By Sarah Hannan reporting from the Eastern Province
The Eastern Province contributes 25% of the country’s national paddy production, 21% of its fish production, and 17% of national milk production – one could even call it the Granary of Sri Lanka.
The Province is also turning into a popular tourism destination due to its pristine beaches and surf spots where now international-level surf competitions are hosted and is frequented by foreign as well as local tourists.
With an estimated population of 1,729,000 as per the Department of Census and Statistics mid-year data of 2019, the Province has a registered voter base of 1,183,205 as of 2018, representing three districts, namely Trincomalee, Batticaloa, and Ampara, as per Election Commission (EC) data.
The Sunday Morning recently visited a few areas of the Province to understand how they were recuperating following the Easter Sunday attacks of 21 April, and whether they were looking forward to the upcoming presidential election.
Living in harmony
The small township of Kattankudy is filled with distinctive architecture and landscapes. Several mosques are still under construction, and several churches and kovils too were spotted en route.
An avenue decorated with palm trees took the spotlight and as soon as the stretch ended, there were statues of significant persons who played important roles in shaping the country into what it is today.
We spoke to M. Ibrahim, who was working at a metal workshop in the town, who said: “I cannot say much about the political situation in the country. There was a drop in business after the incident in April, but we are gradually recovering from it.
“The palm trees avenue section is where all the Muslim businesses are situated, and from the Swami Vivekananda statue onwards, it is the territory of Hindu businesses. It is just a marker, but we all depend on each other’s skills and services.”
On Friday, 11 October, presidential candidate M.L.A.M. Hizbullah had called for a meeting that everyone in the town of Kattankudy was instructed to attend.
We then inquired on whether the people of Kattankudy were decided on whom to vote for.
Ahmed Faslin owns a textile shop and had moved to Kattankudy following his marriage. He has been operating the shop for about nine years now. Faslin too agreed that business was gradually picking up and informed that many who visited his shop to purchase clothing were from the Hindu community.
“We depend on the Hindus to build our houses as they are talented in carpentry and masonry. The Muslims are good at business and the Hindus come to purchase various items from us.
“With regard to the election, we are yet to decide who we would vote for; it is anyway a little too soon to pick the correct candidate, and it will depend on how much of a contribution the candidate has made towards developing the country.”
He also added: “People should not depend much on the politicians, because the only time we see a politician is when an election is around the corner.”
He added that people were afraid to step out of their houses during the first two weeks following the Easter Sunday attacks, especially because there were curfews imposed and constant security checks being conducted. But, now the town is returning to normalcy.
Development gaining pace
We then headed towards Batticaloa, one of the main cities in the Eastern Province. It has a healthy mix of enterprises, farmland, fishing villages, and several public and private offices. We met S.S. Manoharan, a retired government official who was more than happy to share a bit of history and on the current status of Batticaloa.
“I was born in Batticaloa and even during that time, this place was thriving. Before Sri Lanka began producing tiles, the product was imported from India on sailboats in the 1950s, and the boats arrived at the Batticaloa Harbour. With tile production commencing in Sri Lanka later, the imports then stopped.”
He further informed that most of the functions of the city of Batticaloa came to a halt during the civil war, and highlighted that as a possible reason certain areas were underdeveloped. Yet, many families stayed and continued to live in Batticaloa, even during the war.
There were several individuals who continued to develop the city and Manoharan fondly spoke of a Jesuit priest, Rev. Father Harold Weber, who coached students at St. Michael’s College, Batticaloa.
“Rev. Weber was always seen in the grounds and coached many students in athletics. He had a vision to build a sports stadium that met international standards. To honour his contributions and vision to develop sports in Batticaloa, we named the stadium Weber Stadium and are now developing the stadium to meet international standards,” Manoharan added.
Today, the city offers career prospects in many sectors and as Manoharan explained, people can choose to continue on the traditional lines of farming or fishing, alternatively choose to work for a public/private firm, or try their hand at tourism-related jobs.
Previous elections’ data revealed that Batticaloa seemed to be a strong supporter of the United National Party (UNP), but upon speaking to several people from the city, we gathered that the popularity of the party was dropping citing weak policies.
However, many who have benefitted from the housing projects implemented by presidential candidate Sajith Premadasa seem to be in favour of him and said that they would vote for him.
Difference in opinion
Speaking to M.A. Raju, a vegetable vendor in the junction of Batticaloa, we gathered a different perspective. “Everything was going great until the recent attacks. Now, Hindus are afraid to go and eat from Muslim shops.”
Raju stated that he used to sell coconuts, and when the civil war began to severely affect the livelihoods of those in Batticaloa, he went to Saudi Arabia to work and for safety reasons.
“There was a stigma in our community as we would be randomly stopped on the road and frisked just because we were Tamils. Our trades crashed, so most of us went abroad for work and safety reasons. But thankfully, the war ended, and now we are back in our town and living peacefully.”
Raju was of the opinion that the Rajapaksas contributed immensely towards the development of the country and ending the war.
We continued towards Batticaloa town and stepped into S. Thiyagaraja’s shop. He has been running the shop for nearly three years now but had arrived in Batticaloa after he got married in 2001. He said: “I used to work in Colombo and just three years ago, I decided to start my business in this town. Some might say that there is a division between ethnicities, but I don’t see that; people of all ethnicities come to purchase goods from my shop. We are actually living in great conditions now. During the civil war, it was dangerous to even step out of one’s own house after 6 p.m., but today, with the peace that we achieved, we are able to do business until late in the night. I keep my shop open till 10 p.m. now.”
Thiyagaraja stated that Premadasa, unlike other candidates, had been actively involved with the people and built houses in 40 villages in the Eastern Province.
Bidding at sunrise
Just before the sun rises on the eastern coast fishing village of Palaminmadu, bidding begins with every boatload that arrives. When we reached the fishing village, almost all the boats were beached and the bidding for smaller catches of fish had commenced. The fisherman calls out a price and the buyers would wait for a nominal amount to be called out to make their purchase.
Selvam Balasundaram had arrived to purchase fish for resale and explained how the bidding works: “We bid on the catch which has small fish. If it is skipjack tuna, yellowfin tuna, or sailfish, we weigh it and buy. The fishermen set out to sea at different times; these boats went to sea at about 4 p.m. and came back by 5 a.m. this morning. These boats go out to about 50 km and are generally manned by three persons.”
According to Balasundaram, at least 100 such boats go to sea each day. Private companies generally weigh the yield and take it to Kattankudy where they then place the fish on ice and transport it to Colombo and other regions.
Balasundaram then called in another person and stated: “He is the best person to ask about fishing activities.” He introduced us to James Chandarasekaran.
Chandrasekaran has been going to sea since he was 17 years old, and had lost one of his brothers at sea during a storm. “It is normal to experience two to three deaths during December every year. The Met (Meteorology) Department issues warnings, yet some of the fishermen do not care about the warnings and go to sea.”
When inquired what they do during off season, which falls between December and April, Chandrasekaran responded that they go towards Valaichchenai or Oluvil for fishing. “When we go to sea, one boat earns from Rs. 5,000 onwards for fuel and labour charges and on average, I earn about Rs. 50,000 per month by going to sea.”
Weighing in, Balasundaram stated that one might think fishermen earn a sufficient amount by going to sea, but most of their earnings are spent on liquor. “That’s the only thing that gives us relief and keeps us awake mid-sea,” a passer-by retorted.
Accompaniments for the fish
A lorry filled with various vegetables reversed towards the fish sellers and buyers. Fishermen who had completed their sales were approaching the vegetable vendor to purchase vegetables to take home; some had arrived to purchase fish and upon seeing the vegetable vendor went towards him to complete buying their list of ingredients for the meal at noon.
As soon as the buyers cleared, we approached R. Suganthan of Karuvappankerny, who was selling vegetables.
“I come to the beach in the morning everyday to sell vegetables to these fisher folk. I purchase stock from the Dambulla Economic Centre. The round trip costs me about Rs. 2,500 to bring the vegetables, but I earn about Rs. 12,000-15,000 per day by selling vegetables.”
The casuarinas plantation on the beach stretch of Batticaloa was an alienating site, but when asked, we were told that the trees had been planted after the 2004 tsunami so that should another tsunami occur in the future, the casuarinas trees were to work as a wave breaker. The plantation spreads from the Kallady beach through the entirety of Batticaloa beach. While abandoned houses that were left behind following the 2004 tsunami could be spotted just beyond the beach, the families have now been given houses in the Swiss Village.
“All these families depend on fishing. So as you can see, they have set up temporary shelters beside their old abandoned homes. They come to these shelters in the morning and leave them by evening to go to their homes in the Swiss Village,” Balasundaram explained.
One of the housewives, Kandan Koneshwari, had set up a makeshift hopper stall, where she was baking hoppers the traditional way using clay pots. After pouring the batter and placing the clay pot on the fire, she placed another clay pot that had embers to provide sufficient heat to bake the hoppers. Everyone leaving the beach seemed to stop by to purchase a hopper or two from her.
The people from the fishing village were uninterested in the political scene of the country, as they are not recipients of any sort of trade concessions. All they had understood after decades of war and uncertainty is that if they work on a certain day, they can feed their family that day.
Sinhalese displaced families
As we continued towards Trincomalee, we stopped at a wayside shop in Mahindapura. While a well-carpeted road runs to the north, the original dwellers of the village narrated to us a story of hardship and broken promises.
Speaking to us, Biso Menike recalled how they all fled the village when the LTTE attacked in 2006. “Everyone talks about the displaced Tamil families, but not many talk about the Sinhalese displaced families. Many of us had paddy land, but when the attacks commenced, we were asked to move to the IDP (internally displaced person) camps in Kantale. When the clashes died down, we were brought back to our village and the Government helped us build temporary shelters using roofing sheets.”
According to Menike, the families were moved again due to future threats. When the war ended, all they wanted was to come back to their village, but due to lack of water, the families found it difficult to engage in their farming activities, so they sold their paddy land to Tamil families and moved to other parts of the district.
She said that the shop that she runs was actually set up to sell saruwath (a popular fruit drink), stating: “But how many people would want to continue drinking saruwath throughout the stretch of this village? So now, I am selling daily essentials.”
Many governments had promised to restore the village to its former glory, but seem to have failed. Many fields are abandoned as there are insufficient water sources and supply. Even the water connection only supplies water to one section of the village, while the other section suffers with no water and has to depend on a bowser to supply water.
Ranjini Kumari, who arrived at the shop to purchase some essentials, elaborated: “We sold our inherited paddy land to a Tamil family as this village was becoming difficult to live in. This once used to be full of paddy land, but many have now started to do labour work. Our men have to find day jobs to feed the families, and our younger generation is going to other cities to work in garment factories; they want to settle in those cities because they consider this a rural village.”
Even Kumari now lives in a house in the next township of Serunuwara, but had come to Mahindapura to attend a meeting that was going on in the temple pertaining to the water issue the village has been facing.
The people of Mahindapura too seem to have lost all the hope they had in politicians and presidents, according to Kumari, who also said: “No matter who sits on the main chair, our problems are not being solved.”
We passed a sleepy hamlet known as Jidda Nagar, where we saw racks of fish being air dried. The village is home to about 100 families and is in existence since 1992. Jidda Nagar too was affected by the tsunami of 2004, but the houses were rebuilt taking the buffer zone into consideration. Only the fish racks and some shops were situated on the beach side.
A.N.M. Irfan operates one of the setups. He shared: “I manage this section. Many from this village depend on fisheries and some of us supply dried fish for shops in the next town. Fortunately for us, we have our own shop. It is owned by my father and is situated in Anna Nagar.”
When inquired about whom the village would support during the upcoming election, Irfan replied: “We are not that interested in politics; they only remember us when there is an election, and they rarely visit little villages such as ours.”
Arriving midday at Trincomalee town, we headed to the public market, which had turned into a hive of activity. Kurairaja Jaikumari was purchasing a stock of vegetables for her shop at Koneswaram Square.
“Our family has been living in Trincomalee for several generations. I came to the market to purchase inventory for our shop in Koneswaram Square which we have been running for around 80 years now. I inherited the shop from my parents.”
According to Jaikumari, Trincomalee is a prosperous city, and many who have come from other cities have prospered in the trades they’ve invested in. “The people who are originally from Trincomalee are very laid back; they take life too easy and therefore miss opportunities to grow as businesses. If you speak to vendors inside this market, you will figure out that most of them are originally from other parts of the island, and have made Trincomalee their home.”
When we proceeded to speak to the next vegetable vendor, what Jaikumari stated about people from other places proved to be true. At first, the vendor spoke to a customer in Tamil, so we assumed he was originally from Trincomalee, but when we asked his name, he responded that it was L.H. Nimalsiri.
Originally from Gandara in the Matara District, Nimalsiri fled his home aged 17 years and arrived in Trincomalee, wanting to live life on his own terms. He stated:
“Trincomalee has been my home for the past 35 years. I married a person from Matara and we built a home for ourselves in Trincomalee and had a daughter and a son.
Today, even my parents live in Trincomalee with us.”
Explaining how he sources his vegetables, Nimalsiri stated that every set of four vegetable and grocery shops team up to make purchases from the Dambulla Economic Centre on a daily basis.
“We take turns to go to Dambulla, and arrange bigger lorries to bring the loads to Trincomalee. We leave Trincomalee in the evening for Dambulla and then order the required goods, and get the lorry to bring the load. We catch a bus and come to Trincomalee in time to open for business.”
Nimalsiri further revealed that all the families in Trincomalee managed to survive through the war, and did not have to leave their homes at any point. When the war ended, their businesses too were thriving. However, over the past two to three years, business has not been that great with the ever-increasing cost of living.
He hopes for a positive change after the presidential election and said that he is hopeful that the next president would be able to change the course of the country for the better.
“At the moment, everything seems to be stagnant. We want to see tangible benefits of development and not false promises. After me, my son will take over this business, and all I hope is that they do not have to suffer the same way we have suffered to come up in life.”
L.T. Chandradasa too had arrived in Trincomalee when he was 17, and at 60 years of age, he is still manning a fruit stall in the market.
“I came from Matara as well, and understanding how prosperous this city is and how well I was able to conduct business, I convinced my family to move here as well.”
Chandradasa pointed out several stalls in front of him and some stalls beside him and said all those vendors were related to him by blood or through marriage.
“This city is very united and we do not have any animosity towards other ethnicities; whether they are Tamil, Muslim, or Sinhalese, I serve all of them equally.
“If we are united, we can prosper together. As much as they depend on my shop to purchase fruits, I depend on them to buy other provisions.”
When asked what he thinks about the upcoming presidential polls, Chandradasa informed that his family will surely support the Rajapaksas. “After all, they are from our hometown and for generations we have been their hardcore supporters.”
Split political opinions
In conclusion, the Eastern Province, considering the previous presidential elections, seems to have split political views.
As far as politics are concerned, they all want to see visible change in terms of development. There are small villages and towns that are unacknowledged and are battling to earn a living, while another section is constantly faced with adverse weather conditions and experiences human-elephant conflict.
They seem to be rooting for both the strong contenders at this presidential election, while some seem to be hardcore supporters of a single candidate.
The others are in favour of the candidate that provided them with roofs over their heads, while some are indifferent about the politics of this country and believe that if they work hard enough, they could get by and put food on the table for their families.
People are eager to back SLPP this time : Susantha Punchinilame
Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) Trincomalee District Leader Parliamentarian Susantha Punchinilame revealed that this is the third instance he is campaigning for a presidential election in the Trincomalee District. The public’s response towards the UPFA during the 2010 presidential election had been negative and in 2015, the situation became much worse with the popularity of the party drastically dropped during that year.
“When we organised meetings, I observed that we were at the third place, with the second place held by Tamil parties and first place held by Muslim parties. During the previous two presidential elections, we had to make an effort to connect with the Tamil and Muslim villages. Incidentally, during this election campaign, we got invitations from these villages to visit them and hold meetings with them. They are in fact suggesting that we establish campaign offices in their villages and are volunteering to assist us with campaign work.”
According to Punchinilame, party officials from V. Anandasangaree’s Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), Douglas Devananda’s Eelam People’s Democratic Party (EPDP), Varadharaja Perumal’s Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF), the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and their area organisers, and most of the Tamil community of the district have already pledged allegiance to the SLPP, and are taking the initiative in organising the meetings in their areas voluntarily. However, the TNA is announce its stand on the presidential candidate.
Punchinilame pointed out that during the last presidential election, Mahinda Rajapaksa suffered a heavy vote loss in the Muttur electorate which had 115,000 Muslim votes, 19,000 Tamil votes, and above 1,000 Sinhala votes, and the UPFA managed to only get 6,000 votes in 2015. But he is positive that this time, the numbers will increase.
“We have rallied the UPFA, SLPP, independent political groups, and even the former Chief Minister of the Eastern Province to support the SLPP. In comparison to the previous elections, we have a very positive feeling about this election and we are positive that Gotabaya Rajapaksa would be able to garner the highest number of votes from the Trincomalee District as well as the entire Eastern Province.”
Punchinilame also observed that the Batticaloa and Ampara Districts too were showing interest in supporting the SLPP and stated that it was much more than the support that was received by Mahinda Rajapaksa or Maithripala Sirisena during their election campaigns.
Sajith will get over 55% of the votes : Daya Gamage
Ampara District UNP Parliamentarian and Minister of Primary Industries and Social Empowerment Daya Gamage, speaking to The Sunday Morning on the response from the province he represents, stated: “We are hoping to get better results than the last election from the Eastern Province. In 2015, our candidate got 81.62% from the Batticaloa District, 65.22% from the Ampara District, and 71.84% from the Trincomalee District. We had a good lead in that election and even during this election we hope to maintain the same percentages from the Eastern Province.”
Gamage is of the view that Muslim votes from the Eastern Province will be in favour of Sajith Premadasa and, understanding this threat, Gotabaya Rajapaksa had brokered a deal with M.L.A.M. Hizbullah to win the Muslim votes.
“The East is not willing to give their votes to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, because soon after the civil war ended, the Rajapaksas misused their power to grab beachfront properties from the Muslim and Tamil people of the area.
“They even went to the lengths of fearmongering; the people involved were popularly known as ‘grease yakas’ and would harass the women who would go for baths in the common well or river in the village. This was also used to extend the emergency laws after the war ended in these areas.”
According to Gamage, the villagers had managed to catch these “grease yakas” and handed them over to Army or Navy camps in the areas. The Army or Navy had then handed them over to the Police, who would then release the person saying that they had a mental illness. They did not even conduct medical investigations to determine whether they had mental illnesses.
“I know for a fact that the Muslims or Tamils would not want to vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The fearmongering and land grabbing was done under Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s orders. By signing agreements, they think they could get the Muslim votes. I am positive that from the total votes during this election, Sajith Premadasa will be able to gain over 55% of the votes.”