Two cyclists from the minority Tamil community are shooed away by government soldiers as they approach this northern Sri Lankan city’s only Buddhist temple while President Mahinda Rajapaksa is paying a visit.
But when a family from the majority Sinhalese family ambles toward the guards, they are treated more amiably.
These twin incidents during Rajapaksa’s rare visit to Jaffna on Apr. 1 illustrate the contrasting ways in which soldiers from an army made up largely of Sinhalese treat the majority and minority ethnic groups.
Nearly a year after the war ended, burnt out, shell-shocked buildings can be seen lying side by side with spanking new ones for banks or financial services as Colombo firms rush to grab a share of the new business opportunities in Jaffna.
But youngsters and city elders clamor for a different kind of development. "We need to be able to own rather than be bystanders (to development)," said a city businessman, who declined to be identified for fear of reprisal.
Nirmala (not her real name), a high school student, said banks and financial services are not helpful to the Jaffna Tamils.
"A lot of banks setting up branches here are employing people from Colombo. We don’t have jobs. On the other hand, the banks take our deposits, but getting a loan is difficult because the banks want collateral, which we don’t have because our properties have been destroyed or have been taken over by the army for military purposes," she said.
Nirmala was one of a group of 30 16- to 17-year-old high school students who met with IPS recently to discuss their future in an environment where livelihood and employment opportunities are scant. They were unanimous in saying that the people of Jaffna are not part of the development that the government is carving out for the north.
Most of them want to go abroad for studies and live there permanently. "There is no future here. We will always be second-class citizens,"
Perceptions of widespread insensitivity of the Colombo establishment to the city residents became more pronounced when a group of businessmen and bankers flew into the city in late March to lay the foundation stone for a new 80-room hotel being built by a Colombo bank.
Few Tamils from Jaffna were invited to the event and all the speeches were delivered in English even if the majority of the 700,000 people speak only Tamil. Furthermore, local residents questioned the location of the hotel as it is close to a sacred Hindu temple, visited by millions of Tamils every year.
"How can you sell alcohol or meat in a sacred location?" asked Arudpragasam Sivathamby, a taxi driver. Outside the same temple premises, dozens of Sinhala traders are doing business, in some cases displacing the Tamil merchants, causing resentment among the minority ethnic group.
"This is causing a huge problem," said Tamil parliamentarian Suresh Premachandran.
Development is only seen in the form of banks, finance companies and consumer firms opening up in Jaffna while job-creating industries or factories are still inexistent.
Tamils are hoping for a greater role in power sharing. However, Dr. S. I. Keethaponcalan, a political scientist from the University of Colombo, said that is not a priority for the government at the moment. "The government won a commanding majority at the recent parliamentary polls, and trying to appease the Tamils is not the biggest priority at the moment," he declared.