The forced evacuation of Muslims from Jaffna in 1989 raised important
issues - not the least for those Tamils who were committed to the
Tamil struggle for self determination. On the one hand the forced
evacuation of thousands of Muslims from where they had lived for many
decades was a humanitarian crisis. On the other hand, the military
compulsions that the Tamil resistance faced, led to the decision that was
taken. LTTE leader Pirabaharan, in an interview with the BBC in September
1994 had this to say:
" Jaffna is their (Muslim's) own land. Unfortunately, difficult
circumstances have rendered these Muslim people refugees. We very much
regret that this has happened."
What then were the 'difficult circumstances' that led to the
evacuation? Again, was the action that was taken proportionate to the danger
that the Muslim presence constituted to the Tamil struggle?
There may be three layers in which the issues may be usefully
The first matter is the
whole question of the Muslim identity. In the 1880s, for instance, attempts
were made by Tamil politicians, such as Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan to show
that Muslims were Tamils whose religion was Islam in the same way as other
Tamils were Hindus or Christians.
In a paper entitled "The ethnology of the 'Moors' of Ceylon", read before
the prestigious Ceylon Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, Ramanathan
contended, advancing physical, social and cultural evidence in his support,
that the Muslims originated from South India and were of the same race as
the one to which he belonged: in short, the Muslims were really a group of
Tamils who had embraced a new religion, Islam.
(Collective Identities, Nationalisms and Protest in modern Sri Lanka,
edited Michael Roberts).
Ramanathan's thesis caused grave consternation among the Muslims. Muslim
critics did not deny that culturally there were points of similarity between
the Muslims and Tamils - but they said that this was simply due the
'inevitable process of acculturation of a minority people'. Again the use of
Tamil as an everyday language by Muslims was explained on the basis that
Tamil was 'lingua franca' of commerce in the South India ports and Sri Lanka
ports. Further Muslims did not deny there was some admixture of Tamil and
Muslim blood. But the crucial factor of difference from the Muslim point of
view was the original Arabic descent of the Muslims.
The historical memories of a people and their heritage are in the end
important determining factors in the creation of their ethnic identity.
Tamil political parties in the 1950s and later failed to pay due regard to
this separate identity. It was one thing to count Muslims as 'Tamil
speaking' for action against the Sinhala Only law - it was another thing to
insist that Muslims were Tamils.
Here, the response of the Muslim leader and Member of Parliament, Sir
Razeek Fareed to Tamil leader Mr.A.Amirthalingam is indicative of the
feelings that were aroused:
"Please do not worry about us. We are now separating ourselves
absolutely from you. Please take this as notice and do not worry us any
further. We know how to steer our boats - thanks for your steering all
these days and to the rocks. Any attempt to bracket the Moors with the
Tamils would amount to the political genocide of my race, the Moor
community, by another race, the Tamil community... We will not tolerate
being called a Tamil and that from South India. We the Moors, will fight
to the last drop of our blood and our last breath to counter this
falsehood (that we are Tamils)..."
This leads to the second layer.
It was this different group/ethnic identity that was exploited by the
Sinhala government during the 1980s in the East. It was Sri Lanka's
deliberate policy (assisted by Mossad) to use Muslim Home Guards. The
notorious Special Task Force worked hand in hand with these Home Guards.
Despite some attempts by Tamil militant movements to recruit Muslims, such
efforts did not in the end really take off - barring a few exceptions.
Again, the very fact that the Sri Lankan armed forces did not attack
Muslim villages in the East, but only Tamil villages sowed further seeds of
dissension. The Sinhala army used this tactic to build up support amongst
Muslims. The scale of the attack launched by Sri Lanka in the 1980s is shown
in the Report by Robert Kilroy-Silk, M.P. and Roger Sims, M.P, who visited
Sri Lanka as members of a United Kingdom Parliamentary Human Rights Group in
"Witnesses also confirmed allegations made to us that whole villages
(in the Eastern Province) have been emptied and neighbourhoods have been
driven by the army from their homes and occupations and turned into
refugees dependent on the government for dry rations... The human rights
transgressed in such a course of action do not need to be detailed
"More important is that rightly or wrongly it tends to lend
credibility to the view so frequently put to us that it is the
Government's objective either to drive the Tamils out of the north and
east in sufficient numbers so as to reduce their majority in the north
and in the east, a process that would be aided by the Government's
announced policy of settling armed Sinhalese people in former Tamil
areas...or to drive the Tamils out altogether. We cannot make a
judgement on this issue. We can say, without doubt, that the Government
is driving Tamils from their homes and does intend to settle Sinhalese
people in these areas. This, at least, lends support to the more extreme
version believed by most Tamils."
By October 1990, from Pottuvil in the Amparai District to Thenmaravadi in
the Trincomalee District, the Government had succeeded in driving Tamils
from their homes and settling Sinhala people in these areas. In these areas
there are no settlements of Tamil people. The belongings in Tamil homes were
looted by the army and by the so called Muslim Home Guards.
There was also a Sri Lanka 'dirty tricks' campaign. Within two weeks of
the resumption of hostilities against the Premadsa led Sri Lanka Government
in 1990, Associated Press Reported in the London Times, 23 June 1990
"Tamil guerillas hacked to death 62 Muslim villagers in eastern Sri
Lanka yesterday, accusing them of being government informants, the
Defence Ministry and an opposition Muslim leader said. The massacre at
Nintavur came on the eleventh day of war between Tamil separatists and
Sri Lankan forces for control of the northeast...The Defence Ministry
said troops found the bodies of Muslim men, women and children in
Nintavur. Military officials said rebels used knives to kill the
villagers. Survivors said the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam raided
the village early yesterday because they feared the residents would
reveal their jungle hideaway, according to Mahroof Gani of the Sri Lanka
Muslim Congress an opposition party. He said that the rebels set fire to
a mosque, looted and burnt down houses and left placards warning Muslims
not to work for the government...."
The next day AP reported in the London Sunday Times, 24 June 1990:
"The military admitted yesterday that its report that Tamil Tiger
separatists had hacked to death 62 Muslim men, women and children was
false... They claimed their earlier report was based on faulty
information from residents. The allegation was reported by international
news agencies and appeared in newspapers around the world."
Several more instances of the use of Muslims by Sri Lanka in its war
against Tamil resistance can be given.
This leads to the third layer.
It is against the backdrop of the separate Muslim identity and the way it
was exploited by the Sinhala government, that the pre emptive action taken
against the Muslims in Jaffna may be usefully examined.
The resumption of the war with the Premadasa led Sri Lanka government in
1990 led to a heightened urgency to defend Jaffna against Sinhala attack.
Apart from informers from Tamil quisling groups, the Muslims, with their
divided loyalties and relatives in the East and in the South posed a special
threat. Again, the Sri Lanka government, was well placed to exploit these
divided loyalties by confining its attack only on the Tamils in the
Peninsula, establishing its own links with Muslim merceneries and in this
way recruiting Muslims as a fifth column within the Tamil heartland.
But ofcourse, not all Muslims were against the Tamil struggle - and here
in lies the charge of 'ethnic cleansing'. Ethnic cleansing is an emotive
label, bringing memories of Hitler's attack on the Jewish people. However,
the internment of the Japanese Americans by the USA during the second world
war is illustrative of the hard decisions that armed conflicts may sometimes
force on the leaders of a people.
In early 1942, the United States was at war with Japan. Out of a fear of
espionage by Japanese persons in the United States, the U.S. government
placed severe restrictions on the rights of persons of Japanese ancestry
during World War II. In the western states like California, US citizens of
Japanese ethnic origin were subject to detention in guarded camps whether or
not they were, as individuals, at all likely to engage in disloyal acts.
These actions were taken with the unanimous concurrence of the various
branches of the US government. The U.S. government argued that the military
commander had authority from Congress and the President. The government also
claimed there was no time, because of the imminent danger of air raids and
invasion by Japanese forces, to determine the loyalty of individual
The U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling on June 21, 1943 that
upheld the government's action. The Court found that under the war powers
given to the President and Congress in Articles I and II of the U.S.
Constitution, the President and Congress have wide discretion to determine
the nature and extent of the danger during war and how to resist such
danger. The Court concluded there was a "substantial basis" for the action
taken and cited information about how Japanese had not assimilated into the
white population, how Japanese children attended Japanese language schools
believed to be sources of Japanese nationalistic propaganda, and how many
Japanese American citizens were actually citizens of Japan also because
Japan allowed dual citizenship. (Case of United States v. Gordon K.
Hirabayashi - 320 U.S. 81)
Several years after the end of World War II (and America's security
concerns no longer existed) the US did apologise to the Japanese Americans
for the action that had been taken against them.
In the case of the LTTE, it was a guerilla movement facing a Sri Lanka
government which had already shown its willingness to exploit the Muslim
ethnic identity, to indulge in dirty tricks and to recruit Muslim Home
Guards, to quell Tamil resistance to Sinhala rule. To use the language of
the US Supreme Court, many may conclude that there was a 'substantial basis'
for the action taken by the LTTE to evacuate the Muslims from Jaffna.
Again, in the same way as the US Supreme Court was willing to accept the
contention of the US government that 'there was no time, because of the
imminent danger of air raids and invasion by Japanese forces, to determine
the loyalty of individual Japanese' equally many may accept that, given the
aerial bombardment of Jaffna, the threat of invading Sinhala armed forces
and Sri Lanka's 'dirty tricks' campaign, it was not realistic to expect the
LTTE to determine the loyalty of individual Muslims before acting.
But that is not say that severe hardship was not caused to many Muslims
who were required to evacuate. When conditions become more stable in Jaffna
and the Sinhala army withdraws from the Tamil homeland, the time will also
come for the return of Muslims to the peninsula. Here LTTE leader,
Pirabaharan's response in the 1994 BBC interview is relevant:
"Q.I recently visited a Muslim refugee camp in Puttalam. Those Muslims
who you had required to leave Jaffna said with pain that they had lived
in friendship and affection with the people of Jaffna. They have said
that if it is promised that they will be protected, they would like to
return to Jaffna. If a suitable climate prevails, will you agree to
allow these Muslims to return to their land?
A. Jaffna is their own land. Unfortunately, difficult
circumstances have rendered these Muslim people refugees. We
very much regret that this has happened. Today, because of the
war situation, 300,000 Tamils are living as refugees in the
Jaffna peninsula. Because the Sri Lanka Army has seized by force
Tamil villages and settlements, particularly in the islands off
the Jaffna peninsula and in west Valigamam, Tamils from these
areas have had to leave their homes and become refugees, in
their own homeland.
A substantial portion of these displaced Tamils have found asylum in
places where Muslims had lived before. If the Sri Lanka Army evacuates
from these Tamil villages which it had seized by force, these displaced
Tamils will be able to return to their homes. If such a suitable climate
is established, we will agree to the return of the Muslim people."