I had the opportunity to speak with Thulasi Muttulingam, a Sri Lankan Tamil aid worker based in the North. She spoke to me about the hardships, even under the new Sirisena government, Sri Lankan Tamils continue to experience.
I asked Muttulingam why it is so difficult to get psychiatric and trauma counseling help in the North. Muttulingam stated that initially the government did promote psycho-social help. However, the Rajapaksa government put a halt to providing psycho-social help because too many war stories were leaking out pertaining to the extent civilians suffered during the war. “Many organizations doing psycho-social help had to do it in hiding.”
Muttulingam criticized the NGO model as one which fosters individuals to become more dependent rather than self-sufficient. Muttulingam said that an entire generation, born after the 1980s, have grown up with the idea that “someone will always be there to handout stuff” making [people in war affected areas] incapable of standing on their own two feet and thus fostering a dependence on NGOs. As part of a solution, livelihood projects have been launched by some NGOs based in Sri Lanka. Citizens are expected to show their ability to become self-sufficient through managing tasks such as running a business. However, Muttulingam disclosed that a very few percentage of citizens are actually successful at keeping the projects running instead of closing it with some excuse. “The citizens, due to having been closed in for a long time, do not really understand how the outside world functions.” Citizens in the North produce local products such as milk, biscuits, and soaps. However, after the war ended, products from the South came flooding in and as a result, the local products do not stand a chance and citizens of the North, instead of economically trying to remain competitive, are folding in because they are not used to that competitive system.
The wider context, Muttulingam emphasized, is due to problems within the government and private employment sector. “The only draw to government employment,” Muttulingam said, “is that they pay a basic living wage that is commensurate with the cost of living—they pay about 25,000 and there is also a hope of a pension with a government job. That is it.” Muttulingam stressed the need to implement a minimum wage law in Sri Lanka that is commensurate with the cost of living. “So being paid 10,000 [rupees] a month to support your family to work 15 to 16 hours a day, it is illegal, but many companies are doing it.” The inability to live in Sri Lanka because of the cost of living, Muttulingam said, is a significant reason as to why many citizens are fleeing on boats to Australia.
The Minister of Women’s Affairs, Chandrani Bandara, asked by Al Jazeera about what programs are being considered to help war widows; Bandara responded, “We have initiated several programs like livelihood programs with credit schemes, like entrepreneurship training, counseling….credit basis for self-employment.” Furthermore, Bandara stated, “I don’t think the Tamil widows are not taken care of. Priority is given to these widows especially in those areas there are so many programs taking place. I don’t think the Tamil widows are isolated.” Muttulingam responded to Bandara’s statements by stating, “No, the widows have it really badly in the North.” Muttulingam debunked Bandara’s point by stating that being top on the beneficiary list is “not necessarily the help that helps sustain them [the widows].” Muttulingam added, “There are too many things stacked against [the widows] in the culture.”
Women are paid less than men and mothers are unable to leave their children to find equal opportunity employment. All these considerations put together keep stacking up against what Muttulingam referred to as the “female headed households.” Muttulingam explained that [the widows] do get a lot of help from the NGO model, but not from the community model, as the “community is heavily stacked against them.” Women who are enterprising and are able to stand on their own two feet, Muttulingam explained, are criticized and looked at negatively by the community. “It is again somehow damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
Families who have resettled after experiencing constant displacement during the final stages of the war are now intent on building their dream house and subsequently end up going a little overboard. The Indian government has been providing houses for Tamils in the North. The housing will cost Tamils at least seven lakhs which alone will get them into debt. Tamils, even though they can’t afford it, will build houses that are 25 lakhs, 30 lakhs, “because for the first time they are getting to live in a house and they have all these dreams. “Companies are exploiting those dreams held by Tamils in the North by going house to house and selling TVs, furniture, DVDs, even though in some of these places, they don’t even have electricity.”
I asked Muttulingam, based on the civilians in the North she has met, if there was any truth to the claim that the LTTE used civilians as human shields. “Everywhere,” Muttulingam responded. “Every single last person in the Vanni who [was] caught in that last time frame they all tell the same story. And these are people who were part of LTTE’s most important martyr families themselves. Here it is common knowledge, and that level of betrayal for them, they expect [that] the army would do this, the government will do this, but when the LTTE did that to them [using Tamils as human shields], the shock of that betrayal…they have been heavily traumatized by that,” Muttulingam stated. Muttulingam also said that the former LTTE cadres are being marginalized and ostracized within their own communities in Sri Lanka because of the actions the former cadres committed against their own people during the war.
Muttulingam talked to me about the actions of the diaspora and the need to learn lessons from the past. “If we are going to learn lessons from the past,” Muttulingam stated, “We need to address what happened in the past…I get really worried when I see people from abroad talking about re-starting a war back here. Because the people who actually went through the war back here are left with nothing. But the last thing they need is another war. So just leave them be. Yes, we may be second-class citizens. But it is our choice to remain as second class citizens. The diaspora abroad does not get to make that choice for us.”