As published in Echelon (artwork by same) 

May Day Rallies to me were a vague call back to communist absurdity, until I found out that the phenomenon actually started in America, and has more to do with the labor movement than communism. I’d always greeted it with appreciation; because like every Sri Lankan I appreciate the occasional holiday, them being so hard to come by and all that. This time though, volunteering with a movement of anti-hate activists, I found myself stepping out to distribute our message to rally attendees. As veteran activists assured us, there is no easier way to get your message across to otherwise practically unreachable corners of the island than to ambush the people when they gather in Colombo en masse.

May Day in Colombo is a crazy affair. Busloads of people are brought in from all over the country, hundreds of thousands of people gather in the city, they eat, they drink and they pay for nothing. Although no official figure is known, if the government’s claim that nearly 2 million people were ferried into the city this May is to be believed, then the cost for the whole day could have been close to a billion rupees. What is also unknown is who actually footed the bill. Mainstream media was silent on this particular nosy question.

Minor rallies attracting fewer people had move the staging area to the middle so that only half or even a quarter of the grounds were fully used. This seemingly absurd tactic succeeded in giving the illusion of a larger crowd, especially to the cameras. However the JVP rally drew massive crowds to the BRC grounds with its decorated floaters and people in red t-shirts with stylized pictures of Rohana Wijeweera, reminiscent of that iconic Che Guevara portrait, emblazoned on their backs.

The emasculation of the labor movement in Sri Lanka started before Wijeweera, in the 1950s, when it was at its peak. During its glory days the labor unions organized a series of successful strikes under the leadership of AE Goonasinge, who founded the movement in the 1920s. At the height of the power of Sri Lanka’s political left, which soon adopted the movement, the general strike and civil disobedience of 1953 brought the UNP government of Dudley Senanayake to its knees. A massive outbreak of what some called ‘hooliganism’ and others termed a ‘public uprising’ forced his resignation. The 1953 hartal represented the first and probably the last real instance when genuine public discontent was allowed an outlet via something close to ‘democratic’ means in independent Sri Lanka.

The general strike of 1980 for instance was less successful. The vicious crackdown of JR Jayawardene’s UNP only put the nails on its coffin. In a nation with the glimmerings of war already on the horizon, and politics highly oppressive, the labor movement had lost much of it potency. In the intervening decades, the once influential LSSP had split in to various parties touting Trotskyist, Maoist, Stalinist and other ideological manifestations of leftist thought and the labor movement had split along with it. Traditionally ‘capitalist’ parties had encroached it in a bid to dilute its power and transform it into a means of countering political opposition. In the process, public recourse to expression of dissent was quickly moving from democratic to undemocratic means. The eighties are a bloody testimony to this, with not one, but two insurgencies tearing the country asunder.

Alcohol and sycophancy go together. Now parliamentarians bring their own busloads of people whom they apparently ply with drink to appease. Indeed an overwhelming number of people we met that day were drunk. The scent of liquor and the doddering unpredictable congeniality of drunk people was everywhere. When we reached out to grab a number of caps that fell out of a bus carrying rally attendees, eager for any implement that would allow us to ‘blend in’, we found them soaked in vomit. At rallies that were starting off, people were enthusiastically shouting slogans and dancing to the beat of drums; at rallies that had gone on for a while, they were morose with a higher tendency to get into fights. After tactfully extricating ourselves from a tight spot we proceeded in the afternoon to a rally where the crowd, seemingly done partying for a while, was idly napping in corners of the grounds as the speaker onstage droned on about Engels and whatnot, as oblivious to the crowd as the crowd was to him.

What motivated them to come? Perhaps some came of their own accord, spending hundreds of rupees, from distant villages, in order to fight for the rights of the laborer in a broken system on a much needed holiday. But May Day today is less about the workers than the politicians that represent them. The money, in a rare example for our country, is flowing from the top to the bottom. It is the politicians that are bringing the workers into town. It is the politicians that are spending money, apparently motivating workers to fight for their own rights. The labor movement has been sabotaged by politics; its integrity sold for a free trip into the city, a lunch packet and a quarter bottle of liquor.

Today, any resemblance the labor movement has to a ‘people’s movement’ has all but disappeared. In a few decades, from the height of its power in 1953, it disintegrated from fighting for the people and toppling governments in their name to being an instrument for their subjugation. The failure of several attempted general strikes in the wake of utility price increases in recent weeks evidences its lack of cohesion and unity. May Day rallies today are a sad testimony to what infighting, politicization and a loss of purpose can perhaps do to any truly grassroots movement that strives to express the ‘people’s voice’ in our country. The labor movement is a body without a soul. A farce perpetuating an ongoing political charade.



Do you know what it means?

Most pejoratives have origins in completely acceptable descriptive words. ‘Negro’ comes from the Latin ‘Niger which means black, ‘Paki’ is shortened from ‘Pakistani’. Terms like Chinaman, Coolie are also derived from relatively innocent descriptive origins. They get their pejorative connotations after being repeatedly used in an insulting manner.  Other names originate directly from a desire to put down and insult, but the word ‘Hambaya’ belongs to the former category.

‘Hambaya’ is derived from the Malay ‘Sampan’. The word for a somewhat flat bottomed boat, also used by the Chinese. Pictured above is an Indonesian sampan, coming back from a fishing expedition. Sampans were frequently seen in Sri Lanka’s South Eastern coast when Javanese people stopped en route while migrating to countries like Yemen and MadagascarMany of them stayed back here as well. The term was eventually associated with South Indian traders who were also Muslims like the Javan people, and who adopted the same style of boat. And eventually, as ‘Sampan’ became ‘Samman’ in Tamil and ‘Hamban’ to the Sinhala people, a collective term ‘Hambankaraya’ was used to describe them as a whole.

According to ethnologist Asiff Hussein, author of Sarandib: an Ethnological Study of Muslims in Sri Lanka, the word did not acquire its derogatory connotations until the beginning of the 1915 riots, the first ever incident of tension between Sinhalese and Muslims. According to Asiff, the riots were sparked by ‘coastal moors’ of Indian residence temporarily ensconced in the center of the country (the riots started at Gampola) for trading purposes. They were not as accommodating as Sri Lankan moors (the term used for resident moors in the country) and objected to the procession of the perehara (Buddhist festival) near their mosque (contrarily, resident moors were long known to have facilitated and supported perahara activity).

The ensuing tensions spread the  use of the word ‘Hambaya’, shortened from the rather more respectful ‘Hambankaraya’, as a wide derog to describe all Muslims even the ones that hadn’t migrated on a boat. But then again, everyone in Sri Lanka, except maybe for the aadivasi, migrated on a boat, and a lot of us still continue the proud tradition, but I digress. The word ‘Thambiya‘ probably acquired its seedier usage around about that time as well. Just like in ‘hambaya’ the problem is the suffix ‘ya’ which basically turns an endearing term that refers to a younger brother into a racial slur.

Signs that ‘Hamban’ was once a respectable term are everywhere. Take Hambantota for instance, what will probably soon be Sri Lanka’s on-paper capital. The whole place is named after the Hambankarayas or at least, their boats.. Hambantota basically means ‘Port of Hambans’. Further to the East, ‘Sammanthurai’ means exactly the same thing. ‘Samman’ is the Tamil version of ‘Hamban’ and ‘Thurai’ means port.

Many Malays still live in the Hambantota area. My uncle was married to a Malay there. Almost his whole family (and wife’s extended family as well) and nearly the entire neighborhood were wiped out in the tsunami. Malays have more than a passing influence on Sri Lankan culture, language and history. But this is often overlooked because of the small size of the Malay community in the country today. They are usually cast in the same cultural bucket as Sri Lankan Moors, who are themselves a pretty diverse lot to begin with.

Not all of the Hambankarayas were Muslim. Chandrabhanu was a Javanese king who spent some 30 years of his reign trying to invade Sri Lanka. He probably used many sampan in his invasionary forays. He was a Buddhist.


Shamrock, Nawalapitiya. Nawalapitiya came up in colonial times as a town built around a British railway hub, as far as I can tell.

My grandmother grew up in tough times. She was born in 1926, whence ignorance was rife and widespread. Women died of childbirth because their families did not want them exposed to doctors who were invariably ‘strange men’. Babies were delivered by midwives who would walk straight in from the tea estates, and wouldn’t really bother with washing their hands. Umbilical cords would be cut with anything handy; yes that rusty old scissors will do fine. Unsurprisingly, infant mortality was high.

My great grandmother died of childbirth; her immune system was weakened and welcomed a fatal attack of malaria, which overtook her newborn as well. They remained at home until they died. Never seeing a doctor. My great grandfather was rich, but money had nothing to do with it. She was a woman, and in those times there were certain things women weren’t eligible for. He married again and his second wife suffered the same fate. (Nonplussed, my great grandfather married for the third time, but thankfully she survived. He had altogether 18 or 20 surviving children.)

A newborn came into a wild place. For every family sporting ten healthy children, there were two or three that died; still births, disease; people just took it in their stride. My grandmother delivered seven of her six children at home, but by her time she access to qualified midwives.

Of a keen intelligence is my grandmother. And she has a PhD, in the school of life. But in those days girls were not educated. Muslim girls, especially, were not exposed to strange eyes and they were mostly kept at home; one reason why she enjoyed school so much.

Because even though her father refused to educate her, her grandmother, who was another rock a linchpin just like my grandmother would become, would not stand for it. My great-great grandmother took over the care of her son’s first flock after their mother died, and with her the rules were somewhat different.

They were sent to school; the car and by extension wealth, enabled them to remain secluded. A cloth separated the rear and front so that the driver could not see them. But in those days they used to say; ‘girls need only be educated until they have learned to sign their name’ and eventually this saying came back to haunt my grandma as it did thousands of other girls at the time, and many girls to this day. She was taken out of school when she was fourteen, and at sixteen she was married.

This is slightly unbelievable now, but back then the bride and groom really weren’t allowed to see each other before marriage. The parents would close the deal, and my grandparents only met on the day of their wedding.

My grandmother didn’t mind, marriage offered the only way out of her secluded, pampered existence. It was only after marriage that she saw the world, spoke to people at large, and took a train ride. My granddad was in the Police, and they traveled far and wide for his work. My uncles, mother and aunt were born in places as diverse as Jaffna, Kalutara, Colombo and Nawalapitiya (which is where, decades later, I was born as well).

I like hearing stories from that time. Most of it makes me nostalgic, but some of it shocks, like the denial of basic rights of education and health to women, and the acceptance of this as a part of the cultural identity of being Muslim, carried out by people with good intentions. I guess its a testament to how far corruption can spread so as to seem normal, a lesson for today perhaps.

This ignorance was a sad reality of the community back then. But it is not a reality of Islam. Ignorance started to disappear as religious knowledge spread. And cultural practices long adhered to in an age where colonial invasion had all but destroyed active religious life (many would not attend Friday prayers, let alone pray five times daily), were slowly abandoned as the community gradually modernized. Back then going against customs so set in stone would have called upon the wrath of society, today Sri Lankan Muslim society accepts most of those customs as relics of an age of ignorance.

That is not to say though, that we are completely rid of faults. Muslims continue to do things in the name of religion that would make the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him) raise his eyebrows at the very least. We bicker and fight among ourselves, and we fail to stand up for justice. And yes some of our women still face abuse, even though that abuse may not always be in the same form the outside world paints it out to be.

These are not the faults of Islam, but they are the faults of Muslims, and not all Muslims either. We are much better than we used to be, but there are long ways yet to go. But there is hope for me in the story of my grandmother. Let’s have patience, and persevere.

It’s been nearly a year since I last went to Jaffna. And things have changed. A lot of things are happening all over the North beneath a veneer of stillness. The people progress doggedly, shouldering responsibilities, not waiting for freebees and generally making good for themselves. Military presence is ubiquitous, but toned down. Instead of standing around in uniform and with weapons, soldiers wear shorts and tank tops and tend to corner shops, and are mostly enclosed in their barracks when they’re not.

Railway lines are being built steadily, I hear. Though the pace has been incredibly slow, the track has been only extended up to Omanthai for as long as I can remember. A few months ago there was even a fundraiser and tickets for the inaugural train journey were sold in advance for a thousand rupees. Many people bought these as a symbol of a brighter future and a promise of better times to come. Right now however the most convenient way to commute to Jaffna is via the overnight bus. It is passable, but is prevented from being comfortable by very bad customer service.

Ancient automobiles like these are still a common sight. Having been cut off from the supply of durables during the war, new vehicles are just beginning to arrive in the peninsula.

And when I say bad, I mean bad. There’s loud Tamil music blasting the speakers all night long, without stop. The drivers are belligerent and rude. On my way back the bus was suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere for an hour, no explanation was given; the driver and conductor simply disappeared. The passengers were locked in the back with no way of getting out, the AC on full blast so that we were all freezing. If you ask me, the overnight bus service to Jaffna is simply itching for some creative destruction.

The roads are being built at a pace, perhaps not as fast as in the South, but since I came there last; an additional 80 kilometers or so of road has been freshly carpeted. Now there’s good road right until you pass Chavakaccheri, whilst previously it ended at Omanthai. Roads in and around Jaffna are also being built. Places like Nainathivu, Kayts, Nallur have vastly improved access.

Our driver Suda escaped abroad during the war in Jaffna to avoid getting drafted by the LTTE. Eleven of his classmates from Mullaitivu weren’t so lucky. They are all presumed dead. In the background: The vehicle graveyard stretching south from Puthukkudiyirippu enroute to Mullaitivu. Casualties of war piled in dead heaps for some unknown purpose.

There aren’t many opportunities for youth in Jaffna still. A lot of them will come to Colombo to look for work, or try to start their own businesses. Transport, agriculture and retail seem popular. The community is tight, but perhaps a little disturbingly there is a strong sense of racial segregation within Jaffna. The Tamils and Muslims generally work separately, that is not to say that they’re mutually hostile, just that they like to keep to their own.

The Muslims still remember horror stories from the early nineties. In Moor Street (actually refers to a whole quarter in the Jaffna town) people talk about how they had to leave everything they owned one fine day in the early nineties and walk to Killinocchi, one woman told me that it took them three days to get there. Many have now returned to their broken down homes and have begun rebuilding their lives. Still many others have preferred to stay in their new homes in Negombo, Puttlam and various other areas in the South.

Muslims are gradually returning to Moor Street and Jaffna. Though a lot of them are also changing their minds and selling their houses. Their long standing status as IDPs have complicated their lives sufficiently enough to render the act of coming back home after twenty years full of difficulties. 

These ‘old IDPs’ mainly consist of Muslims evicted in the exoduses of ‘91 from Jaffna and Mannar. They complain that aid has been slow in coming, if it comes at all. And that they have been largely left to fend for themselves. Livelihood opportunities in Jaffna aren’t easily available, and according to them, discrimination leaves them out of the more lucrative businesses. They don’t blame the Tamils alone; there is also huge dissatisfaction with the Muslim leadership both in the provincial council and above. The former is painted out to be self serving and inefficient, holding back the community.

Elsewhere in the North, war tourism is on the boom. We drove down to Puthukudiyiruppu, on the new Paranthan-Mulaitivu highway. When I say new I mean new, the road has just been cut out of the Vanni jungles, the dirt flat and dusty. Rollers and building crews are just beginning the rudiments of laying tar. All along this area, the devastation of the war is still naked and exposed. Houses are shot through with bullets, bombed out vehicles and rusted metal piled along the roadside for hundreds of meters.

The Puthukudiyirippu War Museum displays LTTE gun boats, ships and submarines. The Torpedoes, RPGs, pistols, rocket launchers and missiles are all home made, apparently reverse engineered. Members of the military function as guides.

Highlights of this wasteland include a new war museum in Puthukudiyirippu, featuring a large amount of LTTE arms, gunboats, submarines and other weaponry. The main attraction in the area is obviously the house of Prabhakaran. His pad is a five story monstrosity, with four of those stories underground. The whole place is left in the condition in which it has been found, more or less. Doors lie blasted open, debris scattered in certain places. A skylight at the bottom-most layer opens into a secret passage with a ladder leading out in case anyone got trapped. Significantly, none of the war tourism sites bothered with Tamil language signs. Signboards are only in English and Sinhala. To me, this oversight speaks ugly volumes.

Soosay’s house is also close by. An inscription above the entrance reads; “our enemies are our best teachers”. A nondescript bedroom inside has a nondescript wardrobe that opens up into a secret escape tunnel dug into the ground. Crowds flock through Soosay’s door reading his inscription and flock back out through his secret escape route. Soosay is dead, and now his enemies are learning from him.

Inside the Jaffna fort. Repairs are underway. But a lot of it is still in ruins. Visitors apparently have the run of the place. Crawl through broken walls and discover dank holes and passages, at your own risk.

Jaffna is just beginning to find its bearings when it comes to tourism. The many war monuments and simple curiosity attract the crowds, but Jaffna has little in the way of developed attractions. Casuarina beach is increasingly frequented by local tourists; Nallur Kovil, the Library and the Rio ice cream parlor are musts for any Jaffna visit. The famous Jaffna fort is being rebuilt. After enduring untold ravages during the war and seeing a lot of blood spilt beneath its walls, the huge gallows once again welcome visitors motivated only by leisurely pursuits.

Jaffna is a very friendly peninsula. Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese soldiers alike all greet you with smiles. They are always eager for a chat. Some want news, some are nosy and some just want to share their lives. Walking around bumping into people and simply absorbing the atmosphere is a pleasure. The markets are colorful and people happy. Things are moving in Jaffna and they’re moving largely under the peoples’ own steam. People too busy to really worry about the patches of darkness that occasionally threaten to overwhelm their infant peace.

More pictures here

Ibn Batuta Leaving Tangier by Burt Silverman

..think about the fact that i’m just as ‘Sri Lankan’ as you. Probably even more so, depending on the definition.

The Muslims of Sri Lanka hark back to early Arab traders, everyone knows that, but the story is actually much more complex and interesting. Like any historical narrative, tradition or well known fact, this idea that Sri Lankan Moors are somehow descendant from Arab traders becomes multifaceted and many layered when you start zooming in on it with a keen historian’s eye*.

Arabs and Persians have been coming to Sri Lanka for trade from Pre-Islamic years and these were said to have converted when the religion spread across the Middle East. Members of the tribe of Hashim (The prophet Muhammad (pbuh)’s tribe) are said to have settle here in the eighth century, fleeing from the clutches of the Caliph Ibn Marwan (Umayyad?).

Other accounts tell of two Yemeni princes that migrated here in the sixth century and settled in Beruwala and Mannar. Most accounts agree that a majority of Muslims also came here from India. They were of Arab and Tamil origin and traced their line back to Arab sailors who settled on the shores of South India.

Interestingly Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan was said to have stuck by the latter and insisted that all Sri Lankan Muslims were ‘ethnologically Tamils’. This set off heavy arguments amidst accusations from Muslims that this was a blatant attempt to undermine their rights to separate political representation. But as this happened a century ago, and as Ramanathan’s arguments were properly proved wrong with various historical evidences, and because no one really gives a hoot where we’re from anymore, this doesn’t really bear any weight at all in current political thinking.

Getting back to the story. Muslims were always close to the Sinhala kings due to their geopolitical connections with the powerful Islamic empire; possession of ships and navigation skills; and power in trade.

After arrival, Muslims began to quickly exploit the island’s resources for exportation. And developed powerful lobbies in the courts of several Sri Lankan kings. The Sinhala kings bestowed land and near unlimited political and religious freedom on the Muslims, forging strong ties and friendships. When the Europeans came in the 15th century and the Islamic empire had begun to wane, the Muslims fled to the central lands where the Sinhala kings gave them lands, titles and jobs.

There used to be clearer ethnic demarcation between Muslims, with those hailing from the West coast being more likely of Arab descent and those lining the East coast descendant from Indians hailing from South Indian coastal states. But this distinction was blurred when they fled inland and they started intermarrying with each other, Sinhalese and Tamils. So the modern day Muslim’s blood is a smorgasbord of Sinhala, Arab, Sri Lankan Tamil and South Indian. If there is any race that probably represents all the major ethnicities of Sri Lanka in one, it is the Muslims.

Earlier, in the dawn of the 1300s, the Sinhala Kings’ dependence on Muslims increased when Arya Chakravarti swooped down (with a license to conquer from his Pandya overlords) from South India and kicked them out of their fertile lands of A’pura and Polonnaruwa. This invasion caused the Sinhala kings to move further and further South to places like Kurunegala, Gampola, Kandy and Kotte in search of safer places to rule.

This constant moving rendered them with no stable economy. The agrarian prosperity coupled with the irrigation engineering expertise that had long since functioned as the capable base of the Sinhala economy had collapsed and so it was round about this time that Sri Lanka started exporting its natural resources and became export oriented.

The Muslims were key in making this happen. Their entrepreneurial spirit had long since focused on getting caravans into the most inaccessible parts of the country in search of the island’s riches. The story of the footprint on Adam’s peak being that of Adam was said to have arisen both as a historical association with the ‘Fall from Grace’ and also as a convenient excuse to provide a spiritual reason to travel to the Sabaragamuwa, Sinhala people generally being accepting of anything and everything spiritual. The merchants who traveled thus would return laden with precious stones like diamonds and rubies which they then traded.

So by the time Arya Chakravarti swooped in, the Muslims were quite rich and influential. Their lobbies at the Sinhala King’s courts, mutual need and prevalent opportunities soon saw them becoming the veins trough which the Sri Lankan economic lifeblood began to flow. Spices such as cinnamon, elephants, ivory and gems were in heavy demand in Arabia, Egypt and Europe; Sri Lanka’s geocentrality meant that it was smack dab in the middle of the path to the far east as well; creating a lot of opportunities for mutual trade with the Chinese and Malays.

And Chakravarti didn’t sit back and relax while this was going on. He started sending his own ships on trade missions and was said to have connections all the way up to Egypt. Thus began an economic scuffle between the Sinhala kings and Muslims on one side of the Vanni jungles (now encroaching what used to be Rajarata) and Arya Chakravarti and his kingdom of Jaffna on the other.

Ibn Batuta made his famous visit to the Island in 1344, in the middle of all this. Chakravarti treated him with excessive hospitality and had so much influence that he was able to safely see Batuta to Adam’s peak and back. Batuta’s brother was the Sultan of Ba’ad and was a good pal of Chakravarti’s.

But the prosperity of Chakravarti’s Jaffna was short lived. In the 1370s it was politically eclipsed by spreading Vijayanagar influence in South India, leaving the whole island’s trading activities (including the much contested pearl farms of the Mannar coast) in the hands of the Muslims. Thus relationship between the Sinhala kings and Muslim traders continued and prospered greatly in the next decades.

As Arab power waned with the diminishing power of the Caliphate come the 14th and 15th centuries, trade along the East coast of Sri Lanka was increasingly monopolized by Tamil Muslims who sailed down from South India.

With the reduction of Arab ties and the influx of Indians, Muslims in Sri Lanka increasingly began looking to South India for religious guidance and hence soon adopted the Tamil language as their official mother tongue (as all education, books and scholars coming from India used Tamil). The Muslims themselves remained an anthropological mish mash of ethnicities overshadowed by a common religious identity that ignored racial and caste based boundaries.

Things were all fine and dandy of course, until the Europeans came in. Their ‘divide and rule’ policies, eradication of cultural identities, attacks on religion and downright conniving eventually lead to the riots of 1915, where for the first time in over a thousand years of ethnic harmony, tensions developed between Muslims and Sinhalese.

*The Muslims of Sri Lanka is quite an enlightening read. I’m still only through one chapter. Lorna Dewarajah is a cracking writer and has the rare trait in a historian of being able to relate her area of scholarship in the manner of an engrossing story that doesn’t fail to inform you. Its very rich in content and my summary of Chapter one just barely manages to brush the surface. Detailed evidences and references also provided.

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