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Sunday, February 25, 2024

Amongst the palmyrahs: The delusion of two tales (A Southerner’s journey into North )

Image courtesy of Ceylon Daily news.

BY Sunera Bandara.

  • A Southerner’s journey into the North to explore the narrative divide of a ‘unified’ nation

The last two days have been both exhausting and revelatory. Though they say great things come through great pain, we must understand that no situation is without its vices.

Having headed off to the North from the Colombo District to see what had happened to the Northern side post-civil war, the idea that I had been presented seemed to be the stereotypical image of what a militarised setting is.

Reaching our destination was no difficulty, as it is a straight road that leads directly there. Heading through Anuradhapura, stopping by a famous temple to take pictures and then continuing onwards after being told off by a soothsayer for not wanting my face read, the ride was fine. Coming to Vavuniya was unexpectedly different.

To characterise our trip to the North I would have to be quite specific. The North-South divide is often placed in the international imagination as an abstraction when really, it is a physical and actual reality.

The North is a totally different jurisdiction from the Southern provinces. Perhaps you may think that I’m exaggerating – please keep reading.

Amidst a military presence

In Vavuniya, the striking concern was not only the dilapidation but also the disorganisation that the civilians of the North had to walk through amidst a military presence that had clearly overstepped its bounds. Perhaps it was the fact that one would hope military enforcement would bring about organisation. This was not so since organisation seemed so lacking and sparse that a desperate chaos rose out of every walk of life.

Vavuniya’s bus station was completely cluttered. A statue of a soldier stood opposite it and people walked by as if it were just another cloud in the sky. And that was just Vavuniya.

It is not normal

Reaching Mullaitivu, the presence of military structures just became more apparent. In fact, it became so apparent that pointing them out became a chore. I, who had known about the militarisation of the North, had only a cartoonish image of a few soldiers within some camps. When you see the sprawling acres of military camps throughout the Vanni District you may have to pinch yourself. It is not normal.

I spoke to three people on the first day there – a representative of an organisation for mothers looking for their disappeared children, a representative of the Local Government who helped with the land grab cases, and a member of a fisherman’s union in the same district. All had grievances that pointed to the military as the principal agitator. The fisherman had a very interesting case to bring, where he spoke about the threats to the livelihoods of ordinary Tamil fishermen as they had to compete with what sounded like corporate fishing trawlers that were allowed into Sri Lankan waters and had an immediate connection to Tamil Nadu fishermen.

The level of betrayal is what bothers me the most about this entire setting, but I won’t waste words on emotion for now. These are just the facts.

Emptiness of the streets

As it got dark, we visited a tsunami memorial church with the names of the dead written on black stone. The seaside was covered in boats. You would be struck by the emptiness of the streets. I remarked about the lack of cats. It was hardly a joke; there seemed to be problems in this part of the country that escaped the normal imagination.

We went to breakfast at a local chain called Ammachi. A colleague of mine told me that it was a type of female empowerment initiative since most of the cooks were women. Perhaps I missed the significance of that then – I remember now that one thing that particularly struck me was the obvious lack of men.

On the second day, I met a woman whose husband and her son had disappeared. She questioned and continues to question the military’s motive for having taken members of her family, especially her baby son, whom she had handed over willingly to the army at the end of the war.

A confusing joke

Though she said she had not been coerced to do so, she never saw her son again. Despite claims from the Government, which gave no answers, she had tried to find her child in the midst of various bureaucratic organisations that seemed only to repeat the same lie.

To her, it had become a confusing joke. The military had spent a great deal of time convincing the public of their great rehabilitation efforts. But we don’t actually see any of these rehabilitation efforts; we are only aware of expressed ideas.

That day, I was able to attend the funeral of a photographer who had been a prominent activist in the cause of Northern Tamil rights. The funeral took place far from the family home, along a muddy trail. It had been raining for many hours and people walked through mud to get to the body. I also visited the family home of the deceased to pay my respects. We noticed that amongst the posters conveying condolences, one of the main political figures in the country, Wimal Weerawansa, had also placed his. Of course, no politician wastes an opportunity to rally, even at such a sensitive time.

A haunting beauty

What also struck me was the North’s eco-diversity – its fearsome and often haunting beauty. Despite the long and empty roads where few people gathered, the density of the demographic shrinking by the day, animals still coalesced here and there. All kinds of birds gathered so close to the road I wondered why birds, which often fled from humans, had ventured so close to human habitations. The answer is due to population sparsity. Mullaitivu was a ghost town. Across from one of the principal no fire zones (NFZ) is a Hindu temple. It was pointed out to me that members of the Army also came to pray there.

Fate of the civilians 

On the third and final day of the journey, I met a farmer and his wife who lived in a settlement just opposite a military-occupied zone that had once been their land. Just to make this point clear, none of these laws are actual lines drawn in the sand. They are inferred from practice and have become the custom through fear. There is no separate legislative framework that delineates the method in which the military works. Instead, civilians have to deduce and adapt to the military’s demands which are a mixture of increasingly aggressive threats and intimidation as well as obscure intentions. Since there is no legislative framework that shows their action and how to cooperate or challenge it, the military is effectively able to get away with just about anything.

They told us not only about how the military had taken over their lands and provided no compensation for the use of its resources but also about how the military had taken great pains to allow the introduction of wild elephants from the South into the North. These wild elephants harm the ecosystem by messing with the livelihood of people like the farmer and his wife who made no small complaint about the direct effect it has had on their lives.

Watchful eyes 

The farmer and his wife also told us that the latter had found bullets in the previous night’s rice while preparing breakfast the next day. This was obviously a factor of intimidation that is not just a random occurrence or grudge, but a sophisticated attempt at psychological operation practised at the civilian level to keep the Tamil population completely afraid of stepping out of line. Visiting the same restaurant on the third day, we were watched by at least five different people. Two were plain-clothes Policemen and the others were community informants.

Visiting a famous contested religious site, I noticed that the army did not seem to care about the Tamil Hindu claims. Situated directly opposite another military camp overlooking the sea, Buddhist temple structures are well drawn out with a Bo tree planted. The monk in charge sits in the temple. The Hindu statues had been removed without the permission of the priest. The usual ceremony that occurs when moving religious statues had also not taken place. The story goes that Sinhalese Buddhists had decided to come to this particular spot where they claimed it was perhaps a Buddhist site despite there being no instances of Sinhalese Buddhists in that region.

Upon leaving, though feeling sadness at departure, since I have never been good at goodbyes, I hoped that the meetings would occur again sooner rather than later since evidence of friendship is proof that this problem can be solved.

Genocide in both the cultural and physical sense

What the Tamils are going through in the North today is a complete and utter genocide in both the cultural and physical sense. Though I do not believe that there was a genocide at the end of the war, I myself believe that there is a genocide happening now. The narrative of “no genocide” enabled the military to justify its brutal occupation of the North by labelling each one of the Tamil demographic there as embryonic terrorist suspects who may resurrect the LTTE. It is also the back and forth of various international groups and lobbyists that have caused such a distraction from the main and pertinent issue: the militarisation of the North and the subsequent physical and cultural genocide of the Northern Tamil people. I actually saw no proof of an LTTE insurrection or any inkling of such. With such a huge military presence, you’d presuppose that the only thing a Tamil would want to do would be to survive rather than create further issues for themselves. But since the military continuously labels the North as a terrorist threat by proxy, the eyes of the South, having been bombarded by so much wartime propaganda, are able to follow this pseudo-patriotic tune to the letter.

In reality, the entire demography of the North has been manipulated to leave, fight each other, or die; all with the military’s implied purpose of resettling Sinhalese people there. For whatever purpose, be it mythological or whether the Government actually thinks it would revitalise the Northern provincial economy, is still unknown since the Government does not even admit that the military solely governs the North as the Government solely rules the South.

Separated into two zones

This fact is never admitted since it would disrupt the “one nation, one law” myth which has been running as a unifying narrative despite the solid and harsh truth that we live on an island in which the South is only connected to the North by land. Even though geographically they are part of the same landmass, by law, they have been separated into two zones, where in the South you can enjoy the freedoms of Westernised tourist culture, partying, and nice hotels, but in the North, you can only enjoy the museum of the horrors of war, which, we are aptly reminded, are the gestures and goodwill of the “humanitarian operation” in which, ironically, only the military are victorious.

Looking at the North today, and coming back from it, I can only compare the situation to Israel and Palestine; whilst the situations are distinct, the concepts and ideas that have been embedded in the cultural exchange there between both the military class and the civilian subjects are quite honestly identical to what is occurring in the North. Just replace the words “military” and “Tamil” with “Zionist” and “Hamas”, and you have the perfect dialectical narrative to achieve a divided State. But it’s okay; we are constantly told by our Government that our country post-war is now finally unified and that is why Independence Day expenses amount to millions of rupees – because the entire country is unified and independent and because we must accept this fact. You wouldn’t want to be called a separatist, now would you?


(The writer is a law graduate with interests in international humanitarian law, current affairs, geopolitics,  investigative journalism, and documentary filmmaking.)

Courtesy The Morning.



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