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 Picking up the pieces in Sri Lanka

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PostSubject: Picking up the pieces in Sri Lanka   Wed Aug 05, 2009 3:46 pm

Picking up the pieces in Sri Lanka

By Andrew Hosken
Today programme, Colombo

It is an iconic image on cartons and boxes of tea in thousands of stores and supermarket. The smiling woman tea picker up country in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka.
The reality is naturally different, as plantation managers readily agree. The life of the tea picker is hard. Their living conditions are poor and they are paid approximately £2 a day.
One of the few advantages is working in a spectacularly beautiful part of the world. The air in the central hill country where the tea grows is often cool and the mountains carpeted by tea plants and jasmine, shrouded in mist.

There are 300,000 tea pickers in Sri Lanka and most are Tamils. Many were originally from the state of Tamil Nadu in India and were brought over by the British more than a century ago to work in the plantations usually under managers from the Sinhalese majority. The British have gone but the Sinhala-Tamil relationship has remained.
Moderate Tamil leaders hoped that many of the pickers would be able to vote in this week's regional elections. However, there is now deep concern that many Tamils have been disenfranchised by their failure to acquire a government ID card.
Identity battle
Mano Ganeshan is an MP and Leader of the Western People's Front, a Tamil opposition party. He claims many thousands of Tamils have not been granted government ID cards and therefore cannot vote in this week's important poll.

Politicians campaign on the streets of St James estate plantation village

"In the last election there were 250,000 Tamil voters in the (central) Nuwara-eliya district, the government agent said that 75,000 people didn't have ID cards," he says.
Mr Ganeshan believed the situation was little different today and claimed that Tamils had been deliberately deprived of the cards.
We visited the St James tea plantation outside the town of Badulla and spoke to tea pickers there. One estate worker claimed that almost a quarter of the 900 adults in the village could not obtain ID cards.
"They [the government] have a mobile service that issues ID cards but it hasn't been here for two years. There are people who've lived here for over 30 years who haven't got a vote card," he says.
A spokesman for the Sri Lankan government dismissed Mr Ganeshan's allegations that there was a deliberate move to deny Tamils the vote. The government insists voters do not need an ID card to vote and that other credible forms of identification were adequate.
Government failure
There are around four million Tamils in Sri Lanka, or 20% of the total population. For decades, they have complained of being treated as second class citizens at the hands of the Sinhalese majority.

Some 300,000 Sri Lankans are employed picking tea

Politicians on all side are all too well aware that the failure by previous governments to address the legitimate grievances of Tamils when they were being expressed peacefully in the 1950s and 1960s led ultimately to the creation of the Tamil Tigers and the explosion of violence in the 1980s.
Recently, the country's head of state, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, told interviewers he was keen not to repeat past mistakes.
"The demand of a separate [Tamil] state was created because of the discrimination," he said.
"When the Tamils tried to work through parliamentary means - peaceful means - they were pushed to take up arms. Although terrorists are defeated, the reasons for the foundations for the Tamil separatist struggle still remain intact."
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