Michael Keller (Sri Lanka)

Michael Keller (Home for Human Rights, Sri Lanka): Michael worked as a summer-school teacher, a research assistant at a counter-terrorism consulting firm, an intern at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration in Paris, and a consular intern at the US Consulate General in Naples. At the time of his fellowship, Michal was in the fourth of a five-year program at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, pursuing a BS and MS in Foreign Service. He speaks Italian, French and German.

Tea, Oppression, and Other British Leftovers

30 Jun

The past few days have been very exciting for me here in Sri Lanka. One morning I watched two Home for Human Rights lawyers submit fundamental rights applications to the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, alleging that the rights guaranteed by the Constitution were denied to two of their clients.

One Tamil man now living in Germany came home to attend his father’s funeral in Jaffna and was detained upon arrival for no justifiable reason, thus missing the important ceremony he was required to carry out.

The other client was a Tamil who was denied entrance into a university despite the fact that his high exam scores should have guaranteed him a spot. The proceedings themselves were exactly what I would expect from the Sri Lankan authorities: boring, tedious, and quite British – with plenty of bowing, silly outfits, and “My Lord” punctuating every sentence.

My work was also made much easier as a result of a three-day workshop for the entire staff. The facilitator was a dream come true. A Sri Lankan with very respectable credentials, he spent most of his time pushing the same line that I have been doing my best to promote: that HHR must enter a new era and finally embrace modern communication with the outside world. I feel like he really gave a much-needed boost to AP’s message at exactly the right time.

Finally, I had my first brush with real human rights fieldwork. After a stressful 5 hour drive in the HHR jeep, during which we passed the infamous Sripada Teachers College (see AP’s newsletter for details on the human rights abuses that occurred there recently), we reached the heart of central Sri Lanka’s “Hill Country”, a breathtaking setting filled with towering mountains and rolling, fluorescent green tea plantations as far as the eye can see.

First, we visited the family of a young Tamil girl who, when she was only 14, was raped by the man who had hired her as a servant. Despite her horrendous experience – complete with subsequent abortion – her abusive, unemployed, alcoholic father wants her to continue being a servant for a different family. The Attorney General, meanwhile, is not proceeding with her court case because he claims there is insufficient evidence.

Mr. Xavier suspects he’s merely been paid off. The meeting ended with Mr. Xavier giving several hundred Rupees out of his own wallet directly to the girl while promising that he will help her with her goal of entering a nearby convent, where, ironically, she’ll experience more freedom than ever before.

The highlight of the trip, however, was a visit to Kandapola, the site of a recent ethnic riot. A minor fight had escalated into shop-burning and general chaos; the mainly Sinhalese police force intervened, though apparently it sided with the Sinhalese mob.

They fired indiscriminately into the Tamil crowd, killing two men and injuring over ten more. On our tour of the crime scene we would later see the paths of two bullets that entered one Tamil man’s bedroom via his balcony; one had ricocheted off the wall above his bed and into the next room.

The Hindu temple behind his house was also not spared. He refused to give us a statement, aware that if he did so his mainly Sinhalese potato suppliers would cut him off from the products he then sells in Colombo.

But first Mr. Xavier had to record the statements of the willing witnesses, one of whom had a bullet-wound in his calf to serve as proof of his participation. We had assembled these men in a dirt-poor village worthy of Sally Struthers herself.

Most of the women here work as tea-pluckers. With big baskets on their backs supported by a strap that wraps around their foreheads, the women earn a whopping 103 Rupees per day (about USD $1) – if they reach their quota of 20 kilos – for picking young leaves from the tops of tea bushes.

Each additional kilo brings in .10 Rupees, or one-tenth of a US cent. Seeing as I don’t speak Tamil, I skipped the interviews and toured the town, visiting its one-room school, avoiding the open sewers, talking with villagers, and, most of all, causing a stir.

As Mr. Xavier put it, “Our white friend was the star attraction, eh?” I felt as though my camera, my dress shirt, and most of all my skin color were obliging me to play the role expected of me. It made me wonder whether, given the choice, these people would really opt for respect of their rights over pure and simple handouts.

In any case, it was a striking scene. In the distance were the picture-perfect green tea bushes set against the blue sky. Closer to me was the extreme poverty of a remote Sri Lankan village. And directly in front of me was the wounded leg of yet another alcoholic Hill Country Tamil.

Posted By Michael Keller (Sri Lanka)

Posted Jun 30th, 2004

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