Independence Day, a 'black day' for Tamils and tea pickers
On Monday, Sri Lanka celebrated the 71st anniversary of independence from British rule. President Sirisena admits delays in economic development. Tamils complain of continuing persecution even after the civil war ended. Plantation workers demand higher wages.
Colombo (AsiaNews) – On the day that Sri Lanka marked the 71st anniversary of its independence from British colonial rule, Tamils and tea plantation workers held a black day protest. Both groups chose to boycott the festivities to complain that their demands have not been heard for far too long.
Tamils staged demonstrations against the constant discrimination that persists since the end of the civil war, whilst tea pickers want an increase in the minimum wage, which is no longer adequate to feed their families.
On Monday, independence celebrations were held at Colombo's Gall Face Green in the presence of President Maithripala Sirisena who told the crowd that the country still had a long way to go before reaching full economic development.
For whatever reasons and whoever was responsible, political leaders have failed to bring about the economic development people have expected for decades, the president said.
"People are no longer able to put up with recession,” he noted. “We must bring education, universities, reforms in step with the international standards of the 21st century."
While the president was speaking to the nation, Tamils in the north, south and the hilly areas staged a Black Day protest.
According to those in the north, some issues have remained unresolved since 2009, when the brutal civil war between the Sri Lankan military and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) came to an end. The Jaffna University Student Union joined the Tamil protest.
“Despite earning Independence from the British, there have been serious human rights violations and injustice against the Tamils of Sri Lanka,” said CV Wigneswaran, a former chief minister of the Northern Province, founder of the Tamil Makkal Koottani (TMK, or Tamil People's Front),
"The families of missing people are still looking for their loved ones,” he explained. “Many are languishing in jail without charges or trial under the Prevention of Terrorism Act."
Slevarasa Gajendran, general secretary of the Tamil National People's Front (TNPF), agrees. In his view, “the government uses the army and its power together with other powerful agencies to create a psychosis among the Tamils. It wants to impose Buddhism by building Buddha statues in places where there are no Buddhist settlements."
In addition to the Tamils, tea plantation workers held a protest on Monday to demand that the minimum wage be raised to 1,000 rupees (US$ 6.63). Because of the increase in the cost of living, many complain that they cannot provide for their children any more.
Malaiyagha Tamil are one of the historical communities who immigrated from India 100 years ago. At present, they still suffer discrimination in education and nutrition and are deprived of their civil rights.
Their current basic daily salary is 500 rupees, which can rise to 800 with various bonuses linked to productivity. On a monthly basis, a worker can earn between 12,000 and 14,000 rupees; however, this is not enough.
"I have five children and I cannot give them everything they need, like food, medical care or school,” said one worker from Bogawanthalawa. “When I started working, I earned 72 rupees. At that time, a kilo of rice cost 2.50 rupees and a kilo of flour 7. Today I earn 500 rupees, but the rice costs 100 and the flour has the same price."
Despite the protest, workers’ hopes were dashed by the Ceylon Planters Association. In a statement, the growers’ association said that wage increases are impossible under current market conditions.