Sri Lanka

The LTTE, or Tamil Tigers, were routed by Sri Lankan government forces in May 2009.  On the back of a later 2009 visit the following piece was originally published by The Sunday Herald in April 2010.  Apologies for the ‘kilt’ on the story, but in the light of Sri Lanka’s recent Commonwealth Summit I thought there may exist some value in re-reading the copy.

‘Glenloch’ – the letters on the side of the grey shed are two feet high, the cloud is low, the rain underlining the building’s steadfast proclamation of proud Scots heritage.  Ah, those friendly clouds and comforting cool raindrops – but for the huddles of diminutive Tamil tea pluckers this could be Kincardine.  ‘Yes sir, 134 years ago Glenloch was started by a Scottish gentleman,’ announces my beaming female guide once we are inside the building.  ‘Now we have 600 acres and employ 300 pluckers.’  Among the damp and fog of Sri Lanka’s southern tea country my inquiries to establish whom that long-dead Scot might have been become mired in tales of Messrs Brooke and Bond.

Tamil tea plucker - Glenloch Estate
Tamil tea plucker – Glenloch Estate

However, Scots links with these south Asian temperate uplands are more than mere swirls of fanciful mist.  In 1852 James Taylor set out from Kincardine for Ceylon and, as befits an island formerly known as Seredib (the origin of the word serendipity), made the timely discovery that tea could replace coffee on plantations decimated by an island-wide fungal epidemic. Through his pioneering work Taylor opened the door for his entrepreneurial countryman Thomas Lipton and set the course for Ceylon to overtake China and India in tea exports, in this way defining the island’s economy and landscape for decades to come.

Upstairs, inside the shed, slightly built women queue at a desk to have their sacks of pluckings weighed and recorded, their faces still glistening from the rain – 30kg is an average daily haul, netting a wage of around 500 rupees (£2.70).  In Sri Lanka the majority of tea pluckers are these ‘plantation Tamils’, whose ancestors were brought by the British from India. Historically there’s been little mixing between Sri Lankan Tamils and those hailing from India, and after independence many of the latter found themselves disenfranchised and effectively stateless, without the required documentation to gain an ID card and therefore unable to vote.

Weighing in tea 'pluckings' - Glenloch Estate
Weighing in tea ‘pluckings’ – Glenloch Estate

At Glenloch, accommodation and healthcare are provided by the plantation, and following strike action across the industry it is reported that conditions for workers have generally improved. I take a few shots with my expensive camera and feel humbled to be making such an easy living.

Driving still higher, braving the Tata buses that lunge alarmingly on their springs round tight bends, and stoically ignoring the antics of those scallywags at the wheels of 25-ton Lanka Ashok Leyland trucks, we arrive in Nuwara Eliya.  At over 6000ft, the town was at the heart of Sri Lanka’s Hill Country. Often referred to as ‘Little England’, the town’s true allegiance seemed directed further north – ‘Little Scotland’ maybe.  The 18-hole golf course designed and built in 1889 by a Scot serving in the Golan Highlanders captures the sense of slightly faded colonial tweeness.

And just past Lady McCallum’s Drive, along St Andrew’s Road was the old Scots Club, now the St Andrew’s Hotel.  In the hotel bar, beneath an oil colour of bucolic highland bliss, the fire crackles. John Matthew, a dignified Sri Lankan retainer who’s had the hotel for 30 years, smoothes his substantial moustache, and expands on the area’s heritage.  ‘Definitely Scottish, most of the buildings, post office, the hotel, the golf course, all Scottish,’ he says.  The wind and rain are getting up outside in a decidedly Scottish way, too.  I order another Lion beer, Tiger not being available in these parts, and sit while Matthew voices his hopes for more visitors next season, now that ‘the war is finished’.

Yes, the war.  I knew there was something I wasn’t supposed to mention.  The insurgency by the Tamil Tigers, which began in 1983 in a bid to create an independent Tamil state in the north and the east of the island, is the elephant in the jungle that visitors have tried to ignore and Sri Lankan residents have had to live with.

Kingsley Withanage, a 47-year-old from the majority ethnic group the Sinhalese, is nursing a glass of arak and coke. A skilled machinist and sometime tourist guide, he has spent long stretches in Japan, Taiwan and Italy.  He explains: ‘There was no future here,so what to do?  I went abroad. In 2008, I came back.  Many politicians, they’re easy to buy, they talk a lot, particularly near elections, but afterwards do nothing.  Everybody wants the power, then they get the business.’  He rubs his finger and thumb together.  ‘At least this president [Mahinda Rajapaksa] has actually done something – now we can see it.  He said we needed new roads, and they are being built.  He said he’d end the war – it’s ended.’

Some residents of Trincomalee have seen it all
Some residents of Trincomalee have seen it all

Later, on the road to the north-east coast and the Tamil city of Trincomalee, some of this highway reconstruction is apparent.  Certainly, the network is in dire need of an upgrade, with fevered overtaking the only way to circumvent all manner of traffic, from autorickshaws, buses, trucks and motorised wheelbarrows.

Occasionally bands of buffalo spill out from roadside stands of palu, mango,hora and tamarind trees, raising their heads to sniff the air, limpid dark eyes offering no clue as to their next move.  In addition to checkpoints, the route is still lined by dugouts despite the Tamil Tigers ending their armed struggle, soldiers standing a hundred metres apart, catching shade where they can, each carefully cradling an assault rifle, straight fingers poised over trigger guards.

Though the defeat of the Tamil Tigers was greeted by street parties in Colombo, the estimated 245,000 displaced Tamil civilians still interned in overcrowded northern ‘welfare centres’ are unlikely to be celebrating any time soon.

At Colombo’s Bandaranaike airport, a hoarding proclaiming the country’s tourism strapline is worthy of a Have I Got News For You headline guessing game: ‘Sri Lanka – Land of … (obscured by tape).’  President Rajapaksa has won the war, and if he keeps the peace he’ll have the right to choose how the slogan ends.

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