TamilWeek, Oct 30 - Nov 5, 2005
Ethnic cleansing in the Northern Province

by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
The Muslims of the North - East are Tamil speaking. The North - East is their
homeland. They have lived there for generations. They have every right to live in their
traditional homelands as in the case of the Tamils. The Tamil nationalist project
perceived the North - Eastern Muslims as an integral component . In the case of
Northern Muslims they were only a small minority in comparison with Eastern Muslims.

Northern Muslims were only about 4 % of the Northern Province. They were engaged
in trade, agriculture, fisheries, teaching and skilled trades like tailoring etc. The Muslim
destiny of the North was inter - twined with that of the Tamils. Despite all this the
militaristic LTTE thought nothing of expelling these Muslims overnight. It was
particularly cruel in the case of Jaffna Muslims.

One reason given by the LTTE for the expulsion was suspicion of a possible
conspiracy. The LTTE intelligence known for its excessive paranoia suspected a great
conspiracy in the case of the Muslims. It was suspected that the security - intelligence
apparatus could be using Muslim businessmen  travelling  frequently to Colombo as
agents to engage in sabotage or act as spies. Preemptive action was required it was

It is one thing for action being taken on availability of concrete evidence but in this
case it was suspicion of anticipated action that impelled the LTTE. Taking action
against an individual or group as a preventive measure on the basis that potential for
future harm  existed is a very dangerous method. An entire group being viewed
collectively as potential fifth columnists  is a deadly recipe for violation of human rights
on a mass scale. The interment of Germans and Japanese in some Western
Countries during the world wars is symptomatic of this mindset.

In the case of the LTTE a decision was taken ti expel Northern Muslims  as a
preemptive safeguard. At least this is the only official reason divulged by the LTTE so
far. This was no doubt a decision fuelled by racism. There were many Tamils who
travelled to Colombo too. There were Tamil businessmen who went often to the South
too. There were many Tamils who had been punished by the LTTE as suspected
traitors and agents of the state too. But all these did not result in the whole community
being given collective punishment. Yet in the case of Muslims the entire  community
was being penalised.

Of course it was easy to do so as the number was small. But that was not the sole
criterion. The brahmin community is fewer than the Muslims of Jaffna. But surely the
brahmins will not be expelled en toto for some offence committed by  some? The LTTE
action is also illustrative of another contradiction. The majority often says that the
minorities are an integral part of society and need not fear discrimination. Yet when
the interests of the majority are perceived as being threatened it is the minority that is
victimised first. If the threat perception is of the minority then massive repression is

In the process the minority is taught a valuable lesson. No matter what the assurances
or pious platitudes the minority will be usually seen as the outsider posing a threat in a
real or imaginary crisis. The 1983 July pogrom demonstrated that clearly to the
Tamils. Despite all the talk about Tamils being equal citizens they were victimised
overnight . Likewise despite all the talk about Muslims being equal citizens of Tamil
Eelam as a Tamil speaking community they were victimised overnight.

Once the decision was taken the consequential  chain reaction started. The tragedy of
this expulsion was that the Muslims began fleeing the areas they lived for generations
on the orders of an armed movement. There was no protest, no opposition. Such was
the terror and power of the LTTE. Besides the Muslims were few in numbers.  Let us
not forget that five years later Tamils too were forced into fleeing Jaffna in large
numbers during the engineered exodus of 1995. That was perhaps  the greater law of
Karma or the principle of Dharma!

Media reports often describe the Northern Muslims as having been evicted from the
North. This is erroneous as the term eviction is applicable only when a person or
group are sent out or removed through a legal process. The mass expulsion of
Northern Muslims was not eviction. Since those areas of their former habitation were
totally devoid of the Muslim ethnicity after the expulsion it could be termed as ethnic
cleansing. With the term catching the eye after the Bosnia and Rwanda massacres of
the nineties ethnic cleansing caught on in the Sri Lankan context too.

Using the term ethnic cleansing to describe the mass expulsion of Northern Muslims
infuriates many tigers, tiger supporters and sycophantic propagandists.  They deny
that the Muslim expulsion was ethnic cleansing. They point out that there was no
violence practised against the Northern Muslims. The ethnic cleansing of former
Yugoslavia and Central Africa was full of  genocidal violence whereas in the case
Northern  Muslims it was absent. Since violence was not used to drive the Muslims
away the term ethnic cleansing is not applicable,  they say.

This argument is totally incorrect. The presence of  physical violence is not necessary
for an expulsion to be termed as ethnic cleansing. The Northern Muslims were
certainly not persuaded through force of argument or logic to leave their homes. They
were not enticed through incentives or tempted with visions of greener pastures to
leave their traditional homelands. The LTTE did not use direct violence because there
was no need to. The firing of guns in the air along with intimidatory orders that the
Muslims leave North was sufficient to trigger off this mass expulsion. The threat of
violence against those who disobeyed was explicit. The fear of repercussions was

Furthermore the term ethnic cleansing does not refer to the method used but to the
end result. If violence and terror is used as an instrument systematically  to kill and
destroy  members of a particular ethnicity from a particular territory that amounts to
both genocide and ethnic cleansing.  If direct or indirect force is used to compel
people of a particular ethnic group to relocate  from a specific territory then that is
ethnic cleansing too. Altering  the demographic structure of a specific territory by
driving out the people living there  through force or threatened force or terror is ethnic
cleansing too. Whatever the cause the end result of the LTTE action amounts to
ethnic cleansing.

In the case of the LTTE it may be argued that there was no intention to drive away the
Muslims from the north  for purposes of ethnic cleansing. The tigers may argue that it
was due to a threat perception and the need to eliminate a potential danger. Some
tiger supporters have even argued that the driving of Muslims away from the North
was more humane than in Bosnia because no violence was killed. While it is true that
no violence was used in the North that by itself does not diminish the gravity of the
crime. It is like a murderer saying that he inflicted death without any pain to the victim
and therefore is entitled to a pardon. A reduction in the punishment may be possible
but  the criminal certainly has to be punished.

The enormous crime of driving the Muslims away from the North has resulted in the
LTTE being criticised by many different quarters. The tigers certainly deserve to be
condemned for this. But one also finds many Sinhala supremacists and hardliners also
joining the chorus. They all condemn the LTTE as having committed ethnic cleansing.
They are full of sympathy for the Northern Muslims.

The recent history of this Country shows that the tigers are not the only culprits in this
regard. The various acts of violence unleashed against the Tamils and the pogroms
undertaken with covert state backing smack of ethnic cleansing in some respects too.
In 1981  violence was  launched against Tamils particularly those of the plantations. It
was suspected then that the violence was perpetrated to terrorise the up Country
Tamils into applying for Indian citizenship. The deadline for  applying for Indian
citizenship was closing that year. Though India was required to take 500, 000 under
the Sirima - Shastry pact of 1964 and the 1974 Indira - Sirima agreement only 407,
000 had applied.

The best example of ethnic cleansing however took place in the 1984 - 88 period
under JR Jayewardena.  A swathe of territory consisting of areas from the
Mullaitheevu, Vavuniya and Trincomalee districts was regarded as strategically
important for politico - military reasons. This was the region around the "Manal Aaru"
river now known officially as Weli - Oya. The idea was to populate this area with
Sinhala settlers and set up a network of military camps. By doing so a wedge was to
be driven between the Northern and Eastern provinces. Territorial contiguity would be
broken.Militarily this would restrict movement between northern and eastern cadres of
the LTTE. Politically the Tamil demand for a merged North - Eastern province would
be undermined.

The problem in this grand politico - military design was that Tamils were living in the
areas targeted to be the new Weli - Oya region populated by Sinhala settlers and
security forces. So the Tamils were driven out through a prolonged campaign of
military violence. More than 40  large agricultural projects run by the Tamils were
appropriated by the state. 28 Tamil villages and hamlets were destroyed and people
driven out. Some places were de - populated of Tamils and Sinhalaised through
settlers and security personnel. A campaign of systematic terror was unleashed to
further diminish Tamil presence in the targeted region. Tamil villages were renamed
after Sinhala army officers and their family members. A widespread military complex
was established.We thus have the Sinhala majority Weli - Oya region where the armed
forces are well -entrenched. There are no Tamils or Muslims in this selected area.
This then was the best example of deliberate ethnic cleansing carried out as state

The Tamils like the Muslims have lived in the North - East for centuries. The Indo -
Lanka accord of 1987 recognizes this region as an area of historical habitation. Yet
the "Sinhala dominated state" thought nothing of driving a section of the Tamils from a
strategic piece of territory through armed violence. It thought nothing of de- populating
that area and cleansing it of its Tamil ethnicity. It thought nothing of settling Sinhala
colonists and setting up a military complex to alter the demographic composition of the
targeted area.

Compared to the violent ethnic cleansing of Manal Aaru / Weli Oya region the LTTE
driving Muslims away from the north sans violence may amount to a lesser crime. But
both acts are crimes against humanity. Both are exercises in ethnic cleansing. The
people responsible for these monstrous crimes may think that they are powerful and
untouchable. Some may have even passed away from this world. Yet the wheels of
justice will certainly turn. With increasing international intervention the "heroes" of one
ethnicity  who cleansed areas of other ethnicities are being compelled to face justice.
Milosevic of Serbia being a prime example. It is only a matter of time before those
responsible for various forms of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Sri Lanka get  
retributive justice.
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