The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) forcibly expelled the Tamil-speaking Muslim people from the Northern Province in October 1990. Within a few days the Muslims were chased out of their homeland where they had lived for many, many centuries. This year 2020 marks the 30th anniversary of this cruel, inhuman episode in the history of Tamil-Muslim relations in Sri Lanka.
The mass expulsion of Muslims from the north in 1990 was a human catastrophe. Uprooting a people from their habitat at gun point and driving them away after depriving them of their cash and jewellery was despicable and unpardonable. I have often written about this tragedy in the past. I now intend to focus upon this mass expulsion on the occasion of its 30th anniversary.
I shall be drawing on some of my earlier writings in a bid to revive memories of this mass expulsion by relating in brief the tale of this terrible tragedy. I also want to trace the sequence of events that led to this sordid exercise in which the Tamil-speaking Muslims were chased out by their gun-toting linguistic brethren of a feline hue.
‘Black October’ 1990
‘Black October’ 1990 began in the Jaffna peninsula with the expulsion of Muslims of Chavakachcheri on 15 October and ended with the Muslims of Jaffna town on 30 October. The mass eviction of Muslims on the northern mainland began a few days before it commenced in Jaffna town and concluded a few days after the peninsula was ‘cleansed’ of Muslims.
After the Indian Army left in March 1990, war erupted again between the Sri Lankan armed forces and LTTE in June that year. As the war continued Tamil-Muslim hostilities began increasing in the east. The desertion of some Muslim cadres in the LTTE with a few of them going over to the enemy incensed the eastern LTTE under Karuna (Military Commander) and Karikalan (Political Commissar). Many other Muslim cadres in the LTTE were executed by the leadership. An anti -Muslim spirit pervaded the LTTE.
On the other hand the UNP Government of the day also exploited and aggravated these feelings. Many Muslim anti-social elements were inducted as homeguards. These sections collaborated with the security forces in promoting anti-Tamil violence. In some cases Muslim homeguards were responsible for Tamil civilian massacres. Some Tamil hamlets and villages were destroyed by Muslim homeguards led mobs. They were given covert support by sections of the security forces.
The LTTE in turn responded with terrible gruesome massacres of Muslim civilians; the Sammanthurai and Kattankudi attacks on mosques and killing of Muslims while praying and the massacres of civilians at the Saddham Hussein model village of Eravur being notorious examples.
Fomenting Tamil-Muslim Friction
A diabolical aspect to this state of affairs was the deliberate attempt to foment Tamil-Muslim friction by a section of the security establishment. A case in point was the shady phenomenon of “Captain Munas”.
A ‘unit’ under the command of this Captain Munas was reportedly responsible for many disappearances and executions of Tamils in Batticaloa in 1990. The name Captain Munas was loathed and feared. It was assumed that he was a Muslim. However in later years the Soza Commission of Inquiry revealed that the so-called Capt. Munas was in actual fact an “intelligence” official named Richard Dias.
Though Tamil-Muslim relations were at a low point in the east, the situation was quite different in the north. Both communities continued to coexist there peacefully. This situation of Muslims living peacefully in the north while tensions prevailed in the east was unacceptable to the eastern Tigers.
A delegation led by Karikalan, the then LTTE Eastern Political Chief, came to the north to persuade Tiger supremo Prabhakaran that “stern” action should be taken against Muslims. Karikalan apparently wanted a lesson to be taught to the Muslims. Even as this pressure was being exerted on the Tiger hierarchy, an incident occurred at Chavakachcheri in the Thenmaraatchi sector of the Jaffna peninsula.
Most of the Chavakachcheri Muslims lived on Dutch road in the town. The LTTE while investigating an incident of intra-Muslim violence discovered some swords in the house of a butcher. According to Tiger ‘explanations,’ this had triggered an alarm bell. The LTTE conducted a search of Muslim houses and businesses and found about 75 swords concealed in a shop owned by a prominent Muslim trader. This was seen as part of a deadly conspiracy. Even if this explanation were true, one cannot see 75 swords being of any use against the Kalashnikovs of the LTTE.
The shop where the swords were found belonged to a Muslim businessman whose lorries travelled to and from Colombo for trade. The LTTE intelligence known for its excessive paranoia suspected a greater conspiracy. It was surmised that the security-intelligence apparatus could be using Muslim businessmen travelling frequently to Colombo as agents to engage in sabotage or act as spies. Pre-emptive action was required, it was felt.
The Chavakachcheri Muslims living mainly along Dutch road were expelled on 15 October 1990. Close upon 1,000 people were forced to leave at gunpoint. They were told to go beyond Vavuniya, the southern-most town of the Northern Province. The Chava Muslims reached Vavuniya on 18 October. After the Chavakachcheri Muslims were ordered to leave, the other Muslims too were targeted.
According to explanations provided by the LTTE later, the presence of an Eastern contingent under Karikalan in the north in October was greatly responsible for the decision of mass expulsion. Essentially it was depicted as some form of retaliatory warning to the eastern Muslims. This decision was further influenced by the exaggerated threat perception. In a blatantly-racist mindset the Muslims were seen as potential fifth columnists. It was against this backdrop that the mass expulsion exercise took place.
The Muslims in Mannar District comprised 26% of the district population according to the 1981 census. They were 46% of the Mannar Island linked to the mainland by the Thalladdy causeway .The premier and relatively prosperous Muslim village on Mannar Island was Erukkalampitty. Around 300 Tiger cadres encircled Erukkalampitty on 21 October 1990 and robbed the Muslims of cash, jewellery and valuable electronic goods. Around 800-850 houses were targeted.
On 22 October some Muslims from Marichukkatty village near the Mannar-Puttalam district border were arrested by the LTTE for allegedly having clandestine dealings with the armed forces. On 23 October the villagers of Marichukkatty were ordered to leave the place. This was followed by an eviction order on 24 October to all Muslims in the Musali AGA division where Marichukkatty was situated. Musali incidentally is a Muslim majority AGA division.
The expulsion process continued in Mannar. On 24 October the LTTE announced by loudspeaker that all Muslims living in Mannar Island should go out by 28 October and that they should report to the local LTTE office to finalise the procedures of expulsion. The helpless Muslims prepared to do so and began packing. On 26 October the LTTE ‘invaded’ Erukkalampitty again and seized all the packed belongings of Muslims.
Many Tamils of Mannar including members of the Catholic clergy remonstrated with the LTTE over the expulsion order but to no avail. The LTTE then extended the expulsion deadline to 2 November.
On 28 October evening the LTTE sealed off Erukkalampitty and other Muslim areas on Mannar Island. The Muslims of Mannar Island from the town and areas like Erukkalampitty, Tharapuram, Puthukkudiyiruppu, Uppukulam, Konthaipitty, etc. were forced to assemble enmasse on selected spots along the beach. They were left there without food or water or proper facilities for personal care. Concerned Tamil citizens from Mannar argued with the LTTE and managed to take bread and water to the thousands of people on the beach.
Then the Muslims of Mannar Island were forcibly sent 60 miles south by sea to Kalpitiya in the North Western Province. Boats owned by Muslims in Mannar and Puttalam were used for this purpose. The entire exercise took more than three days. At least one child fell in the waters and drowned. Some infants and elderly people passed away soon after reaching Kalpitiya.
If that was the pathetic plight of Muslims on Mannar Island the situation of Muslims in the Mannar District mainland was equally wretched. The Muslims from the Muslim majority Musali AGA division as well as other Muslims living in other areas such as Vidathaltheevu, Periyamadhu, Sannar, Murungan, Vaddakkandal, Parappankandal, etc. were ordered by the LTTE on 25 October to surrender their vehicles, bicycles, fuel and electronic goods to the mosque or local school.
On 26 October they were ordered to report to the local LTTE office for instructions on how to ‘leave’ the district. Each family was allowed possessions in five travel bags, Rs. 2,000 in cash and one gold sovereign. The Muslims were checked in three places – Madhu, Pandivirichaan and a location close to Vavuniya town. At Madhu and Pandivirichaan, people carrying more items than they were ‘allowed’ found those being confiscated and ‘receipts’ issued by cadres. But near Vavuniya many of the items including thermos flasks were arbitrarily looted. This segment of Muslims arrived on foot in Vavuniya.
The expulsion went on in other parts of the Northern Wanni mainland. On 22 October morning a few Muslims in Neeravippitty in Mullaitivu District were arrested on ‘suspicion’ that they were supplying information to the armed forces. The same evening all Muslims in Mullaitivu District were ordered to leave within a week’s time. The following day on 23 October all Muslims living in Kilinochchi District were ordered to go out within five days. According to the 1981 census Muslims comprised 4.6% of Mullaitivu and 1.6% of Kilinochchi Districts respectively.
Muslims in Vavuniya District comprised 6.9% of the district according to 1981 census. The bulk of these people were living in Government-controlled areas. They were safe. However the few Muslims living in LTTE controlled areas in Vavuniya District were also ordered to leave by 1 November.
LTTE D-Day For Jaffna Muslims
Even as the expulsions were taking place in Wanni, the Jaffna Muslims were unperturbed. According to the 1981 census Muslims in the Jaffna District were 1.66% of the total population. A portion of these in Chavakachcheri had been already chased out. But the Jaffna town area Muslims could not see any danger befalling them. These were things happening to others for different reasons. This sanguine complacency was soon shattered. The Tigers came ‘last’ to the Jaffna Muslims. The LTTE D-Day for them was 30 October.
It was about 10:30 in the morning when the LTTE vehicles with loudspeakers began plying the roads and lanes of the Jaffna Muslim residential areas. The Jaffna Muslims were concentrated in two or three densely-populated wards of the Jaffna Municipality. Sonaka theru, Ottumadam and Bommaively were their areas. A terse announcement was repeated incessantly that representatives of each Muslim family should assemble at the Jinnah stadium of Osmania College by 12 noon. Armed Tigers began patrolling the streets. Some began a house-to-house announcement in the thickly populated lanes and by-lanes.
The people abandoned whatever they were doing and hurried to the grounds. At 12:30 p.m. a senior Tiger leader, Aanchaneyar, addressed them. Aanchaneyar later went by another nom de guerre Ilamparithy. Aanchaneyar or Ilamparithy had a brief message. The LTTE high command for reasons of security (paathukaappu) had decided that all Muslims should leave Jaffna within two hours. Failure to do so meant punishment. No further explanation was given.
When people started to question him, Ilamparithy lost his cool. He barked loudly that the Muslims should simply follow orders or face consequences. He then fired his gun several times in the air. A few of his bodyguards followed suit. The message was clear. The people thought initially that the Army was going to invade Jaffna and that the LTTE was asking everyone to leave. Only belatedly did they realise that only the Muslims were being ordered to leave.
With more and more armed Tigers coming into the area, the perturbed Muslims began packing. Initially they were not told of any restrictions on the things they could carry. So people packed clothes, valuables, jewellery and money. Buses, vans and lorries were made available for transport by the Tigers. Many Muslims made their private transport arrangements too.
The Muslims streaming out of their homes were now given a fresh order. They were asked to queue up at the ‘Ainthumuchanthi’ junction. As the hapless people lined up they were in for a terrible shock. Male and female cadres of the LTTE began demanding that the Muslim people hand over all the money, belongings and jewellery to them. Each person would be allowed only Rs. 150. Each person would be allowed only one set of clothes.
Feeble protests were raised. The brandishing of sophisticated weapons and threats in aggressive tones quickly silenced them. The suitcases with clothes and other belongings were confiscated. They were opened first and selected clothes taken out. If a person wore trousers an extra set of trouser and shirt were given. If a person wore a sarong an extra sarong and shirt were given. Likewise one or two sarees and other dress clothes were given the women and children. All the money and documents including title deeds to property, cheque books and national identity cards were confiscated.
Women and girls were stripped of jewellery. Some women cadres were brutal, even pulling out ear studs with blood spurting in the ear lobes. The children were not spared. Not a watch was left. The LTTE was particularly cruel in the case of Jaffna Muslims. Jaffna Muslims reported later that Karikalan from Batticaloa was supervising the entire operation.
At least 35 wealthy Muslim businessmen were abducted. They were detained by the LTTE. Some Muslim jewellers were tortured for details of hidden gold. One jeweller was killed by beatings in front of the others. Later huge sums of money were demanded for their release. Some paid up to Rs. 3 million. The abducted persons were released in stages over the years; 13 people however never returned and are presumed dead.
Most of the Muslims expelled from the north were temporarily resettled in the Puttalam District. Many found their way to Vavuniya, Negombo and Colombo Districts. Others relocated to the Anuradhapura, Kurunegala, Gampaha, Matale and Kandy Districts. Quite a lot of Jaffna Muslims went abroad as refugees. The largest concentrations of displaced Muslims from the northern mainland were in the Kalpitiya, Pulichakulam and Thillaiyadi areas.
Meanwhile the LTTE looted almost all possessions left in the Muslim houses in Jaffna. Many houses were stripped of tiles, wooden frames, doors, windows, etc. Much of the looted furniture was sold to Tamils through the LTTE shops or ‘Makkal Kadai’. Some Muslims returning to the north after the ceasefire recognised their possessions in other houses and businesses. Many Muslim houses, lands and vehicles were sold illegally to Tamils by the LTTE.
The regaining of Jaffna peninsula in 1995-’96 by the armed forces and the Wanni in 2009 after the military defeat of the LTTE in May 2009 resulted in Muslims being resettled in the Northern Province. Despite the end of the war, the resettlement process leaves much to be desired.
The total Muslim population of the Northern Province according to the 1981 census was 50,991 or 4.601%. Muslim community leaders say the Northern Province Muslim population at the time of expulsion in 1990 numbered about 81,000. This consisted of about 20,000 in Jaffna, 45,000 in Mannar, 7,000 in Mullaitivu, 8,000 in Vavuniya, and around 1,000 in Kilinochchi.
Of these, about 75,000, barring those in Vavuniya town and Nainatheevu Island, were forcibly expelled; 67,000 Muslim people were registered at IDP camps immediately after the mass expulsion. The remainder stayed outside camps with relatives and friends.
After the war ended, about 75% of the northern Muslims registered their willingness to go back to the north and be resettled. Since the natural increase over the years had enhanced their numbers considerably, it was expected that a very large number of people would have returned. But the 2012 census indicated that only a small number of northern Muslims have returned permanently to their homelands despite consenting to do so.
The Muslim population in the Northern Province and their percentage in the respective districts according to the 2012 census was as follows: Mannar 16,087 – 16.2%; Vavuniya 11,700 – 6.8; Jaffna 2139 – 0.4%; Mullaitivu 1,760 – 1.9%; and Kilinochchi 678 – 0.6%. When compared to the estimates at the time of expulsion in 1990, the Muslim population has shown a marked decrease except in Vavuniya, which was not totally affected then. The Muslim population in the Northern Province according to the 2012 census was only 32,396 or 3.061%.
Thirty years have passed since the mass expulsion. One of the praiseworthy attributes of some expelled Muslims that I have come across is their lack of visible bitterness with Tamils. They realise that it was the LTTE which was responsible for their predicament and the reasons for it. They do not blame the ordinary Tamil for it. They also retain sympathy for the Tamil plight.
Above all, their fondness for the Tamil language, its literature and media have not decreased. Furthermore, they are wistfully nostalgic about Jaffna, asserting proudly that the north is their homeland too. As the expelled northern Muslims constantly keep reminding the Tamils, ‘vadakku engalin thaayagamum kooda’ (the north is our homeland too). Such magnanimity in spite of the injustice meted out to them shames the Tamil community at large.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article written for the “Political Pulse” Column appears in the “Daily FT” of October 21st 2020. It can be accessed here: