By Namini Wijedasa –
A crowd lingers in darkness on the veranda of an old house at Temple Road,Jaffna. The fluorescent bulbs come on, throwing light on their anxious faces: Men and women of all ages, waiting to meet one of the president’s point men in the peninsula.
They are here most days, often till nightfall, with their worn files, crumpled polythene bags and brown paper envelopes. The house—a typicalJaffnaabode with a garden in the middle—is the office of Angajan Ramanathan, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’sJaffnadistrict organiser.
Ramanathan, 29, is at his desk. Above his head are portraits of President Mahinda Rajapakse, Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapakse and Namal Rajapakse, MP. Further away is a shrine with images of Lord Ganesha, Lord Buddha and Jesus.
“Politicians inJaffna,” he says, “are always talking about rights. Nobody is here to talk about daily problems.” Problems like road construction, garbage collection, pension and relief payments, resettlement issues, education and jobs, security challenges and so on.
Jobs, and more jobs
The crowd enters Ramanathan’s room. Many want employment. One man shows him an application for position of trainee banking assistant. There is a woman, a volunteer teacher, who asks when she would be made permanent. And there are graduates who are registered with a job bank Ramanathan has created, inquiring whether anything new has come up.
Jaffnadoes not have enough jobs for young people who eschew the traditional farming and fisheries sectors. This is just one of the challenges the government faces, in a district that many educated middle class residents insist, is still simmering. There is considerable frustration among young people which, if not managed, could further complicate post-war reconciliation.
Ramanathan is evidently tasked with soothing at least some of these tensions. An old boy of Mahajana College, Tellippilai, andSt. Thomas’ College,Mount Lavinia, he earned a master’s degree in engineering from Australia. But these are ancillary to his most attractive “qualifications”. This man has access to President Rajapakse through Namal, good relations with Basil and even claims he can meet Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse directly to discuss security matters.
They are privileges other parties, ostensibly the Tamil National Alliance, are deliberately deprived of. On that, Ramanathan—the mouthpiece of the SLFP—is clear. Any political party is free to work in Jaffna as long as it is “a national party that does not play the communal card”. This places the TNA clearly outside of the equation. In contrast, the United National Party is welcome, Ramanathan said, because they did not practice communal politics.
What about political rights for Tamils? Ramanathan does not dwell on these. He speaks instead about how Jaffna needs an educated workforce. The graduates who come to him for jobs “can’t even do a proper resume,” he says. And he laments that Jaffna people are not proactive—they wait for government jobs to land at their feet without out seeking out employment in the private sector.
“Basically, they are funded by diaspora,” he analyses. “Each family has two or three relations abroad. They have money coming, and Tommy t-shirts, motorbikes and perfumes. What else have they got to say other than, ‘I want rights’?
Three years, still nothing
In Vaddukoddai, some fifteen kilometres away, a group of social workers, community leaders and young men gather inside a cramped building they call “office”. It is just one dusty, little, shell-shocked room. A man explains that it was bombed during the war. They meet here to discuss village business.
Vaddukoddai is a quiet place with small houses, narrow lanes and paddy fields. Most gardens have fences of “poovarasu” or portia trees but mango, margosa, palmyrah and coconut grow aplenty. The main attraction is Jaffna College, a well-known seat of learning. The population consists predominantly of farming families but there is a strong educated, middle-class presence. Like many other settlements in the north, Vaddukoddai is caste-stratified.
The mood here is markedly subdued. Nobody is gushing about the government. They talk about rights, devolution of power, economic woes and about feeling sidelined. They complain of heavy military presence, of police corruption and about Douglas Devananda, leader of the Eelam People’s Democratic Party and member of cabinet.
Everyone spoke on condition of anonymity. “Three-years have passed since the war ended,” said an old man at the “office”. “What have we got?” It is a common refrain, a demonstration of how the government has failed to satisfactorily address expectations of post-war prosperity.
“Displaced people who lost the heads of their families must be able to earn their bread and butter each day,” the man continues. “People in our village need jobs. But we are jobless. There is nobody to look after us. The government says 90 percent of development funds are spent on the north and east. They have been of no use to us. Most of the workers for these projects are brought from the south.”
“Carpet roads is not development for us,” says a young social workers. “The government is doing that also for military purposes. The money paid for labour does not go to the needy of this district. Also, the north is under military rule. That is obvious. The government agent is a puppet and the governor, who is ex-military, is the most powerful man.”
This was another common chorus throughout the north—that G A Chandrasiri, the governor of the Northern Provinceand former commander of the Security Forces Headquarters of Jaffna—controls even minor administrative matters. “He must let local officers to act independently and to choose what we need,” said the old man earlier quoted. “Even if a pradeshiya sabha opts to develop this or that area, it goes to the governor. It is then the governor, Douglas and a few others who decide. They don’t allow democracy to flourish.”
Permission, permission, permission
A professional in Jaffna, who also requested anonymity, said Chandrasiri’s method of governance had instilled fear and frustration in the populace. It was stemming progress by “suffocating initiative,” he pointed out.
“Even to put up a simple, Tamil language billboard regarding an educational event or to organise a press conference on a malarial epidemic, you need permission from the governor,” this professional explained. “Whether this is paranoia, government control or merely the governor’s way of doing things needs further consideration. But this kind of control will not encourage healthy development in any part of the world.”
The governor and military must be notified of and invited to the opening of new businesses in Jaffna. This applies also to any other functions. Nothing can be organised without the governor’s or military’s approval. “When a military person is at a civil function, we don’t feel comfortable,” said a social worker in Jaffna. If we work in a local area, we have to talk first to the military commander there. If not they will send an officer to ask why we didn’t take permission from them.”
The more critical members of Jaffna society go so far as to say that the military has bettered the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in suppression, in choking legitimate thought and action. But Ramanathan maintains the military—and the governor—are invited to events merely because they are popular. Take Major General Mahinda Hathurusinghe, the Jaffna Security Forces commander. “One day, if he contests an election in Jaffna, he will win,” Ramanathan declared. “He is called to every meeting because he is respected. He is also invited to be a witness at weddings.”
The military maintains that it’s rebuilding the north and that’s not far wrong. The website of the Civil Military Coordination office of the Jaffna Security Forces is an inventory of good deeds. These range from medical and reading camps, blood donation campaigns and preparatory seminars for school exams to land clearing, road and house building, rugby training and anti-dengue campaigns. The army provides free, efficient, disciplined labour and gets any job done in a fraction of the time civilians take, says the government.
Paradoxically, people also complain of a lack of official control when it comes to crime—prostitution and pornography, child sex, drugs, alcohol, theft and murder. And because of the perception that these are worse now than before, it isn’t unusual to hear Jaffna residents hark wistfully back to the LTTE era.
“There are thieves and robbers now,” said a middle-aged man in Vaddukodai. “And there is still a gun culture, after the war ended. Some people are behind this. During LTTE time, we had problems but if someone played foul with a girl, he was shot in public.”
“We can observe one major thing,” said a non-governmental worker who did not wish to be named. “People, especially those from Vanni, lived under LTTE control for the last 30 years. They adapted to LTTE rules and regulations. Now they feel unable to adapt to the government system and this includes administration.”
“If a policeman comes out here at 5.00 pm, he has found 3,000 to 4,000 rupees by 6.00 pm,” smirked one Vaddukoddai resident. “They are very corrupt.” There were also not enough Tamil speaking policemen, he said. And there was general agreement that relations between police and people were superficial at best.
Still a lot to sort out
Although it was not something this writer delved deep into (or, indeed, saw evidence of), the group in Vaddukoddai also complained of “colonisation”. This controversial term loosely refers to the deliberate relocation and settlement of Sinhalese in the north by the government. It is allegedly done to alter the demographics in favour of the Sinhalese.
“They are doing it with help of the military,” said the old man. “Keep one thing in mind, madam, please. We are not against the Sinhalese. Write that down and underline in red ink. You buy a land here, build a house and come with your family, we will encourage. But we are against the government forcing it on the people ofJaffna.”
There is resentment, too, that Tamil people are shut out of certain areas of the north. “Take Ponnalai,” the old man explained. “It is the place where Their Sangamitta landed. It’s a high security zone. We can’t go. You can go because you are Sinhala. It’s very unfair.”
Three years after the war, the northern peninsula is a complex and confusing place. On the one hand, the farming and fishing community are “just getting on with it”. Cultivation is in full swing although the fisheries sector hasn’t quite recovered yet.
On the other hand, there is a dire shortfall of employment. Ramanathan had urged people to look to the private sector. “What private sector inJaffna?” asked a resident. “Our boys are down to taking watcher (security) jobs now.” Exaggeration? Perhaps. Whatever it is, these perceptions need to be sensitively addressed for reconciliation to take place.
The private sector hasn’t expanded into the peninsula the way it should have. However, one company that is growing fast in the north is Cargills (Ceylon) PLC. It already has five Food Cityoutlets including in Vavuniya and is set to open another in Chunnakam, the second largest city in Jaffna. It has linked up with 3,000 farmers and 200 toddy tappers to buy produce. It will inaugurate a four-storey commercial complex next year, complete with fast food restaurants and modern movie theatres. Construction has also started on a fruits and vegetables processing factory.
These will create hundreds of job opportunities for men and women. But no doubt any opening ceremony will require military permission and participation. And that is moot point in Jaffna. For any reconciliation to be truly whole—and for the people of the north to feel truly a part of the development process—the army needs to back off and leave the civilians to manage their own business.
Military presence, though scaled down, is still heavy and their involvement in civilian life sticks out like a sore thumb. Every Tamil subject interviewed in the north—but for Ramanathan—had objections to or questions about this.
One social worker observed that a soldier didn’t even have to say anything. “The non-verbal communication is generally negative,” he explained. “It says that the Sinhala solider is placed higher than the Tamil civilian.”
In the end, it boils down to a question of trust. If the government’s message continues to be that it cannot trust the Tamils of the north, the Tamils of the north will reply in kind.
“Terrorism tourism” is a rage in Mullaittivu. Busloads of trippers descend on the district every month to visit, among other things, miserable LTTE prison cells and fortified underground bunkers used by Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.
The heat is searing for the most part of the year. It is dry and dusty and the tour takes a day over potholed roads. The last leg, as you cross over to Puttumatalan, traverses devastated terrain. This is where the final battles took place, three years ago. It looks like it did then, even today.
There are mounds of twisted, rusting vehicles and their parts; shells of bombed out houses; sad, singed trees; and ghostly schools and hospitals. In some areas, the personal items of Tamils who were trapped in the fighting are still scattered on the ground—cups, plates, slippers and shreds of clothing.
The tourists, mostly Sinhalese from the south, come also in vans, packed like sardines; or in Canters, with their belongings swinging off the sides. They are often assisted by soldiers who point out the routes and provide commentary at the sites. They descend at designated spots—at the torture chambers; Prabhakaran’s two-storey and four-storey underground bunkers; a swimming pool, 83 feet in length and 22 feet deep, used to train Sea Tiger frogmen; an open-air war museum; the wreck of a Jordanian ship hijacked by the LTTE in 2006; the Nandikadal lagoon where Prabhakaran met his end, and other Tiger installations that are now under military control.
The tour is gripping. It provides valuable insights into the Tiger organisation and into how the war was won. It also allows the families of military personnel to visit areas where their sons fought, often unto death.
However, it is doubtful that “terrorism tourism”—in the manner it’s conducted in now—contributes anything towards the economy of Mullaittivu. People-to-people contact between Tamils and their Sinhala visitors is minimal, if at all. The Tamils get about their business on public transport, taking the same roads the tourists take. The tourists do not stop en route to interact with them; they do not inquire about their living conditions, their livelihoods or their experiences.
The visitors are predominantly from rural areas. They bring with them everything from dry goods, curry powders and cookers to bedding and cakes of soap. If they want a meal or a drink in the Mullaittivu district, they stop at the restaurants and shops run by the army.
Café 69 is a popular choice and sits prettily next to the swimming pool; it is run by the 69 division of the army and sells ices, fizzy drinks, Chinese rolls, pancakes and even boiled instant noodles. It is good business. The extreme heat drives the visitors to the ‘cool spots’ and there really is no place else to grab a meal.
Outside some of the “destinations”, there are stalls stocked with things like mangoes, sweetmeats, imitation jewellery, nelli cordial, and palmyrah jaggery and dried palmyrah shoots. “We are from Ratnapura,” one seller said. “All the sweets vendors, even inJaffna, are from Ratnapura.”
The crowds are unlikely to diminish in the near future. There is still insatiable curiosity about the Tigers and about the north. It is a pity that the local populace, struggling to emerge from decades of war and still living in poverty, are unable to share a slice of the action.
Courtesy Lanka Business Report print edition