North-East Sri Lanka— Back To Business

By A Sunday Leader Team comprising Dinidu de Alwis, Indi Samarajiva, Arthur Wamanan and Charles Peter

The war ended almost an year back. The north bore the brunt of the carnage. Now it is reaping the benefits, slowly. There is no denying that the biggest boom for the north will come not from handouts, but from the economic and social interaction with the south.

The change for V. Sagadevan (45), comes on two fronts. On one end, he gets more customers now than he did during the days when the town of Kilinochchi was controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. On the other, he wants to know the rules and regulations under which his trade now falls.

“When the LTTE was controlling the area, we had to pay high taxes, and if we were called for meetings, we would have to close our businesses and go for them, or face strict punishment,” says Sagadevan. He is one of many who operate out of a building in the heart of the Kilinochchi town, near the now-famous Kilinochchi water tower.

During the final phases of the war the water tower in Kilinochchi was destroyed by the LTTE. Explosives placed on the side of the tower made the giant structure tumble on its side. The remnants of the tower with the names and insignia of the multitude of soldiers who passed through it, have now become a tourist attraction to those who travel to the northern penninsula via the A9 highway.

By the side of the site of the tower, there lies a small building which belongs to the Water Board. The building is partially destroyed, but the building itself, and the land surrounding it, have fallen into the hands of the enterprising people who have started to capitalise on the large crowds the fallen tower attracts.

The market, which doubles as the general market for the town of Kilinochchi, sells everything from sweets to sunglasses. Sagadevan occupies a small plot, which he uses to sell his fare of spices and condiments to the arriving masses, and the people of Kilinochchi.

“We need a proper place to trade” urges Sagadevan. “If we had a permanent structure to conduct our business out of, it would be easier for us and for the people”.

The calls have been answered, according to the District Agent for Kilinochchi, Rupavathi Ketheeswaran. She says that plans have been put into place to develop a permanent market in Ambankulam. According to her, freer trade will be possible once the new market is complete.

There are many more like Sagadevan. Another who deals in the same produce, is M. Prasad (17). His family used the remainder from the Rs. 25,000 grant they got for resettlement to start off his business. “It’s my mother who does the business here, but she can’t make it today because she is sick,” says Prasad who sits in for his mother.

His father died when he was young due to illness, and it’s the Rs. 200 profit that they get each day which manages to keep them afloat. Shelter, food and education are managed from the meagre amount that the spices bring in.

With the slow yet steady resettlement of people, and with daily life returning to some sort of normalcy, enterprising people have found the power of trade to liberate them. The travellers along the A9 add to the market, with a little help to stimulate growth, trade could prove to be the ultimate liberator of all. This is the case all over the north, be it Jaffna or Trincomalee. Trade and entrepreneurship is blossoming  where once bunkers stood.

Head of the Jaffna Chamber of Commerce,  R. Janakumaran said the prices of goods have reduced to a great extent in Jaffna. “In fact, some of the goods are sold less than the marked prices. The heavy influx of people has boosted the small businessmen in the peninsula,” he said.

He added that there was great demand for Jaffna products. “People coming to the peninsula from other parts of the country buy a lot of Jaffna products, especially those made from palmyrah,” he added. “People bring their own utensils, buy the vegetables and fish and cook them.” However, he added that devel- opment was only at the initial stages and therefore, the big investments were yet to come. “This is a step by step process.”
Jegan, an employee at a shop in Jaffna said business was upbeat after the influx of people from the south. “You see people everywhere. All the places are crowded. It’s good to see many people. It helps our businesses.”


Trincomalee is the gem of the east coast, one of the world’s largest natural harbours and a site of both industry and tourism. It was also in the throes of the  war, a site of LTTE extortion and violence as well as racial riots and extra-judicial killing. Like the nature of the town, its business people are divided between optimism and fear.

“It’s fine now,” said one contractor. “We were doing construction under pressure, it was hard to give kappam (bribes) to different groups, now nothing. In the present situation, any time I can travel for work. Now I leave the site at 11pm, without fear. Then, I had to be home before six or my family members would be worried.”

Remembering riots

He did not, however, feel secure enough to publish his name. Suffice it to say that this Tamil gentleman had lived in Trinco his whole life, even losing his father to the LTTE. Another long-term resident of Trinco had a different view and also wished to speak frankly and remain anonymous. He is active in the Trincomalee Chamber of Commerce and an established businessman. Though ‘re-established’ may be the word.

“I lost my business four times,” he said. “It’s our way of life to be resilient.”

He flips through photos of absolute carnage from riots in 2006, sparked by the placement of a Buddhist statue in town, resulting in violence from Tamil groups, ending in mobs of Sinhalese and Muslims burning down his shop and many others. In the photos the building is absolutely gutted, the cars outside ruined, computers reduced to carbon and ash. This was not widely reported in Colombo.

It is minor because it concerns minorities, he said. “We always feel that our wings can be clipped at any time.”

Building for the next generation

Yet it remains undeniable that development is happening in Trincomalee. Nigel Coomaraswamy is a prominent Colombo based businessman whose wife’s family has owned prime land in Nilaveli for generations. He is now building Pigeon Island Beach Resort, a star-class boutique hotel within site of the idyllic Pigeon Island.

“I’ve already got offers, but I can’t sell. It’s in trust for my son,” he said, smiling. His son is three years old.

Mr. Coomaraswamy is investing for the long-term and the long-view, building not a quick guest house but an international standard hotel with European fittings and antique furniture, doors and entire staircases brought from Jaffna. He seems confident in ongoing development and the value for his son. Next door to his hotel, however, is the memory of developments past. A former hotel lies gutted, torched by paramilitary groups when they refused to pay kappam. That was the policy up and down this coast, which Mr. Coomaraswamy now says is secure.

Now he is confident to invest, bringing the best materials and labour to Trincomalee to build a  quality hotel. His General Manager, Marlon Mendis is brimming with excitement as the project nears completion.
«I’ve been working since january 26 — 74 days» he said, encouraging a worker to “run like Susanthika.” «I began (my career) selling eggs to pay my way through hotel school.»

Now he is managing hotels. Marlon is Sinhalese, with a son in the US Army. He returned to Sri Lanka because he loves it. Coomaraswamy says that many of his over 80 workers are from the south with a minority from the local community. For the necessary skills and quality, he is bringing the best labour from outside. This is not uncontroversial.

Perceptions of opportunity

“There is no impact for indigenous people,” said the established businessman. “No skilled people is an excuse. Bridges, roads, contractors are from Colombo. They’re not interested in the people of the area. What we fear is that we will lose all our opportunities.” He did not deny that certain skills were lacking in the population, but he asked why local people could not be trained. One constant Tamil grievance has been what’s called colonization — changing the demographics of the north and east through government settlement projects. He says that this is still going on. Now business too is bringing a constant flow of people from the south.

The anonymous contractor blamed much of this — skills difference — on the LTTE, specifically their policy of child recruitment. You have an uneducated society, he said. “Even those not caught have lost their livelihood and education. The forced recruitment of children affects a lot of things in society. Parents lose loved ones. The fear stays in families, there’s a lot of mutual pain. Can’t work freely, can’t sleep in the night. Hear a noise, think they will take my child.”

Perceptions of war

It is undeniable that those terrible days are past. The security is stable enough that roads are being built and this contractor and his workers feel confident working late into the night. More importantly, his wife is comfortable with this. “After the (presidential) election I talked to my wife. Before we didn’t discuss. The next day, my wife said she voted for the president. I said I did too. She said because he ended terrorism.”  For the gentleman whose shop had been burnt, however, the story is not so clear.  “We are highly depressed by the war, how the war was conducted. Not about the LTTE or its supporters, nobody has the right to kill man, woman or child. You can’t use multi-barrel rocket launchers into our own people.”

The Sun also rises

Yet, the sun rises on the Trincomalee coast. It shines over the pristine waters, the back bays, the Prima flour factory and Kanniya springs. It wakes Tamils, Sinhalese and Muslims alike, into a day mixed with both opportunity and challenge.

As the contractor said, “We have everything best. We were lacking peace.” And now peace has dawned. It remains a mixed bag in many ways — mixed with worries and imbalances of its own, but nothing like the crippling violence of the past. The east is changing, to the obvious benefit of tourism and industry. It is also a magical opening up for the south and local tourists and investors flock here. Local business people, however, both benefit and worry about the change. The division, however, is in words now, words people are not afraid to speak.

“I always think that there are two opinions, each has to respect the other,” said the anonymous businessman. The physical war has ended, but minds have yet to change.

 Web Controller’s Note: I have hastened to insert this example of investigative reporting because it presents a  range of Tamil opinions and expereinces amidst controlled reportage. Thus, it provides rich empirical data. These items of information may not enable easy generalisations and may not carry the weight that quantitative sociological surveys, with their spurious ambience of precision, seem to generate these days; but, to me, such evocative data on opinions held are truly helpful.

As it happens I have returned from three days in Kalmunai in the East involving a measure of interaction with Tamils amidst even more exposure to the Muslim people of that region. It strikes me that in the understandable focus on reading the sentimens of the Tamils in the north, WE everywhere, Western press and local included, have simply not explored the thinking of the residents of  the Batticloa area, which region was ‘delivered’ from the LTTE yoke in, say, 2007/08. So we have had two-three years now to see some results. This blind spot in reviewing the political scene reminds me of the abysmal blind spot demonstrated by so many of us, and by human rights activists in particular, with regard to the Muslim IDPs evicted from the Jaffna and Mannar regions by the LTTE in 1990.

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