Back to Batticaloa
The best things remain
the same – The sea and the lagoon make Batticaloa a
virtual Venice, a city of bridges
Muslims are very likely a majority in the
east. The thambis or ‘little brothers’
are now the dominant ethnic group
Dozens of Sinhala day trippers from Dambulla
and Polonnaruwa now make their way to the
pristine beaches of Kalkudah and Passekudah
Text and pics By R. Wijewardene
hurtle at speed along a road so flat and smooth it
resembles polished dark glass.
darkness villages, towns and houses flash by in a blur
of fluorescent light, and neon. Kilometre posts appear
and disappear in seconds — even the darkness is
this the rush of an unlit autobahn at night or lonely
highway cleaving its way through the American Midwest?
No. Its the A-11 between Polonnaruwa and Batticaloa,
perhaps the finest stretch of rolled tar in the
than the quality of road however what’s striking is the
travel to Batticaloa through the emptiness beyond
Medawachchiya and through the once fraught towns of
Valaichchenai, Kiran and Eravur in the darkness —
without fear or check points is to experience, in a
journey, the magnitude of the changes that have gripped
this country over the past few months.
night time journey to Batticaloa has been impossible for
almost three decades. Daylight reveals the full extent
of the changes that have taken place in the town and the
the demolition of houses and shop fronts in the centre
of Batti thanks to a road widening scheme makes the town
appear like more of a war zone than it ever did
previously, there is a relaxed, unthreatening air on the
streets of Batticaloa that speaks volumes about its
hair trigger tension of what has for decades been the
least stable major town in the country outside of the
peninsula is gone. The armed presence has diminished.
points are virtually non existent — newly recruited
Tamil officers now patrol the streets and people move
freely at all times.
forlorn bars, restaurants and hotels are crowded
extraordinarily not with foreign visitors or NGO workers
but with Sinhala businessmen and tourists.
that have been unimaginable for years; scores of Sinhala
day trippers from Polonnaruwa and Dambulla bathing in
the placid waters at Passekuda – are now almost
best things of course remains the same. The lagoons and
the sea gleam – a dozen shades of blue under the searing
eastern sun. The view from the Kallady bridge remains a
vision of a virtual Venice – a city, more than any other
in this country defined and surrounded by water. A city
surely with a future as bright as the light that bounces
off the dazzling surface of its lagoons.
things in this country are rarely that simple. Beneath
Batticaloa’s fresh veneer — its sparkling Food City,
and rows of refurbished banks there are visible cracks,
fissures that threaten to collapse this vision of a town
wrapped securely in the folds of development and
Feuding factions:TMVP vs TMVP
rift within the TMVP is deep. Pillayan and Karuna’s
factions remain in open confrontation. The last weeks
have seen Pillayan prevented from opening offices in
parts of the east by Karuna loyalists.
the limits of Batticaloa town the Pillayan faction of
the TMVP have replaced the old roaring Tiger emblem
which decorated their offices, bases and bunkers with a
new emblem — a sleek motor boat powering into the
outside his strongholds in Batticaloa and Trincomalee
towns Pillayan’s ship appears to be sinking.
Tamil hinterlands of the interior and coastal villages
Kurana reigns supreme — his cadres unlike Pillayan’s
never handed over their weapons and posters affirming
his closeness to the island’s shawled, mustachioed
centre of power.
Pillayan by daring to ask that more power be handed over
to the Eastern Provincial Council has incurred the wrath
of the mighty centre.
longer in control of an armed force and undercut by the
central government his power base is rapidly being
decimated. He is at loggerheads with the appointed
governor of the
— a battle he cannot expect to win given the enormous
powers vested in the governor. The new mayor of
Batticaloa too is thought to be sympathetic to Karuna.
within his stronghold of Batticaloa therefore his
position is becoming untenable — his failure to win
concessions from the government have revealed the
narrow limits of the Chief Minister’s power. And faced
with the Chief Minister’s impotence his inability to win
concessions from the central government the people have
turned against Pillayan.
However that is not to say they are in favour of Karuna
Ultimately from the whisperings in the town’s eating
houses and conversations with veteran analysts of
Batticaloa’s political situation an outsider can glean
that for the most part the people of Batticaloa regard
both Karuna and Pillayan as stooges of the government.
Their inability to wok together to win more rights for
the Tamil people is seen as a final act of betrayal.
Extraordinarily in and around Batticaloa there remains
robust support for the TNA despite the party’s
absolutely rudderless present state and its links to the
vanquished LTTE. “If there were free elections in the
province the TNA would win the Tamil vote and win
easily” were the words of a seasoned journalist.
same sentiments were repeated again and again by those
prepared to comment on the situation. The government
has crushed the LTTE and delivered unprecedented
infrastructure development however the battle for the
hearts and minds of the people of the east is far from
Changing the mindset of a people who have endured
decades of restrictions, repression and fear will take
time. Roads and bridges cannot undo decades of fear and
suspicion; the wounds in this part of the country are
still fresh and deep.
A damaged people
the highways the glass fronted buildings and the sleek
roads of Batticaloa remain profoundly damaged. Not in
the sense of bullet ridden buildings or craters left
from past shellings – there are none of these, but the
bruised psychology of the people reveals a shattered
is a land of mental scars and where buildings have been
rebuilt, damage remains manifest in the province’s
indication of the scale of the human suffering that
remains in the district years after its liberation is
the fact that there are 60 orphanages in and around
Batticaloa town. Each housing dozens of children. Young
people who endured the worst atrocities of war saw their
families massacred, their houses burned and their lives
homes range from well run and caring facilities to
ridiculously extravagant air-conditioned equipped
compounds now crumbling for want of funds.
these various houses of sorrow only five are registered.
Some are extremely well run, others much less so but all
continue to function as the government recognises that
closing unregistered orphanages would only inundate a
system that is even at present barely coping. There are
simply thousands of orphans in the district.
all these orphanages were built with generous donor
funding and promises of long term assistance to the
children in their care. But as the world’s attention has
now turned to new crises donor funding is proving harder
to come and many of these homes are struggling for
have had to go to extraordinary lengths to secure the
funding they need.
“Before we were funded by international donors – from
Italy and other European countries we were following a
programme where the children were looked after by carers
who functioned like surrogate mothers. But the funding
for that programme ran out and now we have an agreement
with ‘Art of Living’ Ravi Shankar’s foundation. The
children are raised according to the principles of
Shankar’s philosophy, breathing exercises, compulsory
laughter and crying – its helps balance their minds and
man in charge of the centre seems enthusiastic about the
new system but whether the east’s orphans should be
raised according to the new age teachings of an Indian
guru is an open question.
orphanages in fact are nothing less that fully fledged
Indian style ashrams with rhythmic chanting broadcast
constantly over manicured gardens populated by
shaven-headed orphans in dhottis who spend their days
listening to mantrams and worshipping photographs of
their distant Indian guru.
seems frighteningly arbitrary – Ravi Shankar orphanages,
ashram orphanages, Catholic orphanages, fundamentalist
protestant orphanages all without any particular
regulation or supervision.
However for the most, the children are well clothed, fed
and the current chaos may in fact be the best solution
for what is a genuinely intractable problem. Government
intervention might have the effect of closing orphanages
or might only make things worse.
Ultimately the idea that children who saw their parents
killed in front of their eyes, who had their mothers
immolate themselves on hearing the news of their
fathers’ death will ever lead normal lives is, for the
most part, an unrealistic dream.
horror of the conflict will live on in these children
indefinitely; for decades they will be a reminder of a
past everyone else is already eager to forget.
Another living reminder of the east’s dark past are the
refugees. Of course it was announced that all the
east’s refugees had been resettled and allowed to return
home months ago. But as ever things are not quite what
they are announced to be.
the vast majority of refuges have returned – there is a
single but crucial exception – hundreds of families
evicted from their homes in Sampur remain trapped in the
tented limbo of IDP camps outside of Batticaloa.
former homes have been declared a high security zone. In
reality of course the zone is the site of the proposed
Sampur coal power plant and the government having
encountered land disputes and protests that accompanied
the construction of the power plant at Norochcholai is
keen to make sure that the people never return.
are therefore not refugees from the war but from
development – displaced by the country’s need for
the government has offered these electric refugees
compensation and alternative land they continue to
demand the right to return to the land of their
ancestors. That the country needs development is
unquestionable but why a community already battered by
the war and tsunami should pay the heaviest price for
this development is an open and uncomfortable question.
Sampur refugees sweltering in their tin roofed temporary
homes reveal both the duplicity and concealment of the
government and the failure of the media who distracted
by various other issues have failed to follow up on this
painful but profoundly important case.
Eastern Tamils; a peoplein decline
Ultimately the reality of Batticaloa today is complex.
There is the clear reality of development programmes and
investment but also the reality that displacement
destruction and death have damaged the region’s people,
particularly its Tamil people, almost beyond repair.
of the town in recently ‘cleared’ villages rent by the
tsunami and the war the situation remains bleak. The
land is parched from months of drought, the remaining
water resources are barely adequate all the talk is of
emigration and escape.
inescapable reality is that the Tamils of the east are a
people in decline. Literally so as their numbers
continue to dwindle as the Sinhala and Muslim population
of the east expands. Sinhala villages line the road from
Polonnaruwa almost to Valaichchenai and Muslims dominate
the coast from Kattankudi to Kalmunai and beyond.
accurate census would almost certainly reveal that
Muslims are in fact the largest ethnic group in the
province. The thambis or ‘little brothers’ are now the
dominant ethnic group in the east and Tamils now
struggle even to constitute the largest minority group.
Separatism and autonomy are no longer even a remote
possibility for a people who after decades of armed
struggle are now a minority in a province they once
claimed as their own.
and the end of separatism must be a relief for any and
all those who are truly fond of this ancient island but
that one of the east’s cultures appears to be
disappearing gradually pushed by emigration,
disenchantment and despair into insignificance can only
be a source of sadness,
now in the evenings the air in the centre of Batticaloa
town is still perfumed. Thick with incense as burning
camphor is offered to the gods – as it has been for over
thousands of years. But how much longer these rituals
will persist in the face of the inexorable demographic
and economic changes now gripping the east is difficult
the best advice for those looking to understand the
multifaceted and complex reality of this island’s most
complex and fascinating province is visit now. Visit
often. Fantastic roads and fabulous new intercity trains
will take you there. Second class Colombo-Batticaloa
train tickets on the comfortable newly donated Chinese
intercity express start from Rs. 500 and you can roll
into Batticaloa on the wheels of progress.