Three years ago The Law & Society Trust together with 3 northern Muslim partner organizations set up a Citizens’ Commission to investigate the expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province by the LTTE in October 1990.
The Trust’s involvement with the northern Muslims has a long history. The idea first emerged in 2003, with the transitional justice working group process. During that time, while the failed peace process of 2002-2005 still held some promise organizations began to explore ideas of transitional justice, with the assistance of the International Center for Transitional Justice. (ICTJ)
What became clear at the time was the manner in which the Muslim community had been affected by the conflict, which was generally accepted as a conflict between the majority Sinhala and minority Tamil community. The 70,000 Muslims living in camps for over a decade had few fora if any in which to make their grievances or expectations known.
The issues faced by Northern Muslims seemed to be marginal even within the discussion of Muslim issues that highlighted the suffering of those in the Eastern Province. One of the ideas that emerged during that time was the possibility of engaging in a community-based transitional justice initiative for the Northern Muslims.
In 2006, Dr. Farzana Haniffa the current project manager and convener was commissioned by the ICTJ to conduct community consultations in Puttalam, and also consult with stakeholders in Colombo to ascertain if a truth-seeking process would be useful to the community. With the assistance of the Asia Foundation a second round of consultations were held with women members of the community to ascertain their perspectives on the expulsion and return. Following these consultations, in 2007, the Law and Society Trust began to seek funding for the project.
For the Trust, it was an opportunity to deepen understanding of the conflict; to examine the expulsion itself, the failure of the State to prevent it and to adequately address the concerns of the expelled population and host communities which sheltered them. This was also an opportunity to improve visibility of this particular group of IDPs among national and international human rights organizations.
The objective of the study was to produce authoritative documentation of the expulsion and its consequences that was owned by the community and to list the community’s grievances through a document endorsed by a Commission consisting of eminent civil society actors. What came through is a document that captures the voices of the most vulnerable members of this group- Muslim women, as well as men.
What we at the Law and Society Trust realized, is that it’s not possible to investigate an event of this nature and move away after the report is done- the observer and the observed have both changed; the people who provided testimony and whose experience is recorded here have raised expectations about “home” and of living in a peaceful, stable community while we have strengthened our determination to move to the next phase; to begin the work of legal empowerment, promoting human rights and social justice and utilizing the law for economic and social transformation of the community.
The final Report of the Citizen’s Commission on the Expulsion of Muslims from the north, “The Quest for Redemption: The Story of the Northern Muslims” was launched on Thursday 3 November in Colombo. IT is available for sale at the Law and Society Trust.