Is it a crime to be a Tamil in Sri Lanka?
“In the end anti black, anti female, and all forms of discrimination equivalent to the same thing- anti humanism”-Shirley Chisholm-American Politician, the first African-American to win a seat in the United States Congress
I like to share the daily experience of being a Tamil in Sri Lanka. The Tamils who are living in North and East of the country are subjected to various forms of discrimination. They feel utterly helpless due to fear. The civilians in these areas lead a horrible life beyond our imagination.
Tamils who are living in Colombo for decades are not exempted from discrimination by various walks of life; may it be security forces or fellow workers or neighbours.
Recently I drove to a five star hotel in Colombo to meet a foreign friend of mine. I was stopped at the main entrance of this particular hotel. The security guard who stopped me asked “where I was driving to?” I replied that I was going to see a friend of mine who is a guest of that hotel. Then he asked me for his room number. I told him his room number. As I approached the next entrance of the hotel, I was stopped again and asked the same question by the door man. I replied the same and moved on. I went and had a seat in the lobby of the hotel. As soon as I sat down, a lady waiter of the bar came and asked me “why I was waiting?”. Then I repeated my reply to her. I sent a text to my friend to inform that I was waiting in the lobby, and I continue to wait despite the spreading of suspicion. After few minutes another male waiter asked the same question, when I repeated the same reply, he said that I have been waiting there for long time. I wondered for a while and asked him whether there is any time restriction imposed to be in the lobby. He did not answer my question and he left the place. When I told about the incident to my friend, he was shocked and confused. He said that, “it is an absolute discrimination, which cannot be tolerated”.
I was dressed in pants and t-shirt; I was not dressed as a Tamil-wearing a saree or shalwar kameez and keeping a pottu on my forehead; but I was not dressed glamorously; I carried a back-pack. If I was dressed glamorously and lavishly I may have got a special treatment such as helping me to walk with my high heel shoe to the ball room.
Another day, I was waiting for a local friend of mine in another five star hotel in Colombo. The manager of the hotel asked me in Sinhala “why was I waiting?”. I told him that, I was waiting for a friend of mine. Then after some time another security person of that particular hotel came and asked me the same question. The reply was the same. Later he brought another four males and kept asking the same question. They were rude in their language; and they were uncivilized in their looks. It made me annoyed and angry. I had no choice, except to complain the matter to the Chairman of the hotel.
Some of my Tamil friends who left the country twenty years ago have come to Sri Lanka recently on holiday. When I met them after two decades, they mentioned to me how the attitude has changed tremendously. They also mentioned to me that, they do not look Tamils because they are fair. Most of the Tamil Diaspora who visits Sri Lanka does not want to show their national identity cards, because it can cause problems. The birth place is mentioned in Sinhala and Tamil in the national identity cards of the Tamils, where the foreign passports have the birth place is in English. They feel comfortable to show their passports instead of identity cards wherever and whenever it’s needed.
It reminds me of few incidents taken place recently, where if a Tamil person is dark in complexion he or she is suspected of a LTTE cadre. They go through the mental torture of answering and repeating the same reply to various people, who question them with suspicion.
Another recent experience was at a well-known restaurant in the city of Colombo. When asked politely about the parking space. I was told that, there is no parking space available for that restaurant. Then I had to park the car at my own risk. But later on I witnessed the customers for the particular restaurant was provided with parking. When inquired he tried to give many unrelated answers.
The first question asked at the checkpoints now a days is “are you a Tamil?” If a Tamil is stopped, he or she gets a different treatment, such as where was he or she born?, and can he or she speak Sinhala? If he or she was born in North or East of the country, then they get completely different treatment.
Nobody can be astonished by such behaviours, because discrimination had been in existence for several decades in Sri Lanka. Discrimination led many Tamil men and women to take up arms in their teenage to fight for their rights and of the fellow Tamils.
I do not dare to loose my identity, which I am proud of. As Martin Luther King Junior says “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character”.
The above article was originally published in December 2007.