14 June, 2024


Challenges Beneath The Surface Of Peace & Normalcy In Northern Sri Lanka

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

Fifteen years after the end of the war in the north and east, a tourist might have a difficult time figuring out whether a war was fought there are at all at first glance. There is not much difference between the towns in the north and south. There is an appearance of peacefulness and normalcy that tourists have taken to. Sri Lanka has claimed the coveted title of the number one destination for solo female travelers in 2024, according to Timeout.com, a leading global media and hospitality business. Sri Lanka’s reputation for hospitality and safety further enhances its appeal to solo female travelers. According to the report, the warmth and friendliness of the locals, combined with the country’s relatively low crime rates, create an environment conducive to memorable and worry-free experiences for women exploring the country on their own. Sri Lanka also offers practical advantages for solo female travelers, such as affordable accommodations, reliable public transportation, and a well-developed tourist infrastructure.

But there is more than meets the eye. During the past week when I traveled north and saw the peacefulness and normalcy that Timeout.com also has, I asked a government officer what he thought was the difference between north and south. Without a moment’s hesitation he said that the laws were made in the south though they covered the north also, and that letters from the south came in the Sinhala language although Tamil was made an official language alongside Sinhala 37 years ago in 1987. The fact that the Tamil language is not quite equal to Sinhala in the constitution. Article 18 spells out that “(1) The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala. (2) Tamil shall also be an official language.”  This could also have been expressed in a single sentence as “The Official Languages of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala and Tamil.”  But instead of one sentence there are two.

Police have initiated investigations into a decorative battle tank and a karthikai poo – the Tamil national flower – that were put on display at Thellipalai Union College’s sports meet. Pix from Tamil Guardian

The question of which language should be the one to replace the English language as the official language of the country in 1956 led to “Sinhala only”. It arose from the reality that the Sinhala speaking parliamentarians outnumbered the Tamil speakers and decided that there was need for only one official language which would be Sinhala. A decision was taken by those in the south which impacted upon those in the north. An issue that is currently being discussed by the government but which will have an impact on the north is on fishing rights. The government is under pressure from its Indian counterpart to give access to Indian fishermen to fish in Sri Lankan waters. The escalation of the dispute over the islet of Katchatheevu which India agreed was in Sri Lankan waters in 1974 is now being used to pressurize Sri Lanka.

Fishing Rights

There have been many initiatives taken to resolve this problem and secure the rights of the Sri Lankan fishermen in the north. One proposal that I heard about was when religious groups offered to buy small boats for the Indian fishermen with aid they received from charities in western countries so that they could fish in Indian waters and not come over to the Sri Lankan side. The hope was that this would keep out the armada of Indian trawlers owned by big business interests with political links in India from crossing over into Sri Lankan waters. It was also reported that the fishermen on the boats would not receive their wages if they did not return with a substantial catch. As the fishermen would have their own small boats they would not need to cross over to the Sri Lankan side and engage in illegal and destructive bottom trawling which denudes the sea of fishes and their spawn. It was also reported that poor fishermen were not prepared to accept the offer as they feared that these small boats could be destroyed by powerful elements controlling the fishing industry.

Due to the failure to find a viable negotiated solution the Sri Lankan government has deployed its navy to arrest those Indian fishermen who cross over into Sri Lankan waters and detain their fishing boats. The Indian government has pointed out that more than 6000 Indian fishermen and 1000 boats have been detained over the years by the Sri Lankan navy. Especially during an election period, the Indian government leaders would like to show the Indian fishing community that they stand by their people, and obtain their vote. It appears that the Sri Lankan government is under pressure to give legal rights to the Indian fishermen to cross over into Sri Lankan waters and fish there. This would be pleasing to the Indian fishing businesses and also be advantageous to the Indian government during this election period. But the price will be paid by the Sri Lankan fishermen who will have to share the fishing catch with much bigger Indian trawlers that engage in bottom trawling which is illegal in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka needs to make use of the opportunities that its large extent of sea by investing in its fishermen. Those in the south ought not to make decisions injurious to the interests of the people in the north but rather should seek to strengthen them.

Apart from making laws for the north that are harmful to their economic interests, those in the south also make laws that affect the sense of ethnic pride and sorrow of the people in the north. May 18 will be the day that the people in the north will commemorate the 15th anniversary of the end of the war, with its large scale loss of life that took away their loved ones. There is much concern that the government authorities are preparing to amend laws and regulations to clamp down on such commemorations and to describe them as efforts to revive the LTTE who were destroyed on the battlefield in May 2009. The irony is that the Office of Reparation Act No 34 of 1998 section 27 describes what collective and individual reparation entails and mandates the office to support those initiatives.

LTTE Phobia

The government officials I spoke to in the north were of the opinion that if the government does not interfere with the commemorations that the families of the victims are planning, the day will pass without incident. They say that most of the people want to move on, though they also want to do their duty by those who died or went missing. The problem is that there are elements on both sides, on the government side and in the north who want to escalate conflict which gives them a role to play. Even if the government is unwilling to permit the public commemoration of the LTTE, which remains a banned organization in Sri Lanka and internationally, the government must not stand in the way of people commemorating their loved ones whether they were LTTE or not.

The continuing surveillance for those who wish to resurrect the LTTE can reach levels that unnecessarily upset and antagonise the people of the north. When I was there a story that was doing the rounds was that of a school in Tellipalai, Union College, a respected one set up by the missionaries of yore. For the school sports meet, and inter-house competition, the children had decorated one of the house tents with the images of battle tanks. Another house tent had been decorated with images of a flower that the LTTE declared as its national flower, the Karthikaipoo (Gloiosa Superba). After they heard of this, the police had visited the school premises where they took photographs and videos of the displays. The school teachers and principal were instructed to go to the police station where a statement was recorded from the principal.

The Karthiaipoo plant is valuable in the world of medicine. People have been using this plant in traditional medicine for a very long time, and now scientists are discovering more ways it can help, and has the potential to become a profitable export crop. Ironically, a few weeks earlier, the Sri Lanka Airforce had carried out a hearts and minds campaign among the youth in Jaffna. I was told that the airmen even provided the youth with flights round the city in an airplane for a modest cost of Rs 1000 each. The airforce had shown its battle equipment and urged the youth to join it to serve their country and about 50 had submitted their applications. There is peace and normalcy in the north as in the south. The suppression of any move to revive the LTTE must not become a frame of mind to revive the discredited politics of nationalism. But there are problems that need to be addressed by those with their feet on the ground who can also think of the people of Sri Lanka as equal citizens regardless of whether they live in the north or south.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Latest comments

  • 19

    “There is much concern that the government authorities are preparing to amend laws and regulations to clamp down on such commemorations and to describe them as efforts to revive the LTTE who were destroyed on the battlefield in May 2009.”
    That is a textbook case of Institutional Paranoia. All those people should be sent to Angoda for treatment.
    It is actually the Government of Sri Lanka that is keeping the LTTE Bogeyman alive.
    Even an innocuous flower is seen as a danger sign by these mentally sick people!

  • 22

    If the JVP can become the popular people choice in the South why cannot LTTE can become the Peoples of the North East? Simply you all know that LTTE did not come from India or Moon. Yes LTTE is banned by Sinhalese govt and some other powerful nations including India. They have a motive behind it. Is that mean all the tamil people who supported LTTE and all the family members of the LTTE movent should be in the jail forever. They are the natives and they become powerful because of Sinhala Buddhist racism. They fought against racism and Buddist Fundamentalism. If Sinhalese can follow Buddhism which came from India why cannot Tamils of this country cannot follow Saivaism from India.

  • 16

    “ There is an appearance of peacefulness and normalcy” in the North and East of SL. That’s 100% true.
    But the Tamil Speaking Citizens do FEEL that they are living in an ‘OPEN’ prison environment as there is so many defence forces in uniform & uniform being maintained in the North & East. GoSL should DRASTICALLY reduce their security forces in North and East. Tamils do NOT want separate country but WANT to live as EQUALS in every way…..Preserving their language culture livelihoods etc.
    Defence forces should not be involved in running Hotels Boutiques etc and also not involve in agriculture. The Sinhala Buddhist Fundamentalism/Supremacy /Facism is the main ISSUE for the Tamil Speaking Sri Lankans. We can not forget and forgive the nearly eight decades of brutality/Suppression.
    “ SYSTEM CHANGE + Mind Change needed ASAP

  • 3

    Dr. Perera it’s Gloriosa superba….

    • 2

      Dear Ruchira,

      I heard the Sinhala name as a child: niyagala.
      Googling that Sinhala word, one gets this link:

      • 3

        Dear Panini,
        Yes. That’s correct. May be niyangala is a better way to spell it, which corresponds more to the way it is pronounced in Sinhala. It’s flower is colourful but some parts are toxic. I think mainly the roots or the tubers to be precise. There was a plant right in front of the house where we used to live a long time back when we just kids, on the vacant land just opposite the very narrow road that lie inbetween the lands. If you stand on the door step of our house facing away from our house you can’t miss this plant as it was directly ahead of you. For some reason I still have the memory like a fixed image in my mind of this scene.

        • 0

          * lay in between

  • 7

    I was in Jaffna in December and January. No one talked politics with me.
    On inquiry, one curt response was: Nothing is ever going to change for us!

  • 5

    JVP uprising is due to both Sinhala + Tamil ELITES exploiting the “System” to maintaining their grip on power and wealth. They wanted the socialism for the country but the world dominated by USA & others helped the GoSL to suppress the uprising violently—resulting extra-judicial KILLINGS of youngsters.
    Tamils uprising was the result of REPEATED State Sponsored Terrorism + lack of access to Universities & Government jobs. We are still at a loss as because the “OLD corrupt politicians and professionals” are still trying to continue the present set-up. Only HOPE for the country is that “COMPASS” will guide as in the correct way and our WISHES will come TRUE.

  • 5

    ” It arose from the reality that the Sinhala speaking parliamentarians outnumbered the Tamil speakers and decided that there was need for only one official language which would be Sinhala.”
    “Sinhala speaking parliamentarians outnumbered…”
    Almost the most ridiculous theory on the subject that I have come across.
    Do some reading about when it was first mooted and the context in which it became an electoral issue.

  • 11

    Sinhala-Buddhist triumphalism after the war has ensured that the Tamil will continue to romanticise the LTTE which is an outgrowth of the innate feelings of the Tamil people of the NorthEast. An army of occupation continues to be maintained in the area preventing the return of the owners of land to their homes. Mothers of missing children who had surrendered them to the army have not been provided answers. True devolution has not taken place. Not even the 13th Amendment has been fully implemented. Tamil resentment will continue. The difficulty for the government is that it is equally strong in the diaspora where the second generation carries loyalty to the LTTE with great intensity. The diaspora is spread across the world and will become increasingly more powerful. This problem will not go away because the Sinhala Buddhist chauvinists will keep the pot boiling and their people hungry so that their larceny can be hidden and more loot can be obtained through power. The Rajapakse types will still dominate with the help of the saffron robed thugs and Sinhala Buddhist mentality. The JVP will remain a Sinhala Buddhist party.

  • 7

    … True devolution has not taken place.
    Devolution? True? False? … ??
    Diaspora has no intention to rekindle LTTE.
    Keeping people hungry is going to cause more damage than what LTTE did.

    • 2


      “Keeping people hungry is going to cause more damage than what LTTE did.”

      Of course hungry people would cause more damage however when people are MUFFLED, banned from speaking out, media is censored, water cannons used to suppress protests,…… … …. for example 9 July 2022.

  • 4

    Normalcy under gunpoint is not normalcy.

  • 0

    Realising that the Sinhala Supremacist
    ARE NOT ready to change their mindset, Tamil Speaking Citizens need
    to impress on the International Community for the need for A FEDERAL Government for the north and East of the ISLE

Leave A Comment

Comments should not exceed 200 words. Embedding external links and writing in capital letters are discouraged. Commenting is automatically disabled after 5 days and approval may take up to 24 hours. Please read our Comments Policy for further details. Your email address will not be published.