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Northern Muslims vs Puttlam Muslims

by Rathindra Kuruwita, LakhbimaNews, January 9, 2011

The Northern Muslims in Puttalam (see main story) re-registered voters in the North and they have voted in cluster polling centres in the last 20 years. However a circular issued by the Department of Elections in December, in 2010, states that this practice will be discontinued in the future and that the Northern Muslims should register either in Puttalam or move to the North.

Resettling those who are displaced by war and managing the affects of a huge influx of the displaced into areas which never had much resources to begin will become one of Sri Lanka’s biggest post war challenges. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) session in Puttalam demonstrated that sharing limited resources among a large IDP population puts a growing strain on host communities which eventually leads to open hostility.

A large number of Muslims from Puttalam that hosts around 150 000 Northern Muslims, who were driven away from the 10-1North in 1990 by the LTTE, spoke before the LLRC criticizing the IDPs for not integrating into the host community and for stealing opportunitiesthat are rightfully theirs.

Around 70 000 Muslims were forcibly expelled from the Northern Province in October, 1990  and the majority of them now live in the Puttalam district, one of the least developed with little resources and opportunities. Over time the IDP population has become greater in some areas than those who were residing in the area originally, making them resentful and fearful the Northern Muslims.

From the aggressive tone of many prominent members of the host community it seems apparent that many residents are tired of sharing the little resources available with Northern Muslims, whom many now consider as intruders.

“The Northern Muslims should either assume the identity of Puttalam Muslims or go back,” said S. M. Mubarak, a host community leader. He added that the Northern Muslims have habits and practices which are traditionally shunned by the 10-2host community. These practices include financial activities like lending money and more liberal cultural practices like public displays of affection.

“They have been associating with Tamil people for a long time and have picked up certain habits that we don’t tolerate. They lend money, they let their daughters marry into other communities -- and their girls and boys hold hands on the streets and whisper sweet nothings to each other openly.”

There is a belief that the Muslim community is tightly bound; however many who testified at the LLRC claimed that the Northern Muslims have abused the hospitality offered by Puttalam Muslims, and have systematically wrested away political and economic power making the host community refugees in their own land.

“Many of the Northern Muslims still receive rations from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR,) and all the INGOs are supporting them. They have better houses than us, 60% of the jewellery shops are owned by them, and since they get rations they can work at a lower wage than us. Also they have organized themselves politically and vote for two or three candidates en bloc -- therefore they have political representation in parliament and we don’t,” said 10-3R.R. Eliyah, a North Western Provincial Councilor.

Dependant mindset

However representatives for the Northern Muslims claim that they are unable to return to Jaffna due to the lack of information, and hostility from Tamil community and government administrators. Also a majority of the people are not willing to go back since they feel that they have a better future in Puttalam.

“We depend on rations and aid; resettlement in the North means that we will have to discontinue rations in Puttalam to access them in the North. However since there are long delays in completing the administrative aspect of this transfer we will have to eke out a living in inhospitable areas in both Jaffna and Mannar. And most of us are just not ready for it,” said R. Vaditha who currently lives in Rathmalyaya, Puttalam.

Speaking at the session former deputy mayor of Jaffna, M.G. Bashir said that land is another issue which needs to be addressed before they think about going back to their homeland. The initial population of 70000 which left Jaffna has increased to more than 200 000 and most held permit land which has switched ownership several times during their absence. A significant portion of the population had been forced to sell their land cheap by LTTE or other militant groups 10-4and now feel cheated.

“Also the population has increased three to four times, around 210 000-280 000 and how can these folks be accommodated? These are issues that need to be addressed quickly. But from day one these people have been neglected by the state, the international community and the NGOs. We request the LLRC to find a immediate solution to this issue and implement it,” he said.

Voters’ rights

The Northern Muslims in Puttalam (see main story) re-registered voters in the North and they have voted in cluster polling centres in the last 20 years. However a circular issued by the Department of Elections in December, in 2010, states that this practice will be discontinued in the future and that the Northern Muslims should register either in Puttalam or move to the North.

“Already the Grama Niladaris of Puttalam are refusing to issue any document to us. They say that unless we decide where to register they cannot even issue us a character certificate. We don’t want to lose our voting rights in Jaffna but I have just built a house and I don’t know whether things would be this good in Jaffna,” said Nabila Hassan.

Meanwhile Director of the Campaign for Free and Fair Elections (CaFFE) Keerthi Tennakoon told LAKBIMAnEWS that this measure taken by the Department is a correct policy decision but that there is a lot to be desired in the practical implementation.

“The Department is saying that since the war is over there is no need to continue cluster polling. People should decide what electorate they want to vote at. However at the ground level people have not been properly informed about the circular and there are many rumours circulating. Added to the general confusion is the belief that they cannot survive without rations. Therefore the government, political parties that depend on their vote and civil society groups have to do a lot to address this issue.”