War scars slowly heal in Jaffna peninsula

JAFFNA, (Reuters) - The road from the airport into town is often a good indicator of what a place is like.

Nowhere is this more true than in Jaffna, the spiritual capital of the minority Tamils in northern Sri Lanka and a key battleground in a two-decade-old civil war.

You fly in on a half-full Fokker propeller plane, with only local residents, aid workers and a stray tourist on board. Soldiers with machine guns dot the tarmac, and a soldier drives a bus out of the army’s high-security zone around Palaly airport.

The dusty road to the town of Jaffna goes through fallow fields. Nearly every house is bombed out. Every wall seems to be pockmarked by bullets. Signs everywhere warn of landmines.

"You have to be a pretty determined tourist to come here," said Charles Dumolin, a Belgian artist whose son is engaged to a Tamil, and who has been to Sri Lanka 15 times.

For centuries, this peninsula was the heart of a Tamil kingdom, before it was taken over by Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial rulers of Sri Lanka.

After independence in 1948, Jaffna was Sri Lanka’s second-biggest city. As well as a thriving centre for trade, it was home to the best schools on the island, where even the Sinhalese majority sent their children to be educated.

But in the past two decades of civil war, Jaffna has been fought over by the Sinhalese army, an Indian peacekeeping force and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and each battle added yet more scars to this once-beautiful town.

Now, nearly a decade after the Sinhalese army retook it from the LTTE, Jaffna looks like an open-air museum of devastation, with houses, churches and factories reduced to overgrown rubble. Meanwhile, the LTTE has built up Kilinochchi, in the rebel-held north of Sri Lanka, as the new Tamil "capital".

As refugees gradually return to their shattered houses, Jaffna is regaining a semblance of normality, but the very visible presence of some 40,000 Sinhalese soldiers in camps and behind sandbagged bunkers gives it the air of an occupied city.

Out of this rubble rises the famous 163-year-old Jaffna library, a symbol of Tamil learning, which is largely what the war is all about.

Set ablaze by Sinhalese thugs and police in 1981, the gleaming white building, built in 1954, has been restored in the past few years and reopened to students last month. Because of a lack of personnel, it is still closed to the public.

With 40,000 books — compared with 100,000, including rare palm leaf writings, before 1981 — the library is a shadow of its former self. But so is Jaffna, and the culture of education that gave the Tamils a unique position in post-colonial Sri Lanka.

"For the Tamil people, the main theme is education — it is their main purpose," librarian Sabaratnam Thanabaalasinham said.


Unlike the Sinhalese, the Tamils were amenable to Christianisation by Britain’s colonial rulers, and generations of Tamils acquired an education in Jaffna’s many missionary schools.

Not only were the Tamils used as administrators in Ceylon in the 19th and 20th centuries, they were also sent to Burma and Malaya (now called Myanmar and Malaysia respectively).

When Ceylon gained independence, 30 percent to 40 percent of the island’s civil service was made up of English-speaking, often Christian, Tamils.

In 1956, Solomon Bandaranaike — father of current president, Chandrika Kumaratunga — rode to power on a platform of Sinhalese nationalism and introduced the "Sinhala only" policy.

English was scrapped as the official state language, robbing Tamils at a stroke of their educational and linguistic advantage by making Sinhalese a requirement for the civil service.

"When the Britishers left, the Tamils were governing the country. That hurt the Sinhalese. They should have studied to come to that level, but they took a shortcut and imposed the Sinhala-only policy," said Raviraj Nadarajah, a Tamil parliament member and former mayor of Jaffna.

The Tamils suffered a second blow in the early 1970s when university admission rules were changed to favour Sinhalese.

Admission was no longer solely based on academic merit, but included racial and geographical criteria, with a set number of places reserved for the Sinhalese. The system still works today.

The pro-Sinhalese policy, similar to Malaysia’s "Bumiputra" campaign to promote ethnic Malays, sparked decades of wrangling between the Tamils — who make up 12.6 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 19 million — and the majority Sinhalese.

In 1983, the LTTE launched a guerrilla war that has now lasted two decades and claimed more than 64,000 lives.

A Norwegian-brokered ceasefire has held for two years but the peace is fragile, and Sri Lanka’s two main Sinhalese parties will fight an election on April 2 over how to cement the truce with a political agreement that would give Tamils some form of self-governance within a federal Sri Lanka.

Diplomats doubt that Tamils and Sinhalese can find a compromise on a new state anytime soon, but even if they do, the Tamils are unlikely to regain their traditional strongholds.

In the Sri Lanka civil service, only a few percent of staff are Tamil; they make up less than one percent of the army; and the schools that were once the pride of Jaffna are no longer the entryway into university and government service.

"The percentage of Tamils going into university after college has suffered, so many students either go abroad, into technical schools or into private companies," said S Thanapalan, principal of the anglican St John’s college, founded in 1823.

Does this mean Jaffna library has only symbolic relevance? Jaffna University Dean of Arts S K Sitrampalam disagrees.

"The library is not a white elephant. It is important to educate people," he said.