Jaffna fears remembering Tamil war dead

Candles lit to remember loved ones
Image caption Candles were lit to commemorate the Tamil war dead

Six years after the end of Sri Lanka's bloody civil war, Jaffna in the northern Tamil heartlands is returning to normal. But do the city's residents feel free to remember their war dead? The BBC's Priyath Liyanage in Jaffna finds out.

News of the suicide of the young student reached Jaffna households early on Thursday, a reminder of the days when death no longer shocked anyone here.

Senthuran Rajeswaran was 18.

Before he jumped in front of the train, he is alleged to have written a letter appealing to the "good governance" of President Maithripala Sirisena and his administration.

Police said the letter found in the young man's house demanded the release of all political prisoners.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Activists have alleged the disappearances and detentions of thousands of Tamils during the civil war
Image copyright AP
Image caption Many Tamils say their relatives are still missing (file photo)

Six years after the end of the civil war that killed at least 100,000 people, Jaffna seems to be on a slow and steady ascent towards freedom and normality.

"There is freedom compared to what we had before," one Tamil academic tells me.

"But if you compare us to Colombo, we can't say that we are liberated."

Neither he nor any of the others quoted in this article wanted to be named, for example, illustrating the fear that still exists.

Image caption The latest DVDs are for sale as life returns to normal in Jaffna
Image caption Western tourists are beginning to visit Jaffna once more
Image caption Fishing in northern Sri Lanka has also resumed, after a ban during the civil war

Ahead of the first Maaveerar Naal, or Martyrs' Day, since the new government took office earlier this year, things do look much better than a few years ago.

27 November is the day the Tamil Tigers designated as one of remembrance for their comrades killed in battle.

War ended in May 2009 with the total defeat of the rebels.

Their violent campaign to secure a separate Tamil homeland was ruthlessly crushed by then President Rajapaksa's military campaign.

Now Jaffna is free from the huge billboards carrying the omnipresent war hero president's image - and people say things are looking up.

"The Rajapaksa regime continued the pressure on Tamil people. There were no efforts for a dialogue; so they needed to make their presence felt," another Jaffna resident says.

"The new government has established a better dialogue with the north."

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Senthuran Rajeswaran called on President Maithripala Sirisena (pictured) to show "good governance"

The change in government in Colombo has improved the lives of Tamil people - but still there is apprehension.

A music shop owner said, "we are free to come and go, but people are afraid to play a song to commemorate the dead".

Another Jaffna resident said: "With the change in government, we feel that we have less intimidation, but the freedom we have is individual.

"We can remember the victims of war in private, but no-one is brave enough to organise a mass meeting."

Despite these concerns, some university students did demonstrate in support of the demands of the student who died.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Tamils in some other parts of the world are free to hold memorial services (file photo)

Meanwhile, thousands of Tamils around the world are commemorating their dead relatives this week.

In Jaffna however, that remains out of bounds.

"We can organise an event to commemorate the war dead - it is not illegal," a musician who had lost two of his children in shell attacks in 2009 told me.

But, suddenly whispering, he says "it is a dangerous thing to do".

Related Topics

More on this story