Internally Displaced Muslims in Sri Lanka: Calls for Greater Attention to their Plight

BRIEFING: Internally Displaced Muslims in Sri Lanka:
Calls for Greater Attention to their Plight


History of Ethno-Religious Conflict
Humanitarian Consequences of LTTE Actions for Muslims
Exacerbation of Ethnic and Religious Isolation
Lack of Multilateral Responsibility
Recommendations: Towards a Stable Return of Muslim IDPs


As the Sri Lankan civil war rages on, this briefing considers the impact on ethnic and religious minorities that have suffered human rights breaches at the hands of the conflict. Specifically focusing on displaced Muslims, it raises concerns on the targeting of minority groups based on their religious or ethnic affiliations. As the Preamble to the Ceasefire Agreement states (CPO), Muslims in Sri Lanka are a group affected by the conflict, yet not a direct party involved. Additional reservations exist on the conditions that internally displaced people are forced to survive in, supposedly only temporarily, yet nearly seventeen years on such protracted conditions are unacceptable for a sustained residence,

The population of Sri Lanka is ethnically and religiously diverse. Muslims in Sri Lanka are predominantly concentrated in North-eastern regions of the country. From the estimated twenty million inhabitants, seven percent are Muslim with ethnic roots derived from either the Moorish or Malay regions, many are Tamil speakers. In contrast, a disproportionate eighteen percent of Internally Displaced Persons within Sri Lanka are Muslim (Hasbullah, 2007). The ongoing civil war has caused great human rights breaches to many groups; this briefing considers the deep impact caused by the conflict on the Muslim minorities within Sri Lanka.

History of Ethno-Religious Conflict

The Sri Lankan Civil War has been raging since 1983 as a struggle between essentially the separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and government armed forces over the proposed separatist state ‘Tamil Eelam’. The origins of the conflict centre on issues of language and ethnic access to university. Following decolonisation, Sinhalese was declared the sole official language of Sri Lanka; a decision which was greatly criticised by the Tamil population. Additionally, standardisation of access to universities reversed the advantages held by Tamil Muslim minorities in the North and East through their proximate access to missionary educational institutions established during the colonial era. Under the new act, the Sinhalese were given increased access to a tertiary education, resulting in a fall in Tamil attendance. Accused colonisation of Tamil territories, notably Trincomalee, instigated by successive governments angered Tamil groups; the territories were to be found in the North-eastern part of Sri Lanka. The changing of the country’s name in 1970 from Ceylon to Sri Lanka distanced many Tamil speaking Muslims given that the new name originated from the Sinhalese language.

The proposed independent state, Tamil Eelam, was initially put forward by the Tamil United Liberation Front in 1976, as a land for the Tamil speaking population of Sri Lanka. Despite the Sri Lankan government offering local populations greater autonomy over their land and other acts such as recognising Tamil as a national language, the fighting and disturbances continued.

Previously, the LTTE was seen as a monolithic body of multi-ethnic composition, however in more recent times the internal religious and ethnic pluralism has surfaced. The different factions initially united at the outset of the conflict, subjected to a common enemy, state oppression. The duality and split in ethnic composition between the northern (Jaffna) Tamils and eastern (Batticaloa) Tamils emerged to undermine the notion of ethnic homogeneity within the LTTE in 2004. Such ruptures between the principal components of the LTTE point to internal structural challenges in appeasing cultural heterogeneity within the LTTE. The social construction of exclusion within Tamil society is often made on religious lines. Sivathamby makes clear that in Saiva-Tamil liberation theology, worshipping the Hindu God Shiva is central to Tamil identity formation. This marginalises the place of all non-Hindu Tamils from among Tamil society and could explain their distinct treatment by the LTTE.

The Tigers enjoyed international support from India in past times, which under the leadership of Indri Gandhi, then Rajiv Gandhi has been said to have harboured separatists, shielding them from Sri Lankan armed forces. In 1987, the Indo-Sri Lankan accord was signed between the states of India and Sri Lanka, excluding the LTTE from negotiations. As a result, between 1987 and 1990, the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) was deployed to passively perform a peacekeeping mission. However, violence broke out between the IPKF and LTTE as a result of the LTTE’s refusal to disarm as was stipulated within the accord. Such exclusion clearly reawakened colonial remnants of the politics of exclusion and led to the LTTE’s increasing suspicions towards outsiders. In more recent times, the LTTE leadership has courted Indian support that waned in light of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 by a suicide bomber associate with The Tigers. However reaching out to India, home to 63 million of the estimated 74 million global Tamils is characteristic of a more introvert outlook opposing pre-1987 calls for international recognition of their cause and struggle.

The Muslim community has been frequently caught in the middle of the conflict, many Muslims in Sri Lanka are Tamil speakers, and populate the Eastern and Northern regions that are the sought territories for Tamil Eelam. As described in the origins of the conflict, the Muslim minorities have increasingly been alienated by government policies and yet they have been deliberately targeted by the armed separatists for their supposed role in the conflict. The government has employed Muslim troops in action against the LTTE during combat operations with allegations of anti-Tamil civilian violence (Uthayam, 2005); an inflammatory allegiance that has said to have angered separatist forces into targeting Muslims to stop them siding with the government. In summary, Muslim groups are treated with suspicion by all sides, often through no fault of their own!

The conflict is often perceived as having ethno-religious roots and as played out along such lines, and by consequence outsider perception can be reduced to thinking that the only parties engaged and affected by warfare are the Hindu Tamils in Northern and Eastern lands and the Buddhist Sinhalese in Central, Southern and Western regions. However this overlooks minority issues. Many minorities in different locations have been affected by the conflict. Tamil Tigers have been known to have targeted Buddhists specifically in lands considered to be Tamil lands. Buddhism is the dominant religion among Sinhalese speakers and attacks have been frequent in Aranthalawa, Ampara in the Eastern regions towards young monks in particular such as the 1987 massacre of 31 monks. Issues raised in such targeting include the contradiction of national ideals emphasising the freedom of religious expression. There have also been recorded attacks on Christians, priests and civilians, by state forces in areas controlled by LTTE such as the attack on a refugee settlement at Padahu Thurai near Illupaikadavai where 16 Tamil Civilian Christians were killed in January 2007 representing the discrimination of innocent people based on religious and ethnic affiliations; if such attacks were deliberate they characterise state-based terrorism.

The victimisation and alienation of the Muslim community in particular was most strikingly manifested in 1990 when 250 Muslims were killed during prayer in mosques at Kattankudy and Eravur, by the LTTE. Later in 1990, LTTE’s actions against Sri Lankan Muslims culminated, they were responsible for the expulsion and subsequent displacement of 100,000 Muslims (the figures vary depending on the source) from the Jaffna region of northern Sri Lanka, an act for which they were greatly criticized in the international media. Jaffna was recognised very much as a land belonging to the Tamil Muslim minority, even by the LTTE leader, Prabhakaran (Daily Mirror, 2006), and the deliberately displacing of a population represents a violation of human rights and humanitarian laws. That the land was recognised as very much belonging to the Tamil Muslims in spite of the central government’s historical attempts to colonise the area for Sinhalese groups demonstrates the resilience of the population, and such resilience has perhaps helped them sustain livelihoods in appalling conditions during displacement. Yet this in no way legitimises the treatment received by the Tamil Muslims. The Tigers arrived in Jaffna ordering all Muslims to leave with little other than a change of clothes. This left all belongings of value to be looted by the armed forces, and resold through Tiger controlled shops producing funds for the continuation of aggression against state forces and the oppression of ethnic and religious minorities.

The LTTE further distanced themselves from Sri Lankan Muslims in 1990 via institutional conscience; they initially branded themselves as struggling on behalf of all Tamil speaking people, yet in light of the events of 1990, their rhetoric changed to be one of fighting for Hindu Tamils only. This was exacerbated by fighting with the IPKF, with whom Muslims were accused of siding with. In 1990 there were a large number of Muslim cadres in the LTTE (University Teachings for Human Rights, 2007), yet these became wary of being targeted due to the increasing repression of Muslims by the Tigers, and many deserted the LTTE, surrendering or going into hiding, marking the start of a chauvinistic philosophy within the LTTE, and an end to the ‘universalised’ united philosophy that existed prior under the discourse of a ‘common struggle’ as termed by Visuvanathan Rudrakumaran (1991), one of the LTTE’s legal representatives.

The severity of the actions taken by the Tigers towards Muslims especially in the Jaffna region, it should be noted, varies according to discourse. Nadesan Satyendra of the Tamil Eelam Liberation Organization describes the actions taken in Jaffna not as forced displacement, but as an ‘evacuation’, and that they will be permitted to return in more peaceful times.

As a result of the forced displacement, or evacuation, thousands of Muslims became Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). The Internal Displacement Person Monitoring Centre (IDMC) based in Norway estimates that Sri Lanka is now home to some 500,000 IDPs, from a global total of 23.7 million, this is comparable to the numbers in Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Myanmar. Additionally, many of the displaced Muslims from the forced expulsions in 1990 from Jaffna and Mannar are still to return and can be found in Puttalam, Anuradhapura and Kurunegala (IDMC, 2007). Their situation has become protracted preventing their return and furthering their alienation from the ‘homeland’.

Humanitarian Consequences of LTTE Actions for Muslims

In 1987, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees called on all parties active in the conflict to respect human rights and humanitarian law (UNHCR, 2007). However the plight of specifically Muslim minorities offers testimony that this has not been respected to date. With over 500,000 IDPs, international agencies struggle to locate many of the ‘refugees’ to deliver the appropriate humanitarian aid that is required. Host societies and environments, such as the Puttalam district are ill-equipped to deal with the influx of migrants. Underdevelopment of peripheral regions limits economic opportunities, meaning IDPs are not self-reliant, often at the mercy of the World Food Program that feeds 90% of refugees in this area (Hasbullah, 2002). The failure to self-sustain their livelihoods not only has physical impacts, but can be psychologically traumatizing due to the vulnerability and insecurity of their situation.

Exacerbation of Ethnic and Religious Isolation

The inability for social mobility has seen state discourse framing IDPs as being idle in their lack of contribution to the national economy, leading to stigma with their status and local tensions with hosting communities. Social distance has increased further as a result of a marginal discourse of ?extremism? and ‘terrorism’ towards IDPs. Accusations, such as those by the main opposition party, the United National Party and Sinhalese Nationalist groups have attempted to demonise Muslims through allegations of extremism or Muslims lobbying for weapons for self defence has been interpreted as an act of aggression. They have been targeted for their ethnic non-conformity, through for a process of religious and cultural repression. The social structures that existed prior to displacement have been radically reconfigured in light of a protracted situation of displacement. While many people are displaced, incessant conflict has succeeded in breaking down existing social support structures, exacerbating the already fragile state of individual livelihoods. The ethnicised and religious profile of those displaced has further isolated their position as minorities within Sri Lanka and as described has fragmented minority relations. Despite promises of freedom of return once a peaceful political situation arises, resettlement will not be so simple, with Jaffna having played host to much disturbance and transformation since the mass displacement of Muslims in 1990. In this sense, there is no prospect of significant numbers of displaced Muslims returning home, as ?home? as they once knew it no longer exists. By 2002, there were still no plans for any rehabilitation or reparations of Northern regions (Hasbullah, 2002). Instead, the desire to return is centred around the historical and cultural attachments to their place of origin, this sense of belonging is the only respectable identity they have from nearly a generation of surviving in temporary shelters, yet this desire will not transform itself into large scale voluntary resettlement until rehabilitation efforts help replenish lost villages and communities.

Lack of Multilateral Responsibility

The 1951 Geneva Convention, otherwise known as the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, describes a refugee as an individual having crossed the border of nationality or habitual residence and by consequence does not classify internally displaced persons as refugees. However, IDPs suffer from similar issues as do refugees such as a lack of social standing in host communities, often existing with no legal status through lost documentation, and inferior access to resources. In the past, IDPs have received inferior rights compared to refugees, and their plight is likely to be less internationally scrutinised due to a lack of legal status protecting them from further abuse, such as the Geneva Convention for refugees, the multilateral community is less likely to intervene through a lack of incentive and obligation. Furthermore, allocating the United Nations High Commission for Refugees as responsible for the plight of IDPs represents a flawed move given the severe budgetary constraints of the UNHCR (there are approximately double the amount of IDPs to refugees in the world (Beyond Intractability, 2007)), coupled with the political accountability to states of the UNHCR for future funding and the unwillingness of states to give up their rights to self-determination especially given that IDPs have not crossed international borders.

Recommendations: Towards a Stable Return of Muslim IDPs

  1. The complex interaction of ethnic minority and religious minority relations requires particular sensitivity in any intervention towards voluntary return of Muslim IDPs to the lands from which they were displaced.
  2. The removal of Muslims from their homes in Northern and Eastern regions of Sri Lanka has become protracted. To facilitate their ‘homecoming’, IHRC calls on state organisms to act. The state and multilateral agencies must provide rehabilitation and reparations to destroyed villages and communities with particular attention required in the Jaffna region. Where multilateral intervention has been sought by the Muslim community, such as an investigation into the Pottuvil killings of 2006, it was rejected by the government, who were accused of blocking a proposed international independent monitoring project. Muslims must not be vilified or marginalised as a result of their status as IDPs, as the CPO stated, their plight has in no way been the result of their own doing, instead it was thrust upon them, and yet they are not seen as victims but placed under suspicion. They require additional insurances towards the preservation of their safety in their makeshift settlements, coupled with security for their possessions to prevent exploitation that has helped sustain conflict. Livelihood opportunities free from political persuasion must be delivered for displaced Muslims to become self-sufficient once more as to avoid mental and physical vulnerability and insecurity. Central to any sustainable plans must be an engagement with the Muslim community over their needs showing ethnic and religious tolerance and acceptance of cultural pluralism through dialogue. This model has not been followed in peace negotiations between LTTE and the government as Muslim representatives have been excluded to the cost of any potential political resolutions. This created further social distance between the minority Muslim group and other majority groups, exacerbating political alienation (Muslim Guardian, 2006).
  3. Any rehabilitation efforts must take in the sensitive social relations that the religious minority Muslim group is subjected to. This would involve compensating them for their losses and programmes promoting a smooth re-integration into communities, especially with non-Muslim Tamil groups in the East where ethnic tensions have surfaced, coupled with a change in state discourse framing Muslims as victims of this protracted civil war and not a burden to hosting communities.
  4. The complex case of the displaced Muslims must be of utmost importance in any peace settlements and, through negotiations, measures to prevent such expulsion reproducing itself should be implemented.


Beyond Intractability (2003). Who Refugees Are. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 29th March, 2007].

Daily Mirror (2006). Why did the LTTE throw the Muslims out of the North? Salman, M.H.M. October 30.

Hasbullah, S.H. (2002). ?We may now go home?: Muslim Refugees from Northern Sri Lanka [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 20th March, 2007].

IDMC (2006). Sri Lanka. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 28th March, 2007].

Muslim Guardian (2006). Muslim leaders respond about situation of Muslims in Sri Lanka, 29th September.

Rudrakumaran, R. (2001). The Right of Self-Determination of the People of Tamil Eelam. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 29th March, 2007].

Sivathamby, K. (1998). Sri Lankan Tamil Society and Politics. Chennai, India: New Century Book House.

UNHCR (2007). UNHCR Statement: The War in Sri Lanka. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 28th March, 2007].

University Teachings for Human Rights (2007). Massacres of Muslims and What it Means for the Tamils. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 28th March, 2007].

Uthayam (2007). Fifteenth Anniversary of Muslim Expulsion from Jaffna. [Online]. Available from: [Accessed 28th March, 2007]


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