Sri Lanka: “They were not victims – that fact I had observed first hand.”

August 20, 2017

COLOMBO, SRI LANKA — “Are you also going to make us out to be victims?”

Rasanayagam Salobaraj, a 63-year-old community leader who lives on the Ury estate in the central hill region, asked me this during my recent visit to the tea-growing estate. I was reporting on these residents receiving a postal address for their homes.

When Salobaraj asked, I didn’t know how to respond.

As the chairman of the local citizens council and a leader of one of the estate trade unions, Salobaraj was on my list of sources for the article. I interviewed him and took photographs for my story.

He answered all my questions. But the question he posed nagged at me.

This man, whose lined face and sparkling eyes told me he had lived through much, explained what he meant.

“The Estate Tamil community is often portrayed in media as victims, that we are powerless to change our circumstances,” he said. “Is that what you think also?”

My answer was an emphatic “No.”

A map of the Mapagala division of Ury estate that Rasanayagam Salobaraj drew by hand. For the first time in this community’s history, their community will receive postal addresses. Manori Wijesekera, GPJ Sri Lanka

I had spent two days in the area, finding my way around several different tea estates to meet residents, estate postal workers and community leaders. I talked to a diverse group of people and observed the community. They were not victims – that fact I had observed first hand.

I saw poverty, for sure, as well as lack of opportunities and state services. And I saw many young men hanging around, looking aimless.

But I also saw children going to well-run primary and secondary schools with committed teachers. I saw small businesses, including grocery stores, bicycle repair shops and tailors, on each estate. And every conversation I had with estate workers, young and old, mentioned someone who had left the estate to make a life elsewhere. They all spoke of hope.

They included Salobaraj and his wife, who shared their hopes for their three children.

The tea estate workers in Sri Lanka are not victims. They are not slaves and they are not without hope, as they are often stereotyped by other media outlets. As a result of their tokenized image, there is not enough acknowledgement of their contributions to the tea industry or other achievements they’ve made.

Getting a postal address may not seem like much to the rest of us in Sri Lanka or to readers elsewhere in the world. But for this community, it was a stepping stone equality and respect as Sri Lankan citizens and contributing members of society.

I am glad that, beyond the news of this change, my Global Press Journal story provided this community with an opportunity to express themselves.

And that is a story worth telling.

Tea estate workers in Sri Lanka are often portrayed as impoverished victims in the local media, says Rasanayagam Salobaraj, pictured here at his home on the Ury tea estate. Salobaraj asked Global Press reporter Manori Wijesekera if her story would be taking this stance as well. Manori Wijesekera, GPJ Sri Lanka