PM Sri Lanka visit: Long road to Jaffna

Published: April 20, 2015 - 15:25 Updated: June 16, 2015 - 14:29

Narendra Modi’s visit to the northern province of Lanka was a historic first by an Indian PM, but India must be pro-active with measures that will help post-war reconstruction 

Maya Mirchandani Jaffna 

The welcoming flags and banners along the highway from the airport to downtown Colombo were the first indications of the importance Sri Lanka attached to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit in March.

It was the culmination of two months of pro-active diplomacy on both sides, and indicated just how far India’s relationship with its island neighbour has come since a carefully orchestrated coalition ousted the government of former President Mahinda Rajapakse in January. But even though President Maithripala Sirisena seems a more willing dance partner, continuing squabbles over fishing rights in the Palk Strait threaten to break India’s rhythm.

Following exchanges of visits by the countries’ foreign ministers, a visit by President Sirisena to Delhi and a visit by Indian Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar to Colombo, Modi’s trip marked the first by an Indian Prime Minister to Sri Lanka in 28 years. And his visit to Jaffna in the Tamil north was a historic first.

However, despite those milestones and the release of 54 Indian fishermen from Lankan custody following the visit, Sri Lanka’s maritime border conflict has by no means been solved.

After Modi’s departure, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe lost no time in reminding India that its fishing boats are not welcome in his country’s waters—and if they cross the maritime border the Lankan navy is well within its rights to shoot.

He had good reason for such tough talk.

Though India calls the dispute over fishing rights a humanitarian issue that affects the livelihoods of fishermen in Tamil Nadu, the situation is even more worrisome for the fishing community of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province.

The coastal village of Ilaivalai, 20-odd km north of Jaffna, is a case in point. Six years after the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) ended, Jaffna’s heavily aid-dependent economy, based primarily on agriculture and fisheries, is floundering. The village’s tiny, traditional boats are no match for the trawlers used by Tamil Nadu’s fishermen—which not only strip the water of fish through bottom-trawling but also cause significant environmental damage.

In a moment of dark humour, Northern Province Chief Minister CV  Wigneswaran explains ruefully how bad conditions have become. “Our resources on the seabed are being completely denuded. The Indian side is just like my head here,” he says, pointing to his bald pate.

As Jaffna’s fishermen struggle to make ends meet, the chief minister and other leaders of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), in power in the Northern Province, say that if Tamil Nadu’s political parties really want to help their cause, they should convince the state’s fishing associations to ban trawlers and help the fishermen’s livelihoods.

They may consider the Prime Minister’s threat to shoot at Indian boats “unfortunate”, as Wigneswaran called it. But local leaders all agree with Colombo on the need for a complete ban on trawlers in these shallow waters. In fact, Chief Minister Wigneswaran goes a step further and says there is no objection to the trawling as long as they take the trawlers out to the deep ocean and keep out of the Strait.

The TNA’s Member of Parliament, MA Sumanthiran, says they welcome emotional support from Tamil Nadu. “But at the same time, we urge them to consider our stand and not to strike a discordant voice,” he says. “We have clearly articulated a position of a political solution within an undivided country. They must realise, if they are to be supportive of us, they should support what we want.”And an important part of what they want is the return of livelihoods and incomes for Jaffna’s local population.

In his speeches, Modi referred to the need to find a mechanism to resolve the crisis, but the Indian government is also clear that Tamil Nadu’s fishing associations need to come up with a solution to the trawlers themselves first. Ever savvy in such matters, Modi touched on that “emotional support” by pushing for the implementation of the 13th Amendment, which devolves political power to the Tamil-dominated North and East of Sri Lanka within the framework of the Sri Lankan nation.

Speaking in Sri Lanka’s Parliament, he urged Colombo not only to implement but to “go beyond” the 13th Amendment soon. Moreover, in a meeting with the leaders of the Tamil National Alliance, Modi also urged them to be patient with Colombo’s new government and give its new leaders time to make good on
their commitments.

For his part, Wigneswaran, saying it’s time Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority and its minority communities got together to close decades of communal rift, reacted to Modi’s advice by saying that “in 67 years, Colombo has never worked without pressure”.

That pressure, according to Sumanthiran, must come from Delhi. “We have achieved this much, the system of Provincial Councils came into being only with India’s intervention,” he says.

Wigneswaran backs this position, saying they look to India to play the role of “collaborator, mediator
and facilitator”.

But India must do more than aid political wrangling to strengthen ties, especially given the expanding influence of China in the island nation. Modi made progress in that regard as well, handing over some of the 27,000 out of a promised 50,000 homes built with Indian aid for families displaced by the war in 2010. India also began work on the rail network to connect the north with the rest of the country. A year later, in 2011, India and Sri Lanka signed an MoU to rebuild the port at Kankesanturai, eight kilometres from Ilaivalai, and the closest point of entry for Indian goods into Sri Lanka.

To the visitor, Jaffna today is a different city altogether. While reminders of the war can be found around every corner—bullets lodged in old walls, burnt plots of land still waiting to be cleaned up et al—the city looks new in many parts. New malls and hospitals, good roads and the swanky offices of many of Sri Lanka’s biggest banks are everywhere. Many of its residents admit the road network is the Rajapakse government’s singular contribution to post-war reconstruction in Jaffna. But because this was done through foreign aid or external contracts and labour that came in, worked and left, these projects haven’t generated either jobs or incomes in the region, they say.

Ahilan Kadirgamar, a research scholar whose family left Jaffna when the war started, has returned to complete his doctoral thesis on post-war reconstruction. Calling these signs of development an empty shell, he fears a massive socio-economic crisis is ahead if long-term investment and industry don’t come in. “The Rajapakse government was not really interested in people-centric development,” he says. According to him, apart from big industry and infrastructure, Rajapakse did little to revitalise the local economy and industry tied to agriculture and fishing. Meanwhile, as posh as they may make the place look, the banks are part of a bigger problem. Locals, attracted by low-interest rates, borrowed heavily to buy everything from consumer goods to tractors for their land. Based on his own research, Kadirgamar says “landless labour is indebted to the tune of two to four lakh Sri Lankan rupees and will never be able to pay it back”.

Land ownership is a major rallying point for the people of Jaffna. Some 6,500 acres were taken from their original owners by the military during the war. The demand for Colombo to release and return that property is as loud as the demand for war crimes investigations. The new Sirisena government in Colombo pledged a release of 1,000 acres as soon as it was elected, but delivery has been slow in coming. Sumanthiran tells us “villagers have been taken to review only 200-odd acres of that land just two weeks ago. So the actual return seems to still be a long way off”.

Despite the end of the war, the region remains heavily militarised. Already under attack for resisting open and fair investigations into war crimes and human rights violations, the Rajapakse government continued to strike fear in the hearts of residents long after the shelling stopped. Without wanting to reveal their identities, many people told us it was near impossible to meet journalists before January without being worried about the consequences.

With Rajapakse gone, spirits are lighter. But they say the TNA’s engagement with the new government has to be calibrated differently. While in Colombo, they must push the new government on war crimes investigations, as well as political devolution of power to Sri Lanka’s Tamils. But in the province they must focus on effective governance and the pressing need to revive the economy – where other obstacles remain.

Chief Minister Wigneswaran says he still hasn’t received a budget for independent local development efforts, and even for basic schemes the money is completely controlled by Colombo.

At the same time, optimism continues to run high, even among residents like Kadirgamar whose uncle, a former foreign minister, was gunned down by an LTTE sniper. “The kind of opening the Sirisena government has brought with it doesn’t come often,” he says.

“Whether you agree [with them] or not, now people are organising protests in Jaffna, [which means] the space has opened up [for dissent], and I think the attitude of the government is also very different, but this requires engagement on both sides. The Tamil community also needs to go through the process of self-criticism.”

Nearly three decades of war has taken its toll in many ways. Jaffna’s population shrank from 900,000 to 600,000 as residents fled the fighting. Six years of peace has seen some of them return. Tilak Tilagharaj, the owner of Jaffna’s first new hotel, Tilko, named for himself and his wife, Kokila, made the move from the UK, buying derelict, unused land, and building on it. Based on his own experience on his first visit back during peacetime, Tilagharaj says for donors or investors to work here, they first need a place to stay. His business now employs about 150 people in all. “I took a big risk, but I wanted to be a pilot for others to come back too.” He also echoes Kadirgamar on Rajapakse’s development focus. “We have good roads, but what else?” he asks.

Tilagharaj and Kadirgamar, both in very different fields, are driven by the need to return Jaffna to its lost glory of an economic, cultural and political hub for Sri Lanka’s Tamils. Like them, others are beginning to make the journey home, albeit in small numbers. And while they all agree that the road to Jaffna has improved in the past six years, the path to thriving self-reliance promises to take much longer.  

The writer is Senior Foreign Editor, NDTV

This story is from print issue of HardNews