Estate Tamils' security is tied to NorthEast's strength- Chandrasekaran
[TamilNet, Saturday, 09 July 2005, 23:52 GMT]
"Recognition of the fundamental rights and the right of citizenship of Hill country Tamils is imperative for long term sustainable peace and stability in Sri Lanka," said Parliamentarian and Leader of Upcountry Peoples Front (UPF), Mr Periyasamy Chandrasekaran, when he talked with TamilNet Saturday in Washington D.C. On the future security of the people of Indian origin, Mr Chandrasekaran said, "As a minority community powerless to defend itself against discrimination and repression, the security is tied closely to the security framework to be established by the NorthEast Tamils under the political and military leadership of the Liberation Tigers."
Mr Chandrasekaran's visit to the US was sponsored by the Federation of Tamil Organizations of North America (FeTNA) which held its annual conference in Texas.
Excerpts from his interview recorded at the eve of his departure from the U.S to the United Kingdom follow:TamilNet:
Can you tell us the reason for your trip to the United States?
FeTNA invited me to address their July gathering. I also was interested in meeting expatriate Tamil community to increase their involvement in the welfare of hill country people and wanted to meet officials of the State Department to raise their awareness to the plight of estate workers. These two weeks have been quite productive and I am quite happy with the responses that I got from these different groups of people.
Bill to grant citizenship to stateless Tamils of Indian origin in the hill districts passed without opposition in Sri Lanka’s Parliament in October 2003. Have the long struggle of your community against statelessness fully resolved now?
Although the bill allowed all those born after 1964 eligible to apply for citizenship, hurdles still remain. Immigration Authorities can still insist the applicants to produce other documents such as birth certificates of parents, the same situation that plagued the estate community earlier in applying for citizenship. It remains to be seen if the agencies of the Sri Lanka Government behave in a fair manner to expedite procedures in granting citizenship.
Have there been improvements to the wages and living conditions of the estate workers in the past several years?
During the 1985-1986 time frame when the tea estates were privatized, the trade unions comprising the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), Lanka Jathika Estate Workers Union (LJEWU) and Joint Plantation Trade Union Committee (JPTUC) made a "Collective Agreement (CA)" with the Employers Federation for wage increase negotiations. This agreement continues even now to the detriment of the estate workers where workers cannot exercise true union power, and other unions including my own (UPF) are excluded from this negotiating process. Further the wage negotiation takes place once every two years according to the CA. The standard wage remains at Rs 180/day, hardly enough to keep up with the price increases of essential commodities which are rising daily.
UPF has filed a fundamental rights petition in Colombo courts on the legality of the CA and is waiting to hear comments from the Courts.
Are youths from hill country Tamils trying to move out to other regions of Sri Lanka?
Lack of employment opportunities in hill districts are forcing many youths to seek employment in business establishment in Colombo. Many have moved to areas like Chilaw and Negombo to engage in fishing related actvities. This is a dangerous trend as the estate youth, who due to challenges arising from relocation, tend to assimilate with local communities, change religions, ultimately loosing contact with their native community. However, the estate community is not relocating to areas like Vanni as they did during the late 70s in large numbers. Dangers of racial riots, rejection of India as an alternative destination and increasing Sinhala colonization encouraged the exodus then. These conditions have mitigated now. When ready employment is available and when towns begin to show vitality in the NorthEast, estate youths are likely to find NorthEast an attractive destination.TamilNet:
You mentioned Sinhala colonization. Can you elaborate?
Currently only Badulla and Nuwara Eliya are the two districts where there is a majority of Tamils of Indian Origin. Bandarawela, Haputalle, Hali Yela, Passar and Lanugalle in Badulla are dominated by people of Indian origin and life is relatively safe. In Nuwara Eliya, although Kotmale, Maskeliya and Valai Panni are traditionally Tamil dominated, demography is being changed by the Government annexing parts of Sinhala concentrated Kandy to both Kotmale and Vallai Panni, and parts of Hamburangetta to Maskeliya.
Indian Tamils living in Deniyaya, Avissawela, Yatiyantota and in several other Central and Southern towns with tea-estates live in small enclaves surrounded by Sinhala villages. Many of these towns do not have Tamil schools and some traditionally Tamil schools have only Sinhala teachers. Although there is no blatant racism, families do not feel safe in many of these towns
Is there a more assertive leadership emerging from the youths of hill country?
In hill districts political activity is often exercised through labor union structures. This is a major impediment to the emergence of radical young leadership in hill districts. Although we can see intelligent sections of estate youths are not satisfied with the current unimaginative leadership, politically active youths have yet to build credible structures at the grass roots level that will serve to promote political activisim.TamilNet:
You have met LTTE leader Mr Pirapaharan several times. Can you tell us a key issue you both have discussed that affect the estate community the most?
The most critical issue we have often discussed is on the level of symbiotic relationship that is best for both NorthEast and estate Tamils. I have told the LTTE leader that I firmly believe that my community's safety is closely tied to the success of the liberation struggle and that hill country Tamils should not shy away from providing moral support to the LTTE. Mr Pirapaharan says that his organization always regarded the estate workers as their own brothers and sisters, and that he believes the political awareness within the hill country Tamils have to be raised to a higher level for any close political association to be effective. To bring about this change is the challenge facing the leaders of hill district Tamils.
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