Upcountry Tamils are Sri Lankans
BY Mirudhula Thambiah
Ceylon Workers Red Flag Union General Secretary Menaha Kandasamy said that a national identity for the Plantation Tamils as an ethnic group in Sri Lanka is a must and the identity as ‘Indian Origin Tamils’ must be omitted. “We don’t need to keep this term ‘Indian Origin’. When politically categorizing, using own agendas in giving an identity to a certain ethnic group must be avoided,” she said.
Following are excerpts of the interview: ? What are the elements that are essential to ensure the identity of the Plantation Tamils in Constitutional Reforms?
A: Certain issues are common to the plantations too. Both Sinhala and Tamil are State languages. Nearly 90 per cent of the Plantation Community is Tamil speaking. They are facing language barriers when dealing in official matters. The Upcountry Tamils face language barriers. Thus it is important to solve issues relating to language barriers. It is essential to implement and practice both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages of Sri Lanka.
Ten Commissions have been appointed under the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. These Commissions are appointed to ensure decentralization of power. We suggest that one additional Commission be included to tackle issues of Plantation Employees with a special focus for women workers. Through globalization and new liberal economic policies, feminization is rising. Currently, the world over females are representing the working class and it is especially so in the plantations sector. Therefore, the additional Commission must concentrate especially on women related issues in the plantations. Generally, when it is a Commission for workers the main priority is given for males but we stress that priority should be given for female plantation workers too. Under the feminization process we are able to observe an increase in the number of female workers in Sri Lanka. Therefore, a Commission that focuses on women plantation workers is a must.
We also suggest another Commission to ensure adequate education facilities to all plantation workers children. We feel not only the plantation children but others too should be aware of the history of the Sri Lankan plantation community or the Upcountry Tamils. Their history should be taught to the younger generation. History should not exclude the beginnings of any community of this country.
Currently the Upcountry Tamils are not only working in the plantations. They are moving around to the garment and other sectors too. It is important that any convention relating to the United Nations or International Labour Organization signed by the government, it has to be ratified to include the Upcountry or Plantation Tamils. This has to be included to the Constitution. We mainly stress on ILO Conventions as our main goal is to ensure the rights of plantation workers.
There should be a monitoring mechanism in instances of violation of labour rights in the plantations. Even if we have laws, violations continue to happen. They are trying to even make the plantation sector informal due to the current status of the economy, under which plantation workers will not be considered as workers and they will not be covered under labour rights. They will just be treated as informal sector workers, thus the Constitution must include that any worker as only worker without any categorization as to formal or informal. Legal protection is a must for all workers. All plantation workers who are Upcountry Tamils are also citizens of this country.
Most of our labour laws are gender biased, it only mentions he, his or him but not she or her. We suggest gender equality in the Constitution especially when amending labour laws in connection to the plantation community who are Upcountry Tamils.
? How do you think Constitutional Reforms should address the issues of women plantation workers on a political basis?
A: Political representation has always been an issue for the plantation or Upcountry Tamil women. Our Constitution already says about equality and rights, but it was never in practice. We feel the Constitution should include the working class; which is missing. Identity of ethnic groups, gender and religion is there in practice, but identity of the working class is missing.
This country, society and the policy makers are patriarchal viewers. It is a capitalist society; when it comes to the working class. When focusing on the Upcountry women workers, they are degraded and are considered below identity. Accordingly they must bring focus to this particular excluded area.
When it comes to Upcountry women in politics, their representation in Parliament should increase. But it is not just women; they should be women who are gender and class conscious. Gender consciousness with a working class ideology is most important. Feminization is mainly focused on the working class women.
Not only in politics, but at any level of representation, let it be planning committee or any other commission Upcountry Tamil or plantation women representation should be of those who are conscious of their gender and working class.
? Is it necessary to allocate a separate ruling unit or self rule unit for the Upcountry or Plantation Tamils under Constitutional Reforms?
A: We know Sri Lanka is a multi ethnic country with diverse communities. We need to maintain this existence. The State cannot use the minority identity to discriminate such ethnic groups. Why are ethnic groups in our country demanding for separate rule? It is because they are discriminated. The Muslims are asking for a separate administrative province, and now the plantation Tamils have begun to rise up for a separate ruling unit. The plantation community is considered under the Tamil category. We are minorities within minorities. When a quota is given to the Tamil community, it will mainly consider those in the North and East. They are a majority in consideration to the Plantation Tamils. Therefore, the plantation community is entirely different from the Northern Tamils.
This Upcountry Tamil community was discriminated by all governments in the past. As they were oppressed, discriminated and isolated the plantation community has begun to ask for a separate ruling unit. It is very important to give the Upcountry Tamils or the Plantation Tamils their identity. We should not ask for a separate ruling unit, instead we can demand for more power to the Provincial Councils. Power decentralization can be demanded from local authorities, but not separate ruling units. It is a small country; still the State should take care of all ethnic groups. Demanding for an identity and asking for a separate rule are two different things.
The central government must remember when they allocate resources, equal distribution to the Plantation Tamils must be ensured. This community has been oppressed for more than 200 years their living standards have not improved much. Thus equal and equitable treatment for the Upcountry Tamils is a must. Providing equal distribution of resources is not just to make the resources equal but implement it too.
? You always highlighted that the Plantation Tamils must be recognized as a separate national ethnic group. But they have been mostly identified as Indian Origin Tamils. Recently a minister identified them as Kandyan Tamils. What exactly is the correct identity?
A: We have to feel this is our country. We are citizens of this country. Many years ago our ancestors did come from India. But that does not mean we identify ourselves as Indian Origin Tamils. We belong to Sri Lanka. Most ethnic groups in Sri Lanka came from India many centuries ago. Even the Sinhala community came from India. But labelling as Indian Origin is not correct in the current context.
There is a debate on about the identity of these Tamils. Some call them, Upcountry Tamils and Plantation Tamils.
Part of the Plantation Tamils went to settle down in the North and East. They do not call themselves Indian Origin or Upcountry Tamils; they just identify themselves as Tamils. These people are isolated in both provinces. We need to discuss on how they should be identified. We need an identity; we should not exclude those who settled in the North and East. We feel Indian Origin Tamil is definitely not a suitable identity.
We don’t need to keep this term ‘Indian Origin’. When politically categorizing. Having an own agenda in giving an identity to a certain ethnic group must be avoided. We need to consider the future of this ethnic group and not our party politics. Before categorizing there should be a quick discussion. Also identifying them as Kandyan Tamils is also totally wrong.
? It is believed that there are quite a number of former LTTE cadres, who were from the set of Plantation Tamils settled in the North and East, and have undergone rehabilitation and are now struggling to cope with the economic hardships. It is also said that most of them are living in the Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu Districts. Why do you think the existence of such people is not public and that they are neglected?
A: This is another issue which most of the representatives have failed to make public. People from the plantation community who settled in the North and East avoided opening up to say that they also joined such an organization due to fear. With the experiences they had with the former government, they were not willing to open up due to fear. They already belong to an oppressed community. Thus it is easy to punish them. It is a very sensitive issue. But of late people have begun to be open about their identity and that they are living in the North and East. There were many cadres who went from the plantations who were in the frontline and they died in battle.
Our current government has agreed for rehabilitation and reconciliation irrespective of ethnic groups or identities. The government must bring justice to these fighters or cadres. They need to live and move forward in life. These people should not be neglected or punished anymore. They must be considered as one category and they must be provided assistance. The government must provide all facilities without any discrimination.
? Similarly there are many political prisoners from the plantations who were arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). But why do you think plantation representatives have failed to identify their grievances?
A: Most of these arrests took place because young people from the plantations did not have National Identity Cards. Thus most of the innocent young men and women from the plantations who worked in the cities were arrested under the PTA due to suspicion. It is important to mention that such people were not only arrested in the cities but those who lived on the estates in their villages were also taken into custody. Therefore, we now feel it is high time that the government took action with regard to this without discrimination.