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Why attention is making Jaffna uncomfortable

Jaffna is turning red, with a bit of anger and embarrassment both, and wincing under the sudden attention it is getting from the rest of Sri Lanka, reports Sutirtho Patranobis.

world Updated: Mar 24, 2010 00:28 IST
Sutirtho Patranobis

Jaffna is turning red, with a bit of anger and embarrassment both, and wincing under the sudden attention it is getting from the rest of Sri Lanka.

The quite town of narrow streets, churches and schools was all but cut off from the Sinhalese south for years. For years, the only Sinhalese who went to Jaffna were the military and police personnel who manned the hundreds of checkpoints and bunkers in and around town. The town hadn’t seen a battle since 1995 but resembled a battle zone with thousands of army personnel keeping watch and monitoring every inch of the peninsula.

All that has changed in the last few months. With travel restrictions lifted from the A9 highway, tourists from the south have been surging towards Jaffna and its temples and sandy beaches. At the Omanthai checkpoint, an army captain told me that on weekends, 1200 vehicles including 400 packed buses carrying tourists hurtle towards the peninsula.

Along the roads leading to the town, coconut groves have become picnic spots where tourists eat rice and curry, drink king coconut water and fan themselves with sarongs to escape the Jaffna heat.

The army is still present but there are fewer checkpoints. Shops in town are now open till late; the evening curfew is a thing of the past.

But many residents are guarded with their enthusiasm about this new season of opening up. Many are apprehensive that their enclave would be gradually taken over by businessmen from the Sinhalese south. Small local businesses would disappear, some feel. Others fear that the nuances of the Sri Lankan Tamil culture and identity would gradually be wiped out.

The town itself is not prepared to tackle this sudden surge of tourism. Hotels are few. Some residents are renting out extra rooms for large sums of money. Hoteliers are rushing in but it would take several months before the infrastructure would be in place. A Jaffna Chamber of Commerce official said that land prices, as well as rents, were shooting up with many from Tamil diaspora planning to buy houses and property in their land of origin.