Colombo, Galle, Human Rights, Peace and Conflict, Poverty

Thoughts For Discussion – A JVP View

I would like to throw out a few ideas for those who come from a peacebuilding paradigm for discussion if possible.

My recent chat with a long-time supporter of the JVP, now aged about 50, driver of a three-wheeler who had two children, helped me see more clearly his point of view.

After working at a ceramic factory for 20 years, where he progressed to being a skilled operator of the kiln, he was layed off along with everyone else at that plant with little compensation. He received a salary of under Rs10,000 a month at the time he was layed
He didn’t find an opportunity to use his skills elsewhere and after being treated badly by another employer, he resorted to driving a three-wheeler.
“I don’t have to be beholden to anyone else. I have my freedom and respect and I can live a life minding my own business,” he told me.

What struck me most was his self-respect and dignity he had both achieved and demanded for himself.

Despite grinding poverty, I think many Sri Lankans have a high sense of self-worth, dignity and consider themselves equal to all others. This is to be truly admired and something we can be proud of.

Is it income, profession or language that determines a person’s integrity and worth? If you were born in a rural village with little access to education are you less of a man or woman than someone who attended an Ivy League College?

He told me a bit more.

What he found galling was that there was no hope for someone like him to improve his lot given the economic condition of the country. He said he knew the ins and outs of building ceramicware and someone like him “would have been valued in a country like Japan.”

What he didn’t say and what I interpreted was that society didn’t allow him to climb the social ladder, at any rate, due to it being wholly biased towards people who speak English, are wealthy and westernized.

My own experience is one of coming from a lower-middle class family, getting an English education, and then rising in terms of income and trying to put all behind me.

I think those of us who were taught English in school fail to realize how much of a barrier it is to not know it. And lets admit it, we chase after western values and forms of lifestyle in an attempt to define our own social class which is tenuous as it is.

I think its quite unfair that social standing in this country seems to be defined by the quality of English spoken and the level of western education achieved. A person who does not fit that group (95% of the population) would be quite justified in demanding that that system is overhauled.

What many of us like to ignore is the biggest question affecting a majority of people in the South of the island. Grinding poverty.

What is worse is a structure of society that perpetuates poverty and social standing based on English and western values.

So this is where NGOs and INGOs that pay very high salaries to its expat staff, demand a knowledge of English for recognition, and perpetuates western values come in to the picture. The World Bank, IMF and the hundreds of NGOs in the country become a part of the problem, especially if they don’t recognize this issue faced by the people and recommend Western ideas and solutions that perpetuate this system.

A man who received under Rs10,000 his whole life and who has no hope of getting any higher is not going to justify or sympathise with an expat NGO worker who gets between Rs80,000 to Rs600,000 and is supposed to be serving him, apparently, under any circumstances.

I could see a deep anger in the former kiln operator that stemmed from social injustice and a society that did not value his way of life. I could only guess that he had a lot of pride in his background and knew a few things about life that he could teach the rest of us.

A couple more paragraphs…

This conflict in our society is what brings Christian NGOs into the picture because they keep pushing an emphasis on Christian, western values and even income.

This is where Norway draws flack because it seems to ignore the key question of grinding poverty and language issues. An ultimate peace agreement they push would probably perpetuate current social inequality with westernized people on top.

TV stations which show the worst of Western programming perpetuate the same problem.

This resentment gets pitted against the LTTE, which has chosen to communicate their demands with terror, and against INGOs and Norway.

Maybe we can learn from the French or the Japanese. Or even the Brits, who value their own culture and language.

Or maybe we can not repeat the same mistake of looking outward for solutions and learn from people like the former kiln operator who understands concepts of self-respect and dignity quite well.

  • The fundamental question is how do you bring about this ‘social justice’ ? Would you rather have people unequally rich or equally poor?

    the solution is not to bring every one down to the lowest common denominator like the JVP suggests, and you somewhat implies. the solution is to let people like the klin operator enjoy greater opportunities; and in this process, English would be a great enabler.

    you cant ask people to ‘unlearn’ stuff, or ‘not to earn so much’ that’s just stupid if not immoral.

    There’s nothing wrong with looking outward for solutions, surely we are not a weirdly unique set of human beings to have problems so much different than others. Take the case of Sirasa Super Star and American Idol, are we that different?

  • sam

    To use Sirasa Super Star to compare Sri Lanka with the USA is slighly naive. If you ever travelled outside of Colombo, you’ll realise that most people who are accessing this blog are living in a tiny bubble.

    Sri Lanka needs to grow its middle class … And Sri Lankans need to insist their Government has politicians who become public servants once more; for their to be proper accountability, and allocation of funds and resources to places outside of Colombo and the South; and for all of us to pay our taxes.

    English is a link language – and all those who want to learn it should have the ability to learn it. Unfortunately, there may be a generation that has missed out – people who are too old to learn English. But there needs to be strong leaders that ensure people don’t feel inadequate, inferior or discriminated against.

    Ultimately though, most of us who are reading this blog will have to let go of our ‘rich’ lifestyles that we maintain through the exploitation of a majority of Sri Lankans. If we aren’t willing to adjust our lifestyles, then the only way we can continue to live ‘above’ the majority is by aligning ourselves with the military or hiring our own private security forces and living in gated communities (which many of us already do).

  • Chamath

    Hi Deane, if I implied that I wanted everyone to be equally poor, sorry about that, thats not what I meant.

    You said that English would be a great enabler and I definitely agree with that. It opens up a world of communication and access to knowledge.

    What I am asking is that there seems to be a social class where English is the “in language” and where western lifestyle is the “in thing” and where these expectations are transferred to people who are not English speakers.

    Its the last bit that could be harmful.

    I don’t see anything wrong with English language and western lifestyle being the chosen ones among a community of people, and I belong to the same group. But I think it is harmful if those expectations are transferred to people who don’t speak English.

    So what can be done about it?

    A greater respect and appreciation of those people who are well versed in Sinhala or Tamil.
    I think the corporate and NGO world in Colombo could shift its priorities and not be so “English” minded. Higher management in top Sri Lankan companies all speak Sinhala very well. I dont see why they cant speak with Sinhala employees in Sinhala. The same would go for Tamil. (A greater awareness and a national drive drive to learn Tamil would be a very positive thing)

    I was at an NGO workshop recently where the Sri Lankan speakers all decided to do the workshop in English even though a majority of the participants didn’t understand English very well and they would have to apply what they learnt in Sinhala or Tamil anyway, which showed where the habits of the instructors lay.

    NGOs can do their part by respecting the situation of a majority of people in Sri Lanka. ie. their poverty and traditional values and act accordingly. Flashy Land Rovers show absolutely no respect or consideration of the grinding poverty that Sri Lankan people live in.
    Nor do the salaries paid. This gets worse when there is a distinct salary gap between local and expat staff, and where expat staff fall into a totally different salary scale and league altogether. (that totally fucking pisses me off. More about that later and those fuckers)

    TV stations spew out a lot of Western programming blindly which a majority of people in this country cant relate to anyway.
    And maybe the English speaking community can think of themselves as a minority and not act like the majority or the majority to-be.

    You may say these are all about perception and nothing concrete. Well I think self-confidence is the most important factor that goes into driving an economy. Another way of saying it is that people in Sri Lanka don’t feel empowered. (this was what Milinda Moragoda was saying, I remember, when the UNP was in power a few years ago)

    And dont get me wrong and assume I am ignoring what else is going on in the country. I am talking about all this and restricting myself to this topic. Discussion about the ethnic conflict and whats happening in the NE is a different conversation from a different perspective.

  • i think the analogy is strained to a degree: sure, the kiln-worker claims that he would recieve better employment in Japan. but how many of our farmers would be out of place? how many small shopkeepers would? each economy has its own nuances. and moreover, what does the man mean by ‘valued more in japan’? i’m sure, when it comes down to the nitty-gritty, he means he’ll be paid more. so out goes the ‘freedom and respect” and the need to be ‘beholden to no one’.

    in short, any heavy machine operator who’s moved to the middle-east will tell you the exact same thing.

    the english problem IS an issue. but again, we aren’t japan. for a country to standardise the local tongue their industrial language, a basic requirement needs to be fulfiled:

    namely, all education, even beyond tertiary level, must be conducted in that language; and for this to be possible, all standard textbooks must be printed in the same language, and for THIS to be possible, most fundamental research work needs to happen at a national level, and the country needs to provide all postgraduate qualifications within itself. how many textbooks do we have for university education that were written in sinhalese/tamil? how many medical consultants, engineers or ANY researchers have gone upto postdoctoral level based solely within this country? hence, translation is NOT a solution. if a country cannot afford to create everything, it has to import. and the language of industry is no exception. you might as well expect microsoft to go lankan, just like they tried cantonese.

    things will change. slowly the standard on english will improve. but to revert to sinhalese/tamil as the base of selection for things in which we compete internationally would be a very unwise move.

    lastly, i agree with the NGO-money problem. at first glance, the pay disdpreancies are huge. however, again the objective of an NGO is NOT to FINANCE the country’s poor. its to empower them. you cant keep increasing a man’s buying power by feeding him money. youve got to give him a fishhook, not a fish. and fishooks are cheaper than fish. however, the distributor of fishhooks probably gets paid more than the price of one fishhook.

    fair enough? i think so. specially when you consider the following math: there are 12 million people in sri lanka living within the third-vs-first-world definition of poverty. lets say that there are 12,000 NGO workers curretly in sri lanka, each getting paid, as you claim, a 100,000 rupeed a month on average. if you remove the NGOs, and distribute all this money to the 12 million poor, they each get a 100 rupees per MONTH. thats 3 rupees per DAY, if the NGOs feed them instead of employ someone to try and improve their buying power. trust me. there are so many things that people can do which they never think of, and whish other people can help them with. your friend who became a three wheel driver is an exception. he’s found himself an alternative. most people need to be shown one. and paying some people to do it is sometimes worth it.

    i’m not saying that this works as brilliantly as it should. lost of people steal, bribe abd squander. lots of international school kids end up in better universities by sheer dint of their perents’ purchsing power. but things were never fair, and some things cant be changed. whats important is getting as close as possible to a practical solution.

  • Sam, I was merely trying to establish that whatever work elsewhere also tend to work here. How you got the idea I was comparing SL and US is best explained by you. Also, I happen to live outside Colombo.

    Further I don’t see how our ‘rich’ lifestyle is ‘exploiting’ majority of Sri Lankans nor do I see this highly sudden enlightened state of government and citizenry happening in the true world we live in.


    I’m all for respect, equity and all that. Most people are. But sometimes you just got to get real. Changing way people live, well, I don’t think any national drive is going to do that.

    If English was more common, then I guess it won’t be a defining parameter for any class, and ultimately that’s what’s got to happen. Expecting people to just see the light all of a sudden, and be all respectful and considerate is nice, but rather utopian.

    I don’t think the TV stations just spew out western programming if there are no people watching them, it’s a business, you can’t survive without giving them what they want.

    I’m with jokerman on most points. 🙂


  • Chamath

    Thanks Deane, Sam, Jokerman for you views. Truly enjoyed reading your points of view. Lets keep chatting about this if you want to. To the extent that NGOs work with perception and have campaigns to try and change peoples’ attitudes, I think what I was talking about can be incorporated.

    If I seemed to suggest that I wanted NGO money to be distributed to the poor, I wasnt Jokerman.

    I think we all feel very strongly about social injustice and inequality, I guess its the strategies on how to change it that we have different opinions on, and I agree with you Deane, we need to find practical strategies.

  • Ravi

    Dear Friends,
    Have been reading the conversation with interest.

    Sorry in individuals plight or circumstance does not interest me. A system development to address the issues does. Hence, my response.

    The three wheeler driver does not have a marketable skill and hence his employment.

    He needs a new set of skills and may be English language skills.

    Approx 200,000 students leave school education each year. Less that 10% get any tertiary education. Of them few acquire skill at a level desired by industry.

    Unfortunately, you are right Sri Lankans have “self-respect and dignity he had both achieved and demanded for himself.” In many cases this is truly misplaced. Most do not have any idea of standards required in a true market. Hence, their feeling of rejection. Most who really know their field have gainful employment or are self employed. They are the “one eyed persons in the land of the blind”. The persons who really know the facts leave for a better life overseas.

    Now many may have differing views and may wish to react adversely to the views expressed. However, a few friends, we have put our money where our mouth is and have started an institution for Language development targeting the rural population. We have been in operation for over two years. All the teachers are native English speakers (i.e. White) as local who new the language where not willing to serve in rural areas and others who where willing simply did not have the competency.

    We wish to develop vocation skills which would have a market particularly overseas as most sensible people understand that if they are to make a difference in their condition they need to raise capital and that can be done overseas. If you have any transferable skills which would have a market, we would be happy to hear from you. You could contact us on [email protected]

    I have been extremely brief and would be happy to give details should somebody wish to assist.


  • Ellaalan Sankilisolan

    The topic of discussion is a very relevant one to our country and should definitely be debated by a larger section of us. I shall focus on the Christian I/NGO part of the article. It is the belief of a bigger majority of people in the country, that christian organizations push christian agendas and western policies if from the west. This is a major misconception, firstly these organizations are well aware that as humanitarian organizations they ascribe to certain humanitarian principles. Many of these orgs adhere to the Red Cross code of conduct. Western orgs are better at following the law since law enforcement in their respective countries does a better job than in developing countries. Coming to the point of pushing christian agendas, many of the christian orgs from the west have secular minded people who even though they maybe christian by birth do not practice the christian faith. They would rather go to a night club than to church. Lot of people think that the West is Christian, for example many Muslims hold this view, although not all. But if one were to actually look at the West, most of it has now become secular. The Muslims still think of the West as defenders of christianity due to the crusades that took place in the 12 and 13 centuries. During the 12 and 13 centuries christianity was very powerful in Europe and the kings and queens at least outwardly professed the faith and the church had a lot of power, but today a large chunk of the West has become secular while in name professing to be christian. For example France officially is a Roman Catholic country but only 10% of the population goes to church. All over the west the governments are secular and do not give preference to any religion, even though some in name would be considered christian, like France. So to say that Christian orgs push christian agenda would not be right. There have been a very few incidents where church groups have been called up for talking about God, apart from that it is well understood that the humanitarian effort is done without preference to anyone only keeping the humanitarian need in mind.
    As for western policies, well the fact that we call this a country is due to the western system of a Nation-State which started our with the treaty of westphalia in 1648. Before we had three kindoms and some more princedoms in the island, it was the british who brought us together into a Nation. Baila music came from the portuguese and lets not forget that all our people at one time or another would have come through the Indian subcontinent or places close by if coming by boat. The Europeans got gunpowder from the chinese and used it in warfare in the same way different peoples and cultures of this earth learn from each other and many exchanges take place. There was one time when astrology was popular in the west and still is to a certain extent. There was a system of proposed marriages especially among the royalty where marriages were done so as to again territory. There was a system of dowry, a kind of caste system but it was not called that but it was similar in practice, etc. All of which has been given up by the West. So what is western or eastern in the whole scheme of things we are actually exchanging or adopting cultural practices, traditions and values. Hence I would not be afraid of western policies but would be careful to see whether it would benefit people here. As for the topic in general, finding equality among all social classes would be utopian because different people have different abilities, stregths, desires, etc. But what we can do is to create a system where equal opportunities are available and people have recourse to justice. We need to push english education further into the rural parts of our country and assist the rural folk in buying into the opportunities that come with it. We need to look at the big picture ,that is the events taking place around the world and make sure that our island is not lagging behind, because whether we like it or not all countries are linked like a chain and if the west is spearheading the drive into the future then we will get pulled with it and if we realize and make appropriate adjustments then our island can be better positioned in the future rather than laggin behind all the time. Thank you.

  • Chamath

    Thanks Ellaalan, I agree with you that there is nothing inherently wrong with Christian NGOs and their work here. And just like you said, everyone has learnt from everyone else.
    What I was highlighting was that most Sri Lankans take their Sinhalese or Tamil identities very seriously and the idea that they learn English may be wishful thinking, and worse, it could be one group of people trying to impose their ideas, values and culture on another group of people.

    To say that thats the way of progress might be a dangerous argument.
    If I had to give up the current languages I speak and my lifestyle and instead learn Japanese and the Japanese way of life and customs and adapt to it completely, I think I would be pretty pissed. I might fit in as a tourist, but to think like and be a Japanese citizen will be an impossible task and an extremely unjust demand of me.
    I hope you get a sense of what I am saying.