Wary peace in shade of banyan trees as Tamils and Sinhalese move beyond Sri Lankan conflict
The bullet-gouged buildings of Jaffna are a testament to the civil war’s toll
The Nallur Kandasawmy temple in Jaffna, a major Tamil shrine. Photograph: Tom Farrell
It is a rainy evening as worshippers gather at the Nallur Kandaswamy Temple, one of the most important Hindu shrines in Sri Lanka. Located just outside the major northern city of Jaffna, the gopura (towers) of the temple loom over the spiky palms and rooftops of the nearby suburbs.
A new gopuram was erected in 2011; like the others, it is arranged in ascending levels, each tortuously carved into a multicoloured riot of deities. Jaffna and its surrounding environs are located on a claw-like peninsula, almost reaching to the southern tip of India. Even before Sri Lanka’s civil war erupted in 1983, Jaffna felt culturally detached from the lush south and central sectors of the island, areas where the Buddhist Sinhalese race predominate.
From out of loudspeakers, Sanskrit prayers to Lord Murugan, god of war and victory, drift around the complex. He is particularly revered by the Tamils of Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern fringes, about 12 per cent of the population compared with around 75 per cent Sinhalese. Both Sinhalese and Tamils have lived on the Indian Ocean island for about two millennia. The Nallur shrine has existed in some form since the 10th century. “We don’t have a curfew anymore,” says Selva (19) a media student at a nearby ice cream shop, “now anyone can come here.”
Until their military defeat in May 2009, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) or Tamil Tigers fought a remorseless campaign to carve away Eelam, a Tamil state in the north and east. Jaffna was always at the epicentre of that war. The first Tiger ambushes against the security forces took place in these streets. Until its demolition four years ago, a decorated pillar stood near the temple entrance, commemorating a LTTE leader who fasted to death there in September 1987 to rally public support for the cause.
A quaint English car is parked near the temple. Even five years after the end of the war, Jaffna has the feel of an Anglophile Havana. Austin, Morris and Mini models, long extinct from Surbiton or Huddersfield, are commonly seen, immaculately maintained, beneath the banyan and palmyra trees of the Jaffna suburbs.
Locals tell of the dark days of the 1980s and 1990s, when the city passed between periods of Sri Lankan army and LTTE control. Even today, derelict and bullet-gouged buildings on many streets bear witness to that era. Cut off from the rest of the island by the fighting, Jaffna residents improvised electricity generators with vegetable oil and made paper out of dried palm fronds. This reflects not just the privations of war but the ingenuity of the Tamil people themselves, a quality that won many of them privileged positions in the colonial bureaucracy.
But Sri Lanka’s two main communities began to drift inexorably apart once the British departed in 1948. Spared the bloodshed that accompanied the partition of India-Pakistan, the politics of Ceylon (renamed Sri Lanka in 1972) came to be dominated by Sinhalese- Buddhist populism. Tamils were marginalised by discriminatory laws and bore the brunt of pogroms by Sinhalese extremists in 1958, 1977 and 1981. These helped push many Tamil youths away from parliamentary politics towards armed militancy.
War crimes allegations
On a side street the beaming features of President Mahinda Rajapaksa adorn a billboard. He assumed office in November 2005 when peace talks with the Tigers were deadlocked. Fighting resumed in August 2006 and since the end of the war his ruling United Peoples’ Freedom Alliance (UPFA) has been dogged by allegations that the recapture of all Tiger territory by May 2009 was accompanied by war crimes, including the shelling civilians and the execution of captured prisoners.
The March 2011 report instigated at the behest of United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, known as the Darusman report (after its Indonesian chairman Marzuki Darusman) alleged culpability by both sides in violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The UPFA government responded with its own report, the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), released that December along with about 30 recommendations.
The Rajapaksa government has been warned by UN high commissioner for human rights Navi Pillay, following her visit to Sri Lanka last September, that if certain LLRC recommendations are not implemented by March she will recommend the UN Human Rights Council carries out an independent probe into events during the final weeks of the war.
“Cameron! Cameron is going to help us after March,” exclaims Siva Muralitharn, a middle-aged shopkeeper on a street near the Rajapaksa billboard, commenting on the November visit to Jaffna after which the British prime minister said he would use Britain’s seat on the UN Human Rights Council to push for an independent probe if the LLRC was not implemented.
The ubiquitous tuk-tuks (motorised trishaws) pour through Jaffna’s streets, along with bicycles, cars and packed buses. Near the central bus station huge flatfish from the Jaffna Lagoon hang from store fronts. There are also adverts for Nelli crush, a soft drink derived from wild berries. The Jaffna peninsula’s economy was traditionally based on fishing and the framing of rice, onions and chillies.
The civil war devastated the local economy and a government drive is under way to repair the local infrastructure. Close to the 17th century Portuguese-built Jaffna Fort, a new station is being built.
Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, director of a nongovernmental advocacy group, the Centre for Policy Alternatives, says the Rajapaksa government does not intend to offer Tamils autonomy in the north.
“The government has put all its eggs into this basket of saying economic development is going to be the panacea for reconciliation and unity,” he says.
The once bullet-scarred ramparts of the fort have been repaired and tourists, some Sinhalese, pose for photographs. A 31-year-old Tamil named Krishnakumar says he lives on 800 rupees per week (about €4.50) and gives thumbs up at the mention of Vellupillai Prabhakaran, the Tamil Tigers’ supreme commander.
“Mr Prabhakaran very good, now in America,” he says, repeating belief among some Tamils that when state television displayed the Tiger leader’s lifeless corpse in May 2009, after the last scrap of rebel territory was captured, the footage was faked.
As leader, Prabhakaran slaughtered Tamils opposed to the Tigers, conscripted child soldiers into his army and masterminded devastating suicide bomb attacks in Sinhalese areas. But the army presence is resented: 16 out of 19 divisions are stationed in Tamil areas, an estimated 85,000 soldiers, not including the navy and air force.
And even if the Tigers have been obliterated within Sri Lanka, nationalist aspirations persist among many Tamils. In September the Northern Province had its first provincial council elections in 25 years. They resulted in a decisive victory for the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), a former electoral proxy of the Tigers. The TNA, whose members include some former militants, won 30 out of 38 council seats. The north is now the only one of Sri Lanka’s nine provinces not held by the ruling UPFA coalition.
Its leadership alleges the continued military presence in the north will be followed by the government resettling large numbers of Sinhalese around army camps, gradually diluting the Tamil presence.
“First you militarise the whole area. Second, you bring the Sinhalese and settle them down. They already started these things,” says MP Suresh Premachandran of the TNA.
The military has certainly put its stamp on the territory just south of the peninsula, a region once controlled by the Tigers. At a junction just off the A9 highway that links Jaffna peninsula with the south, the forces have erected a massive concrete cuboid, fractured by a brass bullet. It commemorates the “humanitarian operation” to “eradicate terrorism entirely from our motherland” by the army’s divisions 57 and 58.
Further along the A9 is the collapsed concrete barrel that was once a water tower. Peppered with bullet holes, the tower is said to have been blown up as the Tigers retreated from the area for the last time in January 2009. Nearby is a souvenir shop, opened by Namal Rajapaksa, minister for youth and son of the president. A hoarding in Sinhalese, Tamil and English beside the tower says: “Never Again!”
Asked if this is really the case, a 27-year old Sinhalese woman who requests anonymity says: “Hopefully so. We can’t afford another war. It will be the end of Sri Lanka.”