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‘Protesting is not new to us… it’s new to them’ – A Tamil student reflects on the protest in Jaffna

As anti-government protests engulfed the south of Sri Lanka this week, Tamil students at the University of Jaffna have expressed their frustrations at how Sinhalese students had failed to join them at previous protests as they joined a rally through the Northern city on Monday.

“Until now, the community in question have been hibernating,” said one Jaffna University student, speaking on the growing number of Sinhala students at the campus. “Only now, when their people have been submerged in problems, have they woken up, taking strategic action by joining us on the streets.”

Though protests and rallies have flared across the south of the island, the North-East has been relatively subdued. The Daily Mirror claimed that protestors had surrounded the homes of almost every government-aligned parliamentarian in the country, but that was not true across the Tamil homeland.

A protest in 2021 outside the University of Jaffna after a monument dedicated to Tamil Genocide victims was destroyed.

In recent years, protests have regularly taken place across the North-East on issues ranging from international accountability for genocide to halting government land grabs and the devolution of powers to the Tamil provinces. Whilst dozens were held across the South calling for the resignation of Sri Lanka’s president, few have been held by Tamils in recent days.

In Batticaloa, Tamil parliamentarian R Shanakiyan led a march, whilst students at Eastern University held a demonstration on Monday.

Tamil and Sinhala students also marched in Jaffna on Monday, with placards in Tamil, English and Sinhalese. But some students criticized the lack of support from Sinhala students for Tamil rights and issues.

“During the five years I have studied here, we students have organised countless protests to improve the welfare of our community,” continued the Jaffna-based student. “They did not take part or even come to watch.”

A placard from the protest in Jaffna on Monday.

The student also criticised how some of the Sinhala students’ placards contained curse words or joked about sexual intercourse, particularly given the long history of sexual violence by Sri Lanka’s security forces. “To this day, many protests have taken place at Jaffna University and yet, even when faced with violence, there is no history of raising banners that use language that makes you wrinkle your face in disgust,” he added.

Others have expressed little faith that the protests would amount to any tangible change for Tamils. “Once they get fuel and bread, they will forget all about us,” said another Jaffna local.

“Today, their activism feels farcical in my heart,” continued the student. “Protesting is not new to us… it’s new to them.”

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