27 September, 2020

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Sri Lanka’s Tamils Face Identity Crisis

By Ponniah Manikavasagam –

Ponniah Manikavasagam

Without a national identity card, many Tamils in Sri Lanka cannot avail of basic services and it makes them suspect in the eyes of the police, writes Ponniah Manikavasagam of the BBC’s Tamil service.

In a remote and dusty part of Kilinochchi district in the Tamil-dominated northern Sri Lanka, people gather around a group of officials working with an election monitoring service called the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (Paffrel).

Sitting in the shade, out of the fierce mid-day heat, officials from Paffrel, along with various government and non-governmental organisations, discuss with local people the status of their National Identity Cards (NIC), a document which is a legal requirement for all citizens of 16 years or over.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced in 2009 in the final chapter of the long conflict between the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan military.

Many of them were trying to flee to safety in the ever shrinking area that separated the two warring sides.

One of them, a 54-year-old Tamil woman called Douglas Sugi, described how she tried to cross a lagoon in a narrow coastal strip with two injured children.

“The situation was so terrible and we couldn’t take anything in bags. I had my National Identity Card pinned to my clothes and I did not want to lose it. But while we were moving, the NIC got soaked and broke into two pieces. Now I am here to apply for a new one,” she says.

‘Suspects’

Introduced in 1972, the NIC has become a big issue for those in northern Sri Lanka who have either lost or damaged their identity cards.

The National Identity Card was introduced in Sri Lanka in 1972

Non-governmental organisations estimate the numbers to be in excess of 100,000 people.

Without the card, you cannot open a bank account or even if you have an account, you cannot cash a cheque or withdraw money.

And for those who lived in areas outside of government control, there was never any question of having a government identity card.

“The LTTE was not like the army as they didn’t insist on the NIC. Therefore, there was no importance for it there,” says Tamil resident Mudiyappu Mariyaseeli.

But, it also meant that Tamils who had no identity cards and travelled to other areas of the country were a suspect in the eyes of the Sri Lankan military.

Without a national identity card, many Tamils in Sri Lanka cannot avail of basic services and it makes them suspect in the eyes of the police, writes Ponniah Manikavasagam of the BBC’s Tamil service.

In a remote and dusty part of Kilinochchi district in the Tamil-dominated northern Sri Lanka, people gather around a group of officials working with an election monitoring service called the People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (Paffrel).

Sitting in the shade, out of the fierce mid-day heat, officials from Paffrel, along with various government and non-governmental organisations, discuss with local people the status of their National Identity Cards (NIC), a document which is a legal requirement for all citizens of 16 years or over.

Tens of thousands of people were displaced in 2009 in the final chapter of the long conflict between the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan military.

Many of them were trying to flee to safety in the ever shrinking area that separated the two warring sides.

That is exactly what happened to Yoganthan Mayooran, 27, who was caught in a search operation by the army during the war.

“I didn’t have an NIC. They arrested me on suspicion of belonging to the LTTE. I was interrogated for six days and released only after the village headman in our area authorised in writing that I had no connections to the LTTE,” Mr Mayooran says.

For Tamils in the former conflict zone now wanting to get their NIC, there are also issues around documentation.

Many do not have birth certificates, essential for applying for the cards.

“I have faced many problems without the NIC and I am unable to apply for it without a birth certificate,” says Selvarajah Leelawathi.

“I am unable to travel to the capital, Colombo, and even towns like Vavuniya. As I don’t have the NIC, I can’t open a bank account and I can’t even sell my jewellery to get money for emergency needs,” she adds.

New modernised card

The importance of the card is the reason why groups like Paffrel are sending out mobile services all over the Northern Province to help those who have lost their birth, death or marriage certificates.

The man in charge of the mobile service, Sritharan Sabanayagam, points out that for Sri Lanka’s minorities, the card can be a double-edged sword reflecting, as it does, their insecurities about the position in post-war Sri Lanka.

“During the war, it was very useful for minorities travelling from the conflict area to southern districts,” he says.

“But it also makes it easy for extremists to identify Tamils and minorities as their details appear in both Sinhala and Tamil languages. This is not the case with the majority community, whose details only appear in Sinhala. It is the bad side of the card.”

But officials reject this argument, saying the benefits of the card outweigh these concerns.

Officials are, in fact, planning to issue a new modernised card to people mainly, they say, to prevent fraud and tackle crime.

They say the new card will contain more details on an electronic chip bringing the NIC more into line with similar cards used elsewhere in the world.

BBC India

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Latest comments

  • 0
    0

    This writer is correct.

  • 0
    0

    Mr Phonniya,please visit Nationl Identity Office,in colombo head office
    and kindly made complain ,relevent highier officer.I aggred ,I am Sinhalese, I had same problem,once being this office to obatin my New Identity card.When I apporch office in Front Desk ,I asked delay of issuning NIC. We had argument who was at front office. He approch and told me IF YOUR NOT OLD PERSON I WILL KIKI OUT FROM THIS PLACE.
    That is how NIC office behave and treat us as Sinhalese person.
    Unfortuanlty,as majority communities we have NO place to complian like , BBC OR CNN OR ITN OR SLR made interview or made statment.
    This is not racial problem,actually typcial Sri Lankan Bureaucracy of pre-colonial master divided and rule policy.Since indepandence 1948 of Our Island had not been change people friendly administraion and management system at all.
    I kindly see all these mal-adminstraion of so-called governament bureaucary & inffencies are to be blame for the entire Sinhalese Race. This is we call poor goverances of elected represtantive of our democarcy.We have to rectify and change pre-colonial system been vicitimes of all races of Sri Lankan.Our democarcy for rich Sinhelese Tamils and Muslims NOT for HAVE NOT.

    • 0
      0

      The essence of the article is that the people interviewed with the background of war, relocation and what not else including race (like it or not) are at a greater disadvantage than yourself. It has nothing to do with ‘access to interviews with BBC or the martians on the moon’.

  • 0
    0

    So, what is the problem here ?

    Tamils lived in Tamil-peelam earlier. They did not want the identity card. During the 30 years, lot of Tamils nadu tamils had come settled too. So, what is your suggestion. Does ponnaih get to roam around bretain without any identification ?A woman tore off her identity card while crossing, So, whose fault ?

    What is the identity of Tamils moved all over the world during the fast few hundred years ?

    Simply a stupid article.

    • 0
      0

      Jinsothy,

      What did you smoke???
      Please let us also know.

  • 0
    0

    Tamils like Ponnaih are Tamil Racists.

    Other wise, which person talk about problems of only group of people. For example, Do British talk about only the British – English people or scotish people facing problems or as a whole do they talk about British people’s problems.

  • 0
    0

    Jimsofty, if you intelligently read the article you may have picked up certain facts. You obviously did not.

    The setting was obviously at the height of the war.
    The woman in concern was 54 years old*.
    She was trying to cross a lagoon* (it wasn’t the Colombo Swimming Club pool),with two injured children*.
    They could not carry anything in bags*.
    She had my National Identity Card pinned to her clothes as she did not want to lose it but while moving (through the murky water), the NIC got soaked and tore.

    *Learning to wear someone else’s shoes is about considering their situation as if it was your own. Perhaps it would help you to see the same scenario as if that was your mother or your wife, and then maybe you may see things differently.
    I somehow doubt it.

    PS. Your comment that Ponniah is racist & argument for it is foolish & ridiculous. Colombo Telegraph, perhaps you ought to print sense rather than encouraging nonsense.

  • 0
    0

    In addition to the various Govt offices in the different towns in the
    North-East, the Rajapakse Govt also please may consider sending their
    Mobile Service to people in far-away and “difficult” areas to provide all of them with this life-and-death document, the NIC. They will earn the respect of these poor folk if this is done soon. Some of them are without NIC’s due to naked corruption where the process is made difficult by petty officials to get “something” out of these simple and very poor people.

    Senguttuvan

    • 0
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      Tamils are very special people. There are no other remote and difficult to access areas in Sri Lanka. Only Tamils have problems and no one else in Sri lanka have problems.

      What else to say.

      Tamils killed and destroyed for 30 years. Now, despise Sri Lanka, degrade Sri Lanka in front of the international community. Yet, they should be given the best and should be favoured above the others.

      What shameless….

      • 0
        0

        JIMSOFTY, did you even care to read the article?
        Obviously not.

        No one is asking for SPECIAL status. Just some understanding for what the extreme circumstances that these people (not Tamils or Sinhalese or Timbuktoonians, but simply human beings) have lived through.

        That would be too much for your level of comprehension.
        God forbid you are shown exactly the same level of understanding you have shown if you are ever in such dire circumstances.

        Why not use your own name Jimsofty. Might expose you mightn’t it? ‘SHAMELESS’, is what is displayed by foolish opinions like yours.

  • 0
    0

    Mobile Services are seen in the Western Province and many other places in the South supplementing State services in the issue of NIC’s,
    Passports and other. This comes by usually on the initiative of politician/s of the area. I was able to get a NIC for my Watcher who did not have one – although he was 65 years old. That was such a great relief for the grateful man. Mobile Services are made available to areas where poor people have no access to get their essential papers.

    Senguttuvan

  • 0
    0

    The tamils need to lodge a complain with S.J.Emmanuel with a copy to Rayappu Joseph.

  • 0
    0

    hey i have a doubt… now… a person who was born in 1900 … in his/her NIC it will be as 00XXXXXXXv right??

    then what about the person who was born in 2000 … how will his/her NIC number be like????

    wont it get duplicated??/

    plz help me.. itz imp for ma research

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