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Struggle continues for Tamils in Sri Lanka

Jaffna in Sri Lanka Image source:

On Friday evenings, vans and tuk-tuks usually form long queues before Jaffna’s only shopping mall. There’s a hint of exquisite perfume in the air. Mothers in kurtas mind their colourfully attired children. Single young men sporting oversized wrist watches zip around on motorcycles. Though rare, one can even sight a few women in high heels.
Multiplexes screen the latest Indian blockbusters. Pizzas, hot chicken wings and ice cream sell like, well, hot cakes.
Even as the boisterous crowd inside the mall swells, hundreds of tradesmen and shopkeepers around the city perform a peculiar ritual: they kindle little bonfires in front of their stores, symbolically seeking the good by burning the bad.
This bruised and battered city of 88,000 (2012 figures) does have a lot of bad to burn, forget and let go of.

Located on the northern tip of Sri Lanka, Jaffna was once the bastion of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)—the dreaded terrorist group wiped out in 2009.
The nearly three-decade civil war between the LTTE-led ethnic Tamil minority and the government led to between 80,000 and 100,000 deaths and estimated economic losses of $200 billion–roughly five times the size of Sri Lanka’s GDP in 2009.
Its land once riddled with landmines and air constantly pierced by bullets, the capital of the country’s Northern Province has over the past few years been fighting a new battle: rebuilding itself.
A sudden turnaround story

Conflict taught Jaffna the virtues of thrift; for decades, it was on survival mode. “War-time economy was about producing one’s own food, using bicycles instead of cars and kerosene lamps instead of electric ones,” N. Vithyatharan, a senior journalist, recalls. There were no goods to spend on, so the locals accumulated wealth.

This saving habit, along with transfers from families abroad, gave Jaffna’s Tamils relative prosperity over those in the mainland’s Vanni region to the south. So, in recent years, many Hindu temples in Jaffna have been renovated. Several high profile restaurants have sprung up. Billboards of money transfer companies are found everywhere.
The city railway station was rebuilt with government funds and train connections with Colombo restored in 2014.
Tourism, though still anaemic, is growing. The city’s cultural institutions are expanding. Houses are getting rebuilt and new vehicles bought.
People, in general, are on a spending spree. The average monthly household expenditure in Jaffna district grew from Sri Lankan Rs22,725 ($158) in 2009 to Rs35,405 ($246) in 2013. The provincial GDP has doubled.
Clearly, the economy has come a long way since 2009.
Old and new

Globalisation has funneled itself into Jaffna mostly through India. Often, people know more about what’s happening in New Delhi and Chennai—capital of the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu—than in Colombo. Although their families have been in Sri Lanka for centuries, they’ve always thought of themselves as nearly Indians. They watch Indian television channels, listen to music from Tamil Nadu, and sometimes are even unsure whether to cheer for Indian or Sri Lankan cricket team.
Middle class city dwellers are fond of western fast food and Indian pop culture. Expensive gizmos are the new status symbols. Though still conservative—Jaffna isn’t the best place in the world to party—the locals are turning increasingly consumerist.
“The lifestyle of Jaffna’s people has changed and so has their spending pattern,” says N. Natharupan, vice-president of the local chamber of commerce and industry.
Old timers, however, miss the pre-war days. “Jaffna will never be the same again,” they murmur. The city’s social fabric has changed, they rue. Many original occupants who survived the war moved to other parts of the country, or left Sri Lanka altogether. The “nouveau rich” have taken their place and are eager to show off, say those who claim to remember “good old days.”
And it’s not just the people who have changed.
Take, for instance, the city’s eclectic architecture—a confluence of colonial and south Indian ideas. “Many old homes were destroyed in the shelling. Some old buildings were demolished to construct new ones in the manner seen in Indian movies. Today, it (the city) feels more like some random south Asian settlement,” says P. Ahilan, a professor of fine arts, Jaffna University.
The bustling city centre is rather chaotic and disorganised, with a jungle of wires and crude concrete blocks. Most of the buildings are colourfully plastered. Some old houses now have fancy glass facades and some new constructions have glittering logos on their grey and red walls.
Honour suicides

Right after the war, Jaffna went through a phase of exuberance. But this was also accompanied by disappointment and tragedy.
Expectations were high, including those of businessmen. Assuming that the local economy would now grow, some borrowed heavily to increase their holdings.
But the bubble burst. S. Sunthareswaran, a manager at the Colombo-based Hatton National Bank, says, “At that point, we noticed increased payment frauds and cheque returns.” That was one of the symptoms of the coming crisis.
“In 2013, newspapers reported over 30 cases of honour suicides by businessmen, mostly small traders, in Jaffna. Now bankruptcy has become quite normal and broke entrepreneurs just abandon their businesses and run away,” says Natharupan.
After one of his clients had killed himself, Sunthareswaran wrote an article explaining how the post-war economic change resulted in suicides. After it got published, trade organizations urged businessmen not to buy too much. But some problems remained.
Banks were among the first institutions to reopen after the war and proliferate. They started giving away loans on very bad terms, at least from the lender’s point of view, says M. Nilanthan, political columnist and university teacher. Farmers were some of the worst sufferers. They would also get lured by private finance companies into buying vehicles, paddy cutting machines and tractors that they didn’t really need.
Many of them, too, committed suicide. With almost 6,000 people (288 per 100,000 inhabitants) killing themselves every year, Sri Lanka has the fourth highest suicide rate in the world.
“They (banks) would extend loans prior to the harvest. Farmers would then splurge on, for instance, a flat TV for Rs (Sri Lankan) 50,000 (roughly $345),” explains Nilanthan. “But when they sold their crops, they couldn’t make ends meet. Unable to pay the installments, they then sold the TV for Rs 40,000, ending up with no money and no TV.”
The business challenges

Decades of conflict has left northern Sri Lanka’s Tamil little to restart their lives with. Industrial machinery was destroyed and buildings flattened. Skilled workers either fled or got channelised into the war. But something else weighed heavily on the economy: systemic bias.
Many local entrepreneurs feel they are being discriminated against by the state.

Credits: Quartz India

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PM Narendra Modi invokes ‘Chai Pe Charcha’ to establish an instant rapport with Indian origin Tamils of Sri Lanka

PM Narendra Modi. Wikimedia

Dickoya (Sri Lanka), May 12, 2017: Invoking his famous ‘chai pe charcha’ concept, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday sought to establish an instant rapport with the Indian origin Tamils of Sri Lanka, who dominate the plantation areas that produce the world famous Ceylon tea.

Not just that, he also spoke a couple of sentences in Tamil saying how delighted he was to meet them and how he considered it a big honour to get an opportunity to talk to them.

“I have a special association with tea,” he said as he began addressing the Indian origin Tamils, whose ancestors settled in this part of Sri Lanka about 200 years ago.

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“Discussion over tea”, which he had introduced during the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign, “was not just a slogan but a mark of deep respect for dignity and integrity of honest labour”, the Prime Minister said.

This assertion was received with thunderous clapping from the audience which also lapped up his quotes from Tamil saint Thiruvalluvar’s Thirukkural and scholar Kaniyan Poonkundranar to recall how ancient was the Tamil race and their message for the world.

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He also said that the plantation area had given birth to the iconic MGR and famous cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan, which again was received with a round of applause.

Modi, on a two-day visit to Sri Lanka primarily to attend the International Vesak Day celebrations, inaugurated a Rs 150 crore super-speciality hospital built with Indian assistance in Dickoya, home to a large Tamil community who are of Indian-origin. (IANS)

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Has PM Modi’s Jaffna visit done enough to heal the wounds of 30 year long civil war?



By Harshmeet Singh

Narendra Modi’s visit to war torn Jaffna in Sri Lanka is significant in more ways than one. Only the second international leader to pay a visit to Jaffna after Britain’s David Cameroon in 2013, the Indian PM handed over more than 27,000 homes to the local Tamils who were left without a roof after the deadly civil war.

The housing scheme, aimed at benefitting the war victims at Ilavalai in Jaffna, has been funded by the India and is a part of the reconciliation process undertaken by the Indian Government.


Jaffna has been the flashpoint of hostility between India and Sri Lanka for close to 30 years. Considered as the bastion of the Tamil Tiger forces, Jaffna was the site of outbreak of the civil war. Assassination of Jaffna’s mayor was the first major operation carried out by Prabhakaran. Soon after, Jaffna became the point of violent exchanges between the LTTE and Sri Lankan government, with the former maintaining its hold inside the area and latter attacking from outside in order to regain the territory.

Jaffna presents a classic case of a prosperous city being destroyed by war. Before the unfortunate Sri Lankan Civil War, Jaffna was the second most populated city in the country after Colombo. The majority of local population in the city comprises of Sri Lankan Tamils. The growing animosity between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils in Sri Lanka was constantly fuelled by the Government after Sri Lanka attained independence from Britain in 1948.

Liberation of Tamil majority areas, a key demand of the Tamil nationalist parties, was never taken seriously by the Government. Growing discrimination against the Tamils in Sri Lanka in terms of civil rights meant that the situation was soon about to be turned violent. Discontent among the Sri Lankan Tamils gave rise to a number of armed groups which were ready to wage an armed battle against the government. LTTE, led by Prabhakaran, was the most ferocious of these groups and either suppressed or merged other groups with itself.

India’s connection with Jaffna

Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to the island nation in 1987 was nothing less than a disaster. He was attacked by a naval soldier while inspecting the naval guard of honour at Sri Lankan President’s house. That action of the naval soldier trying to swipe off Rajiv Gandhi’s head with the reverse rifle was captured by media from all over the world. That one act summed up Sri Lanka’s feelings towards India at that point.

India’s involvement in Sri Lankan conflict can be owed to Tamil Nadu’s growing influence on the national politics due to the era of ‘coalition governments’. A strong supporter of Sri Lankan Tamils’ independence, Tamil Nadu government ensured that India supported the Tamil rebels in the northern province of Jaffna. Many people also believe that LTTE’s euphoric rise was only possible because of RAW’s training, arms and monetary help.

In 1987, while the LTTE was said to be breaking down against the Lankan forces, Indian air force was directed by the Indian Government to drop tonnes of food packets over Jaffna to ensure that the rebels’ resistance doesn’t break down. During Rajiv Gandhi’s visit, the two countries signed the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord which resulted in the introduction of the 13th amendment in the Sri Lankan constitution. The accord was aimed at providing equivalent civil rights to the Tamils.

The agreement also included the decision to post the Indian Peace Keeping Force in the conflict hit areas to ensure a cease fire and surrender of arms. This move turned out to be a blunder as more than 1,500 Indian soldiers lost their lives fighting LTTE after Prabhakaran refused to surrender. Prabhakaran wasn’t keen on accepting anything other than an independent Tamil Eelam. LTTE’s hatred against Rajiv Gandhi for ‘compromising’ with the Sri Lankan Government resulted in his assassination in 1991. Post the assassination, India decided to step back from the conflict and remain a neutral observer.

Far from being normal, thousands of Sri Lankan military troops are still stationed at Jaffna, despite the official end of the civil war many years ago, as if reminding the citizens that they will never be far from the site of a gun and bullet.

Significance of Modi’s visit

PM Modi’s historic visit to Jaffna and call for ‘equitable development and respect for all citizens in the island nation’ is an effort to heal the wounds of Tamils who suffered immensely at the hands of the conflict. His meeting with the Sri Lankan president is being considered by many as India’s attempt to establish closer relations and steering Sri Lanka away from the Chinese influence. Modi extended a support of $318 millions to assist Sri Lanka in changing the fortunes of its shabby railways network. During his visit, Modi also flagged off a train service to Talaimanner, the closest point to India, signalling the completion in work of the Northern Province Railway Line.

Modi’s call for devolution of power in the favour of Tamils, along with establishment of a cultural centre in Jaffna with India’s financial help is aimed at erasing the memories of Rajiv Gandhi’s visit and presenting India as a true partner.