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Sri Lanka's `minority within a minority' gains stronger voice. Ethnic strife politicizes Tamils on tea estates

On the rolling, green-quilted hillsides of the Devon Tea Estate, Tamil laborers suddenly ceased work on a recent misty Saturday morning. The government's move to settle about 50 young Sinhalese farmers onto unused acreage in the estate had stirred resentment in the predominantly Tamil plantation community. Trouble between the two groups had been brewing nearly a month since the Sinhalese first moved in.

Seeing no adequate action from the government, some of the Tamil workers took matters into their own hands. Armed with long sticks, they forced four Sinhalese youths out of their cabins and held them hostage in a nearby Hindu temple. Other workers stood guard around the temple while police stood outside the estate, their entry barred by barricades.

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Until a few years ago, the Tamils' action would have been unthinkable. The country's tea plantation workers, descended from laborers brought in by British colonists from India in the 1800s, constituted a virtually captive labor force. They lived in abject poverty and deprivation, and were isolated geographically -- in the central highlands and south-central valleys. Culturally different from the Sri Lankan Tamils, long settled in the north and east, the ``Indian Tamils'' as they are known, are a minority within a minority.

But since the sharp escalation of Tamil-Sinhalese violence after 1983, the workers -- numbering an estimated 500,000 today -- have gradually become politicized. Many now belong to the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), the main plantation workers' trade union.

To settle the crisis at the Devon estate in August, police called on local CWC leaders to talk to the estate laborers. According to P. Chandrasekaran, a CWC organizer from a nearby town, the problem in Devon highlighted the Tamil workers' list of grievances against the government:

Tamil workers have long opposed the government policy of creating pocket settlements on uncultivated land in tea estates as part of farm cooperative programs. Dividing the land into tiny segments for diverse uses, the Tamils claim, diminishes its agricultural potential.

It magnifies Tamil allegations of government discrimination. Tamils often apply for the same land, CWC members say, but very few are deemed to fit the criteria of being landless and unemployed.

The Tamils also say it heightens communal tension with the Sinhalese, the country's major ethnic group. At Devon, out of 1,650 workers, there are only a handful of Sinhalese. (Tamils, who are Hindus, comprise 18 percent of the country's 16 million people; the Buddhist Sinhalese are in the majority.)

``The government has to come up with a coherent land policy, not one that suits political purposes. And it has to stop fomenting ethnic divisions,'' says Peri Devaraj, a CWC official.

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In the midst of the confusion at Devon, one of the workers retrieves a bag filled with hand-made bombs and a crudely crafted dynamite stick from one of the cabins. Inside the dark temple, where the Sinhalese youths are slumped on the floor, all four deny ownership of the bag.

Since 1977, there have been periodic outbreaks of communal violence in plantation areas. But since 1983, tension between Tamil workers and Sinhalese peasants and villagers has risen dramatically. Unlike ``native Tamils'' who generally belong to a higher caste and become professionals or businessmen, Indian Tamils are of lower caste and have traditionally been laborers. The Indian Tamils do not identify politically with the Tamil concept of ``eelam'' (homeland), though they sympathize with the Tamil minority causes.

``The workers have always felt a sense of insecurity, of being discriminated against,'' explains CWC's Mr. Devaraj.

Despite their economic contributions -- tea is the country's leading export -- plantation Tamils have lived in miserable conditions on estates for decades, even after the government nationalized company-owned plantations in 1975.

The poverty on estates strikes a marked contrast to the beautiful settings. For generations, estate workers have lived in barracks-like structures housing as many as 16 families, with one family per room. Malnutrition is widespread, and health services are less than adequate.

Like other workers at Devon, 38-year-old S. Muthu earns about 70 cents a day. His wife tends a day-care room but earns little. To pay for their daily needs and those of their two children, which cost about $1.30, he grows vegetables and does other part-time work.

There is the added misfortune of being stateless. After the British left in 1948, plantation workers were effectively made stateless and voteless by the first independent government. In 1964, India and Sri Lanka negotiated an agreement under which India was to accept 525,000 plantation Tamils over a period of 15 years, Sri Lanka was to grant citizenship to about 300,000, and the fate of another 150,000 was undetermined.

According to Devaraj, some 420,000 have already gone back to India, though the bulk of them have been taken in as bonded laborers and rehabilitation has proved a failure. In 1981, the agreement lapsed after partial implementation.

In the aftermath of the 1983 riots, which resulted in death or injury to hundreds of Tamil workers, CWC members found themselves taking a harder line on political and economic issues.

``There was tremendous fear . . . after the riots. Many wanted to leave the plantations. But estate workers gradually became organized,'' Devaraj says.

CWC claims to have a membership of 480,000 -- mostly Tamil. Earlier this year, to protest the fate of the stateless Tamils, the group held a mass prayer campaign during which workers refused to go to work. The government made an offer on the second day of prayer. A bill was passed, granting citizenship to all residuals, estimated at 94,000, and their families. Officials say the process will be implemented within 18 months.

``They underestimated the strength of Tamils in plantations,'' one diplomat says. ``All it takes is one massive workers strike and the country's economic backbone could be paralyzed.''

The workers seem more confident that the government knows they are a vital important sector. ``We are constantly pushing -- for better housing, health welfare, and other basic needs,'' says M.S. Sellasamy, CWC general secretary.

On estates, Tamil workers are learning to resist communal attacks sometimes led by Sinhalese thugs from villages. But there are constant threats of retaliation from either side. CWC has set up several peace committees to defuse tensions.

At Devon, the workers eventually agree to turn in the Sinhalese farmers to the police for questioning. Before day's end, the CWC officers escort police onto the estate to take the Sinhalese famers away.

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