EXPERIENCE OF VISIT TO SRI LANKA...
Since the end of the civil war in Sri Lanka in 2009, the ruling party had claimed that the country is now heading towards a new era of sustainable political stability and economic growth. The victory of the Sri Lankan army over the LTTE has provided a venue for President Rajapakshe to regain control by winning the 2010 election for second term. While some claim Rajapakshe to be a Singhala hero who defeated the Tamil Tigers, others have accused the regime of brutal war crimes and violation of human rights against the Tamil people. However, the ruling party is constantly trying to shift the attention away from socio/economic issues. The government's claim is that the country had been torn apart by a long civil war and since now it is over, the focus should be in economic growth. They also further address that all humanitarian efforts are being undertaken to ensure the safe keeping of the thousands of injured, traumatised, displaced, starving victims of war who are in need of immediate help. Whatever the claims from the government, the truth is much harder to find out due to its abnormal secrecy and overwhelmingly conflicting evidence. Although Sri Lanka has emerged as one of the fastest growing nation in the world in 2010, it does not necessarily translate as better living condition for its citizens. Mega projects with China and India only shows the interest of alien power in gaining control over Sri Lanka's vastly untapped natural resources. My trip to Sri Lanka on the September last year had given me a chance to witness in person the actual living conditions of the people. I also had the chance to visit different communities in different regions of Sri Lanka and gained much awareness about many issues, including the civil war.
Colombo had all the signs of an ambitious Asian city with many development activities. There were constructions taking place in every corner of Colombo revealing a sense of urgency to upgrade their facilities. Some city dwellers seems to be optimistic about Presidents Rajapakshe’s rule and hope for a healthy economic growth. Each day, more and more people are arriving at Colombo to look for a new opportunity to make a fortune for themselves but most of them end up being exploited as a cheap labour force to facilitate the rate of growth in Colombo. Colombo is also an expensive city. A proper meal in a restaurant could cost you the same as in Singapore or Malaysia. An American whose income is 25 times greater than that of a Sri Lankan finds milk prices in the USA to be the same as that in Sri Lanka. The general purchasing power of Sri Lanka is very low and in economic centres such as in Colombo, people could barely survive the skyrocketing prices. I did not meet one person who is satisfied with the general living standards of the public since the war and the economic reforms. Military presence in the capital city is also intimidating to many visitors. Army personnel in full uniform and a riffle could be spotted every 100 meters or so in the heart of the city. It is not a surprise as Sri Lankan government have constantly increased their military budget by an average of seven percent every year since the war end in 2009. The public also seem to be in an uncomfortable position living side by side with armed military. However, many feel that the government is using its military to neutralize some of its opponents in politics and to restrict peoples political involvement and movement. Some of the Tamils who are traveling with me have expressed their fear for the military as they have been a target of random bullying and interrogation in the streets. Although being denied by the Rajapakshe government, there are countless eyewitness reports of the Sri Lankan army abducting people from the streets in a white van. Some are missing since 2006 and many relatives of the missing have joined in a few mass protest demanding the government to release the prisoners who have been taken illegally. Protests such as these are becoming more common in Colombo in recent years.
Nuwara Eliya (plantation workers settlement)
Nuwara Eliya is the only place in Sri Lanka with a majority of Indian Tamils with 51 percent. Indian Tamils were brought by the British from Tamil Nadu, India in the 19th century as tea plantation workers similar to those Tamils in Malaysia and Singapore. The Jaffna Tamils have a much longer history in Sri Lanka and have been in Sri Lanka with their distinct culture. Geographically Tamils population is concentrated in the north and the east of Sri Lanka while Indian Tamils or commonly also known as the ‘hill-country Tamils’ are based in the hill country area in the south. The Jaffna Tamils ruling elite do not see the hill-country Tamils as one of their own and often abandon them without showing any solidarity. Due to the discrimination against them by the governments, these tea plantation workers are being driven into extreme poverty.
Most of Nuwara Eliya Tamils are employed by the tea estates along the highlands. The working condition is very harsh and unfair in these estates and tea factories. They are the lowest paid sector of the work force in Sri Lanka, receiving a basic wage of about 2 USD per day. They have to hand in a total of between 20 and 25 kilos by the end of the day to get their day salary of just 290 rupees (2.50 USD), which includes a 200 rupee basic wage, a non-variable wage of 20 rupees and an attendance allowance of 70 rupees. The allowance is only paid if workers turn up for 75 percent of the working days offered by the companies. There are nearly 70 unions in the Plantation sector but they do very little to defend the workers rights and allow the employers to exploit the workers. Many allegations have been out that the unions are taking bribe from the employers to side them in any managerial decisions taken. Due to the poor wage and high living cost, these workers conditions are in a worrying situation. They accommodate an entire family into one small room in a dorm styled British era barracks. Facilities such as electricity, water and gas are extremely scarce. The children have no proper schools or teachers. One housewife I spoke to have explained to me that her family's economic condition is so bad that they could only afford to cook rice (which is a staple meal) for only 3 or 4 meals a week. Most of the daily meals consist of cheap provision breads and some light gravy. Many are trying to slowly build an extra house in whatever small land they have to accommodate their growing children who would soon need privacy. Some of this house projects take years to complete due to the lack of funding and the parents will be in no position to educate their children when they grow older. Even in this desperate position, one family took their day off to cook rice and some filling dishes for us. The children of the house were so happy that they will be eating a much fulfilling meal than their daily routine but only the parents really know the extend of their sacrifice for this one day. As I traveled back downhill from Nuwara Eliya to Jaffna, I crossed countless foreigners who are sipping an expensive cup of tea overlooking the tea plantation where the workers picking the fresh tea.
Jaffna (former conflict area)
Trip to Jaffna is a bus ride for 12 hours from Colombo with 2 stops in between. The poorly constructed roads and condition of the bus makes it a tiring journey. Six hours from Colombo, there is a military check point in a place called Vavuniya. All foreigners will be screened and details taken. These measurements are to prevent a reason influx of foreign reporters who sneak into Jaffna to collect evidence of the brutality of Rajapakshe regime. Belongings such as voice recorder and cameras would be confiscated immediately if spotted and any kind of photographic record of the military is considered a serious offence. The remaining journey into Jaffna, one could witness the after effects of the 30 year old long civil war. The people of Jaffna have been the victims of both the LTTE and the Sri Lanka army and often found themselves in the middle of a crossfire. Most of the houses along the route to Jaffna has been damaged by shell bombings. Every wall were filled with bullet holes. Most train stations were bombed and all the steel materials were taken. Long yellow lines of tapes along both sides of the road were indications of landmine prone areas. The landmines that were planted by the army and Tigers is also a reason that prevent thousands from returning to their homes and villages. Images of school children walking to schools that are filled with bullet holes and shell bombed buildings are just a reminder of how much out of control the war was. None of the public buildings were spared including a gigantic public water tank. Caught between the army fire and LTTE fire were hundreds of thousands of common people. The final assault by the Sri Lankan army at the end of the civil war have produced civilian death toll over 40 000 and another 300 000 displaced internally. Allegedly around 22 000 LTTE members have been killed. Many public assembly venues such as hospitals and schools were bombed in air raids and killing those who took shelter for safety. LTTE forces that scramble behind the ordinary people for cover had also indirectly caused many deaths.
In Jaffna I was accommodated by a Tamil in his home in a nearby city called Chavakatcheri. It is a small town about 20 minutes away from Jaffna city. My host brought me around to his old house which was bombed back in the beginning of the war. Since then, he have built a new house nearby which was also bombed in a later raid. The railway station that was in front of his house were completely destroyed. To further the sorrow, one of his sons joined the LTTE at the age of 14 and he had to risk his entire family’s life to get his son out and to send him to overseas. LTTE was notorious in recruiting child soldiers. After the war, his son still could not return to his homeland due to the fear of arrest from the government. As an ex- LTTE member, it is highly risky to return to Sri Lanka even tough he was recruited at the young age of 14 and had since regretted his decision.
The Jaffna city itself is in a bad condition. Broken houses, destroyed public buildings, walls with bullet holes are daily reminders of the Sri Lanka armies brutality. To make things even worse, the ever present soldiers armed with Chinese made T-56 assault riffles are stationed in every road corners. Including the patrolling armies, the number of soldiers could match the population of Jaffna itself. It is a common believe that the Rajapakshe government have further planted spies (one in every ten Jaffna Tamils could be a government spy) everywhere to pick up any political or rebellious activity that might surface. Due to this, one have to be extra careful in interviewing strangers or engage in a political conversation in public. I visited the fully shelled Jaffna central train station and the newly reconstructed world famous Jaffna library. Although in need of rebuilding, Jaffna is a stunningly beautiful place. The costal geography is unique and one could drive for hours on the naturally formed roads which stretch for kilometres into the sea. Some of the costal settlements which were hit by the tsunami added grief to the already unstable area.
People of Jaffna are very quiet and constantly in fear of the military. Most young men had either perished in the war, fled overseas or in Colombo for work (after the Muslims, Jaffna Tamils are the largest ethnic group in Colombo). Sri Lanka Tamils population had been slashed into half during this 30 year old long war. Even without the presence of most of their young men, women, children and elders are working hard within the community to try and rebuild their broken lives. Political conversations are highly taboo and could easily result in imprisonment. Despite the complications, many have shared their sad past in detail with me and many shed tears while remembering their lost families and homes. Every house hold in Jaffna have an unforgettable sad story and most people blame the actions of both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE. This has come as a surprise for me as I have met many Sri Lankan refugees in Europe that were hardcore supporters of the LTTE. The mood on ground seems to be different for the Sri Lankan Tamils who have their equal criticism for both parties. Traumatised by the war, and hit hard by natural disaster, Jaffna Tamils desperately trying to safeguard whatever left and working tirelessly to build a safe future for those who remain.
Sri Lanka is an amazingly beautiful country with endless resources. However, the country was spiraled downwards in the process of power grabbing. It left the country divided and all the citizens including the Singhala poor working class were forced into semi-slavery. Rajapakshe, has the support of imperialism. The government gained support from Europe, China, USA, Israel and India for the final slaughter of the LTTE and the Tamils. Sri Lankan army alone could not have gained a victory if it is not for the weapons supplied to them by India, China and Israel. With their approval, Rajapakshe massacred the population and crippled any kind of revival of democratic rights for the Tamils. This underlines the fundamental problem of tactics of LTTE. They have isolated themselves and failed to link the struggle with all the affected community. They did not attempt to unite the working class of all races to oppose the undemocratic government policies which ultimately affects poor working class regardless of race, religion or ancestral ethnicity. The LTTE is guilty of taking a huge responsibility without clearly understanding all the choices they had and also did not work out a correct program based on the objective situation. These errors have resulted in disaster for the LTTE even after demonstrating one of the vigorous armed struggle the world had ever seen for 27 long years.
The Sri Lanka government in return used the opportunity to label the Tigers as terrorists in the eye of the world and justified their actions for using enormous force against helpless Tamils whom got caught in between. Recently, enormous evidence had been gathered and published in Channel 4 and other media which clearly documents the deliberate massacre of thousands of Tamils. Destroyed public facilities such as schools and hospital ruins still stand as an undeniable evidence of the mass murder that happened. The Sri Lankan government of the past and the present only interested in continuing a division in the country while sizing up all the wealth for themselves. It is important to build unity among the Singhala, Hill-Country Tamils, the Muslim population and the Tamils to win even basic democratic rights. Currently Sri Lanka is being managed at gunpoint and the situation will become even worse with China and India luring to buy up the country. This is an important period to voice resistance and to show solidarity among all the poor working people of Sri Lanka.
YUVA, CWI Malaysia