The Jaffna that I experienced

Tamil diaspora should invest in the north and east to generate productive employment and wealth

By: Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

I lived in Jaffna for a total of two and half months between January and April’2011. I did not watch television, listen to the radio, read newspapers or access the internet while I was there. I tried to perceive what was going on around me, during interactions with people in day- to- day life. What I report here is definitely not the result of scientific surveys or any structured studies, but a summary of my personal experiences and impressions.


On a personal level, I enjoyed my stay thoroughly and re-discovered the simple joys of life, when out of the rat race. I enjoyed the clean air, the blue skies, the star lit nights, the cooling breeze and the sound of ‘Jaffanese’ Tamil. I enjoyed the sounds of nature- chirping of a variety of birds and the rustle of leaves, while being yet close enough to the sounds of modern life on the A9 highway. I enjoyed the freedom from fear, which is quite palpable in Jaffna. From the front porch, I could see a very old Palmyra tree- the tallest amongst those around- which stood not only tall, but also ramrod straight, despite having stood for thirty long years as a sentinel to a brutal war that had raged around it! I wondered whether the ‘Jaffna man’ ( called a ‘Panam Kottai- Palmyra seed), could be like this old Palmyra tree, despite all the adversity he has faced in the past thirty years!

I was able to sit long hours in my armchair thinking, what could be done to make Jaffna, our paradise on earth- a place that blends the old with the modern; a place which benefits economically from its natural beauty; a place that reflects its ancient culture, while yet adapting to the needs of the 21st century; a place that gives an opportunity for its people to be the best they can and become what they want to be ; a place where people can be productively employed and earn enough to lead a relatively modern life; and a place we can as a people and a country be proud. I thought of the lack of enlightened leadership among the Tamils and what could be done to remedy the situation. I wondered how we as a people could learn the right lessons from the past and move with a sense of mission towards a well- defined and practicable vision for the future. I thought of our past as a people, our present and what awaits us in the future, if the current aimless drift continues

I was able to figure out how my education and varied experiences can be best used, not only to keep me productive, but also to permit me at least in a small way demonstrate what is possible. I was able to imagine a Jaffna and a Vanni that have put to rest memories of a very sad past and embarked on a path to a glorious future, socially, economically, culturally and as a people. Importantly, I discovered myself during this stay in Jaffna and the experience was cathartic. I am sure this can happen only in a place that you truly belong and consider your home.

I also re-discovered the taste of garden-grown fresh vegetables and fresh fish. I enjoyed gardening and the experience of seeing seeds sprout, flowers bloom and fruits come forth. I enjoyed tending to the few trees planted by my late mother and brother that have survived the ravages of war, robbery, vandalism and chaos. I enjoyed re-making a home from almost total destruction and recalling a life when the long-deceased and long-dispersed family members were together in the same place, though the roof had changed. The scenes of death, sorrow and destruction I had witnessed in the same house, were only a very small part to be remembered of a long life that had its share of joys and other memories. The satisfaction that I had not given up in the face of adversity and had a resurrected a house and a home in Jaffna was immense. I feel that I have paid my respects to my mother, brother and the gardener killed by the IPKF in that house, by making it my abode again. I feel that I have also defied the forces that came together to destroy a dream at the centre of which was that house. The house, my life there and what I do there are tributes to those who lived and died there and an affirmation that life will continue, despite a past that cannot be forgotten.

Life in Jaffna continues to improve on many fronts, despite there not being discernable objectives and well-defined and far-sighted plans. The people are trying to advance themselves through various means, both fair and foul, in what could be best described as a political and social vacuum. Most people have learned to speak Sinhala and are able interact with the Sinhala officials, soldiers and police. The Sinhalese working in Jaffna too have learned to speak to the people in Tamil. This was a positive sign and this development is very visible in Jaffna town ( The same phenomenon is seen in the Wellawatte market, where the Sinhala traders communicate with their Tamil customers in Tamil). This has led to friendships and a loss of fear. Jaffna is definitely becoming less isolated by the day and more like other cosmopolitan areas-Colombo, Kandy and Badulla- of Sri Lanka. This is a welcome development. It is up to the Tamils to maintain their distinct identity as Jaffna Tamils, amidst the process that integrates them more and more into the national fabric. If we become less Tamil, less Hindu or less Christian as a result of the on-going process, it is we who have to be blamed. Isolation would not help in the 21st century and beyond. Isolationist thinking will only circumscribe our growth and development as a people. We have to grow and we have to get the best from all around us to make this growth wholesome.

However, I was also a victim of the downside to this phenomenon. On entering the ‘Sathosa’ outlet in Jaffna town, I was greeted in a very differential manner in Sinhala by the Tamil security guard. He had apparently mistaken me for a Sinhala official. On my identifying myself as a Tamil, he started talking to me in Tamil, but his tone had become a bit arrogant. When I had returned to the cashier’s counter with the things I had bought worth Rs.6000($ 55), he had become downright insulting and asked aloud for all other customers to hear, whether I was shopping for a wedding. I had to tell him rather sternly that it was none of his business whether I purchased things worth Rs 6000 or 600,000 and point out that this was not the way to serve customers. He there upon became very apologetic and meek. This incident demonstrated that some Tamils in even positions of security guards have adopted an attitude of servility and sycophancy when dealing with Sinhala officials and of arrogance when dealing with Tamils. Further, it demonstrated there is a level of poverty in Jaffna that makes Rs. 6000 appear a big amount to spend on groceries!

An encounter involving a driver, who had come with a technician in an electricity board vehicle in response to a complaint about power supply to my house, exposed arrogance similar to that seen at Sathosa. This driver spoke in such an arrogant and crude manner that he deserved to be dismissed on the spot. He behaved as though he was being very charitable in having come to deal with our problems. The officials of the electricity board had demanded old electricity bills to prove that the house had an electricity connection 23 years back, while all the while they had the required file in their possession. They were unmindful of the fact that there was a pronged war during which the house had been destroyed and the incumbents killed! From what I have heard, most Tamil public servants (especially in areas where they have to issue documents, permits etc.), behave in this manner towards the Tamil public in Jaffna and treat them with utter disdain and arrogance. While they deal with the Sinhala officials in the most servile manner (Former Government Agent Ganesh prostrated himself at the feet of the Governor of the Northern Province), they collude with the Tamil politicians ruling the roost, in committing crimes against the people they are expected to serve! I am told Sinhala officials in the governor’s office and such places are much more courteous to the Tamils they deal with. The same could be said of the army and police.

The Tamil public servants, who have served during the long years of turmoil in Jaffna, have forgotten they are servants of the public and are paid to serve the public. A war battered and impoverished people are being subject to the tyranny of an insensitive and allegedly corrupt public service. This is one of the major stumbling blocks to progress in Jaffna. Further, having know- towed to the LTTE during their rule in the province and survived, and having similarly obeyed the dictates of the armed forces during various phases of the conflict, the public service in Jaffna has lost its focus and the sensitivity required to serve the war-battered public.

Further, the people’s willingness to swim with the tide and be servile to survive has not only cost them plenty during the long years of conflict, but will also cost them dearly in the aftermath. The same attitude that made them address soldiers and policemen as ‘Sir’ and adopt a shameless and docile posture (obviously feigned) in the south and lose respect, during the long years of war, was also displayed in the same period towards the LTTE and the armed forces in the north and east. This spineless attitude made the LTTE the monster it became. This same attitude also cost them the respect they deserved from the armed forces during the long years of war. This servile attitude will also cost them their progress and recovery during the coming years.

The armed forces are now sensitive to criticism, from the public and the world at large. They are no doubt responding admirably to the needs of the post-war period. However, the people have to learn to deal with them forthrightly and behave in a manner to win their respect. ‘Self respect’ of an individual, a people or a nation should not be on sale, whatever the price may be. The armed forces will have a permanent presence in the north and east, as they are everywhere in the south, for years to come. They cannot be considered an occupation force any longer. There are the national armed forces and we are the citizens of the nation that employs them. They may have greater numbers of Tamils serving in their ranks in years to come. However, it is up to the Tamils to deal with this reality in a manner that befits them as a people and develop an equation that paves the way for a mutually respectful relationship.

The political structures that prevail presently in the north (and in the east) , are largely imposed, unrepresentative, qualitatively mediocre, corrupt and prone to violence. Many told me that they voted as they did in recent elections because they were paid Rs. 5000 to do so. The Tamil people no doubt deserve better, after what they had endured during the war. The government has erred grievously in imposing and sustaining this type of political structures in the liberated north and east. Instead of responding to the needs of a war-battered people in a sensitive manner, it has continued the war against the LTTE into the post war period by entrenching equally bad anti-LTTE elements in the north and east. It has in this process, permitted the rot in the form of remnants of old Tamil political thinking to slowly creep back and spew their venom.

What is glaringly absent in Jaffna, is definitely political, social and religious leadership at all levels of society. What is there is a political mafia of sorts that holds the structures of government and the people in its vicious grip. The people are not truly liberated yet, although the lands have been liberated. It is incumbent on the government, to take the measures in its power to clear the political stables and give the space and time for a new leadership attuned to the times and the future needs of the Tamils to evolve. The people are rearing to go. However, the entrenched political mafia is a hurdle they cannot overcome on their own, under the present circumstances. The government will pay a price in the medium and long term, if it is insensitive to this issue.

The war has definitely taken its toll in many insidious ways. The younger generation is intent on migrating in search of the El Dorado and the proverbial pot of gold, although there are plenty of opportunities in Jaffna for those who have the requisite skills to earn well. However, the image of a life of plenty in the west painted by expatriate Tamils and the continued efforts by expatriate relatives to take their kith and kin to the west, are major impediments to the youth building a life for themselves in Jaffna. To leave Sri Lanka, hook or by crook seems to be the goal of many youth. There is a grave shortage of skilled workers in Jaffna, and most of the few skilled workers available are mediocre, lack discipline and are unreliable. More and more workers from the east and the south have to be imported to Jaffna to meet her development needs. This has become a necessity and cannot be construed as a part of any devious grand design of the government.

The other effect of the overwhelming desire to migrate is on the marriageable females and their parents. Many instances of young girls who have been married by already married expatriate Tamil men and thereafter abandoned were brought to my attention. Stories of young women, who have been lured to Colombo and Vavuniya, by expatriate Tamil men- who claim they will be in danger, if they come to Jaffna- to be sexually used and there after abandoned- are often heard. In some instances, the parents of these young expatriate men- particularly the mothers collude, in order to grab dowries. A very worrying phenomenon has to be brought to an end.

The lure of easy money, coupled probably with necessity, has led many young girls astray. Stories of schoolgirls becoming part-time prostitutes and reports of high incidence of HIV- AIDS and abortions among them appear to be only the visible tip of an iceberg. The presence of a large number of young war-widows and young women married early to forestall LTTE conscription, but now divorced or abandoned, further contributes to a general break down in traditional values in Jaffna. Idle young men with money to throw and soldiers seeking female company in their leisure provide a ready market for such services. Drug addiction and drug peddling are also serious problems afflicting society.

Some skilled young men demand very high wages, far beyond the prevailing norms, for their services, in order to emulate the life style of their idle peers who are on a regular dole from their expatriate relatives. These dollar/ pound /euro dole receivers are parasites who are a burden on society. They ride new motor cycles, are expensively dressed, flaunt expensive mobile phones and frequent the restaurants that are abundant in Jaffna now. They are a bad example to the youth who have to earn a living to survive. They are also probably the ones who spread stories of police and military harassment, to qualify for the monthly dole and to support future asylum applications. Amidst this dismal scene, I came across a young graduate from the Jaffna University, who was willing to polish the floor of our house to earn his keep. Unfortunately, he too was dreaming of migrating to the west.

The lure of easy money also prevents many young men to shun employment. Managers at many supermarkets and hotels that have come up in Jaffna, complain they are unable to hire qualified staff and even retain the few who are hired. The need thus arises once again for trained staff to be imported from the south. The conversion rate of Rs. 110 to the dollar makes even a $ 100 transfer worth Rs.11, 000 in Sri Lanka. A Rs. 5000 monthly salary after thirty days of hard work is not an attractive proposition to these young men who have thrived on expatriate remittances for a long time. In contrast, many young women who have joined the work force in Jaffna are the embodiment of efficiency and courtesy. These young women hold the key to the future of Jaffna

Although agriculture has revived in Jaffna and products are being shipped in ever-increasing quantities to the south, it is an industry awaiting imminent decline. The sons of farmers are reluctant to take to agriculture, as they feel the income is not commiserating with the hard work and expenditure required. Most consider migration to the west as their only goal. While the parents toil the sons dream of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Unless, efforts are made to modernize agriculture and establish agro-industries directed towards value addition, agriculture in Jaffna is bound to be less attractive to the youth. An army officer who had been tasked to distribute vegetable seeds for home growing to families, told me that most families were not interested in taking up this offer. On witnessing my efforts at establishing a home- garden, he presented me several packets of seeds.

The unskilled and the less educated people, especially those with no relatives abroad to support them are largely unemployed and poor. The men in this category have become drunkards and drug addicts. They refuse to work and when willing, are very unproductive and unreliable. They engage in petty thievery most times and given the opportunity will engage in looting, robbery and even murder. Their women toil to keep home fires burning. This is a time bomb ticking in Jaffna, unless steps are taken to ameliorate their condition through social support, skill training and education to inculcate what is acceptable and unacceptable in a social context. The prolonged turmoil has eroded the morals, mores and value systems in Jaffna grievously. Concerted efforts are needed at the community, school, university and temple/church levels to correct these distortions on an urgent basis.

There are more motor cycles, bicycles and auto-rickshaws in Jaffna in terms of population than in the rest of Sri Lanka and more keep arriving from Colombo everyday. There has not been a proportionate increase in motor cars. The old Morris minors, Morris oxfords and Austins yet run and are being maintained rather well.

The traffic police are strict and very vigilant. The armed forces too maintain a stern vigil, especially at night to forestall criminality that rides motor cycles and auto rickshaws. Most people feel the police and armed force vigilance is justified, in view of incipient violence and criminality

Huge billboards/ hoardings coming up everywhere are an eye sore. The most scenic areas in Jaffna and the approach to it, are the victims of this environmental vandalism. Instead of developing these areas as attractions for tourism to Jaffna and as a source employment and income, the local authorities have sought to rent out space for these billboards for a pittance. These billboards are standing testimony to the quality of political leadership prevailing in Jaffna. It is time those in power, developed the tourist potential of Jaffna, in order to provide employment opportunities and enhance the self- esteem of the local inhabitants.

In conclusion, Jaffna is moving, but needs directions, corrections and investments. The expatriate remittances, while supporting many families in need, have also become a curse in many ways. The urge to migrate is also a curse that is undermining the recovery and long- term stability of Jaffna. The Tamil Diaspora should invest in the north and east to generate productive employment and wealth, instead of shadow boxing with the Sri Lankan government, under various guises. The educational, religious and social organizations should come forward to work among the people to correct the break down in societal vales that are a consequence of the prolonged conflict. The government should come forward to create the conditions for a progressive, honest and committed leadership to emerge among the Tamils and infuse a new work ethos in the public services.

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