New Constitution must recognise Hill Country Tamils as a separate community

One of the coordinators of the newly formed North-East Hill Country Tamil People’s Forum, and Former Northern Provincial Councillor M.P. Natraj said the New Constitution must recognise Hill Country Tamils as a separate community equal to the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims of this country.

“We are Sri Lankan Hill Country Tamils,” he said.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

? Why did you suddenly form an organization for the Hill Country Tamils settled in the North and East?

A: We did not suddenly initiate this organization. There is a need to solve the burning grievances of the Hill Country Tamils settled in the North and East, thus we had continuous discussions in which each problem faced by this community was discussed. As a result it was decided to form a specific organization on behalf of the Hill Country Tamils living in the North and East.

Those who got displaced from the Hill Country due to the communal riots in the southern part of the country in 1958, 1972, 1977 and 1983 settled in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. These Tamil people from the Hill Country settled in Vavuniya, Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu in the Northern Province and in the Eastern Province they settled in Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara. When they settled in the North and East, they were employed as labourers as they did not own lands to involve in agriculture. At the same time these people cleared the jungle areas in the North and East to settle down since 1967. Although these Hill Country Tamils lived in these cleared jungle areas for 30-40 years, there is no specific legal document that proves their ownership to their lands.

They were not given land deed or permits even after 30-40 years.

Currently after 30- 40 years, the Forest Department had claimed ownership for their lands pointing out that the colonization is illegal.

Hill Country Tamils in the North and East are facing various discriminations administration related issues. State officials working in the North and East regions have discriminated and degraded the Hill Country Tamils who have settled in the North and East when they have requested for administration related assistance. They are neglected and embarrassed by officials. Therefore these people are discriminated against and neglected of basic needs.

There are Hill Country Tamils who are part of the war affected people. There are also a specific number of them who joined the struggle for the Tamil cause. These families are even deprived from basic needs like sanitation, water and other important assistance from the authorities.

A social service organization based in Kandy held rounds of discussions in Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu , Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Ampara. Grievances of the Hill Country Tamil community in the North and East were addressed at these discussions.

At the end of these discussions we realized that the basic needs and issues should be addressed immediately. In order to address this issue, an organization must be formed representing the Hill Country Tamils in the North and East.

Vavuniya (37 percent) and Kilinochchi (30 percent) have the highest number of Hill Country Tamil voters in the Northern Province yet we are not in a position to elect representatives to participate in at least local councils. Since these voters are deprived from basic needs, various political parties use them for different agendas to achieve their selfish goals, therefore their representation in politics is not ensured. Their knowledge in politics is inadequate. There are many issues to be solved apart from politics but political representation is the only way to ensure democratic representation of our community in the North and East.

? What exactly is the vision of your forum? Has it been initiated to work as a political organization representing Hill Country Tamils in the North and East?

A: Politics is not the only aim. We formed this organization to ensure the representation of the Hill Country Tamils in the North and East. We want to ensure equal opportunity for our community with the others living in this country. We formed our organization on 28 May. We have formed this organization to improve the economic and social standards of the Hill Country Tamils in the North and East. We want to unite our community members from the North and East to strengthen their representation in every aspect.

Therefore currently our forum is function under a working committee. We are yet to elect office bearers and to create a constitution. We have a coordinator function on behalf of us in each district. I’m representing the Vavuniya District. As a former Northern Provincial Councillor, in my first speech at the council session, I mainly spoke about the grievances and discriminations faced by the Hill Country Tamils living in the North and East.

? What were the discriminations and degrading situations faced by the Hill Country Tamils settled in the North and East?

A: A magazine was launched by the Karaichi Divisional Secretariat in Kilinochchi. An article was published in this magazine under the topic ‘Kilinochchi District and the people of Hill Country’. The writer in this article begins with support to our community but when he concludes the article, he states that the Hill Country community in the Kilinochchi District is largely subjected to sexual abuse, they are uneducated, they survive as labourers, the eldest child discontinues his or her education to maintain the other children in the family, at the same time when these children reach 21 years they do not own birth certificates and the reason is that most of them do not know their fathers. Their father’s names remain unknown thus they are unable to obtain proper birth certificates like others.

At the same time the author further states that members of this community joined the LTTE not to represent the actual goals but to obtain recognition for their community. This writer was formerly an LTTE cadre but does not belong to the Hill Country community.

However later Minister Radhakrishnan and author Jayabalan condemned this article and his views that degraded the community.

At the same time there are people who support the community by uplifting their living standards, therefore we will not blame all.

But there is a certain amount of members in the society who negatively comment on Hill Country people.

We have land issues, as I said earlier our people do not have land permits for their lands which they have been living for 30-40 years. But permits were issued by government agents and other relevant officials to the other communities who are initially from the North.

At the same time by referring to the name mostly Hill Country Tamils are identifiable. So if someone has a name ‘Mariyaai’ or Kaaliyaai’ they will be sent back by the officers and their work will be postponed. If they are in urgency to obtain a document that will not be done immediately fulfilling their needs.

Hill Country Tamils are discriminated by the rest of those living in the North thus our people are facing various forms of discriminations and are not respected.

? Does this community have a higher literacy rate in the North and East?

A: There is a well educated crowd within this community; however obtaining job opportunities is a big challenge to those from the Hill Country community. Also when they obtain jobs, they have to struggle a long way for promotions and benefits.

After obtaining all these opportunities and establishing themselves from the Hill Country community, they do not want to identify themselves from this community. They are worried about the treatment within the society by others.

Majority from the younger generation had reached the standards of development. There are a large number of teachers,there are doctors and engineers too, and they have not failed to take up other privileged professions.

? Do you want to be recognized as Indian Origins or Hill Country Tamils? Which recognition would be suitable in the current context?

A: We are happy to be called as Indian Origins but when we own that recognition, those in the South are up in arms to chase us back to India. They have said this in several instances to us that we should be sent to India.

Therefore we would like to emphasize that we are Sri Lankan Hill Country Tamils.

? Being representatives of the Hill Country Tamils in the North and East, what have been your demands in the process of Constitutional reforms?

A: We have held dialogues with UN representative Rita in this regard and we have handed over suggestions to the Constitutional reforms on behalf of the Hill Country Community from the North and East.

We urged that the new constitution should recognize Hill Country Tamils as a different community similar to the Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims of this country.

We also stressed that the political parties should give opportunities to our community to represent from the North and East to ensure our representation.

? We understand that there are specific numbers of former LTTE cadres from the Hill Country Community who are currently struggling and facing difficulties for livelihood assistance. Is that true and what is the current situation?

A: We cannot identify differences because all former LTTE cadres are currently facing difficulties in finding livelihood assistance. In this case those who are originally from the North and East have assistance from Diaspora community however those from Hill Country are not in a position to obtain such assistance as they rarely have known people living abroad. Therefore they will have to restart their livelihood from scrap with the greatest of difficulties. (Ceylon Today)

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