May 19, 2023
Good morning, Ayubowan, Vanakkam.
It is a privilege to address you on this solemn occasion for the Malaiyaha Tamil community. Marking this occasion gives both an opportunity to look back at the 200 years of the community’s journey and the opportunity to look forward.
The women and men of the Malaiyaha Tamil community have been the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy for more than a century. They gave Sri Lanka, then Ceylon, its identity. Everyone recognizes this immense contribution, and it is heartening to note that the Sri Lankan government has considered it important to officially mark this anniversary.
Their journey over the 200 years has been full of challenges – enduring the harsh conditions of the early plantation era, being made stateless, losing the right to vote after independence – all have left indelible marks on the country’s history.
The Malaiyaha Tamil have not only withstood the structural exclusion, discrimination, and frequent violence that visited them. They have persisted in building a community with a distinct identity rooted in the hills of this country. Over the last two centuries, their existence has been a struggle and their resilience a testament to their strength.
The Malaiyaha Tamil’s long, peaceful struggle for full citizenship finally paid off with the government’s commendable action to grant them status a little more than a decade ago.
Full citizenship, however, does not automatically translate into meaningful citizenship.
If a segment of a society is one of the most economically, socially, and politically marginalized communities in a country, it’s impossible to say their citizenship – while full in the eyes of the state – fully rewards the Malaiyaha Tamils with the same benefits enjoyed by the rest of society.
The community lags national averages in most development indicators. For example, household income in the plantation sector in 2016 was just over half the national income level and more than 70 percent of the population fell within the lowest rung of the poverty ladder.
And while the community has made significant advances in some respects – producing men and women of eminence in the arts, sports, education, and business – there must be a way forward to ensure the value of citizenship. There must be a model whereby gains made in one area through government action are not offset by reduced benefits elsewhere. Only then will living standards rise and will the community truly enjoy the benefits of full citizenship.
As the Malaiyaha Tamils mark their 200 years in Sri Lanka, I am encouraged by the hope of their youth. They are bold and assertive. This community of Sri Lankans is now spread out in all parts of the Island with a distinct political voice. This new generation asks not for sympathy but for dignity and equality. The United States supports these aspirations and looks forward to them becoming reality.
Throughout our 75 years of bilateral relations with Sri Lanka, the U.S. government has supported many interventions to improve the living standards of the Malaiyaha Tamils. USAID works with civil society and the private sector through three activities. Including our support to the Institute of Social Development, we’re advancing democratic values of citizen participation and also driving local economic development through tourism.
I am confident that with continued development support the community will contribute more than its fair share in the recovery of Sri Lanka from the current economic crisis and assert its place as full and equal citizens of Sri Lanka.
The United States will continue to support their journey.
Thank you! Isthuthi, Nandri