‘We want justice, not fuel’: Sri Lankan Tamils on the North-South divide | Sri Lanka
For months now, protests and anger have echoed through Colombo, Sri Lanka’s largest city. Every day along the Galle Face seafront promenade, tens of thousands of people gathered to rage against the government which has plunged the country into the worst financial crisis in modern history.
But 200 miles to the north, in the Mullaitivu district, the streets are silent. The economic crisis has hit Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority, concentrated in the northern and eastern provinces, as hard as those in the south; the fishermen here say they are already starving. But they will also tell you that protesting is a privilege in Sri Lanka – a privilege that has never been granted to them.
“If we staged a protest here like they do at Galle Face, they would kill us,” said Ravikaran Thurairajah, 58, a former Mullaitivu councilor who has been arrested 14 times for his involvement in local peaceful protests. “We respect their struggle, but we don’t see our struggles represented there.”
13 years ago, three decades of civil war in Sri Lanka between the Tamil separatist militant group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – commonly known as the Tamil Tigers – and the Sri Lankan army came to a bloody end in this district. Tens of thousands of people lost their lives in the defeat of the LTTE and up to 100,000 people, mostly Tamils, were abducted by the Sri Lankan armed forces and were never seen again.
Since then, many residents of Mullaitivu have been demanding justice, accountability and political representation for Tamils. Among them is Mariasuresh Eswari, 49, whose husband, Mariyadas, a fisherman, was arrested by the navy in March 2009 as he went to collect his catch. He never came back.
In a protest that has lasted more than 3,000 days, dozens of wives and mothers have sat in a camp outside local administrative offices, demanding the return of their loved ones or answers about their whereabouts. But the price these women pay is heavy.
“Every time we protest, they issue court orders to arrest us,” Eswari said. “We were harassed, groped and beaten by the police. They use indecent language against us, and I had to be hospitalized recently after the police used force against us. Military intelligence puts us under constant surveillance.
With tears in her eyes, she pointed to the picture of her husband on the wall, yellowed and mottled with age. All around this makeshift office, the missing of Mullaitivu stare from the walls: frowning old men, stiff girls in school uniforms with bows in their hair, and awkwardly photoshopped teenagers against tropical backdrops.
“Where were the protests in the south when the military killed and took our families? asked Eswari, as she recounted climbing over corpses with her children in her arms as they tried to flee to safety at the end of the war. “It’s easy for them to protest there, it’s not the same here. When I see the demonstrations in Colombo, all I see is discrimination.
While those in Mullaitivu support calls in Colombo for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who is part of Sri Lanka’s most powerful political family, there is also frustration. The Rajapaksa dynasty has historically played on Sri Lanka’s ethnic tensions to win majority Sinhalese votes, and has almost no support among Tamils.
“We already rejected the Rajapaksas and their racist majority politics a long time ago,” said Thurairajah, the former adviser. “Unlike those people in Colombo who are protesting now, we never voted for them in 2019. We always said that this family would destroy this country.”
Mahinda Rajapaksa, the former president, was in power and Gotabaya Rajapaksa led the armed forces during the final and brutal phase of the war, when most of the deaths occurred in the north. Since Gotabaya Rakapaksa became president, all progress towards war crimes tribunals and accountability mechanisms for wartime atrocities has stalled.
It was feared that by joining the economic protests, other problems inflicted on Tamils in the north, especially around the land, would be drowned out. The loss of Tamil land to military and government agencies is seen by many as a concerted effort to change the demographics of the region. Several local Hindu temples where Tamils have worshiped for hundreds of years have recently been seized by the Department of Archeology for excavation, and new Buddhist temples are being built in their place.
In Mullaitivu, dozens of farmers have spent more than a decade trying unsuccessfully to reclaim their land, which they say has been illegally occupied by the army and where the Gotabaya naval base, named after Of the president.
“There have been invitations from the south for us to join them in protest, but there is a clear distinction between what they want and what we want,” said Prabhakaran Ranjana, 55, whose son is missing since May 2009. “We don’t want fuel and economic aid from the government, we want answers. We want justice for our people, we want our land back.
Although the widespread anti-government protests in Colombo have been largely dominated by the majority Sinhalese-Buddhist – with Muslims and Christians also taking part – there have been significant attempts to include Tamils. An event took place where the national anthem was sung in Tamil, a very rare event. And for the first time, memorials for those who died at the end of the war in Mullaitivu and a commemoration of the burning of the library in the Tamil city of Jaffna – considered one of the worst cultural atrocities perpetrated by the Sri Lankan army during the war – took place on 18 May.
Nevertheless, these efforts have all run into problems exposing the island’s continued ethnic segregation. A Buddhist monk said on stage that the national anthem should only be sung in Sinhalese, and attempts were made to stop the Mullaitivu memorial on the grounds that it glorified Tamil tigers. Disputes over the language used in the memorial were particularly thorny; in the south May 18 is celebrated as Victory Day, but in the north it is known as the anniversary of the Mullaitivu Genocide.
Unlike the south, which has benefited from decades of investment and development, residents of Mullaitivu said the difficult economic situation was not new to them. During the war they had no access to sugar, milk or soap, and many survived on boiled rice porridge, with the adults drinking the starchy water and giving the cereal to the children. “It feels like those war days again,” Ranjana said.
Growing economic deprivation, however, pushed one group of Mullaitvu to breaking point. Fishermen said they were on the brink of starvation because without paraffin to fuel their boats, they could no longer go fishing. Usually 1,600 boats would go out a day, supporting around 12,000 jobs, but now they are lucky if they can send any at all.
“The future is bleak for us if we don’t get fuel for the boats,” said Alagarasa Rasarathina, 53, who has been a fisherman all his life. “If we want to eat, we have to go to sea.” The fishermen said they were pooling their resources to buy paraffin from the hidden market for seven times the usual price, but even that was hard to come by and would not have supported the community.
“It’s very difficult to share this small catch among all the fishermen – it’s not enough to feed all the families,” Rasarathina said. “People are already hungry, they will soon start dying.”
Things were even more difficult for the workers who depend on odd jobs to repair and clean the fishing nets in exchange for a share of the catch. Now they have nothing at all. Vaithaijah Mariyai, 59, who lost five children in the war and relied on odd jobs on the boats, lives on donations, the last scraps of fish and a few vegetables she picked on the side of the road. “I don’t know how I’m going to survive after this,” she said.
Fishermen recently staged protests outside district offices, accusing the government of abandoning them to death, but the fuel has still not arrived. “Take a picture of us,” said a fisherman, Thiyakarasa Thiyagalingam, 42, as he sat looking sadly at all the beached fishing boats. “I don’t know how long we will stay here.”