on them. In places where the welfare centres that were housed in existing buildings, as for instance, in the centres in Colombo and the oil mill camp on the Kurunegala Road in Puttalam, the rooms were partitioned using gunny bags, affording hardly any privacy. In Puttalam, all the huts in a welfare centre near the saltern were gutted by fire and the inmates only escaped death due to providence. Health, water and sanitation problems became endemic. The dry rations which the government provided weekly were often erratic in quantity and of a poor quality.

The inmates in each camp had to choose a camp leader whose duty it was to keep track of the services reaching the inmates of his camp. They had to display at a prominent location near the entrance to the camp information such as the name of the camp, the number of inmates in it, clas-sified according to gender, and also stating how many children were in it. Some camps also had women’s groups who had organized themselves into thrift societies and had even arranged for pre-schools in their camps. Each camp also had a place allocated to be used for prayers.

Initially there was an influx of organizations stepping in to assist the displaced Muslims. Several organizations attempted to raise their standard of living by conducting systematic awareness train-ing programmes in matters such as thrift, hygiene, health care and sanitation. Some organizations even provided funds to encourage some of them to indulge in self-employment activities. In spite of so many institutions going to the aid of the displaced Muslims, the inmates of these camps were not satisfied with the assistance provided either by the state or the NGOs.19

Eventually it was found that most of the displaced Muslims became dependant on the relief provided in kind by the State and the NGOs rather than in engaging in activities that could make them self-reliant. There was a time when any visitor arriving in a vehicle to have a look at the welfare centre or even to meet someone there, would be beseiged by anxious inmates and their children expecting the visitor to have brought something to be handed to them. Our informants visited a welfare centre with a vehicle load of used clothing collected from residents in Colombo for distribution to the inmates of a welfare centre and found it almost impossible to distribute them as the inmates all surrounded the vehicle in large numbers making it impossible even to get out of the vehicle.

Some of the inmates of these welfare centres were subsequently able to leave the camps and live either with friends or with known persons in the local areas, while some others were able to live either in rented houses or in houses which they were able to acquire from their earnings during the past several years.

As time went on their relationship with the local Muslims of Puttalam who had never expected these displaced Muslims to continue to live in their areas for such a long time, became strained. They began to looking at the displaced Muslims with rancour. Petty disputes between them became common.

In many areas in the district the displaced Muslims out-numbered the local Muslims. This was especially so in Kalpitiya, Nuraicholai, Palavi, Madurankuli, Aalamkuda and the villages around the saltern. Even in Puttalam town the numbers were almost equal to those of the local Muslims. This resulted in the locals having to share the available infrastructure in Puttalam with the dis-placed Muslims.

The local Muslims had to compete with the labour force among the displaced Muslims who were prepared to work for a lower wage. They could survive on this low wage because the State was providing them with dry rations every month free of charge. Since they were living in welfare centres and getting other assistance from NGOs they were better off than the local wage earners of that category because engaging them was less expensive. Consequently local workers could not find employers to use their services and pay them a higher wage.

Even the transport services became clogged and often the locals had to compete for seats in the infrequent and dilapidated buses that travel through their villages.

The schools in the area became inundated with the children of displaced persons. The Education Department came up with a solution and started having two sessions in most schools in the area. In some instances, extensions were constructed to the existing schools buildings, mostly with NGO assistance, to increase the space in them to accommodate more students. A few of the educated among the displaced were enrolled as volunteer teachers in these schools. Some of these teachers were paid a stipend by some NGOs. The local Muslims thought the education of their children had been affected by this influx.

It was found that the children of the displaced were more studious than the local children. Consequently they faired well in the examinations. Some local parents were unhappy to see their children not performing well in studies and started blaming the displaced Muslims for letting their children outsmart the local children.

Be that as it may, it is a fact that successive governments did not develop the infrastructure in the Puttalam District to accommodate the influx of the displaced without straining the existing facilities of the people of Puttalam.

One reason why the Government did not show much interest in the concerns of the displaced was that they did not have any political power. The displaced did not have a right to vote in the districts where they lived as displaced persons. After much agitation they were told that those who are registered voters in the districts from which they were displaced could vote at the Parliamentary elections from the districts in which they live, but for candidates contesting in their electorates back in the North in the areas where they originally lived. A large number of young boys and girls who had reached the age to be eligible to cast their votes could not get themselves registered as voters. Yet they were able to elect one member to represent them using the advantages of the pro-portional representation scheme.20 This chance to elect a member to represent them was lost during the subsequent elections due to too many of them falling prey to other political parties from the North who enticed them and enrolled them as candidates of their parties. The consequences were disastrous. They were left with no one to represent them in Parliament.

It was then left to the SLMC, led initially by the late Mr MHM Ashroff and later by Mr Rauf Hakeem, to speak in Parliament on behalf of the displaced Muslims. But the major aim was to attract Muslim votes for the SLMC during the elections. However, the SLMC could not achieve anything substantial for them, not even a commitment from the Government to compensate the Muslims of the North for the losses they suffered due to the expulsion, or even to get an assurance that all the displaced Muslims would be re-settled in their own areas as soon as possible with all the benefits that should go with such a move.

In the circumstances it could be said that the displaced Muslims have now been orphaned with no one sincerely taking an interest in their welfare. They therefore became disillusioned and did not know who to trust to get their needs attended to. The Minister of Rehabilitation under the last Government was himself a Muslim from Vavuniya; yet he could not do anything meaningful for the rehabilitation of these unfortunate people. The few who were educated amongst them were able to get employment in the State and private sectors while the more enterprising amongst them took to their traditional vocation as traders. The others continue to languish in the welfare centres.

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18. Devenesan Nesiah, Citizen’s Commission: Expulsion of the Northern Muslims by the LTTE in October 1990: (accessed 13 October 2010).

19. The use of the word ‘camp’ was later replaced by the words ‘welfare centres’.

20. Dr IM Illyas was the first Member of Parliament elected to represent the displaced Muslims of the North. 

Source: Journal of Asian and African Studies 

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