- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2004

DAMBATENE, Sri Lanka — Like their ancestors who worked for British tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton, the 200 workers at the Dambatene tea plantation have spent their lives toiling in the lush fields that sprawl over this tropical island off the southern tip of India.

And like the tea workers for centuries before them, the Dambatene workers were the stateless of Sri Lanka — among hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tamils descended from Indians who were brought as slaves during British colonial rule.

Unable to own property, denied government jobs and living without the basic documents of the modern world — passports, birth certificates, marriage papers — they survived on the fringes of society.

The national census listed 860,500 Tamils in the stateless category in 2001. But, as Sri Lankans struggle to bring peace after two decades of ethnic war, stateless Tamils finally are gaining citizenship under legislation passed by Parliament in October.

More than 2 million other Tamils already had citizenship. Their ancestors migrated from southern India at least 1,000 years ago, coming during centuries of conflict and intrigue between the ethnic Sinhalese who predominate in Sri Lanka and a south Indian kingdom.

The stateless tea workers are descendants of Tamil laborers who were brought to the island, then known as Ceylon, in the 1700s by British planters who complained that Sinhalese wouldn’t work as cheaply or as obediently.

After Britain granted independence in 1948, the plantation workers were denied citizenship in both Sri Lanka and India.

Sri Lanka’s government remained reluctant to grant citizenship to people of Indian origin. But before the 2001 parliamentary elections, the Ceylon Workers Congress traded its political support for a promise by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s party to give citizenship to stateless Tamils.

Resentments are widespread among the island’s Tamils, who as Tamil speakers and Hindus in a Buddhist-majority country seldom have felt at home.

Claiming discrimination by the Sinhalese majority, Tamil separatists rebelled in 1983 seeking to create a state for indigenous Tamils in the country’s north and east, where most of them live. Their demands didn’t include the tea regions where the stateless Tamils live.

The fighting, which has killed 65,000 people, mostly has ended since Norway brokered a cease-fire in February 2002.

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