Sri Lanka’s Northern Reboot


A significant event took place earlier this week in Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka: President Mahinda Rajapaksa flagged off the first train in that region in 25 years, the Yal Devi Express. A new train service wouldn’t ordinarily be a big deal, but this was a landmark feat. It required millions of dollars in credit from India, a whole team of Indian engineers, imported coaches from China, and even a political controversy between the president and the Chief Minister of the Tamil-dominated Northern Province, to get the railway rolling.

For all this, the Yal Devi isn’t even a new train; in fact, it first started running in the mid 1950s. The Yal Devi was simply one casualty in the long list of services in the north that were disrupted during Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war. Significantly, Chief Minister C. V. Wigneswaran boycotted the event, saying he will “[keep] away from all functions [the President] is staging in the Northern Province” until his concerns were addressed. But that didn’t stop a robust local crowd from turning up at the station to witness the historic moment.

It is hardly surprising that a bitter ethnic civil war spanning many years would leave distrust and tension in its wake. But Wigneswaran’s cold shoulder was in stark contrast to the public’s enthusiasm. Last year, when Sri Lanka held its first provincial elections in the Northern Province since the end of the civil war, turnout was almost 70 percent, the highest of any Sri Lankan province. Clearly, Tamils in Sri Lanka recognize the benefits of putting the past behind them and moving forward. The best way to reintegrate them with the Sri Lankan mainstream is to work for shared economic growth, and this week’s railway relaunch was part of that effort.

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For Sri Lanka, the North and its people are important. The region is rich in minerals such as limestone and copper. The Tamils also provide the economy with labor – more so in areas that were badly affected by the civil war – that is central to the infrastructure and industrialization push that Rajapaksa is trying to undertake. For the Tamils, joining the country’s majority Sinhalese in rebooting the economy would be the best way to rebuild and reconstruct their own society and future.

All of this would seem quite straightforward. But there are serious political challenges in making it happen.

Take this latest falling out between the president and his chief minister. After Rajapaksa rolled out a system to allot land permits to 20,000 people in the Northern Province, Wigneswaran accused him of trying to create political capital. “The NPC (Northern Provincial Council) is not viewed as a partner in addressing the concerns of the war-ravaged north,” he said, calling Colombo’s government an “authoritarian regime.”

Concerns have been raised in the past about the minimal involvement of the provincial government in policymaking. The last time Rajapaksa met Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the latter reiterated the importance of implementing the 13th amendment of the Sri Lankan constitution, which entails a devolution of powers to the Northern Province. But Rajapaksa hasn’t been forthcoming on that score.

A second concern often raised by Wigneswaran’s provincial government is the high military presence in his province. In July this year, a study reported that there were as many as 15,000 military personnel in the Jaffna peninsula. To some, this is understandable: Jaffna was the seat of the LTTE’s campaign and Colombo suspects remnants of the militant group might still be trying to restore their strength in the area. But military presence in one part of the country that is absent elsewhere tends to contribute to distrust, particularly when it is unnecessary. With the LTTE’s leadership destroyed, Colombo has few grounds to justify the heavy hand. Unlike in Kashmir, where New Delhi is perennially at odds with militant groups fostered by the border conflict between India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka has no hostile neighbors contesting any part of its territory. Yet in the past few months, there has been no significant decline in Jaffna’s militarized zone.

Despite these concerns, Wigneswaran’s boycott bodes ill for the future of his province. The only way the Northern Province can develop its human resources and integrate with the Sri Lankan economy is through Wigneswaran’s active participation, given that he enjoys greater popularity in the province than the Sinhalese president does.

Rajapaksa, too, needs to deliver on devolving powers and building democratic institutions in the Northern Province. The high voter turnout in last year’s provincial elections reflects the hopes that the people of the region have in democracy. If their aspirations are left unmet by Wigneswaran and Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s big Northern reboot will forever be incomplete.

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