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
" 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 examined.
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.
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
"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
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
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
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
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
"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