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Sri Lanka’s Malaiyaha Tamils in inhumane conditions


Sri Lanka’s Malaiyaha Tamil workers, whose labour in tea plantations fetches precious foreign exchange to the country, are living in “inhumane and degrading” conditions, a U.N. expert has said.


GS-II: International Relations (India’s Neighbors, Foreign Policies affecting India’s Interests)

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. U.N. expert on Malaiyaha Tamils in Sri Lanka
  2. History of India-Sri Lanka relations
  3. About the UNHRC Resolution against Sri Lanka

U.N. expert on Malaiyaha Tamils in Sri Lanka

  • Contemporary forms of slavery have an ethnic dimension. In particular, Malaiyaha Tamils – who were brought from India to work in the plantation sector 200 years ago – continue to face multiple forms of discrimination based on their origin.
  • U.N. bodies have consistently highlighted human rights concerns during Sri Lanka’s civil war period and after, pertaining to the Tamils of the war-affected north and east. However, the plight of the Malaiyaha Tamil community, historically neglected and marginalised, has received relatively less international attention.
  • Despite some alternative houses are built in cooperation with the Indian government, up to 10 people live in a 10×12 space, poor sanitation, and the persisting denial of land rights to the community – which resembles the workers’ colonial-era line room accommodation.
  • India has committed to building 14,000 houses in Sri Lanka’s hill country, but the construction is progressing at a slow pace amid private plantation companies’ apparent reluctance to part with land.
  • The visiting U.N. official flagged continuing discrimination of the community based on caste, especially in the Northern Province, where a sizeable hill country Tamil population lives, unable to acquire land.

History of India-Sri Lanka relations

  • India-Sri Lanka relations date back to over 2,500 years, with the Kingdoms in Sri Lanka engaging in continuous wars with occupying South Indian Kingdoms.
  • According to traditional Sri Lankan chronicles (such as the Dipavamsa), Buddhism was introduced into Sri Lanka in the 4th century BCE by Venerable Mahinda, the son of Indian Emperor Ashoka. Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any Buddhist nation.
  • Tamils in Sri Lanka, had established Hinduism and Tamil language links with South India.

Indian intervention in the Sri Lankan civil war

In the 1970s–1980s, private entities and elements in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) and the state government of Tamil Nadu were believed to be encouraging the funding and training for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist insurgent force.

In 1987, faced with growing anger amongst its own Tamils, and a flood of refugees, India intervened directly in the conflict for the first time.

After subsequent negotiations, India and Sri Lanka entered into an agreement (13th amendment.)

  • The peace accord assigned a certain degree of regional autonomy in the Tamil areas with Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) controlling the regional council and called for the Tamil militant groups to lay down their arms.
  • Further India was to send a peacekeeping force, named the IPKF to Sri Lanka to enforce the disarmament and to watch over the regional council.
  • Most Tamil militant groups accepted this agreement, however, the LTTE rejected the accord because they opposed a candidate.
  • The result was that the LTTE now found itself engaged in military conflict with the Indian Army.
  • The government of India then decided that the IPKF should disarm the LTTE by force, and the Indian Army launched a number of assaults on the LTTE, including a month-long campaign dubbed Operation Pawan to wrest control of the Jaffna peninsula from the LTTE.
  • The Indo-Sri Lankan Accord, which had been unpopular amongst Sri Lankans for giving India a major influence, now became a source of nationalist anger and resentment as the IPKF was drawn fully into the conflict.

About the UNHRC Resolution against Sri Lanka

  • The draft resolution is based on a report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN Human Rights) – according to which the government of Sri Lanka had created parallel military task forces and commissions that encroach on civilian functions, and reversed important institutional checks and balances, threatening democratic gains, the independence of the judiciary and other key institutions.
  • Sri Lanka abruptly withdrew in 2020 from an earlier UNHRC resolution (Resolution 30/1) on war crimes – under which it had committed, 5 years previously, to a time-bound investigation of war crimes that took place during the military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

India’s role in the resolution

  • Sri Lanka has described the resolution as “unwanted interference by powerful countries” and has officially sought India’s help to gather support against the resolution.
  • Whichever way it goes, the resolution is likely to resonate in India-Sri Lanka relations and for India internally, it will reflect in the run-up to the Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu.
  • Previously, India voted against Sri Lanka in 2012 and India abstained in 2014.

UNHRC’s Stand on the Sri Lanka war crimes matter

  • The present government in Sri Lanka was “proactively” obstructing investigations into past crimes to prevent accountability, and that this had a “devastating effect” on families seeking truth, justice and reparations.
  • United Nations (UN) member states “should pay attention to the early warning signs of more violations to come, and called for “international action” including targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against “credibly alleged” perpetrators of grave human rights violations and abuses.
  • States should also pursue investigations and prosecution in their national courts under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction of international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka.

-Source: The Hindu

December 2023