Sri Lanka’s north and east are areas in which the ethnic minority Tamils form a majority. This area bore the brunt of the fighting during Sri Lanka’s civil war, and visiting these areas is very different to visiting the rest of Sri Lanka.
In the east the war effectively ended in 2006 and since then the illusion of normality has returned and tourism is once again thriving. However many Tamil people feel a strong sense of anger and resentment at what they see as the erosion of their culture through a process of “Sinhalisation”, as well as the uneven manner in which the financial benefits of peace have been distributed. This is perhaps most visible when it comes to the question of maintenance and access to religious shrines.
Visitors to the east should make every effort to be aware of these sensitivities and should try to make sure that the benefits from their visits are shared with local people of all ethnicities. The best way to do this is to shop at local markets and stay at locally run independent guest houses. Before visiting religious shrines try to find out who is controlling them and who will benefit from any donation you make. Because of these sensitivities, think carefully before staying in major chains of hotels (such as Jetwing, John Keells and its subsidiaries such as Chaaya and Cinnamon, Heritance, and Hayleys and their subsidiary Amaya) as more of your money will reach the local community if you stay in locally owned and run independent guesthouses.
In the north, where the war continued until 2009, the situation is even more stark as it is an area area that is under effective military occupation.
This heavy military presence dominates every aspect of life for the local population in the north. As the population is almost exclusively Tamil and Muslim, the effects of Sinhalisation are even more pronounced than in the more ethnically mixed east. Despite the phenomenal amount of development that has taken place in the north since the war ended, the local population have seen limited benefits. Moreover, that very develpment has taken place been hand in hand with deepening militarization.
For this reason we would strongly urge you to think very carefully about where you stay in the north, and that you only frequent independent guesthouses where you can be confident that your custom is benefiting local people.
On several recent occasions the Government has introduced laws requiring visitors to obtain written permission from the Sri Lankan Army to travel north of the Omanthai checkpoint. These provisions are not currently in force. Nevertheless expect all of your movements in this area to be heavily monitored and be very careful not to do anything that might put the local population at risk. For example, an innocent conversation with a local resident might lead to that resident being questioned by the army – particularly if you are in highly sensitive areas such as the high security zones or the area near Mullaitivu (where the final stages of the war took place).There is some helpful information regarding travelling in the north and the risks involved in this guide we wrote for journalists attending the 2013 Commonwealth Summit.