A Botched Airport Opening Ceremony: Sri Lanka Cries

By S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole –

Prof. S. Ratnajeevan H. Hoole

Last Thursday (16.10.2019) was a great day for Sri Lanka. Jaffna international Airport was opened. It offered great opportunity for integrating Jaffna with the rest of Sri Lanka; for tourists from Tamil Nadu (having the largest number of tourists in India) to hop over to Jaffna and visit – besides Jaffna – Anuradhapura, Sigiriya, Polannaruwa, Trinco, etc.; and for industrial collaboration with India and industrial powerhouse Tamil Nadu. It was an event I could not miss. Being from Jaffna, I felt elated that the old airport I had used long ago in the 1960s and late 1980s and 1990s would soon be an international airport. I felt grateful to all those who had made it happen.

However, instead of seeing the airport as of having national importance, the airport project fell victim to communal jealousy. The Airforce Commander failed to cooperate. When an Indian technical crew on 16 Sept. 2019 after a hard day’s work asked for tea, he retorted that the Indians were doing it for Tamils and demanded “Do you expect me to serve you tea?” The Indians, exhausted by 2 pm, sent a Jeep to Kankesanthurai to fetch refreshments.

The problem is that a project to advance the nation, national unity, and our economy, fell afoul of communal passions. It was a project that the Prime Minister had put together with the TNA. Now cast as a favour to Tamils, few Sinhalese, it seemed, wanted to claim ownership.

The President who had agreed to come for the opening, even after the invitation cards were printed, did not firmly commit to coming. The event was therefore planned with only the Prime Minister and his ministers coming, making it seem like a UNP affair. The President’s coming would have made the event more free since he has relinquished his party affiliations. With the Prime Minister being the highest ranking official in the midst of the presidential elections, the Election Commission then put in the normal restrictions.

The organization of the event was put in the hands of Colombo officials to not make it seem a Tamil affair. Many Sinhalese officials were invited and given the first few front row seats with name tags. Tamils were left out. School children were dragooned to occupy the back of the hall.

The heavy military presence showed that the President was coming. 

The ribbon cutting ceremony was in a separate area far away from the main crowd. Defence officials determined who was to be let into that area. GA Vathanayahan (the highest ranking government official in Jaffna), the Leader of the Provincial Assembly C.V.K. Sivagnanam, and I were directed by Tamil officials to this area. We were denied entry. Only MPs they said. So MP E. Saravanapavan was let it.  However, others too had been let in. Vethanayahan, quietly went away to the main tent. A Sinhalese official near the door went in and pleaded that Sivagnanam was the Leader of the House. He was again denied entry. So we both went to the main tent. A boy there found me a seat at the back. I saw Sivagnanam going here and there looking for a seat as he was told others were coming to where he tried to sit.

We were to be shown the ribbon cutting on a huge screen. I do not recall seeing it. We were to be shown the first flight from Madras landing. We were shown the plane only after it had landed and taxied to a stop.

Then boxes of food were served. I asked for a vegetarian box and was asked to separate the one vegetarian sandwich and eat it. I declined. Most Tamils who are vegetarian went with that one sandwich while the rest were seen gorging themselves. Thinnai, as the name of the famous restaurant was marked on the boxes, claims to be advertising authentic Jaffna culture! They should not have collaborated in this cruel joke particularly with school children drooling for food.

Then the biggies from Colombo entered our hall, the ribbon having been cut. They took the front row. I saw from the screen MPs Maavai Senathirajah and Sumanthiran. The Governor, PM and President, and Indian High Commissioner also were there.

The President not having indicated clearly that he would be present as he had first indicated in accepting the invitation and having his name printed on the card, seemed to have had tantrums. Finally, he came. This was a spanner in the works as no place had been put in the unofficial programme for him to speak. As a result, Sumanthiran was removed from the list of speakers to give the President a place.

Southern organizers seemed determined to make the airport opening ceremony a Sinhalese event to blunt propaganda in the south in election time. All the Sinhalese spoke in Sinhalese. No translation although providing a translation is now pretty standard in Colombo, as it also is when Jaffna officials organize an event in Jaffna. So it seemed to me a deliberate provocation and to send the message that the airport is not for Tamils as the Air Force chief claimed. The Governor spoke in all three languages making a pitch for continuing as Governor after the elections. The Indian high commissioner spoke in English. Senathirajah spoke in Tamil. As I recall, most of us were clueless about what was said by the others. For school children, except for the few Tamil speeches, it was all hocus pocus.  

It does not matter because those who spoke in Sinhalese had nothing to say to the Tamils present. For, when we speak, there are usually two reasons for speaking. Most often it is to convey a message. Obviously, there was no message to convey to the larger part of the audience. This seemed to be the operative mode because the Prime minister only once briefly switched to English – to thank the Indian High Commissioner HE Sandhu. That was the one time he wanted to switch to the first mode of communicating a message. The alternative possibility is micro-aggression (being aggressive just short of assaulting)  – to make Tamils feel this is not our country and that our rulers are not interested in communicating with us, and of course to lord it over us. This time it seems to have been for a Third reason – to convey to the South that “the airport is not for the Tamils so do not stop voting for us.” 

The worst was when, as soon as the Prime Minister finished his speech, the President, seemingly in a huff for having been forced into a ceremony that he did not favour, got up and walked off. All those from the first few rows walked behind him and left with him. It was too late for Sumanthiran to speak as the higher ranking PM had already spoken. They had suddenly discovered protocol hierarchy, which they had forgotten about in making seating arrangements.

What should have been a happy day for all of us, was badly botched by election gimmicks and playing to the communalist gallery. An event that was to unite us as a nation, had the opposite effect.

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