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The debate on the boycott of Sri Lankan goods and services – a presentation of views and concerns!

Date: 30 September 2006

Source : TWG - Usha Sri Skanda Rajah

Clarion call:
A debate on the pros and cons of a boycott of Sri Lankan goods and services has recently become quite intense: “Some how we should control the terror state’s products not to be on the shelves of the Tamil grocery stores immediately” was a clarion call from a member of the Tamil Diaspora who stood fully committed to a total boycott.

Foreign exchange on a platter:
It has become a matter of growing concern to many in the Tamil Diaspora that they have over the years unwittingly given Sri Lanka, foreign exchange, that it badly needs, virtually on a platter, not for its people but to maintain a standing army and wage a war against ironically the Tamils of the NorthEast.

Sri Lanka has been enjoying a steady, assured and captive foreign market for its goods (and for some of its services – ex: Sri Lankan Airlines). The demand for the products has come from the Tamil Diaspora most of who had to flee Sri Lanka from persecution and displacement due to the racist policies of successive Sinhalese majoritarian governments and the war. The Tamil Diaspora now living in relative comfort have “joined the club” and become avid consumers in a material ridden world. Most are hard working and many belong to the professional or business sector. And for their penchant and craving for goodies and delicacies that they have been used to from home, there is glut of such items never found before in the market to satisfy their every need. And a number of these items are from Sri Lanka - Sri Lanka is making hay while the sun shines!

We need to learn from them:
In February (2006) when Arla Foods, a Danish-Swedish dairy giant said the Muslim boycott of Danish products, in protest over cartoons derogatory of the Prophet, published in a Danish Newspaper was costing the company 1million sterling pounds a day, the chorus heard among many Tamils was “We need to learn from them.”

Helping to kill our people:
“With goods imported from Sri Lanka we are helping the Sri Lankan government (GOSL) to buy arms. We are feeding the Army Navy and Air Force to kill our people” cried a community stalwart who likened Sri Lankan goods coming into Canada to “a horrible Tsunami that’s crushing our people back home. Let us arrest this killer wave by a total boycott of goods made in Sri Lanka.”

According to a pro-boycott supporter some facts about Sri Lanka’s economy reveal Sri Lanka’s military expenditure accounts for 19 percent of public expenditure, this being higher than for education and health.

Focus on the enemy:
The proscription of the LTTE in Canada has resulted in renewed calls for a boycott. Although disappointment and even anger at the Conservative Government is obvious, many felt the focus should be on the enemy and the boycott would provide the rallying point. “The enemy is the GOSL and our focus should be on the enemy, not against Canadian political parties; by taking them to task we are increasing our burden with more opposition. Our people need a moral boost, a rallying point…we are making every Tamil a part of that process…and we will hit our enemy most in the economy. We must encourage our people to boycott Sri Lankan products in the Diaspora; not to buy air lines ticket from Sri Lankan Air; not to invest in Sri Lanka, not to travel to Sri Lanka unnecessarily and we must do this as a systematic campaign.”

“This would also mean putting on hold the purchase of apartments in Colombo and investment in the Colombo stock-exchange” said another who thought it was the right thing to do.

Growth of Sri Lankan Exports to the Tamil Diaspora:
Statistics show a systematic growth in Sri Lankan exports to Canada from $40 million in 1992 to $137 Million in 2000 and the numbers are growing. Exports varied from Tea, Food stuffs, Garments, Rubber Tires, Clay Construction Materials to Articles of iron or steel. A similar growth could be seen in countries which have a significant Tamil community. Further, Sri Lankan Air Lines is making ‘big bucks’ from the Tamil Diaspora frequently flying “back home” especially during the ceasefire; In addition GOSL is making a fortune in foreign exchange from the foreign currency that’s spent by visitors from the Tamil Diaspora during their travels home as well as from monies sent by them to relatives.

Damage to Tamil businesses:
As the debate over the boycott continues some reservations were expressed; particularly the damage the boycott could inflict on Tamil businesses in the Diaspora which at present may rely on products imported from Sri Lanka.

“By avoiding Marketing Department products we would be penalizing the importers and the wholesale and retail industry in the Tamil Diaspora.” Apparently there are both Tamil Diaspora and purely Canadian businesses both targeting the Tamil consumer; who would be at a loss; as they’re now selling products manufactured by the Sri Lankan Marketing Department but under their own label without a trace of it’s origin (very few know about this); also some of them have their production centers in Sri Lanka where the labor is cheap and the ingredients are cheaper. Some expressed concern that boycotting Ceylon Tea would adversely affect the plantation workers.

NorthEast has not seen development:
The loss to Tamil businesses in the Diaspora could not only be minimized but averted by some innovative methods and corrective action but their loss pales into insignificance say many Tamils when considering GOSL’s brutish attitude over the years towards the Tamils. “Let’s not forget the embargo that was imposed on our people; a weapon that may be used again. What about our farmers and fishermen who are getting a raw deal from the heartless GOSL? What about the livelihood of the long suffering people of the Northeast and the GOSL’s non implementation of certain ceasefire terms like dismantling the high security zones and giving back public places and people’s land? What about the restrictions imposed in the NorthEast on cement, steel, fuel and other building materials affecting people’s quality of life and Tsunami reconstruction as well as post war reconstruction and development?. What about the economy of the NorthEast that has not been allowed to prosper for decades and decades without an end in sight? What about the right to self determination for the NorthEast people and the right to directing their own economy?” You could not find a more convincing argument to go full speed ahead with the boycott to wake up a government that has been uncaring and deliberately neglectful. This is so noticeable when going round the Sri Lankan government controlled areas in the NorthEast.

Strategic planning to prevent loss to Tamil businesses:
The solution to the problem of Tamil businesses losing out may need some strategic planning in the short and long term.

The solution would lie firstly in finding other sources other than Sri Lanka to import these products. There is an abundance of products and produce of high quality elsewhere which can be imported; there being plenty of choice and variety out there. It’s for the existing wholesale agents to source these products to supply the Tamil wholesale and retail market.

Secondly the Tamil businesses in the countries where Tamils live can satisfy the demand for delicacies and specialties from home and from Sri Lanka by manufacturing and or producing these in those countries itself; the ingredients and materials that go into making the products if not available in those countries can be imported from elsewhere and not from Sri Lanka. Although it’s being done on a small scale it’s nowhere near fulfilling the currant demand for these products; an initiative must come from Tamil businesses in the Diaspora, old and new to pursue this line with vigor.

Suggestions of “launching a website listing alternative products available and ensuring such products meet or exceed quality with competitive prices thereby making sure importers/ wholesalers (and manufacturers) do not lose the competitive edge” are some sound ideas coming from a Tamil that should considered.

Promote NorthEast products:
The concerns of some that the boycott would affect goods exported from the NorthEast are without basis. The products that are being targeted for boycott are from Sri Lanka and not from the NorthEast and could be easily distinguishable. And actually speaking the more attractive proposition is to import, yes import these products from the NorthEast. Though at the moment and until as long as the NorthEast is under GOSL manipulation, Sri Lanka would still benefit from the foreign exchange from the NorthEast exports; but the people in the Northeast would none the less benefit from the livelihood and business opportunities arising from these export ventures; which would justifiably go far to alleviating the sufferings of the NorthEast people; barring of course any untoward action from the GOSL to thwart such moves. The ready market that’s out there from the huge Tamil Diaspora should be readily accessible to the NorthEast; it would no doubt help to jump start the NorthEast economy and raise the quality of life of the people now living in dire straights. What’s required is to determine what the consumers want and produce these in the NorthEast; taking a leaf from the Japanese and now the Chinese who are good at finding out what the consumer wants and manufacturing and exporting it to ‘consumers’ where ever they may be in the world.

Sri Lanka not called to account for human rights violations although in contrast IC hard on LTTE:
The Tamil Diaspora is justifiably angered by the Sri Lankan government headed by Mahinda Rajapakse which is using its arsenal on innocent people including children. It’s state terrorism of the worst kind. The fear is that if not stopped state violence could once again turn to genocide of the proportions seen in Rwanda.

Although bombing innocent people is a war crime under International law Sri Lanka has not been called to account by the International Community (IC) for this or any of its massive human rights violations, whilst the IC has been hard on the heals after the LTTE, a liberation organization involved in armed conflict who most Tamils consider to be freedom fighters and the sole Tamil representatives and party to the peace talks with the GOSL. The LTTE is involved in defending the integrity of the “historical habitats of the Tamils” and wants a political settlement based on self determination and equality for the people in the NorthEast. The final nail on the Tamil people’s coffin was hammered on the 29th of May 2006 with the proscription of the LTTE by the European Union (EU).

Sri Lanka Embassy promoting both tourism and Sri Lankan Airlines despite the bombing of civilians:
The necessity for a boycott was hammered home to many Tamils in the Diaspora recently when the Sri Lanka Mission in America called Travel Agents to a meeting to promote Sri Lanka to the American people. “We should not support this plan whilst the GOSL is bombing our people. We should blacklist Sri Lankan Air Lines” are few of the sentiments expressed by Tamils reflecting the mood of the times.

The extent of the promotion shows Sri Lanka is focused in its drive to collect foreign exchange. It talks about the Tsunami revival programme ‘Bounce back Sri Lanka’ with impunity (and would you believe it with the help of the ADB), when the GOSL did not part with the funds that should have been rightfully allocated to the worst affected NorthEast to “Bounce Back?”

The Sri Lankan ambassador talks of the violence but hastens to say foreign tourists are safe because tourists haven’t been targeted due to the fact that “the LTTE did not wish to antagonize governments that hosted sizeable Sri Lankan Tamil Diaspora.”

There was immediate condemnation from many Tamils to this statement. “Sri Lanka has the gall to say this about us and also about the LTTE as though the violence on innocent people is being perpetrated by the LTTE! Tamils must think again, let’s not help the GOSL earn revenue over the dead bodies of our people and whilst they hold the NorthEast Tamils captive.”

Sri Lankan embassy’s propaganda ploy against the LTTE:
“Is the ambassador there to sell Tourism or there for propaganda against the LTTE. LTTE have never targeted Sinhalese civilians. Where as day to day you hear the news of the butchering of poor Tamil civilians by the army navy and air force”

Emirates major shareholder in Sri Lanka Airlines:
In considering the boycott of Sri Lanka Airlines there are some issues that are worth noting. We hear the airline is owned by Emirates, an Arab airline which holds majority shares in the corporation. Also the way the system works most airlines are now making agreements to work in association. In other words in this arrangement even though the passenger may chose to purchase the ticket from an airline (other than Sri Lanka Airlines) he or she would have to fly Sri Lanka Airlines for the Sri Lanka leg of the journey. In addition Sri Lanka Airlines is offering good rates and bigger luggage allowances. And for those passengers preferring direct flights Sri Lanka Airlines has direct flights to Sri Lanka without having to change flights. This would be an attractive proposition to those who wish to fly direct.

Strength of resolve of Tamils:
And most correctly in the debate whether to boycott or not the onus was put on the Tamil Diaspora; appealing to their strength of resolve in an issue that demands a bit of sacrifice and inconvenience for a period of time until alternative arrangements are made. “My view is not to target the Tamil stores to boycott the Sri Lankan goods. It’s the public who should boycott the Sri Lankan goods which should result in Sri Lankan goods disappearing in the stores.”

Stop buying items marked Sri Lanka:
To say the debate is heating up is putting it mildly. “I came to Canada ten years ago. I stopped buying items marked Sri Lanka. I encouraged others but nobody listened to me. However I rigidly stuck to my policy. I stopped drinking Ceylon Tea, Chinese Tea is far healthier. I am aware of the chemicals sprayed on Tea bushes as I worked in the plantations and I know the leaves are plucked before the effects of the chemicals are gone.”

There was a fervent cry for people to act now. “It would be too late to do so later. We cannot depend on others to do what we need to do ourselves. We do not need to carry the flag to tell others what we are. Just think beyond you and your family, and then we can make a difference. We should avoid giving foreign currency to a blood thirsty GOSL and let them know we are not paying to ‘Kill’ our own. Also we must frequent Tamil businesses that are not selling Sri Lankan products and encourage other businesses to do the same.”

Negative publicity for LTTE:
There are a few who were worried about the negative publicity the boycott would bring. The concern was that “the GOSL and the media will spin the story ‘Tigers intimidate Tamil shop owners from selling Sri Lankan goods in Toronto’ I think boycotting Sri Lankan Airlines would be more effective.”

There is also the worry that the boycott could hurt the Northeast people with GOSL taking its revenge on them.

Use another airline but do not stop sending money:
Some expressed pessimism calling the idea not a socially feasible one for our Tamil Community here. We should see other best ways to use our energy. “Will Tamils agree not to go to Sri Lanka and would they stop sending money home?”

The short answer to that many say is there is nothing to stop any Tamil from the Diaspora from going to Sri Lanka, those who want to go despite the present climate could use another airline and as for sending money no one was asking for that to stop at all. “We cannot stop the lifeline to our people. It would be a crime to deprive sustenance to a people already deprived.”

Another Sri Lankan promotion at Trafalgar Square:
What’s important is whether the Tamil Diaspora should allow Sri Lanka to carry on with its marketing pursuits as normal without a semblance of protest? There was another promotion/cultural event by the Sri Lankan Tourist Board this time in London Trafalgar Square in last June. To that an eminent US lawyer suggested “Tamils in the UK should organize their own cultural event at Trafalgar Square complete with photos and signs. You know what photos, not ones of lovely beaches” she added.

A Tamil “British Councilor” seemed to agree: “advising tourist of the true situation of Sri Lanka will have greater impact. I will not dream of going to Sri Lanka for a holiday under the current situation.

Appeal to American conscience:
Further an appeal to the “American conscience” is the right way to go was the advice of a veteran of the tourism and hospitality industry. “If Americans are coming then they should be aware …of the plight of the NorthEast people who are undergoing hardships on account of the state’s historic discriminatory policies and consequent neglect of one section of the body polity; they must be aware of the aspect of the ground reality before they spend their dollars. (Boycotting) for the sake of it without a strategy does not help in this globalized era entwined with trade/commerce and bilateral pacts/interests etc.” Admitting that there was an uneven-playing field even in the tourism industry where incentives were given to places outside of the NorthEast he said “perhaps bringing about the structural discrimination that has in fact already taken place since the Tourism Act/master plan of 1966 that resulted in discriminative practices adopted by the state for the virtual ‘non- development’ of the Northeast.”

Buying power of the Tamil Diaspora:
A Tamil experienced in the travel and shipping business was advocating a total boycott to “create a ‘psychosis of fear’ on the Sinhalese as they ‘feel’ the nuisance on trade and tourism. More like a psychological war… increased costs in security and insurance as well as the advertising costs on countering bad publicity would bring pressure to bear on the GOSL. Americans and Europeans do not like any conflict or physical danger. Show them the bloody pictures of Alaipiddy, Trincomalee and the Katunayake airport attack. Also caution them that a full scale war may be imminent. The cost of insurance for ships and aircrafts in and out of Sri Lankan ports and airports has doubled. A 10 percent reduction in the sales of seats will make the difference in loss or profit and a10 percent loss in gross earnings as well as reduction in tourism would have Chairman Harry Jayawardene worried. Let them know the buying power of the Tamils; some solidarity among Tamils to push the boycott, except products which have the authentic ‘NorhtEast’ product seal. Do not listen to vested Tamil interests; we will not go any where.” The Campaign theme against Sri Lankan Airlines should be “Wrong Place, Wrong Time and Wrong Airline’. Slogans should read Sri Lanka is Paradise lost; Sri Lanka is dangerous; Sri Lanka is at war.

Hurting Sri Lanka’s Tourism;
A distinguished sportsmen was of the view Tamils should have a strategy to counter the propaganda by the Sri Lankan Government and its tourist industry and address those who benefit by tourism such as the hotel industry and the ADB; give them a message; a short history on the conflict, the human rights violations of the GOSL and its practice of racism.

Educating people of the atrocities committed by GOSL:
An Australian radio political analyst and Tamil activist was much against boycotting products like Katta Sambal etc from the Marketing Department of Sri Lanka fearing it would affect “our own (Tamil) businesses; We would end up alienating ourselves from the business community who are important to the struggle.” His strategy is to boycott Sri Lankan Air Lines and hurt the Sri Lankan tourism industry; educating people of the atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and of the dangers of going to Sri Lanka as tourists by having exhibits in shopping malls etc.

A Tamil from the Diaspora who is very much on the ground, volunteering his services to the people of the NorthEast commented on this very ‘Katta sambal’ aspect of the boycott that would interfere with the tastes and comforts of the typical Tamil man who wouldn’t be willing to “sacrifice his Arrack or for that matter his bottled Acharu or his instant Ambul Thial.” One couldn’t disagree more for some Tamils are still hooked on ‘Maliban’ biscuits. It’s a known fact. His optimism on the boycott succeeding was sadly nil, his faith in the Tamil man is running at a low ebb!

Success will depend on the Tamil consumer in the Diaspora:
This then is the whole crux of the matter; that the boycott of Sri Lankan products and services would ultimately depend on the Tamil consumer and his attitude. One’s faith and confidence in Tamils has not yet waned; what is envisioned is cooperation and a change in habits and thinking; that involves avoiding Sri Lankan products and services at least for the foreseeable future. It shouldn’t be too difficult for the Tamil Diaspora to avoid the products and services of a country that’s killing its kinsmen. It must almost become second nature.

Must make the greatest impact where it hurts and make a difference:
With apologies to the Sinhalese people but not to those who have taken them on a path of destruction this boycott may well be telling. As one remarked “(Sri Lanka’s) budget deficit is likely to rise to double digit proportions and the trade deficit could reach a mammoth US$3 billion.” He quoted the Sunday Times as saying Tamil expatriates can help worsen the “health” of the economy, one such option “is the ban on Sri Lankan products including tourism.” As to the role the Diaspora could play he believed that (at least) the 600,000 persons in the Diaspora could be spending a minimum of US$10.00 each a month on Sri Lankan items not to mention the amount spent on flying Sri Lankan Airlines and his view was that “we could make a difference.”

Rajapakse has to be stopped:
This is one way to stop the hawkish, Sri Lankan president says a Tamil who believes Makinda Rajapakse is two faced, who says one thing to the IC; i.e. what it wants to hear; but thinks, feels and acts otherwise. Rajapakse’s call to “Expatriate Sri Lankans” (Tamils included) to “contribute” to the “Motherland” with a promise of “equitable distribution” to all communities in Sri Lanka is typical of the way he operates.

The Tamil Diaspora has the means:
“The Tamil Diaspora should know its responsibility; that in its hands it has the means to stop a terrorist state (of Sri Lanka) from having the means to harm the NorthEast people; the Diaspora must do everything it can, with all the commitment it can muster to make this boycott a success. Whilst conducting this boycott on a worldwide basis the goal is to show the enemy the GOSL as well as draw the IC’s attention to not only the potential strength and buying power of the Tamils but their solidarity in the struggle for emancipation of the NorthEast.”

“It’s now or never” seems to be the cry of the majority of those who want a boycott.

Boycott: Having heard the views and concerns of many one cannot but draw the conclusion that a boycott could deliver a powerful message. And in the words of a group calling itself ‘Tamils for Peace’ the Tamil Diaspora is being asked “ in solidarity and without harm to Tamil businesses to fully commit itself to a total boycott of Sri Lankan products (and services).”

Will the Tamil Diaspora take heed?

Source: TWG - Usha Sri Skanda Rajah
Date: 30 September 2006

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