After 30 years of war, Sri Lanka's Tamil community is finally connected again with the outside world. But peacetime has its own tensions -- and renewed conflict is always a possibility.
- By Ross TuttleRoss Tuttle is a freelance journalist and documentary producer based in New York City.
View photos of Jaffna’s Tamil community.
JAFFNA, Sri Lanka — On a late-summer day, a dozen tractors stopped in front of a Hindu temple just north of Jaffna, the once-future capital of an independent Tamil state. Each vehicle held aloft long wooden planks from which young men, with large metal hooks piercing the flesh of their backs and legs, hung horizontally; enormous crowds gathered around to watch and make offerings to the Hindu goddess Durga. It was a standard religious rite, an act of penance offered to a local deity — and a sight largely unseen throughout the nearly three decades of war between Tamil separatists and the Sri Lankan government that ended in May 2009.
More than a year later, the rhythms of ordinary life are slowly returning. The overnight curfew has been lifted, local markets are doing brisk business, and the streets bustle with traffic, as tractors, bikers, buses, pedestrians, and sometimes even cattle jockey for space. Residents are cautiously optimistic now that the war, which caused an estimated 100,000 deaths and displaced more than a million people since it began in 1983, is over.
Jaffna, a peninsular city on Sri Lanka’s northernmost tip, suffered the most. As the country’s largest Tamil-majority city, Jaffna became headquarters for the Tamil Tiger separatist insurgency; as a result, it essentially lived under siege or military blockade for the nearly 30 years of conflict. Road closures and checkpoints cut it off from the rest of the country, and the land mines that dotted the city kept the populace in constant fear. The economy was a shambles: Power outages were a regular occurrence, and goods were scarce. When they were available, they were often exorbitantly priced. The Tigers were effectively driven out of the city in 1995, but peace didn’t return until the separatists’ leadership was entirely decimated last year.
Jaffna is now firmly under the civilian control of the Sri Lankan government in Colombo — a situation whose attendant security benefits even locals seem to welcome. But a long-term political settlement with the Tamils has yet to be achieved, leading to quiet, but unmistakable tension on the streets.
“People are living freely,” says Aiyathurai Satchithanandam, a Tamil journalist. “There is no fear, but where is the political solution?” Without it, he maintains, there will be no lasting peace.
Most Tamils were never party to the armed conflict against the Sri Lankan state, but many are still dissatisfied by the post-bellum political status quo; they nurse longstanding grievances against the government in Colombo for its lack of respect and recognition of their language and culture. They still seek “equal rights and equal opportunity,” Satchithanandam says, and at their most ambitious they envision something akin to Canada’s multi-national federal framework, with self-rule on a local level for Tamil-occupied areas in the country’s north and east. Tamils expect to be presented with a political compromise, and soon.
“This is the most opportune moment to introduce a political solution,” says Mirak Raheem, a senior researcher at the nonpartisan Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a Sri Lankan NGO. Having won the war, Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is enjoying wide popularity, Raheem notes. Tamils — as well as many other Sri Lankans — expect him to leverage his political capital for a lasting peace while he has the chance.
Judged from life in Jaffna, while the war is certainly over, Tamil autonomy seems a distant dream. The first thing one notices about the city is the overwhelming military presence. By some estimates, there are as many as 40,000 Sri Lankan soldiers on the tiny peninsula. According to a European development worker, however, that marks an improvement. “There used to be armed soldiers every 20 meters; now it’s about every 50,” he says. But their very presence is a reminder of their mandate: to ensure that Tamils obey Colombo’s writ.
Ironically, the soldiers might now themselves be fomenting a renewed Tamil resistance. Many Tamils point to the amount and quality of land the Sri Lankan Army has occupied in Jaffna. Eighteen percent of the peninsula is designated a “High Security Zone” — land that used to belong to Tamils, but is now virtually off limits to anyone not in army uniform. The seizure of land has also complicated the resettlement of those Tamils who fled or were forced to flee during the last 30 years of violence. Some have been relocated elsewhere, but many thousands more remain in makeshift refugee camps that have outraged the Tamil population at large, as well as international human rights observers.
Tamils are also unnerved by the fact that the soldiers are almost entirely of the country’s dominant Sinhalese ethnicity, and thus don’t readily speak Tamil. In fact, the only language they usually share is English, their common colonial tongue. Tamils are so discomfited by the Sinhalese soldiers that they take pains to avoid earning their attention. Locals instruct their guests not to take photos of monuments dedicated to Tamil resistance figures until the Sri Lankan Army is out of sight; residents of Jaffna also show a preference for hiring taxis and rickshaws with older drivers, because Sri Lankan soldiers more readily suspect young people of being militants.
The war’s legacy is most evident in the city’s devastated infrastructure. Bombed-out, bullet-pocked buildings are scattered throughout the city. Jaffna’s central train station is now a massive ruin. The once-proud waterfront is now a sorrowful stretch of hollow building foundations, battleground remnants from the 1980s and 1990s.
Still, despite the simmering tension and lingering destruction, the people of Jaffna are mostly upbeat. Perhaps more than anything else, they are enjoying their freedom of movement. “For the first time in 30 years, we can go to the hospital in Colombo,” one local says.
Restaurants and hotels are reporting that business is increasing after decades of stagnation. Indeed, there has been a spike in domestic and expat travel since the road connecting Jaffna to the rest of the country opened in January — though some locals worry that tourism will drop precipitously once the novelty of visiting this once-forbidden city wears off.
Unfortunately, Colombo has been slow to commit resources or energy to a long-term rebuilding program for Jaffna. “In terms of development,” says the CPA’s Raheem, “the local concerns of the [Tamil] people are not being taken into account. They are feeling the lack of consultation and participation, and there is an overall sense of disempowerment.”
Tamils are still enjoying the immediate fruits of peace, but everyone knows it is a fragile calm. Satchithanandam, who in addition to his reporting duties also writes the horoscopes for the daily newspaper at which he works, offers a less-than-reassuring prediction. The people of Jaffna are willing to struggle nonviolently for some measure of political autonomy and economic dignity, but, he says, “If they have to, they will fight.”