Jaffna an Open prison 

by Mahinda Illeperuma

The mainstream papers in the South, particularly the Sinhala papers, in the past few days have been asserting that LTTE leader Pirabakaran was suffering from a heart ailment.

About three days after this yet unconfirmed disclosure we as journalists were afforded an opportunity to explore the uncharted territory of Jaffna. This too rather not simply on our own, but along with a number of (Sinhala) youths hailing from southern towns of Galle, Matara and Hamnbantota. Despite hardly having ever visited Jaffna in their entire lives, except of course in mind and poetry, their aim was to build bridges of friendship and goodwill with the (Tamil) youth of Jaffna. In fact it was an attempt at winning the young hearts of northern youth.

While the LTTE chief was allegedly suffering from an ailing heart, one wonders if our efforts at winning the hearts of the northern youth would be construed yet as, another attempt of the Sinhala war strategy.

Nevertheless, for the elders in the south who were prompted into giving permission for their young ones to visit the north, it’s not Pirabakaran’s weak heart that makes the news, rather their unwavering belief that Pirabakaran’s hand (fighting ability) is shattered, and thus possibly useless at present. Poets who rather chart the Jaffna region in mind than body, describe such works as an attempt at weaving a pattern together with a coconut and palmyrah leaf. Hence, the visiting youth from south being the coconut leaf, while the northern youth being the Palmyrah Leaf. .

However, the coconut leaf that we carried along fell into an open prison. The Chief priest of the Vallikamam Vishnu temple refers to Jaffna as an “Open prison”.

The number of prisoners living inside this open prison is currently estimated to be at 473,284, with males being 226,896 and female being 246,384. Spanning over a number of days and going from cell to cell, within and through the steel frames of this prison, we visited the vast area walking for days on end seeing the sights for ourselves.

In order to attain liberation (Moksha or Heaven) a Tamil (Hindu) is required to have obtained the knowledge of three important pillars of wisdom, namely Aram, Porul and Inpam. This is similar to the Buddhist idea of Artha, Dharma and Kamaya. However at present for a Tamil to go on living, one not only requires to be in possession of Artha, Dharma and Kamaya but, more importantly, is compulsorily required to possess another item. To a Tamil this other item is known as a “Pass”. Being a Tamil, even if one has obtained a voluminous amount of Artha, Dharma and Kamaya in life to one’s heart’s satisfaction, the failure to obtain the additional ‘pass’, could certainly mean getting closer to Moksha or heaven!

The ‘pass’ system works like this: If a citizen of Jaffna wants to travel to Point Pedro, one is then required to hand over his or her identity card to the military post at Manipay and obtain a pass. A pass is provided for a maximum of three days. If an individual’s stay is longer than three days he or she is then required to arrive back at the military post and renew the pass for a further period. In some areas the local military post have created a register with details of name and addresses of relatives of all its local inhabitants.

An example is the sector or area known as Pallai; a person wishing to travel to Pallai is required to have his or her name on the name register for relatives of Pallai held at the military post there. If the individual’s name doesn’t appear on the said register then he is automatically deemed to be a non-relative and hence, barred from obtaining the required pass to visit the area. A relative is thus transformed into a 'non-relative.'

The most weird form of pass system is found when visiting the peninsula’s islands off the coast of Jaffna. For example when visiting Karainagar passes are issued only on three days of the week on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. The three days are of significance mainly because Karainagar’s village officials arrive there for their official work only on these three allotted days.

The power of the ‘pass’ extends not simply on land but also at sea, where local fisherman have to obtain their pass at 1.00 a.m., giving them permission to fish until 6.00 a.m. Even having this pass does not preclude the SLA from barring the fishermen from going beyond a 50 meter limit extending from the coastline into the sea. As for the fish the convenience of this pass system is not taken into account.

At times when fishing boats get windswept due to large waves and winds, the boats are forced as much as 400 km deep into sea.

Thus fishermen caught in such predicament who, invariably find it hard to make it back to shore according to the stipulated time of 6.00 a.m. are barred from fishing for three days by the army. This creates a lot of suffering for the affected fishing families from loss of income and livelihood.

Whilst on our return we observed the authorities preparing to provide special identity cards to children of the age as below as 10 years. Presently for the people of Jaffna, as important as breathing is the requirement to posses an identity card and pass for their well being.

How then does a Tamil begin to understand the concepts of Artha, Dharma and Kamaya while this ‘pass system’ incorporates the whole idea of a functioning open prison in Jaffna?

“When the LTTE were in charge of Jaffna we had to wash our clothes in soot, heating the fruit of the Palmyrah and obtaining acid from it we used it for washing our clothes. Arrack was banned. Instead, we only consumed the local Palmyrah toddy. Coke and chocolates were also banned, but we managed to manufacture our own brand of drink known as “Koola Molto’. In those days vegetables like Leeks and Carrots hardly ever grew in Jaffna, but we managed to grow them for our use. We suffered a lot in those days” echoed a local from Jaffna.

For his part Jaffna’s Government Agent claims that presently there is a functioning open economy in the region. However, in Jaffna this so called ‘open economy’ does not posses the benign outlook of Lord Vishnu’s face of humanity rather it has the destructive outlook and the demonic face of demon Mahasona.

Prices of goods brought from the south are sky high. A bottle of soda costs Rs. 40. Previously, the price of a coconut which sky rocketed to a massive 65 rupees has currently dropped to somewhat 35 rupees.

A teacher we spoke to disclosed that Jaffna’s grade 9 Tamil students have yet to obtain their curriculum books.

“The grade 9 Maths book weighs around a kilo. Whilst arriving from air one is only allowed a weight of 15 kilos. Therefore, even if one could afford to pay some money to a passenger from Colombo, he would be markedly reluctant to bring a book of such weight from Colombo, when instead one could bring some other item which is scarce and more precious in Jaffna”.

Whatever difficulties have risen, Tamil students refuse to go blind by giving up their precious opportunity for an education. Each morning Jaffna breaks into an attractive and dainty image of students in their droves riding their bicycles to their respective schools. Among them we observed the Vice Chancellor of Jaffna University going to work on his scooter.

However there is hardly a competitive spirit between the various schools for scholarly excellence. The current speaker K. B. Ratnayake had his education at Hartly College in Jaffna. At the time it was held to be one of the best in the island. A teacher whom we spoke to at the school expressed the following sentiment saying, “At present getting a student from the adjoining property is itself a difficult exercise.”

Considering the war, much as Tamils, Sinhalese too fought in order to carve up the land. Each perch would have cost the lives of at least three human beings. Therefore, I made queries about the present going rate for a perch in Jaffna. In Jaffna’s Stanley road considered to be highly a residential locality, the going rate for a perch is just around 50,000 rupees. A further 3 km from here a perch would fetch around 20,000 rupees. Further afield in one of the outlying islands a perch can be purchased for about 1000 rupees. Despite the Sri Lankan Army having captured Jaffna none of the real estate entrepreneurs have sighted the place.

There are no people’s representatives to hear the grievances of the people either.

EPDP leader Douglas Devananda, PLOTE chief Siddarthan, EPRLF leader Suresh, TELO chief Sivajilingam, TULF leader Sivasithamparam are all living in Colombo at present. It is as if they have little or no relationship with Jaffna.

During LTTE rule Jaffna symbolised an old Tamil saying which effectively meant ‘the destruction of one’s dignity could spell the destruction of one’s race’.

During the days of the LTTE people went about their business with a sense of fear; as if someone was watching over them all the time, consequentially no one went astray or made mistakes. It was a time when women could walk freely without fear, even in the midnight hour and feel secure. However today in contrast, a woman can hardly get about even during daylight hours without fear and uncertainty.

Though the LTTE appears to be invisible in Jaffna, the people follow their directions and orders to the letter.

Recently, people were ordered to close all mini cinemas, and hence accordingly all mini cinemas remain closed at present.

Upon querying from a Jaffna media personality whether there was any truth in news reports appearing in the south about Pirabakaran’s alleged heart ailment, he quipped, “Is that true? When the Indian army was here they informed us that Pirabakaran was dead and that his body was buried at Ananda Poovarasamkulam. Maybe then he must have developed his heart ailment after he died!”

People living in the north hardly ever believe anything about Pirabakaran that is reported in the papers in the south. They completely disregard all such information hardly taking in anything even with a pinch of salt. They live in the firm belief that all is well with their Anna.

Regarding the people who live inside this vast open prison, the army is constantly in a high state of alert. At times when people pass certain military posts or checkpoints, the soldiers there order Tamil civilians to remove their headgear before passing them.

During ancient times one of our Kings (Dutugemunu) ordered everyone to pay their respects by removing their headgear while passing the tomb of a Tamil King (Ellalan). It seems now that the Tamil people of Jaffna are forced to perform the same ritual while passing certain military checkpoints dotted around the peninsula.


The above article first appeared in the Sinhala Broadsheet Lakbima and was adopted in English for the Independent Times published in Wellington, New Zealand.