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Sooriasegaram, a Tamil expatriate, tells his experience of his visit to Sri Lanka in August 2009 –Part One

I am a Sri Lankan, resident in the UK since 1965. This is a narrative report to give my personal experience, observations and thoughts. It is intended to throw light on the social realities of today in Jaffna and in the plantations, the two areas I had chance to observe closely.

By Sooriasegaram

(November 10, London, Sri Lanka Guardian) I was in Sri Lanka from 1st of August to 1st of October, approximately 60 days. This was my longest visit to Sri Lanka since 1977. I felt as if I was rediscovering the country which gave me my Sri Lankan identity and gave me free education from kindergarten right through to university. Without the free education I received from Sri Lanka I could never have made to the UK to experience the life style of the first world. For this I am eternally grateful to Kannangara and the left parties for spearheading the legislation for free education in the thirties. I was a brain drain to Sri Lanka, which invested approximately £100,000 in today’s value in me. It was a brain gain to the UK. It is easy to see who gains from migration. Yes – I cannot hide my guilt feeling of stealing £100K from the poor to give to the rich. I intend to pay this debt by permanently returning to Sri Lanka to serve its people. Thanks to the Left Movement in Sri Lanka, which provided me the opportunity to become an unrepentant socialist, so much so that I feel in today’s world there are only two choices to mankind – Socialism or Barbarism. Anyone refusing to embrace socialism today will unknowingly endorse barbarism. I am afraid that it will be too late when they realise it!

I travelled on my own to Kandy, Pusselawa plantations, Ratnapura, Balangoda, Moneragola, Ampara, Vavunia and Jaffna by bus, which made me feel that travelling within Sri Lanka today is now safe, even though I did not speak a word of Sinhala.

Unlike before, travelling between Colombo and Jaffna by road is now possible but with considerable restrictions. CTB buses charged Rs 200 only while luxury buses with AC charged Rs1200, now increased to Rs 2000 per single journey. A lot of people are travelling by CTB buses. Defence clearance is required for foreign passport holders but not for Sri Lankan citizens with ID cards. But all passengers are security checked with body checks and luggage checks. Sometimes these checks are repeated at another check point half way through. Over sixties are generally waived from such checks. The journey by road is very tiring even w/o any of these checks and restrictions but with these restrictions the journeys do really test your patience. The threat of armed violence, roadside mines and suicide attacks from the Ltte is now almost 100% eliminated. I anticipate that it is now a matter of time before all the restrictions are removed.

Air travel is equally troublesome except that it takes 8 hours instead of 11 hours by bus. But it cost Rs 16, 000. Travelling is a nightmare especially if one has to do it frequently. On the positive side, the army and police officers are courteous and helpful in discharging their duties. One does not need to be an Einstein to understand why the government is imposing all these restrictions. The conversations, the exchange of information and warmth and the social intercourse that takes place among the passengers during such journeys are, in my view, worth putting up with all the inconvenience. It was first hand information and experience. I was able to feel the pulse of the people. I will rather do this than to take part in fake demonstrations in Westminster Square and insult the Tamil and Muslim people who are paying the price for the Eelam vallars of London.

The country is still breathtakingly beautiful and its people, though impoverished, are also delicately beautiful, warm, hospitable and loving. I was stunned by the natural beauty of this island and its people. I therefore asked myself the question – why is there a conflict, why is there an ethnic conflict and why there are 280,000 refugees confined in camps with no freedom to travel in their country of birth. Why there are conditions of slavery in the plantations? Why there is so much poverty and unemployment in deep south among the Sinhalese? Who is guilty of these crimes? There is no simple answer. It cannot be the Sinhalese people. It cannot be the Tamil people. It cannot be the Muslim people. The search for an honest answer is the responsibility of every Sri Lankan.

Amartiya Sen , the Indian Philosopher and Economist and Nobel Prize winner for Economics, says with statistical backing that more than 80% of the arms supplied to countries in conflict are from the “civilised” G20 countries. Keeping conflicts going is good business with huge profits for the G20 countries, which also shed rivers of crocodile tears about human rights violations and humanitarian tragedies in Sri Lanka, Palestine etc. If this is not global hypocrisy and conspiracy against poorer countries I do not know what can be? A global effort to arrest these arms sales is essential.

Living conditions of Plantation Tamils are no better than those in the IDP camps

Yes – it is a bold statement to make considering the sensitivity of the IDP issue today. To me both situations are equally unacceptable. I am convinced that the IDP’s will, sooner or later, be resettled – hopefully sooner than later, and they will rebuild their lives rapidly. We must do everything possible to accelerate this process. My concern is that the conditions of slavery in the plantations will continue for decades un-noticed. There is no outcry about their plight among the Tamils. It is not a national or international issue in spite of the fact that every one in the whole world daily drinks their blood and sweat in the form of tea.

I went to Pusselawa plantations. I visited many families working in the plantations and observed their living conditions. This is my second visit. My first visit was in 1964. Their living conditions and their wages have hardly changed in 45 years. In fact they have been living under these conditions since 1860, I think. That is nearly 149 years.

I met one family of 7. I interviewed the eldest daughter, who told me her family circumstances. They have no electricity, which means the children have to use kerosene lamps to study and cannot use radio, TV, fridge /freezer, computers etc. Life is very primitive.

Her father cannot work. I did not ask why and put her in more distress. Her mother is a tea plucker, works from 7am till 4pm daily. She gets Rs 200 per day. If she, her husband or her children don’t fall ill, not requiring her to nurse them and if she manages to show 75% or more attendance in that month at her work, she will earn an extra Rs 95 per day. The maximum family income is Rs.295 (£1.64) and minimum Rs.200 (£1.11). With this income she has to feed 7 mouths, clothe 7 bodies and pay all the bills. Compare this to what the government spends or gives to the people in the Vavunia IDP camp for food alone – at Rs100 per person per day such a family will receive Rs.700 per day. The IDP camp can be at least justified as a necessary and temporary evil. But the eternal conditions of “slavery” and the super-exploitation of the Tamils in the plantations are even worse and cannot be justified.

Following a strike action demanding a minimum salary of Rs500 per day, the plantation workers managed to secure the long overdue Rs.405 per day. Ironically there was no word of support or sympathy to this strike from the sole representatives of Tamils (TNA and pro-Ltte elements). At least Ranil and UNP, who opposed any salary increase to any worker during their regime, shed crocodile tears and gave opportunistic support!

The hypocrisy of demonstrating outside parliament square in London about the plight of the Tamils in the IDP camps, while ignoring the plight of the plantation families, is characteristic of Tamil nationalist politics. I am convinced that none of the people taking part in these demonstrations had taken the trouble to visit either the IDP camps or the tea plantations and studied their actual living conditions, which of course requires a lot of sacrifices in terms of time, effort and also finance but in return you will get first hand information and the motivation to do something meaningful to make a difference to these people. Demonstrating in London under the impulse of misinformation, propagated by mischief makers, is a disservice to the affected people, who need honest, genuine and appropriate help. Such sensational acts are counterproductive and its fakeness is now becoming very objectionable to the British people. The revelation by Scotland Yard Police that they have spent £10m of tax payers money policing such demonstrations by London Tamils and that the so called hunger strikers were helping themselves to food from McDonalds nearby, are an insult to the IDP’s. The £10m could have been better used to improve the conditions in the IDP camps. It is also worth noting that approximately 30% of the IDP’s are plantation Tamils, who had been herded and taken to Mullaithevu by the Ltte as they withdrew. Those, who survived, eventually ended up in the IDP camps. It is of interest to note that these 30% are mostly the children of up country Tamils brought to work as labourers in the agricultural lands owned by absentee Tamil landlords and that these lands were state lands lawfully acquired by Tamils under a government scheme many decades ago.

It is interesting to read the report from Tamil Nadu MP’s, who visited the IDP camps in early October, that the conditions in these camps are much better than claimed by the mischief makers and the parliament square demonstrators. To improve the conditions further India has provided Rs.8 billion. This is real help for the IDP’s.

Local schools in the plantations have no qualified teachers. So the children either receive sub-standard education or travel long distances to schools in the nearest towns. These schools are also mediocre, offering mostly arts subjects only. They are therefore not easily employable after leaving school.

I visited the resource Centre in Pusselawa, called Mithiru Sevena, set up by the late Upali Cooray to help train the plantation youth in printing technology, Information Technology, English Language etc. so that they can seek alternative employment away from the slavery in the plantations.

Apart from the conditions of slavery, many people here are not in possession of their birth certificates even though they were born in the estates. The records kept in the estate offices and maternity centres are either not accessible or missing or their births never registered. Consequently they cannot obtain their identity cards. This denies their freedom to travel and seek jobs. If they venture to travel they get arrested and go behind bars.

Mithiru Senvena is now visiting estate by estate to collect data and has started organising a mobile registration service. To do this they need urgent funding. This is an area our diaspora group must consider helping. The plantation unions such as CWC, while collecting union subscriptions to the tune of several millions of rupees, never assisted these people in securing their birth certificates and ID cards.

Upali’s premature death is a big blow to the only hope these plantation youth had in the Pusselawa area.

( To be continued…)
-Sri Lanka Guardian


K Sutharsan said...

Mr Sooriyasegaram has been out of Sri Lanka for nearly 45 years. His knowledge and experience post is departure to the UK seems to be blank.

His new found love to Sri Lanka fails to consider the suffrocation of the Tamils following the introduction of various state policies including the worst standardisation policy preventing Tamils from entering universities. These rejected the Tamil people systamatically and eventually produced the LTTE.

The £100,000 he is refering to as his gain must be repaid fully to the state or a Tamil charity from his fat deposit account in London without trying to manipulate his way with the government in his last crawling age of his life. The government is waiting to grab opportunists like him to conduct Perahara in Jaffna.

It is clear from his mutterings that he did not suffer any losses as a result of state policy against the Tamils. He says he is a socialist. What a confused state of mind is he in even to confuse the great Karl Marx.

I have experienced the ravages of the dastardly conduct of the successive governments against the Tamils. A victim of the 1958, 1977, 1983 anti Tamil violence. A victim of the standardisation policy. Victim of many other ravages including loosing my family members to the guns.

Sooriyasekaram's blinkered assessment appears to be a deliberate attempt to earn the goodwill of the government and his doing his boot licking service at this critical time for the government.

It is no secret that he had served the controvercial Douglas Devanada as consultant for the Jaffna Municipality during his latest visit to Sri Lanka and organised a public meeting for Prof Tissa Vitharane in Jaffna with Douglas's backing.

He should tell more about his ulterior motives than telling us his fiddle assessments like a rouge priest trying to earn the goodwill of the people.

jean-pierre said...

I a Tamil living in a suburb of Colombo, I welcome this honest write up by this visitor from England. I have been pointing out in my comments to various articles in the SLGuardian how the LTTE Diaspora is continuing to misrepresent the facts for their own narrow, short sighted (and ultimately lethal) gains.
The LTTE fellow travellers like Kumar David, Wickramabahu, Jehan Perera, NGO paid opportunists and others too have to take the blame for their part in this conflict.

Unknown said...

See, no one bother to comment about new Sri Lanka. All people will live happy unless UNP come to power for 5 years. If it happen, they will take the country at least 50 years back again.

Nihara said...



Unknown said...

Dear Mr. Sooriyasegaram,

I'm really grateful to you for taking the trouble to write this well reaserched article. I couldn't agree with you more on the contents.Be it Tamils,Muslims, Burgers or Sinhalese, we all have been victims of petty politics time and again. Hats off to you sir!
Yes, we all have to unite to build our country from the scratch and the country needs the help of modest and impartial eminent citizens like you. Keep up the good work, sir!

Ram Muni said...

The sentiments expressed in this article once that I that I can agree with. It should be forwarded to the likes of Arundhathi Roy and Brad Adams, who from a distance shed their crocodile tears for the dispossessed, one out of near-ignorance and the other for neo-colonial reasons. The "slaves" as the writer calls them, originally brought from South India by British “Charities” to work in the tea estates from dawn to dusk for a pittance, live in far worse conditions, even now than the so-called IDPs.

It is one rare instance where the free education received and paid for the Sri Lankan masses is appreciated. Most Tamils who, left Sri Lanka from early 1970 onwards were in the habit of reviling the nation when in fact they had had the same free education, and hence were able to use that education were able to migrate and obtain gainful employment in the West. The nation that educated them gained no benefit, and had its good name tarnished by these ingrates.

Pearl Thevanayagam said...

What a thought-provoking article. I am not sure of socialism as a panacea for my country's plight but addressing the plantation Tamils grievances should be the top priority of the government and private planters.
I too lived in the hills for several years and I can never recall a community such as the plantation Tamils for industriousness, courtesy and above all their ready and sincere smiles despite adversity.
Both the ethnic Tamils and Sinhalese continue to exploit them where the colonisers left off.
As Desmond De Silva sang 'We brought a small boy down from upcountry to look after the little fellow' it is elitist to have servant from the estate.
Why is UNICEF not shouting child abuse?
What is CARE doing to exercise the rights of the plantation children to good education, enough food and clothing and not having to be chipping stones along with their parents in stead of being at school.
Let us not talk about the G20 countries exploiting our country. We, its own citizens, are the slave drivers.
Until we realise this and do something to address the needs of the plantation Tamils, give them their citizenship then we have failed as decent human beings.

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