My three day visit to Jaffna was a worthy experience.
This time, I travelled further north to Neerveli and saw and heard what my relatives, friends and acquaintances said. The face of the mainland Jaffna is rapidly changing, unlike the abandoned islets west of the peninsula. The visual image of Jaffna peninsula is fast transforming from the slumber of war ravages. Within six months of my last visit in December 2013, Jaffna has seen rapid progress. It is clearly the sheer resilience of the people to come out of the decay thus reflecting the their hope for a better future.
Whilst the road works have beautified Jaffna, it is still to bring the much needed economic rewards constrained by the lack of stakeholder participation in the super imposed development projects of the government.
Very few houses symbolise war ravages. With the road works undertaken by the government, Jaffna looks brightened and people are going about with their daily chorus without much hindrances.
The passage to Jaffna was without military interferences. Except for the driver who had to register the vehicle details at Omanthai, the journeys to and from Jaffna was hassle free. Unlike six months ago, there were no army sentry points. Even in the Jaffna town, I visited four times successively, I did not see a soldier on foot in uniform. However, I have seen army rounds on bicycles in Chavakachcheri. When inquired, I was told that the army undertake rounds on the main roads either in the morning or evening in small groups to possibly show their presence and their controlling interest.
I was told that without the heavy presence of the army, the people are feeling comfortable. Jaffna city has been rejuvenated, proving its vibrancy like the pre war situation. The city is bustling, full of people, vehicles and Tamil music all around, giving the happy feelings of yesteryears. Some said, uniform-less intelligence officers have substituted the army and are all over Jaffna.
Being Hindu temple festive season, blaring devotional music can be heard all over. Plying of a Paravai Kavadi on the main A9 road to a temple chariot festival in Jaffna was another sign of the historical experience before I was kicked out of Sri Lanka.
The ongoing drought has completely dried the watery fields, ponds and the lagoons of the northern province. Elephant pass and its extensions of interior lagoons of Jaffna have fully dried up. However, the breezy weather kept the atmosphere cool and had driven the marauding parasitical mosquitoes away this time.
With all the socio-economic transformation taking place, there are serious issues that are haunting Jaffna. I found the underlying feelings are somewhat worrying. The post war Jaffna can be classified into three groups.
According to a traditional farmer I spoke to, who has to diversify his income avenues by engaging in varied economic activities to earn a living, the dilemma faced by the traditional hardworking farmers who are entrapped in the cash flow crisis is a result of heavy loan burdens due to free flow of government finances immediately after the war. They are struggling to meet their outgoings and in the competitive market, their profit margins have squeezed and they are fighting hard for survival.
The second group is the spoilt brats surviving on the fund flow from their relatives in the Tamil Diaspora. They do not have any worthwhile hope or aspirations to progress but are only showing off, causing immense harm to traditional values of the Tamils. Their only aspiration is the dream of moving out of the country to the greener pastures and they are not keen to develop their skills in any way and have become the biggest sore for the society.
The third group is the neglected war victims. Some are being cared for but many of them are struggling with meagre existence. The worst of this group is the ex LTTE women combatants. In the society that still strongly hold to traditional values, these women are a social stigma and are seen as underclass. Having said this, according to sources, some of these ex LTTE women cadres are tough nuts and have still not mitigated their status to a normal life. I was told some hardcore LTTE men cadres who are being pampered by the soldiers and the intelligence service are enjoying unlimited freedom and they cannot be questioned by even their parents over their past conduct during the LTTE, as anyone trying to impress them will be confronted by the Defence Ministry mechanisms.
In the bustling Jaffna town, a KFC outlet in front of the Jaffna teaching hospital is another carnival spot. When I popped in to the Cargills Food City outlet, the western open plan KFC outlet in the next floor was packed with people. The Tamils on holiday from overseas have come with their friends and relatives to enjoy the mouth watering fried chicken from the multinational outlet.
The saddest of all is the meagre functioning of the popular Northern Provincial Council that is still struggling to fully engage in the development work of the province. The two horse driven council is showing all the signs of failures of the 13th amendment. The two horses are the elected members of the Council lead by the Chief Minister and the authoritarian Governor who is a senior military official whipped to take limping rides by the elected authority.
In Jaffna, there are public notices all over, ridiculing the elected Chief Minister for the failures of the Northern Provincial Council whilst not mentioning about the petty dictatorship of the unelected governor preventing him from functioning. The notices are pasted by the onetime ardent supporter of the 13th amendment, the paramilitary group of the government minister Douglas Devananda who was hoping to become the Chief Minister in the late 2000 with his heavy campaign, whilst the war was raging between the government forces and the LTTE. Having been routed in the Northern Provincial Government election in 2013, his only hope appears to forge alliance with the military governor to foul the elected leadership.
Whilst experiencing the pleasantries and quietly listening and seeing the underlying rots during my trip, my marathon run took me to the lagoon coast of Kovilakandy on the western coastline of Kaithady in the very early hours. It was an unforgettable experience as the village showed how the people are still continuing to live like the pre war days. They reflect the undisturbed tranquillity of the past. Every household was active. They were sweeping, cleaning and watering the garden and even the road. When I entered a house of my friend, it was an energising feeling as I was welcomed with warm heart in the centre of a little paradise compound full of trees, household birds and animals. The warmth of the incensed glow with the breeze through the Palmyra trees further provoked my thoughts to return to Sri Lanka for rest of my life.
On that morning, I was the first one to buy fresh crabs, shrimps and some meaty fish from the boats arriving from the lagoon. Unlike the fish from Jaffna lagoon, the Koyilakandi lagoon fish is mouth watering relish. It was the best of the best with a glass of freshly tapped Palmyra toddy specially brought for us by a local toddy tapper.
Having spoken to people at varied locations, I found there is fear among the people that the prevailing heavy political interference, bribery and corruption are preventing grass root level revival of the northern economy in collective way. With the indifference shown by the government towards the northern provincial council and its lack of will to hold the Jaffna municipal council election are concerns of those I met. One said the government is for Douglas Devanda’s paramilitary rule with the backing of the military governor of northern provincial government.
When I asked the toddy tapper, whom did he vote in the Northern Provincial election, he said: ‘Who else! our party the TNA.’ When I asked why the TNA, his response was: ‘Do I have any other choice?’
On my way back to Colombo, I met a relative who lost her grand-mother in Colombo recently. She told me the difficulties she had to endure in Colombo to bring a closure to her grandmothers death formalities. This made me realise the government’s much boasted multi-lingual policy is selective for political purposes only. The relative said, she had to seek third party help to complete the forms exclusively in Sinhala language.
The worst visible intimidating experience during my trip this time was the sight of many nerve-wrecking military camps from Anuradhapura on the A9 road and the menacing military victory monuments.
Now that the A9 road work is complete, it takes minimum of six to seven hours drive on the 225 mile stretch road to Jaffna. The well constructed road is not without deficiencies. The two lane two direction road lacks the width to drive at consistent speed and to overtake where and when necessary. If you are caught behind a heavy vehicle, you have to prolong your journey until you could overtake at a safer point. The width of heavy vehicles and the breath of the single lane road is same and even edging out to view the oncoming traffic could lead to tragic consequences. One wonders why these roads were not expanded beyond the present limits in the long stretch of inhibited lands is a question even a person with even the modicum of intelligence will not puzzle.
On my return to Colombo, I also heard a worrying story from a friend. This is about the wage levels at the newly built garment factory in Kilinochichi. Having already established the average earning of a auto driver in Colombo of Rs 30,000 (£143) per month, I was astounded the workers at the garment factory are earning a meagre Rs 6,000 (£28)per month for working from 7.00am to 7.00pm for five to six days a week. Though I could not verify the claim, if the revelation is true, it is sad that people are being exploited unscrupulously in the former war zone.