A quarter of a century has elapsed since the atrocious eviction of Muslims from the Northern Province by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which marked a clear and calculated episode of ethnic cleansing. On the morning of October 23, ,Anjaneyar, the then Jaffna leader of the LTTE summoned the Muslims in Jaffna to the town centre and ordered them out of “Tamil Eelam” within two hours, leaving behind every cent they had earned within the territory of “Tamil Eelam.”
No pleas were entertained, no questions were accommodated, even infants were frisked, men by men and women by women for hidden money, jewellery or any other items bought with money earned in “Tamil Eelam.” Everything including packets of milk powder taken to feed toddlers during the great migration for good was confiscated by “Tamil Eelam Police” personnel.But some had managed to pass some of their valuables such as title deeds to trusted Tamil neighbours.
Cognizant of the repercussions of refusal or disobedience, an entire community of Muslim people, bade farewell not only to their Tamil neighbours with whom they had shared their destinies for generations, to the land they and their forefathers were born and bred in for centuries, schools they had attended and playgrounds on which they had played.
A week later Muslims of Mannar and Mullaitive and other areas of the Northern Province were also given the same marching orders that resulted in the exodus of between 70,000 and 100,000 Muslim people to areas such as Anuradhapura, Puttalam, Kalpitiya, Colombo and Panadura that had a sizable Muslim population among whom some had relatives.
A ridiculous reason was given in later years by some LTTE leaders like the ever smiling Thamilchelvan, the spokesman for the outfit, for this cruel expulsion of Muslims from the North. ‘Eastern Tamils had been persecuted by the Muslims and the Muslims of the North had to be relocated as there was a threat of retaliation by the Northern Tamils,’ was the reason given. The real ground situation reflected the reverse of this claim. It was the LTTE that had been engaging in a killing spree in the East months prior to the chasing away of Muslims from the North. Over one hundred people were shot dead by the LTTE in cold blood while they were praying in two mosques in Kathankudi on August 3, 1990. Around 170 people returning from Mecca after performing Hajj were waylaid at Eravur and butchered for no reason a week later. Over140 people had also been killed at Ondachchimadam two months before. Apart from these, a series of incidents had taken place when dozens of people were killed before and after the expulsion.
Importantly, there had been no animosity what soever evident between the Northern Tamils and Muslims as claimed by the Tigers. Muslims who reached Puttalam after the expulsion told journalists that some of their Tamil neighbours had wept when they were leaving the North. Some had accompanied them to a certain distance. Despite the LTTE’s claim that Muslims were driven away for their safety, the organisation did not provide security for the evacuees while they were travelling hundreds of kilometres through Tamil areas. It was Tamils who had helped them with food, water and transport.
The reasons given by the LTTE for expelling the Muslims were negated by their prevention of Muslims leaving the province from taking away valuables. If they were driven away due to security reasons it should have been a temporary measure and there cannot be a question of confiscating valuables labelled as ‘resources of Tamil Eelam’.
During the 1983 anti-Tamil riots, President J.R. Jayawardene took measures to send hundreds of Tamils in refugee camps in Colombo to the North by sea. Tamil and leftist leaders described this move as a manifestation of government’s weakness and inability to protect its citizens. The expulsion of Muslims by the LTTE which was controlling most of the North and the East as a separate country resembled Jayawardene’s move.
In spite of the lame excuses of the LTTE for the expulsion of Muslims, it knew that a permanent expulsion of a community cannot be justified. At the famous media conference on April 10, 2002 in Kilinochchi during the ceasefire with the Ranil Wickremesinghe government, LTTE leader Prabhakaran said that Muslims would be welcomed to the North. He stressed it in a joint communiqué with SLMC leader Rauff Hakeem after their talks four days later in Kilinochchi. However the Tigers were keen to see that the statements and agreements made in this regard would not come to pass.
It was encouraging to note that apart from the Tigers, none in the Tamil community endorsed this ethnic cleansing. Ordinary Tamils living in Tiger controlled areas openly expressed sympathy with the Muslims and came forward to help them on their way out of the province. The then Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF) leader M. Sivasithambaram vowed not to set foot on Jaffan soil until Muslims are resettled in their original places. He kept his word till his death.
In spite of its aims and activities being acceptable to none, the LTTE was an organisation that fought for its cause with incredible dedication with its members sacrificeing their lives to the cause, not only under circumstantial compulsions, but even in premeditated suicide attacks. However, some of their actions and ruthlessness ran counter to this implausible dedication. Hence one has to attribute these actions to narrow-mindedness coupled with the blatant arrogance of LTTE leaders.
With their barbarous attacks on unarmed civilians the LTTE first antagonized the Sinhalese leftist intelligentsia that had even supported their right to self-determination-the right to secession. They also turned against India that initially armed, trained and funded them, by killing former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, one of India’s popular politicians and a member of the celebrated Gandhi family, in 1991.
Thirdly, they alienated Tamil speaking Muslims, while claiming they were fighting for the ‘Tamil speaking’ people. The LTTE made an entire community destitute within two hours making them languish in refugee camps for a quarter century apparently for not supporting it’s secessionist campaign. Interestingly, this crime has been ignored or overlooked by the so-called international human rights organisations and the UNHRC for 25 years.
By the time the Northern Muslims returned to their places of origin after the war, they had undergone many transformations. In Jaffna, the LTTE had settled families of their war heroes in houses belonging to Muslims. Many of these properties had by now been returned to their legitimate owners. In Marichchukatti in Mannar District houses including a dilapidated mosque and a community centre had been taken over by state institutions. Consequently, Muslim returnees who were at the butt end of the ethnic cleansing programme of the LTTE’ found that their efforts to resettle in their homes and lands were deemed illegal.