Sri Lanka

Refugees voices: Displaced Muslim in Puttalam, Sri Lanka

News and Press Release
Originally published
Advocacy Associate Kavita Shukla visited Sri Lanka in December.
The majority of the population in Sri Lanka is Sinhalese Buddhist. The Tamils, who are dominant in the northern and eastern parts of the country, form the biggest minority on the island. The Tamils are mainly Hindu, but a group of Tamil Muslims makes up 7% of the total population of Sri Lanka.

Fighting broke out in the northern areas of the country in the early 1980s between the government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE claimed to be fighting the government in order to free the Tamil community from the domination of the Buddhist majority; however, the LTTE was not supported by the Muslim segment of the Tamil community, which backed the Sri Lankan government.

In the early 1990s, the LTTE had de facto control over most of the northern Jaffna peninsula. In October 1990, the LTTE decided to evict the Muslim population of Jaffna, approximately 100,000 people, with two days notice. The Muslims were told to leave the North within 48 hours or face death. They were carefully searched by the LTTE prior to their departure and all their possessions and valuables were taken away from them. They were permitted to carry with them 300 Rupees (about $3 US) for transportation out of Jaffna and a change of clothes. Thousands of Muslims fled to the area of Puttalam in western Sri Lanka, where they have lived for more than a decade.

Ramsia is one of the displaced Muslims now living in Puttalam who fled from Jaffna in 1990 with her husband and 10-month-old daughter. According to Ramsia, prior to 1990, her Muslim community in Jaffna had no disputes with the LTTE. The Tamil Muslims, although being of a different religion than the Tamil Hindus, had many cultural similarities to the Hindus. On more than one occasion, Ramsia's family gave shelter to LTTE members who were trying to hide from the Sri Lankan armed forces.

In Jaffna, Ramsia's husband was a fisherman, and the family owned property and a house. However, these were taken over by the LTTE at the time of the eviction of Muslims. The LTTE did a thorough checking of Ramsia's family and took away their jewelry and cash. Ramsia was able to hide a few hundred rupees in her shoes, but most of the others lost all their savings. At the time of the eviction, Ramsia's two brothers were taken away by the LTTE. Ramsia has never seen her brothers again and she believes they were used as human shields by the LTTE.

After coming to Puttalam, Ramsia's family lived in a tent for two months before local NGOs helped them set up a semi-permanent shelter. The local population of Puttalam was at first welcoming to the displaced, but relations deteriorated between the Muslims and the local community as the Muslims soon outnumbered the locals, and the two groups began to compete for limited resources. Ramsia acknowledges that she sometimes encounters discrimination from the local community, and although a cease fire agreement has been in effect between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE since early 2002, she is reluctant to go back to her original home in Jaffna. Like many other displaced Muslims, she believes that as long as there is no permanent peace between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government, there is no guarantee that the rights of the Muslims will be safeguarded.

Meanwhile, since the cease fire, her husband has gone back to Jaffna to work as a fisherman. According to Ramsia, her husband is frequently harassed when traveling through the LTTE-controlled areas between Puttalam and Jaffna, but he is willing to take the risks because, for the first time in more than a decade, he is able to do the kind of work he knows best, and also earn money rather then having to depend on handouts from government and aid agencies in the camps in Puttalam.

Ramsia says that her life was changed forever in 1990, and she has no expectations about her future. She hopes, however, that one day there will be a permanent peace in Sri Lanka and her four children will never have to undergo the kind of experiences she and her husband did.

The interests of Tamil Muslims have been neglected in the Sri Lankan peace process, with neither the government nor the LTTE adequately addressing their needs for political participation and compensation for property lost in the expulsion from Jaffna. Refugees International has been advocating for the particular needs of the Tamil Muslim community to be addressed as the peace process advances.