No collective acknowledgement yet of the expulsion of northern Muslims, says activist
Thirty years may have passed since the LTTE evicted northern Muslims overnight, but the ordeals of the community, most of whom moved to Puttalam district in the North-Western Province, have not ceased, according to Juwairiya Mohideen.
The senior Sri Lankan activist, whose family was displaced from Mannar in the Northern Province to Puttalam — three hours north of Colombo — has spent the last three decades working with the internally displaced community. Recognising her work, Ireland-based international human rights organisation Front Line Defenders recently honoured her with an award for ‘Human Rights Defenders at Risk’.
When planned moves to new cities or towns can be a logistical nightmare, being forced to leave abruptly — leaving behind one’s home, belongings, assets and means of livelihood — couldn’t have been simple. For two weeks beginning mid-October in 1990, the LTTE undertook a mass expulsion of resident Muslims in the north, at gun point, amid growing hostilities between the two Tamil-speaking minority communities in the north and east. Like Ms. Mohideen’s family — her parents, grandmother and eight siblings — most left with just the little money they had in hand.
“Till date, there has been no collective acknowledgement of this act of ethnic cleansing, except from some individuals. Neither the political leadership nor successive governments have addressed this issue,” says Ms. Mohideen, 52, executive director of the Muslim Women’s Development Trust (MWDT), which she founded in 2010.
Some 70,000 people had no choice but to build their lives from scratch in Puttalam or elsewhere. “When some original residents of Puttalam, including Muslims, refer to us, they call us refugees,” Ms. Mohideen notes. “They fear we are after all their natural resources.”
From education and employment to housing and toilets, everything has proved a struggle for the northern Muslims trying to make Puttalam their home. A majority work for a daily wage in small vegetable farms or at the salterns in the coastal district. While a few hundred families have returned to Jaffna with great difficulty, others have chosen to remain in Puttalam, where their families have grown. “But getting an official document or attestation is a big challenge. The officers at the local authorities invariably direct these families to Jaffna or Mannar, where we are from. And when they go there, they are told their records don’t’ exist,” says Ms. Mohideen, of the many bureaucratic challenges faced by a community seen to be “neither here nor there”.
In any case, the displaced Muslims have had little success in making it to any updated official record, she points out, referring to the ambiguity over the number of displaced Muslims currently living in Puttalam. Rather critical of the Muslim parties and its leaders, she says those in Parliament are “more prone to opportunistic politics” than any long-term vision for the community, based on rights and freedoms. “Even when Muslims were attacked [by Sinhala Buddhist chauvinist groups] in the recent past, they would turn up for a media sound bite, and then never care to follow up,” she says. Further, Muslim leaders, in her view, have shown little interest in appreciating Muslim women’s calls to reform personal law.
Emphasising the “huge task of pending reconciliation,” she says strengthening relations between the country’s Tamil and Sinhalese communities, as well as Tamils and Muslims, needs a host of initiatives, including addressing the “language barrier”. “Barring a handful, most politicians from all our communities are so disconnected from their own constituencies, that they are unable to do anything meaningful.”
All the same, women’s networks built by her and fellow activists over the years across communities are intact and offer hope, she says. “For instance, conversations in these groups helped us differentiate the LTTE that evicted us from ordinary Tamil people. We realised that the Tamil people’s solidarity is crucial. We need to build and strengthen solidarity networks with such people in all communities. There is a lot of work to be done,” she says.