Hundreds of people from Sri Lanka’s Malaiyaha (hill country) community are on a 16-day foot march to highlight their centuries-old struggle and demand basic rights as citizens.
Around 105,000 people from the million-strong community work in tea and rubber estates, earning crucial foreign exchange for the bankrupt island nation in the Indian Ocean.
Sri Lanka is the world’s second-largest exporter of tea accounting for close to 20 percent of global tea exports. But its landless tea workers are the poorest, who live under a constant threat of forced deportation.
The 252-kilometer-long walk started from Thalaimannar on the northwestern coast on July 28.
It will conclude at Matale, a major city in Central Province, on Aug. 12 to mark 200 years since the community’s arrival in Sri Lanka from southern India to work on the British-era tea and rubber plantations.
Buddhist, Christian, Muslim and Hindu leaders, besides members of civil society, joined the foot march in a show of solidarity with their cause.
More than 50 percent of tea plantation workers in the country are women from the Malaiyaha Tamil community. They live in 400-square-foot rooms in abject poverty.
Their structural exclusion through a prolonged period of statelessness and disenfranchisement has resulted in poor human development indicators for the community.
Walahahangunawewa Dhammarathana Thera, chief incumbent of the Mihintale Rajamaha Vihara, said that all citizens should be provided with equal rights regardless of their racial, religious, and caste status.
“The right to housing and land must be provided to the Malaiyaha community,” said Thera while addressing the marchers on Aug. 6 at Mihintale in the north-central plains of Sri Lanka.
He said that the community members were “victims of inadequate pay, limited access to education, and lack of infrastructure facilities.”
“Our community is denied equal rights to land, adequate housing, fair wages, education, health, and other state services,” said Nimalka Lakmali, a teacher from the Malaiyaha community.
She said the struggle for recognition and equality as citizens continues “because the discrimination rooted in colonialism and slavery continues.”
The community and its leaders have consistently called for the recognition of their contribution to the nation’s economy and acknowledgment of its historical and systemic discrimination, Lakmali added.
Dushantha Rodrigo, the Anglican Bishop of Colombo, called on people cutting across caste and creed to join the march.
He asked activists and other communities to help the Malaiyaha community come up in life while urging people to stand up for each other.
Many people lined up on both sides of the road as the marchers passed towns and villages. They offered them tea and snacks as the participants took a break from the walk, and stopped beating drums and raising slogans.
Global rights bodies like Amnesty International, World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, and Front Line Defenders have voiced their concern for the Malaiyaha community.
“We urge the government, as a state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to respect and protect the Malaiyaha community’s right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” they said.
In May this year, the Malaiyaha Tamil community adopted a 13-point declaration demanding their rights as citizens of Sri Lanka.