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Minorities At Risk Project: Home    

Chronology for Indian Tamils in Sri Lanka

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Date(s) Item
May 1990 Sri Lanka's State Minister for Industries, M.S. Sellasamy, said the government has agreed to send a special delegation to New Delhi shortly to discuss the issue of repatriation of some 100,000 stateless plantation workers of Indian origin. Sellasamy is also the General-Secretary of the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), which mainly represents the tea plantation workers. In the 1870s, Indian Tamils from south India were brought to tea plantations by the British when tea became the principal cash crop of Sri Lanka. Under two bilateral agreements signed in 1964 and 1975, India was to grant citizenship and take back about half a million stateless Tamils from Sri Lanka. But reports suggest the repatriation process was never completed and came to a halt by the early 1980s following the outbreak of ethnic violence (XNS, 05/15/90). Plantations Minister R. Wijeratne said those with Indian citizenship who refused to go to India might be denied work on the plantations, where they are temporarily employed. P. Chandrasekeran, President of the Upcountry People's Front (UPF), is bitterly critical of the government's attempt at forced repatriation. The UPF launched a protest strike and its leader was arrested. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), the most radical and dominant of the separatist groups, had called for a work stoppage on May 21 to demonstrate solidarity with striking Tamil plantation workers in the central highlands. The Tigers having not much in common, perhaps, saw the opportunity to try to widen the support base for their demand for autonomy in the north and east. India's position is that the repatriation of those granted Indian citizenship and an equal number of Sri Lankan refugees who fled to India should take place simultaneously. But the refugees are mostly sympathizers of the pro-Indian Tamil groups in Sri-Lanka. The pro-Indian Eelam People's Revolutionary Liberation Front (EPRLF) is critical of the Bandaranaike-Shastri pact of 1964 and warned it would resist the forced repatriation of India's citizens (IPS, 05/03/90).
Jul 1990 The Minister for Tourism and Rural Industrial Development, and Chairman of the CWC, S. Thondaman, himself an Indian Tamil, said there can only be a political and not a military solution to the ongoing ethnic problems in the country. "Bravery and boldness by the LTTE won't do -- they must have wisdom", said the Minister while ruling out the possibility of the conflict spilling into the plantation sector he controls through the powerful CWC (Japan Economic Newswire, 07/06/90).
Jan 1991 The visiting Indian Foreign Minister is expected to meet the leaders of the seven Tamil political parties to discuss the bloody 8-year old civil war, as well as the repatriation of the remaining Indian citizens. CWC Chairman S. Thondaman appealed to the Sri Lankan government to consider the repatriation issue on a "humanitarian basis" (IPS, 01/28/91).
Mar 1991 President Ranasinghe Premadasa has relaxed emergency regulations imposed to counter the Tamil insurgency to enable the smooth conduct of elections to 237 local councils, except in the areas of the north and east. The ruling United People's Party (UNP) has declined to contest the 3 seats in the tea-growing hill country strongholds of its coalition partner, the CWC.
Apr 1991 CWC Chairman S. Thondaman said he had been asked by rival Tamil groups to mediate as fighting intensifies. Meanwhile, the Council of Hindu Organizations called on the government to fully implement the 1987 Peace Accord signed with India (Japan Economic Newswire, 04/11/91).
Sep 1991 The LTTE sent a letter to S. Thondaman inviting him to visit its stronghold for discussions over his potential role as a mediator in peace talks with the government. Thondaman, a senior politician, said he was offering to mediate in his capacity as chairman of the CWC, a trade union representing about 400,000 people of Indian origin working in tea plantations. Thondaman is held in high regard by the rebels as well as Colombo and New Delhi (Reuters, 09/26/91).
Apr 1992 Thousands of tea plantation workers can hope to become home owners for the first time in their history. The promise of ownership was given by the CWC, which is backing the government's June privatization initiative of the state-owned estates. To immigrant Indian laborers, for generations home was just the linerooms, built in one long line, where whole families were crowded into one single room. Of the nearly 1 million plantation laborers, an estimated 700,000 are members of the Ceylon Workers' Congress. The tea industry has been hit by a severe drought, leading to a 30% decrease in production.
Aug 1992 Prime Minister Dingiri Wijetunga stated in Parliament that 84,000 Indian Tamils awaiting repatriation to India will not be given Sri Lankan citizenship. The local press recently reported that the CWC has urged the government to accept them as Sri Lankan citizens (XNS, 08/07/92). Plantation workers went on strike on August 26 to protest against changes in working conditions. They are pressing for their wages and working conditions to be put in writing, as promised by the government, while privatization initiatives continue. The strike was organized by the Joint Plantations Trade Union Committee, that represents about 120,000 of the 700,000 plantation workers in Sri Lanka. The rest belong to the CWC, some of whose members also joined the strike (Reuters, 08/26/92).
May 1993 President Premadasa and two dozen others were killed by a Tamil suicide bomber during the May Day parade. This followed the murder of Lalith Athulathmudali, the President's chief rival and leader of the opposition Democratic United National Front, which split last year from the ruling United National Party (UNP). Prime Minister Dingiri Wijetunga has taken over as the country's President. Sri Lanka's provincial elections were held on May 17 with unusual calmness. Voter turnout was 75%, up from a figure of 50% in 1988. However, Premadasa's posthumous influence on the election was evident. The ruling party won 4 out of 7 provinces. The Indian Tamil plantation workers, along with Muslim and Christian voters in other parts of the island, helped the UNP to victory in the poorer areas. The leftist alliance, the People's United Front, led by Srimavo Bandaranaike won two provinces, including the Western province that covers Colombo (The Economist, 05/22/93). No elections were held in the predominantly Tamil northern and the mixed-race eastern provinces, as it was thought the Tigers would disrupt them.
Dec 1993 About 200,000 tea estate workers in central Sri Lanka walked off their jobs and the government invoked a special law that allows large scale arrests. The strike was called by the CWC to press its demand that the government-owned tea estates employ the workers for at least 300 days a year or pay them during the period they are laid off. The ruling UNP is likely to adopt a tough stand towards the demands of its ally, the Ceylon Workers' Congress. The dispute centers around CWC demands for land allotment and the construction of a vocational college in the hill country. President Wijetunga has refused to implement these projects undertaken by his slain predecessor. For the first time in its 50-year history, infighting has surfaced in the CWC. The organization's General Secretary S. Sellasamy openly challenged CWC chief Thondaman's decision to suspend 7 party councilors for flouting his orders to side with the opposition to throw out the ruling party chief minister in the central province (IPS, 12/28/93). In response, the government was reported to have been softened its stance toward Thondaman.
Mar 1994 The ruling UNP has witnessed its first big electoral defeat in 17 years. The party, which is preparing for a presidential election later this year and a general election in early 1995, was heavily defeated in provincial council polls in the southern province. The party won just 23 seats, against 32 for the opposition SLFP led by Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. The result was widely seen as a vote against the policies of President D.B. Wijetunga, who championed a hard-line approach to the Tamil Tigers. His tough style also alienated tea plantation workers of Tamil origin, a traditional vote-bank of the ruling UNP (Financial Times, 03/29/94).
Aug 1994 The left leaning five-party People's Alliance, led by Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the daughter of Srimavo Bandaranaike, won 105 seats to the ruling UNP's 94 in parliamentary elections. The other 26 seats in the 225-seat parliament went to minority Hindu and Muslim parties. Although Tamil rebels boycotted the elections, they pledged support for the new government of Mrs. Kumaratunga who took office with an offer of unconditional direct negotiations with the LTTE.
Sep 1994 The Ceylon Workers' Congress has finally decided to support the People's Alliance (PA) headed by Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in appreciation of the stand taken by the new administration to solve the country's ethnic problems. Addressing the national convention of the CWC, S. Thondaman said the activities of the government have raised hopes that it would solve the problems of plantation workers (BBC, 09/15/95).
Nov 1994 With a pledge to curtail the power of presidency, Mrs. Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga won a decisive victory in presidential elections. She captured about 62% of the votes including many votes from Muslims and Tamils. S. Thondaman, head of the CWC, was sworn in as Minister of Tourism under the new Kumaratunga government. The CWC had cooperative ties with the previous UNP government until the general elections held last August, when the UNP was ousted from power by the People's Alliance. The CWC demands to the new administration included improved housing and the introduction of a guaranteed system of 25 work days a month for the plantation workers. Observers believe Thondaman's cross-over brought in more Tamil votes for Kumaratunga.
Dec 1994 Srimavo Bandaranaike, the mother of Chandrika Kumaratunga and Prime Minister in her administration, is reportedly very unhappy over the inclusion of her long-time political adversary, S. Thondaman, in the cabinet.
Mar 1995 All 27 Tamil MPs in the current parliament who belong to five Tamil political parties have pledged their support for the People's Alliance government of President Kumaratunga (Xinhua News Agency, 03/08/95).
Apr 1995 The Rural Development Minister and CWC President says that before a political dialogue can occur with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the war-ravaged north and east must be rehabilitated. S. Thondaman argues that this is the only method through which to achieve a lasting peace with the Sri Lankan Tamils (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 04/13/95).
May 1995 Small political parties and those that represent ethnic minorities are worried that proposed electoral reforms could reduce their presence in Parliament. A parliamentary committee is currently considering reforms such as a mixture of proportional representation and the first-past-the-post system. Some analysts indicate that the changes are needed to ensure that ethnic minorities are properly represented. However, Periannapillai Devaraj, the vice-president of the Ceylon Workers Congress, is concerned that under this scheme, small parties would be underrepresented (Reuters, 05/10/95).
Jun 1995 A 12-year old girl died when at least nine homes belonging to Indian Tamils on a tea estate in Galle district were torched. A curfew had been declared in Galle the previous day after a mob attacked Tamil shops. Tamil residents have taken refuge in temples; a Tamil MP contends that the police only responded once most of the damage had been done. Army and navy reinforcements have been called in. The attacks against the Indian Tamils are reported to be in response to last week's murder of a leading Buddhist monk who was an active opponent of the LTTE. Meanwhile, thousands of Sinhalese families are reported to be fleeing the eastern region fearing retribution from the Tigers (Reuters, 06/03/95 & 06/05/95).
Jun 11, 1995 Around 300 Indian Tamils are still hiding in temples in the port city of Galle, a week after gangs burnt down their shops and houses (Reuters, 06/11/95).
Jun 28, 1995 Around 50 to 75 Indian Tamils are still holed up in temples, some three weeks after their houses and shops were burnt down in Galle (Reuters, 06/28/95).
Jul 1995 Most of the Indian Tamils living at temples in Galle have returned to their homes. Authorities indicate that all but a couple of their damaged shops are now back in business (Reuters, 07/12/95).
Aug 1995 President Chandrika Kumaratunga has announced a new devolution proposal aimed at ending the Sri Lankan Tamil insurgency. Under the plan, the country would be divided into eight administrative regions which would have control over key areas such as land, finance, and law and order. The north and eastern areas, where the indigenous Tamils are concentrated, would be merged into one region, fulfilling a demand long pressed for by the Tamil Tigers. Rural Industrial Development Minister and CWC President, S. Thondaman, has, however, criticized the plan. He demanded that power in the northeast be given to the LTTE and that it should be given five years to restore democratic institutions. Kumaratunga rejected Thondaman's demand, stating there will be no more talks with the LTTE. The plan is to be included in a new constitution that is set to be drawn up by the end of the year (Agence France Presse, 08/03/95).
Aug 7, 1995 An Indian Tamil was identified as the suicide bomber who set off a cartload of explosives near Columbo's landmark Independence Memorial Hall. 22 people were killed while more than 40 were wounded. The Indian Tamil bomber was reported to be a member of the LTTE. The attack has been described as the LTTE's response to the President's recent devolution proposal (Reuters, 08/07/95).
Aug 8, 1995 Police indicate that the target of yesterday's suicide bombing was a motorcade either carrying the President or her Deputy Defense Minister. It is unclear why the Indian Tamil bomber detonated the explosives before reaching his target (Reuters, 08/08/95).
Oct 1995 The leaders of four Tamil parties in Parliament, including the Ceylon Workers Congress, have expressed serious concern following the deaths of 70 people as a result of air force bombings against the LTTE in the northern Jaffna area. While stopping short of withdrawing their support from President Kumaratunga's coalition government, they asked her to take steps to prevent future civilian casualties (Reuters, 10/01/95).
Dec 1995 Tamil politicians and analysts indicate that Sri Lanka may face further problems if the Indian Tamils intensify their call for recognition. (So far, they have not been actively involved in the Sri Lankan secessionist campaign.) The Indian Tamils continue to suffer from a lack of proper housing, education, employment, and access to health facilities. CWC President S. Thondaman says that if the Indian Tamils are not brought into the political and social mainstream, they will rise up one day, especially as the new generation has greater aspirations. Thondaman did not indicate whether they would follow the LTTE by taking up arms (Reuters, 12/16/95).
Jan 9, 1996 The government is proceeding with its program to privatize the country’s tea and rubber estates. The Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) is threatening to launch a strike to press for changes in the program’s wage structure (Xinhua News Agency, 01/09/96).
Mar 19, 1996 The CWC calls for a country-wide strike at tea and rubber plantations from April 22 to 27. The CWC is demanding higher wages and a minimum of 300 working days a year for each employee. It represents some 600,000, most Indian Tamil, plantation workers. Sri Lanka is the world’s largest tea exporter (Xinhua News Agency, 03/19/96).
Apr 19, 1996 The Ceylon Workers’ Congress rejects a government-brokered work package which offers a smaller salary increase and fewer guaranteed work days (Reuters, 04/19/96).
Apr 22, 1996 Over 700,000 tea and rubber plantation workers begin the first day of a six-day country-wide strike to press for better wages and guaranteed work days. Other unions, besides for CWC, are involved (Reuters, 04/22/96).
Apr 27, 1996 A six-day strike by plantation workers ends with the CWC stating that it will continue to press for its demands (Agence France Presse, 04/27/96).
May 1, 1996 A clash is reported between two factions of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress at a May Day meeting. No casualties are noted (Reuters, 05/01/96).
Sep 26, 1996 Reports indicate that the living standard on the country’s plantations is below the national level. Most workers reside in barrack-type rooms and few have proper ventilation, a water supply, or sanitation facilities. Some 150,000 Indian Tamils are still reported to be without Sri Lankan citizenship. They were supposed to be sent to India but their return was delayed and they now want to stay in the country. These people originally held or applied for Indian citizenship. In the 1980s, Sri Lanka granted citizenship to the last of the stateless Indian Tamils that applied (Reuters, 09/26/96).
Jan 22, 1997 India and Sri Lanka sign an investment protection treaty to help stimulate bilateral economic ties (Agence France Presse, 01/22/97).
Mar 22, 1997 The Ceylon Workers’ Congress loses local elections in its stronghold in the central region. The ruling People’s Alliance wins control of 194/238 local councils across the country. Elections were not held in the north and east where the government is battling an insurgency by the Sri Lankan Tamils. The opposition United National Party wins 43 councils, largely in Tamil areas (Reuters, 03/22/97).
Sep 21, 1997 CWC leader and government minister S. Thondaman urges the government to proceed with the peace process despite Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) attempts to derail it (Xinhua News Agency, 09/21/97).
Dec 11, 1997 Several non-governmental organizations (NGOS) representing the predominantly Indian Tamil plantation workers hold a demonstration in Colombo. They are trying to draw attention to the difficulties some of the workers are experiencing when trying to obtain identity cards (Hindu, 12/11/97).
Jan 22, 1998 Two Sri Lankan NGOs, the Institute of Social Development and Satyodaya, are trying to improve the status of female plantation workers. Many of these women do not have an education and they are often subject to sexual abuse, especially due to the widespread abuse of alcohol by male workers. The NGOS engage in basic rights and leadership training (Inter Press Service, 01/22/98).
Jan 25, 1998 Mobs set fire to a Hindu cultural center in the plantation region of Kandy in retaliation for the bombing of the sacred Buddhist Temple of the Tooth. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which is fighting for a separate homeland in the north and the east, has been blamed for the attack. Three Tamil Tigers and eight civilians were killed in the bombing incident(Agence France Presse, 01/25/98).
Jan 26, 1998 For the first time ever, the government bans the LTTE. It had not done so earlier as it wants to draw the LTTE into the political process. Authorities urge the Sinhalese majority not to retaliate against the Tamil community for the rebel bombing of the Temple of the Tooth. Members of the Sinhalese community also publicly echo this call (Agence France Presse, 01/26/98).
Feb 5, 1998 The Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC) leads a strike of half a million tea and rubber plantation workers. They are seeking a 26.5% wage increase while management has offered 12% plus variable bonuses. The government is helping to mediate. Some 18 of 23 state-owned plantations have been privatized (Agence France Presse, 02/05/98).
Feb 10, 1998 The CWC urges the opposition United National Party (UNP) to outline its proposals for devolution in Tamil areas in the north and east (Hindu, 02/10/98).
Feb 12, 1998 A Sri Lankan Tamil party, the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF), protests the tear-gassing of striking plantation workers who were engaged in a peaceful demonstration (Hindu, 02/12/98).
Feb 13, 1998 A nine-day strike by plantation workers ends after President Kumaratunga helps promote an agreement. The workers receive a smaller wage increase than they had demanded but their bonuses are tied to world prices for tea and rubber (Agence France Presse, 02/13/98).
Feb 15, 1998 Hundreds of tea workers hold marches and stone the offices of the CWC to protest against the terms of an agreement that ended their nine-day strike. They view the deal as a sell-out (Agence France Presse, 02/15/98).
Feb 21, 1998 Various Tamil and Muslim parties, including the CWC, meet with the government to help further the process of settling the Sri Lankan Tamil insurgency (Hindu, 02/21/98).
Mar 14, 1998 CWC leader Thondaman calls on the LTTE and the government to observe a ceasefire and begin peace talks (Hindu, 03/14/98).
Dec 12, 1998 The People’s Alliance is defeated in a parliamentary vote as it does not have enough members in attendance. The vote was on granting the budget allocation for Livestock Minister S. Thondaman’s ministry. Thondaman is also the leader of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress. The opposition United National Party calls for his resignation. In 1994, Thondaman defected from the UNP to the People’s Alliance (Agence France Presse, 12/12/98).
Apr 8, 1999 The People’s Alliance wins 26 out of 58 seats in the Central Province in local elections. This is the region where many of the Indian Tamils reside on plantations. The opposition United National Party (UNP) captures 23. The CWC, running under the banner of the National Union of Workers due to a dispute over the organization’s title, only wins 6 seats. A splinter of the CWC, the Up-Country People’s Front manages 2 seats (Hindu, 04/08/99).
Jun 10, 1999 Citing security reasons, the police refuse to allow a Ceylon Worker’s Congress march in Colombo. The CWC was planning to transport a large number of plantation workers to the capital to protest a march last week by a group fighting for Sinhalese rights (Deutsche Presse-Agentur, 06/10/99).
Apr 28 - 29, 2004 Violence broke out between the Tamil and Sinhala communities involving about 1,000 people. Police responded by firing into the crowd and by imposing a curfew curfew. Two Tamils died in the fighting. (Xinhua General News Service, 04/30/2004, "Normalcy restored in Sri Lanka's troubled central town")


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Information current as of July 16, 2010