Sitting next to a small poultry farm that she maintains in a garden in her house in northern Killinocchi, Rajini talks about the death of her father, brother and husband in the Sri Lankan civil war, which lasted for almost 30 years. The 46-year-old former company commander of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam breaks into tears as she recounts the tale of death and destruction. At times, she winces in pain, caused by the shrapnel still stuck in her body. Her daughter sits next to her, listening to the story of her struggle.
“This child does not remember anything of the war,” says Rajini, pointing towards the ten-year-old. But it was the little girl, who was just three then, who saved Rajini’s life by bringing her food, water and medical attention, when she was lying in a pool of blood in a hospital compound after suffering injuries from shelling in the final battle of May 2009. “Hundreds of people were lying covered in blood. The hospitals were overflowing with people,” she says.
Rajini joined the LTTE in 1987 and remained an active member till 2000. A year later, she married Sudhan, also an LTTE member. Sudhan surrendered to the army just a few days before the end of the war. But even after seven years, Rajini has no news about her husband. She now thinks that he is dead.
After the war, Rajini spent a year in the northern rehabilitation camp in Vavuniya where former Tamil rebels were given training in skills such as computer technology and sewing. Rajini is now accustomed to the life of a widow, which is quite different from the life she led as an LTTE commander. Her new house was built with assistance from various well-wishers, including the chief minister of the Northern Provincial Council and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme. Rajini’s past, however, continues to haunt her. Thrice a year, she has to present all security-related documentation to the army, which still reserves the authority to enter her house any time for investigation and surveillance. Yet, she knows that it could have been worse. She could have been one of the hundreds of Tamil detainees, most of them held without charge.
“Reconciliation is a much hyped word, but very little has been done by the government and other entities to promote it to a level that could be felt by the people of the north,” says Selvarasa Karunakaran, a former member of the LTTE’s media unit. He is today a poet and author, who leads a frugal life in a struggle to publish his works. Unfortunately for him, there is no market for books today in the province. Moreover, Tamil authors in the north could hardly hope to reach the Sinhalese community because there is no support for translations, although it could go a long way in promoting reconciliation. “If I publish 500 copies of a book, I will be lucky to sell 200 in the whole of northeast. People can’t afford even a meal a day. Where do they have money for books?” he asks.
The common feeling is that for reconciliation to be successful there should have been a genuine attempt to build trust between the state and the Tamils through rehabilitation, resettlement and assistance in wage earning for both former LTTE cadres and civilians. But that has not happened yet.
“The government gave us zinc sheets and cement bags and expected us to build houses with those. Although there are many NGOs in the Northern Province, their assistance is haphazard. They are represented by the elite class in Colombo or Jaffna with little presence at the grassroots level. There is no structured assistance for entrepreneurial activities by the government or non-government entities. There is also no targeted assistance to develop agro or fisheries industries in places like Killinocchi or Mullaitivu, which could have completely changed the poverty paradigm,” says Selvarasa.
Jeya Kumar Mahadevan, husband of former LTTE women’s wing leader, Subramaniam Sivakamy alias ‘Colonel’ Thamilini, says there is much potential for reconciliation between the Tamil and the Sinhala communities. He says, for instance, it was a Sinhala lawyer who volunteered to represent Thamilini free of charge when she was struggling to find a Tamil lawyer.
Thamilini, who succumbed to cancer last October, had surrendered before the army when the civil war ended. She was allowed to lead a civilian life after marrying Jeya Kumar, a British national, who left Sri Lanka before 1983, and had no association with the LTTE. Under the Shadow of a Sharp-Edged Blade, Thamilini’s autobiography published posthumously in Tamil and Sinhalese, reveals that during the last phase of the war, the LTTE shot at civilians who were trying to escape to army-controlled areas. Jeya Kumar says there was no coercion by the army to write the book. “If we are to look at aspects of truth and justice, then we have to be honest. Thamilini’s honesty is reflected in the book, which is an attempt at reconciliation between the Tamil and Sinhala communities,” he says.
While Jeya Kumar is trying to take his dead wife’s message to the Sinhalese, in Mullaitivu, which was the final battlefront of the war, senior Buddhist monk Medalankara Kiththi is equally keen to take Buddhism to the Hindu Tamils. Medalankara Kiththi lives in a building located in front of a military camp. The building has now been fully converted into a Buddhist temple. Medalankara Kiththi says there was a Buddhist temple on the premises centuries ago and he wants to reestablish the Sinhala connection. Pointing towards an ancient-looking stone embedded in the compound, Medalankara Kiththi says he has asked the archeological department to investigate whether it has a Buddhist heritage.
“I can stay here and live on alms from the army. But I do not want to do that. I want to go out to the people,” he says, asserting that the land he is occupying is state-owned and that he is not harming anyone.
Some distance away in the Kokkalai region, a Buddhist priest from Anuradhapura has started constructing a temple on a piece of property owned by local Tamils. He justifies his project pointing towards a Bodhi tree in the plot. A local Tamil says the project has displaced at least five families. “The monk is adamant that he will build the temple here in our land. He has offered money to buy the premises, but the owners do not want to sell. This is their family land and they want to stay here,” he says.
Allegations of state- and army-assisted Sinhala occupation of agricultural and private land remain one of the key issues that figure in the current political discussions between the government in Colombo and the Northern Provincial Council, along with the demand for the release of LTTE detainees. Of 12,000 acres occupied by the army in the north and east, nearly 4,000 acres were released after January 2015 by President Maithripala Sirisena. In Jaffna district, of the 6,000 acres, 1,000 acres have been released so far.
In Navatkuli, around 10 kilometres from Jaffna, a Buddhist temple, Buddhist flags and a stone structure painted white dot the entrance to what has now become a Sinhala village. The stone structure bears the name Sinhala Ravaya after a Buddhist nationalist movement that sprang up after the war. Occupying the newly constructed house adjacent to the temple is Malkanthi Wickremesinghe, the daughter of a navy officer. The mother of four grown-up children who live elsewhere, she is in tears as she says her family has lived in Jaffna from the 15th century. Strangely, her family never owned any land in Jaffna. The government gave her state-owned land in another location before the outbreak of the civil war.
“I did my schooling in Jaffna. It is the only place I knew as a child and as a young adult. We did not own property in Jaffna. We lived in rented houses and in the early 1980s, we received state-owned land in Jaffna. That area is now occupied by Tamils and we did not want to dislodge them. We are now granted this land and 57 families received around 20 perches [one perch = 25 sq. metre] each,” she says.
“We came here in 2010. We gathered all Sinhalese who once lived in Jaffna and those who wanted to live here once again by placing a newspaper advertisement. For three months we stayed at the Jaffna railway station. We then occupied this land. There were a hundred people with me. I lived in a hut for almost a year. Thereafter we received a donation from a Sinhala philanthropist. Later, with the support of the Buddhist priest, who also took up residence here, we started to construct our houses. We live here now without any problem. I have got a 15-perch plot for my son and I am now in the process of applying for assistance to construct a toilet,” says Malkanthi. She says the presence of Sinhalese in Jaffna would help in the process of integration and reconciliation. Shiromi, her sister-in-law, who had come for a visit from Anuradhapura, agrees and says she, too, wants to apply for land in Jaffna.
The Tamils of Jaffna, who have received little or no assistance to rebuild their houses and whose family land running into acres is still held by the army as high-security zones and military camps, do not seem excited about the demographic change. “Our land is in the vicinity of the military airport in Palali. Our friends, cousins, neighbours and hundreds of others, including farmers, have lost their family property because of the military occupation, which has not ended although the war got over in 2009,” says a local businessman.
“We are not objecting to it if ordinary Sinhalese want to buy land in the north as Tamils do in the south. What we are objecting to is the Sinhala colonisation with the tactical understanding and support of the military and state. This is the key factor that pushes back reconciliation along with the non-caring attitude of the government in restoring our industries and bringing back employment and livelihood opportunities,” says R. Jeyasekaram, president of the Jaffna Chamber of Commerce.
“For instance, five salterns in the Elephant Pass area supplied salt to the entire country before the war. Today, we import salt because there is no interest in reviving those salterns. The cement plant in Kankesanthurai remains abandoned. The 6,000 acres of agricultural land held by the armed forces in Weligama prevents produce such as cashew, coconut, sugarcane, grapes and mangoes being grown. Jaffna, prior to the war, was an agricultural hub that fed the country. Today it has become barren because of political neglect,” says Jeyasekaram. “North Lanka accounted for 40 per cent of the island’s gross domestic product before the conflict. Today it accounts for only 3 per cent,” he says.
Employment opportunities created by the state are largely limited to ventures started by the Board of Investment in Jaffna, which has set up garment factories in the region to tap cheap female labour available. Most workers are paid only around Sri Lankan Rs 15,000 (around Rs 6,500) a month.
Private investment, especially by the diaspora, is low, but investment in wind power, which generates an impressive 17MW, is increasing. There is significant potential in this regard, especially in the seven islands off the northern coast.
Focus on encouraging local entrepreneurship is virtually nonexistent with banks focusing more on making money with lifestyle loans than on encouraging loans for business ventures. Opportunities for young men are almost nonexistent and this is one reason behind the high crime rate in the north in recent years. The region of late has witnessed a proliferation of youth gangs, drug trade, sword fights, break-ins, chain snatching and pimping, vices which were unheard of in Jaffna, a city once known as a hub of learning, and hard work.
Despite the bleak situation in Jaffna, most people remain hopeful and much of it is the result of the immense popularity enjoyed by Sirisena, although his coalition government has so far proved to be incapable of providing any major redress to the problems of the Tamils.
“We are at least not harassed by the officials of the Criminal Investigations Department when Sirisena visits Jaffna. He trusts us and we trust him and hope that he will honour us by restoring to us the life we knew before the war, along with our political demands,” says a senior citizen. “We will give him time. We will wait and see.”