Sri Lanka Tourism - Visiting the north and east

 Sri Lanka’s north and east are areas in which the ethnic minority Tamils form a majority, and which, together, form a territory that many Tamils regard as their rightful national homeland. These parts of the country bore the brunt of the fighting during Sri Lanka’s civil war, large sections having been under the shifting control of the rebel LTTE forces (‘Tamil Tigers’) in the three decades prior to 2009. Significant populations of Sri Lankan Muslims also live in the north and east of the country, in some places forming a majority.

Visiting the north and east can be a very different experience to visiting the rest of Sri Lanka. As an outsider, it is important to be attuned to, and mindful of, the specific issues and challenges that the civilian populations in these areas face. We believe it is the duty of the ethical tourist not to shy from the reality; but rather to observe, learn and engage in ways which recognise – and where possible, support – the struggles faced by those living in these parts of the country.

Below we briefly summarise some of the main issues and challenges in these two areas (many of which, it should be noted, overlap).

The north

For many people visiting the north for the first time, one of the most striking features is the vast scale of the military’s presence, despite a decade passing since the rebel LTTE forces were defeated there in May 2009.

The change of government in 2015 resulted in some of the heavily guarded checkpoints that previously lined the roads throughout the north being dismantled, as well as a slight decrease in the visible presence of soldiers in the streets. However, the landscape continues to be marked by dozens of army barracks and training centres, and it is not uncommon to see large numbers of soldiers deployed in public, particularly on politically sensitive dates.

Thousands of acres of lands, seized over the course of the war and its aftermath, remain under occupation by the military. This includes many lands illegally grabbed from civilian owners, some of whom have participated in lengthy protests demanding their return. Although some small pockets have been restored to their rightful holders in recent years, much remains to be done. Many of those who have returned to their lands have complained of property damage (for which there has mostly been no compensation), and of being forced to live in threatening proximity to soldiers on adjacent lands.

The militarisation of the north of the country goes further still, reaching into the economy and encompassing the provision of many public services. As we have seen, this includes the military’s extensive involvement in the tourism sector. But it also includes the running of farms and shops (with which many local providers struggle to compete on price) and even the provision of pre-school education through the army’s ‘Civil Security Department.’ Despite the slight shift in approach that followed the change in government in 2015, it is clear that the military still very much regards itself as a legitimate provider of economic (and indeed social and cultural) development in the north of the country – despite the fact that many living there regard it as a threatening and exploitative force. The Army’s website regularly and proudly boasts of its active role in civic life, ranging from running music festivals to organising body-building competitions.

Less visible to tourists, but often very apparent to those living in the north, is the widespread use of surveillance by the security forces, carried out not just by the military and police, but also un-uniformed members of Sri Lanka’s various intelligence agencies and the deep networks of civilian informants that they maintain in communities. The brunt of this continued surveillance architecture is especially felt by war-affected individuals, former LTTE cadres and human rights activists, who regularly complain of threats, intimidation and harassment as they go about their lives and work. Recent reports by Freedom From Torture and the International Truth and Justice Project suggest that even more serious violations, including abduction, torture, and sexual violence, continue to be carried out at the hands of the security forces, particularly against former members of the LTTE.

As discussed elsewhere in this resource pack, many of those living in the north of Sri Lanka complain of the ongoing project of ‘Sinhalisation’. Although there is no precise and agreed upon definition of this term, broadly-speaking this is the process by which the government, with the support of the military and hard-line nationalist groups, has sought to re-engineer minority areas in the image of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community. ‘Sinhalisation’ manifests itself in a variety of ways, including through the exclusion of the Tamil language from official usage, through programmes to settle Sinhala people in traditionally Tamil areas, and through the building of Buddhist shrines where few Buddhists live.

The process of ‘Sinhalisation’ is viewed by many as closely linked to the process of ‘Militarisation’. This is perhaps most symbolically apparent through the widespread construction of crass war victory monuments across the north by the government forces. Many of these paint a deeply one-sided and distorted version of the war; portraying the government’s actions as a ‘zero-civilian casualty’ humanitarian rescue operation to liberate the civilian population, rather than the bloody and brutal onslaught that it was.

Space for Tamils to mourn their loved ones through commemoration and memorialisation initiatives remain heavily restricted to this day. Many who have led such efforts in recent times have found themselves subjected to aggressive campaigns of intimidation and harassment by the authorities.

The absence of spaces to grieve and remember has been one factor that has compounded the very serious psychological and social trauma of individuals and communities living in the north. Some experts have spoken of a mental health crisis in war-affected areas in Sri Lanka – the result of years of war, social upheaval, and exposure to serious human rights abuses – manifested in alarmingly high rates of family breakdown, substance abuse and domestic violence, for example.

It is women, and in particular widows and female former LTTE cadres, who have disproportionately impacted by the war and its aftermath. Today, there are estimated to be approximately 60,000 female headed households in the Northern Province alone. The challenges they face include the lack of access to jobs, social stigmatisation, and the threat of sexual abuse and exploitation by members of the security forces. At the same time, many war-affected women have been actively spear-heading campaigns to claim their rights and to demand truth and justice. This includes the many mothers of the disappeared who from February 2017 onwards began protesting continuously at various locations across the north and east.

The east

Life in the east of Sri Lanka remains deeply divided between its three main ethnic communities – Tamil, Muslim and Sinhalese – who are more evenly proportioned here than in any other province in Sri Lanka.

Since 2006, when the war effectively ended in the east, an appearance of ‘normality’ has steadily returned and tourism is once again thriving. However, many Tamil people in east feel a strong sense of anger and resentment at what they see as the erosion of their culture through state-sponsored ‘Sinhalisation’ efforts (most visible when it comes to the treatment of religious shrines), as well as the uneven manner in which the financial benefits of peace have been distributed. Despite significant investments over the past decade, and a booming tourism industry, the east remains one of the least economically developed areas of the country.

In recent years, there have been worrying signs of growing tensions between communities in the east. The reasons for this are complex, but include the array of land disputes caused by multiple war-time population displacements, and concerns around identity. Many of these tensions have been fanned by hard-line (left unchecked by successive governments), the ongoing presence of local strongmen and former paramilitary leaders in politics, and the failure of the government to establish mechanisms for dealing with the past.

In early 2018, false claims that the Muslim owner of a restaurant in Ampara was forcibly sterilizing his customers – playing on bogus majority anxieties about the disproportionate growth of the Muslim population in Sri Lanka – prompted Sinhala mobs to launch a series of violent attacks against Muslim shops in the surrounding area. There are indications that the attack had been pre-planned and carried out by Buddhist militants mostly from outside the area.