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.