Tamil National Struggle and the Muslim Factor

By Nadesan Satyendra

The question raised about the evacuation of Muslims from Jaffna is an important one. 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 Pirabakaran, 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 examined.

The Muslim Identity

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.

This leads me to the second layer.

Exploitation of the Separate Muslim Identity

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 1985:

“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 here...

“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 me to the third layer.

The Pre-emptive Action

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 mercenaries and in this way recruiting Muslims as a fifth column within the Tamil heartland.

But of course, 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. But, as I have pointed out elsewhere, the internment of the Japanese Americans by the USA during the Second World War is illustrative of the hard decisions that armed conflicts 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 Japanese.

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 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 conclude 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 hardship was not caused to many Muslims who were required to evacuate. When conditions become 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. LTTE leader, Pirabakaran’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.

Courtesy: Mr. Nadesan Satyendra - A  Personal Communication [1997]