The last Veddas of Sri Lanka


A class of Vedda tribe children. Dambana, Sri Lanka. Alessandro Pucci under a Creative Commons Licence

Last month the United Nations Special Rapporteur on minorities Izsák Ndiaye praised the current Sri Lankan government for offering ‘a glimpse of hope’ to excluded communities across the island. However ‘challenges remain,’ and beyond the Sinhalese and Tamil friction, another minority is fast disappearing altogether.

The Veddas, or the Wanniyala-Aetto as they are traditionally known, are the last indigenous people of Sri Lanka. Traditional hunter-gatherers and forest-dwellers, they may in fact become extinct within a generation. Here, the interplay of history, conservation, and human rights rub shoulder to shoulder, and the Wanniyala-Aetto’s future remains uncertain.

The world currently retains 370 million indigenous people, and 70-80 per cent of which live in the Asia-Pacific region. ‘Emerging Asia’ is a term bandied about the development sector, but despite modernization, more than half the continent lives below the poverty line. Indigenous people are generally, the poorest of the poor. Despite the UN’s International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs, and a raft of legislation from the International Labour Organization, low education, high unemployment and poor health, remain common.

No matter how much the Wanniyala-Aetto assimilate into the dominant culture, they will still be seen as imposters and stigmatized regularly

The Wanniyala-Aetto are now consigned to a tourist attraction; courtesy of Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Culture. But a life traded as a heritage token is an imperiled life to say the least. Professor of Sociology Premakumara De Silva, is a foremost authority of the Veddas. Escaping the ivory towers of the University of Colombo, he has ventured into Wanniyala-Aetto settlements to find out the wider picture. He concedes, the Wanniyala-Aetto ‘community is facing stresses that threaten to modernize them which could easily result in vanishing them as cultural group.’ However, it is true many maintain their traditional way of life, against the turn of the tide.

Clothed in a sarong, naked from the waist-up and an axe slung over the shoulder, they continue to hunt, fish and forage Sri Lanka’s forests. They also continue to practice traditional religious rites like the worship of the Na Yakku spirits of dead. However, even with their new protected status, in real life, they fare badly. The Wanniyala-Aetto traditional customs are now being abandoned or impinged upon to the extent that weapons and tools are becoming obsolete. Water scarcity and land alienation pave way to rising levels of malnour-ishment and obesity. Finally, social and economic exclusion is leading to friction with Sri Lanka’s police department and politicians. It appears, the 21st century has caught the Veddas in its crosshairs, and they con-tinually find themselves undergoing a process of ‘Sinhalization and Tamilization.’ Or being converted to Buddhism, Christianity, and of course Modernity.

The Wanniyala-Aetto displacement has been stretched out over decades. The south-east corner of Sri Lanka, the Uva Province, contains 3,300 square miles of dry zone. In the last 50 years, this land has been deforested, irrigated and marked for continuous redevelopment. Land acquisition of the region began almost immediately after 1948 independence. The Gal Oya project of 1949-53 and the Mahaweli Development Scheme 1964-83, were particularly important in raising living standards. However, such programmes, for the Wanniyala-Aetto, led to forced eviction and relocation to government reserve villages. Forced to adapt or die while living in exile, they have been in decline ever since. Yet there are other factors at work too.

The 21st century is the century of species extinction. A recent Living Planet Index study, has concluded that the earth is set to lose two thirds of animals by 2020, and quite rightly societies have become increasingly concerned about conservation. Poaching and logging continue to contribute to the decline of the natural world. When the Sri Lankan government nationalized forests turning them into nature reserves, hunting was made illegal and even fishing required permits. So not only do we now see health problems in Wanniyala-Aetto, their lifestyle has been made illegal. This led to an upsurge in dangerous livelihoods revolving round an informal economy. Premakumara De Silva notes: ‘Instances where women and children are alleged to have become in situ and ex situ sex workers […] Led by extreme economic deprivation’ and also incidents of ‘children and women who are coerced, procured and trafficked’ into domestic servitude. Even when the Wanniyala-Aetto are able to get conventional jobs such as rice farming or construction work, it has been to the detriment of their identity. As their living space shrinks year by year, and economic pressures mount, many abandon their heritage altogether.

On the clay wall of the thatched house the ceremonial bow and arrow remain unused and obsolete – a warning for the Wanniyala-Aetto

Unfortunately, no matter how much the Wanniyala-Aetto assimilate into the dominant culture, they will still usually be seen as imposters and stigmatized regularly. Either considered noble savages or backward primi-tives, they are seen as choosing to ignore the unstoppable rise of modernism. The truth is, some remain as part of their indigenous community, but many will leave it. Either way, while the word ‘Vedda’ is thrown about in common parlance as an insult, the Wanniyala-Aetto continue to face language barriers, educational barriers, and employment barriers. This means they are locked out of wider society. As one indigenous community member, Uru Varige Sudu Banda, Henanigala, relates, discrimination becomes the norm:

‘Officers promised to build a tank and allow us to use forest resources. Now we are losing those […] He said that we will disuse our traditional ancestral worship. He was right. Now those traditions are not practiced.’

What’s left of Sri Lanka’s forest remains partial to the natural rhythms of the island rather than the constitu-tion. The Wanniyala-Aetto will continue to practise hunting and fishing regardless of the legal status. Con-servation laws regarding the natural world are in direct conflict with the human rights laws of indigenous people. It’s a complex problem, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be solved. The living Planet Index makes clear it is not indigenous hunting practices that destroy ecosystems, but rapid land acquisition. Considering the finite number of the Wanniyala-Aetto, it would be sensible to grant exceptional rights to exceptional people. If we don’t they will disappear.

Is there hope, beyond the government’s National Heritage draft bill, which sees the Wanniyala-Aetto con-fined to heritage sites? Izsák Ndiaye, the UN Special Rapporteur for minorities, cites a large-scale ‘trust def-icit’ in Sri Lankan society. In order for this problem to be addressed, the government ‘must include guaran-tees that minorities become part of decision-making processes.’ Whether this means mandatory quotas, or outreach work which promotes advocacy and engagement, it’s a question for the Sri Lankan people. Profes-sor Premakumara De Silva, also believes power is vested in the Wanniyala-Aetto community itself. Among the Wanniyala-Aetto, 64 per cent wish to remain true to their indigenous roots, and this bodes well for the future. As T.B Gunawardena, Pollebedda, another indigenous community member, asserts:

We will be respected only if we remain as Veddas. If we become identical to the common Sin-halese, we will lose the pride of being Veddas. Therefore, we prefer to carry on our ancestry.’

It is this defiant note of self-determinism and self-identity, that means the 10,000 remaining Wanniyala-Aetto may not only survive, but continue to remain indigenous for this generation and even the next. On the clay wall of the thatched house, however, the ceremonial bow and arrow remain unused and obsolete – a warning for the Wanniyala-Aetto, that they too may become relics of Sri Lanka’s past.

UN Peacekeeping: In search of a 21st century mandate

UN Peacekeepers Day celebration in the DR Congo

UN Peacekeepers Day celebration in Kinshasa, DR Congo. MONUSCO/Myriam Asmani under a Creative Commons Licence

In 1994, the UN’s peacekeeping mandate looked bleak. As genocide gripped Rwanda, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMR) became one of the most catastrophic failures of the UN since its inception.

Any supposed peace agreement was quickly overshadowed as over 800,000 innocent Rwandans were systematically slaughtered. One by one, peacekeeping contingents backed out, until only 270 personnel remained. From here on, skepticism about peacekeeping became palpably justified.

And over two decades later, as London hosted the annual UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial on 8 September, peacekeeping operations are still dogged by accusations of gross failure.

The map shows the 16 active peacekeeping missions of the UN, as of 30 August 2016. Click on a marker to know more about the mission.

In 2014, in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s South Kivu province, peacekeepers failed to prevent the massacre of 30 civilians in an apparent case of ethnic cleansing by local guerrillas. In 2015, a leaked Human Rights Watch Report notes, French Peacekeeping soldiers had been sexually abusing children in the Central African Republic.

Finally and most recently, in 2016 the United Nation Mission in the Republic of South Sudan has been accused of negligence after peacekeepers turned a blind eye to distress calls from humanitarian workers trapped in a Juba compound who were being raped, robbed and terrorized by pro-government forces.

Here lie some of the problems facing the UN as a trans-governmental department: the legal quagmire over jurisdiction, crime and punishment. The bureaucracy and poor oversight from the top, accusations of poor discipline and misconduct at the bottom.

The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) needs reform. Indeed, in 2014 Ban Ki Moon ordered an independent review of all peacekeeping operations, to see where things have gone wrong, but on 8 September 2016, much has yet to be addressed.

Despite this, it must not be forgotten the good work peacekeepers do: Over 100,000 uniformed personnel from over 110 countries are currently deployed in 16 operations, spread across four continents. Some 3,300 more have been killed in the line of duty, and thousands put themselves in harm’s way. Overall, over one million have served in peacekeeping forces, their jobs have varied from monitoring ceasefires and observing elections, to aiding reconstruction and promoting reconciliation. They are guided by three principles: Consent of the parties, Impartiality, and the Non-use of force except in self-defence and defence of the mandate. All of these have negatives that are all too obvious, but their are also positives as well.

Peacekeepers do not dispose of a military force like NATO, they are not there for combat; rather they are their primarily to facilitate countries who are going through civil turbulence. There is a limit to what they can do, but where peacekeepers have been deployed they have been a great stabilizing factor for many countries.

An aerial view of the UN headquarters in Haiti shows the devastation caused by an earthquake measuring 7 plus on the Richter scale rocked Port au Prince Haiti just before 5 pm, 12 January 2010. UN Photo/Logan Abassi/UNDP Global

For example, the Republic of Haiti was in a state of collapse after the 2010 earthquake. Essential services like hospitals, communications systems and shelters were damaged or destroyed. Between 100,000 to 220,000 people were killed; more than million were displaced. Shortages of fuel, food and water, and a subsequent outbreak of cholera only exacerbated conditions. Peacekeepers were already established in the country, and in spite of the fact their own headquarters were obliterated, they aided recovery and reconstruction in the aftermath.

In Mali, peacekeepers are maintaining a fragile peace, as Islamist insurgents are encroaching on the country’s north. At the same time, they are stabilizing the state-led response and promoting democratic reform. The mandate has proved vital, and Mali has requested continual support, as it transitions into a reformed state with secure borders.

Finally, in Lebanon more than 11,000 peacekeepers are monitoring the ceasefire between the Israel Defense Forces and Hezbollah. They are also accompanying the Lebanese army, guarding security checkpoints, and aiding the humanitarian effort to help the local communities across the so called ‘blue line’ reconstruct their lives. A cross-state solution, brokered between Israel and Lebanon aims create a bilateral governance. This is one of the UN’s most successful peacekeeping operations to date.

However again, we come back to the central problem: How is peace maintained in an unstable and dangerous world? Peacekeepers flourished in the height of the Cold War, but the lines of battle have changed: Instead of interstate conflicts and espionage, we are seeing increasingly violent forms of extremism and insurgency drawn along sectarian divisions.

The UN DPKO is not an army; its mandate is to maintain peace, not attain it. As such, as well as structural reform and bearing in mind cross-party consensus and international co-operation, the United Nations must seriously look at its operations, and see where personnel are best utilized, for poor management, vague missions, and the volatile nature of modern warfare would hurt their chances of success.

Former Kamlari slave girls pave the way for change in Nepal

Nepalese girl washing utensils

A young girl washes utensils in Nepal. Nearly half of all children between the ages of 5 and14 are in child labour Jim Holmes for AusAID under a Creative Commons Licence

Recent progress in Nepal has been overshadowed by the devastating April 2015 earthquake. However, one of the success stories to emerge in the last decade is that of the Kamlari slave girls. From prisoners of forced labour to leading advocates for girls’ rights, they are building a firm foundation for class and gender equality.

Nepal looms large in the Western imagination. A diamond of the Orient, it has captivated adventure-seekers, traders and backpackers for centuries. Yet beyond the snowcapped peaks of Mount Everest and the old-world villages that surround Kathmandu lies a darker picture of poverty, displacement and neglect.

Nepal is ranked 157th out of 187 countries on the UN’s Human Development Index. The average annual salary is less than $210; child-marriage rates are at 40 per cent, only 57 per cent of the population are literate, and nearly half of all children between the ages of 5 and14 are in child labour. This last issue often encompasses the hidden problem of trafficking.

One of the worst forms of domestic servitude in Nepal is the tradition of Kamlari. The story began in the mid-20th century. The Tharu are an indigenous community that lives in the secluded malaria-stricken lowlands of western Nepal. Being naturally immune to the mosquito-borne virus has meant that they maintained an identity and way of life that remained untouched over centuries. But during the 1950s Nepal opened up to enterprise; the availability of the DDT insecticide meant swamps could be treated for mosquitoes, and wealthy magnates quickly snapped up land and properties. The Tharu suddenly found their villages overtaken by venture capitalists who, over the next decade, forcibly ejected them from their homeland or indentured them into a form of bonded labour known as Kamaiya. Despite being illegal, the practice thrived, and the Tharu found themselves pushed into poverty and starvation. As a last resort, fathers were compelled to sell their daughters to work in the big cities in exchange for an annual sum of money. These became the Kamlari slave girls (Kamlari translates as ‘slaves’).

Despite appearing legal, Kamaiya is a one of the most unethical kinds of forced labour. At the harvest festival of Maghe held each January in Tharu villages, indigenous girls as young as five are sold by their families for as little as $50 per year to rich landowners. They are then trafficked to wealthy households to work as domestics. While in theory Kamlari girls are meant to have bed, board and education, in reality they become modern-day slaves. Often subject to abuse, violence, rape and imprisonment, they also contend with the petty details of servitude such as food rationing, surveillance, sleep deprivation and social isolation.

Kamlari girls are also ‘off-grid’, meaning they often have no formal contract, or legal protection. While there is often a promise of annual payments, 16 per cent of families don’t receive any salary at all. More alarmingly, many girls have vanished, or been found dead.

Yet there is good news, thanks in no small part to former Kamlari girls who have the strength and courage to speak out against the practice. In 2013, the Kamlari bonded labour system was abolished. Sixteen years ago there were over 20,000 girls still trapped; today there are perhaps as few as 500.

However, freedom has to be nourished daily. Kamlari girls will often be traumatized by their experiences, so NGOs have ralled and spoken out for those who have been systematically silenced.

Kamlari girls are not only victims – they are survivors, who are now being given the opportunity to thrive. With the power of international charities like the Nepal Youth Foundation, and organizations like the International Labour Organization, girls have opportunities to go to school and gain an education. Some will be offered micro-income jobs or small loans to start businesses. Those recently rescued can find shelters and children’s homes where they can begin rebuilding their life.

Yet overall, it is the former Kamlari girls themselves who have paved the way. Whether it is knocking on doors, lobbying government officials, staging rallies, or going on marches, they have carried the banner for those still trapped in the system, and spoken on their behalf. The abolition of Kamaiya, as well as the Nepalese government’s promise to invest in rehabilitative services, is in no small part down to them. This is a success for the girls, but also a success for Nepal, which has often neglected rural communities and girls’ rights. 

Child brides: every two seconds


Unequal marriage, a 19th century painting by Russian artist Pukirev. It depicts an arranged marriage where a young girl is forced to marry someone she doesn't want to. by Vasili Pukirev

The United Nations calls child marriage a ‘violation’. Yet, despite its near total worldwide illegality, it continues to thrive in many areas of the developing world, writes Kevin Childs.

Recently, an interesting hashtag has been trending on Twitter. #TheStrengthToSayNo campaign is a joint initiative between Penguin Books and, and is inspired by the life story of Rekha Kalindi – a young girl who was starved and beaten by her mother for refusing to be married off at the age of 11. Seven years have passed since then and Rekha is now a champion girls’ rights activist, campaigning to end child marriage worldwide.

The fact is, it’s not just India that has a problem with early forced marriages; this is a custom prevalent in many different areas of the world. Unfortunately, as of today, 250 million girls, the equivalent to 1 in 3 of the total female population, were married before the age of 15. If current trends continue, another 140 million will be married by 2020. Often there is a significant age gap between bride and groom and, as usual, it is girls who are disenfranchised the most.

It’s easy to point the blame at the patriarchs of the developing world, who purvey religious doctrine and conservative belief at the expense of human rights. However, early forced marriages exist as part of a wider socioeconomic picture. It is no coincidence that in developing countries, girls from the poorest 20% of households are 3 times more likely to marry before they are 18, as opposed to their richer counterparts. Likewise, girls in rural villages are 50% more likely to marry before 18 compared to those from industrial towns. Poverty hits families hard and often demands difficult choices.

In cultures that favour sons over daughters, parents are often compelled to marry their daughters off quickly, both to cover the dowry cost and to obtain financial reward from the bride price. This practice is not wholly pernicious; in rural or impoverished communities dependent on agriculture or labour, large families eke out an existence to stay alive. Capital is a scarce commodity and girls are traded on the marriage market not only for economic reasons, but because marriage has a political value. In local villages and communities, weddings are a way to consolidate power, settle feuds and form alliances. In this way, bride and groom become coins in a vast currency which keeps some developing nations afloat.

And yet circumstance cannot completely absolve men of responsibility. Religious traditions, and conservative beliefs, force women into the role of mother and housewife. Local dogma both creates and maintains gender inequality; in such cultures, customs such as child marriage quickly become the norm. Yet for those involved there are mixed views. Many parents know it is wrong but feel powerless to stop it. Others are adamant it is right. Many just don’t know.

What we do know is that girls who marry early are more likely to drop out of school and become dependent on their husbands’ wealth. They are also more likely to experience inter-spousal violence, marital rape and domestic servitude. Finally, they often have no control over their reproductive rights. Every year 70,000 newlywed girls die in labour because their bodies aren’t ready for childbirth. Even with the best intentions, wedded females face a lifetime of limitation.

It’s a fundamental right that girls are able to choose who they marry, when and where. They need to be at an age where formal and informed consent can be given. If we are to help females unlock their potential, we must encourage them to stay in school. Education is key to self-empowerment and filters down to all other areas of life. Livelihood, sexual health, family planning, freedom and confidence all begin in the classroom.

Of course, there is always a need for international investment, but the real solution must be found at a grassroots level. To eradicate child marriage, there needs to be a shift in hearts and minds. This is why activists, journalists and NGO programme workers can all play a vital role in raising awareness. The good news is that more and more governments are making concrete commitments to end child marriage, and even in impoverished communities the custom is increasingly outlawed.

Rekha Kalindi has managed to break free, against all odds, but many more young women remain trapped. Right now, every 2 seconds a girl under the age of 18 is married. The numbers involved in this human tragedy are staggering: 38,000 a day, 270,000 a week, 1.1 million a month, and 14 million a year. We can all play a part in making sure they, too, have #TheStrengthToSayNo.

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