Transcription: Interview with Fr. Sathivel
What are the demands of the workers?
It is 200 years since hill country people came to sri lanka. In these 200 years sri lanka’s other communities have facilities and opportunities because of the labour of hillcountry Tamils. It is because of their work that sri lanka has roads, for vehicles and for trains. The same is true for Sri Lanka’s ports, for any kind of development, for schools, for hospitals. Therefore the basic needs of health and education were made possible in Sri Lanka by hillcountry Tamils first through their physical labor [in the plantation] and second through the money they earned and bring from abroad [remittances]. These are the two sources that have been used [for Sri Lanka’s development].
However, none of this has been actually received by hillcountry Tamils. They have received no development. Nor holistic education. Nor healthcare as the hospitals in the estates have still not been converted to government hospitals. The doctors there are not those who have received a full education at universities. We know ordinarily that outside estates there are government hospitals and ayurvedic hospitals, that is medical methods using Sri Lanka’s native herbs. Private hospitals are also there. But in the hill country these facilities are not there.
So our first demand is that whatever services other people of Sri Lanka have hillcountry Tamils should receive as well. So that is basic needs and rights must be met. Secondly, when it comes to the economic situation, still hillcountry people are labourers. For 200 years they have been kept as daily wage workers. Working in the same place and the same work still they are daily wage workers. Next they are under the control of the estate. They are separated from the state. Recently, the president pledged that there is lack of integration and that more has to be done.
So whatever other societies get in terms of government , economic, social, artistic, and cultural protections are needed. Then in terms of politics other than voting machines they have not been granted true citizens rights. If it is to be granted then they must be considered as another nation. In this country there are many nations, hillcountry Tamils should be considered not as a minority but as a separate nation. The burghers for example live across the country not in one place. Hillcountry Tamils on the other hand have been in one area, in the mountains for all 200 years. They have made the hillcountry a nation. To do some hillcountry Tamils have given their lives, their labour. Therefore the right to the state to the soil and land must be for them. Therefore they must become people with land rights.
Therefore if hillcountry Tamils are to live with political, economic and social protections they must be recognized as a nation and the hillcountry as being theirs. That is what we hope for. Hillcountry Tamils have lived in poverty for 200 years. It is the desire of the rulers that they continue to live in poverty. Only if they live in poverty can their rights be ignored. Rather they will only see what they have to offer. So poverty has been a permanent feature. In this environment if we want to end their poverty the hillcountry has to be converted into a developed place. Last week the President went to Nuwwara Eliya and said that the area must be developed to be likable for tourism. But there is no development plans for these areas where upcountry Tamils live. Hillcountry Tamils must be able to be self sufficient. Recently when the salary on the estate was increased to Rs. 1000 even they only get Rs. 750. It is not possibly to educate their children and complete their medical needs with this. Or give nutritional food to their children which is essential for the children to succeed at school. Without this the drop-out rate in schools is very high. Only about 2% of students make it to highschool. This is affecting their education, poverty, affecting the nutritional levels and in turn their health. Everyday needs are unable to be fulfilled.
You had mentioned that this march is both a celebration and a moment of mourning for the Malaiyaha people. Could you elaborate?
The history and life of the hillcountry people is a sad story. For a long time they have been subject to a silent genocide, even today. Therefore this genocide is not just something that happened in the north and east but it actually began in the hillcountry. And this must be shown outside if they are to be protected from this genocide we do not know how much the UN human rights commission will help because the massacre of the north and east has even still not received justice. Despite the whole world knowing about it there has been no justice. Similarly, since 1948 there have been many genocide but despite all the evidence it is not accepted as such. In this environment nobody knows of the genocide of hillcountry tamils that has taken place for 200 years. The politicians are hesitating to acknowledge that and are not using that word either. The journey for us is to envision what kind of a community and how we would like to be recognized by the 300 year mark.
What has been the impact of Sri Lanka's political and economic crisis and the uprisings that followed it on plnatation conditions?
So in this economic crisis the people worst affected are hillcountry Tamils. As for the political question, the aragalaya and hillcountry people’s problems and demands are different. In the aragalaya aside from wanting hillcountry people to participate in the protests the aragalaya leaders did not think that incorporation of hillcountry people’s needs was important. They thought hillcountry people should give voice to our issues and participate in our protests. Aside from that they did not involved themselves in the political, economic, and social demands of hillcountry Tamils nor the need for nationhood nor the issue of land ownership. Therefore the aragalaya is different and the hillcountry people’s issues are different.
What could international solidarity look like?
One, the British are the reason the hillcountry Tamils came to Sri Lanka. Second, the Indian government has a big role to play also in hillcountry Tamils living in Sri Lanka for 200 years.Third, the sri lankan government has a big role after benefiting from the labour of these people. Therefore pressure must be put on all three of these entities to grant economic, political and social protections.
Furthermore, those who returned to India according to the agreement [1964 Sirima Shastri pact] have not been accepted as full citizens in India. Furthermore there are those who fled to India who are still in refugee camps, around 50, 000 people. India must give them the legal rights there. We know about 5 lakh people were supposed to go as per to the accord but much fewer people went. Therefore the Indian government can easily give these refugees citizenship and voting rights.
When the British government settled hillcountry people here, whatever conditions they were in then they are still in now. But in other places in the world where the British took Indians to work they have been given the full rights of citizenship and have access to all the facilities that the others living in those countries have. So when we compare with these other places we must obtain the same level of rights in life here. It is our expectation that there is cooperation in this regard.