Student turned refugee

Sivagnanam (Siva) had arrived in the UK in 1972 to study at the age of 21. However, as Sri Lanka moved towards civil war Siva’s life in the UK was also transformed. Here is a brief glimpse into his life in the UK through his own eyes.

Personal and professional details 

Name: Sivagnanam Sivapalan. Age 69 years. Place of Birth: Yenevil, Urumbaroi, Jaffna district of Sri Lanka. I am one of seven in our family and I am the sixth one among children. We are Hindus. My father was in the civil service and my mother was a housewife. I got married in 1984. My wife is of Sri Lankan Tamil background but from Singapore. I have two children: a girl and a boy. In the UK I worked for Cardiff Council as a civil engineer.

You said you worked for the local authorities, how did that happen?

I worked for the engineering department where I was looking after the drainage. I worked for them because they supported me by sponsoring my education and giving me a chance to undertake my training with them to become a chartered civil engineer.

What memories do you have of your home, the neighbourhood, and your experiences of growing up in Sri Lanka?

My younger days in Sri Lanka were OK until I left for the UK. We had a normal childhood in the village. Growing up, our main purpose was education. We didn't have much of a chance to take part in sports because of our background. It was a government school from kindergarten, primary school and secondary school. I studies in Jaffna Hindu college I was in one of the top schools in Jaffna from where people chose to study engineering and medicine. As a teenager I realised the lack of opportunities. I couldn't see my way out because the education system was being messed around by the government of the day. Regardless of how much you study the places are limited for Tamil Sri Lankans to enrol in a University.


Say a little more about that. Opportunities limited you said, was it because of being Tamil or due to some government policy applicable to all?

I am talking about late ‘60s to early ‘70s. In my view the possible problem came about because until then Sri Lanka was still under the British and only in 1972 it became a republic though independence had been granted in 1948. But, up to that time, we obviously had the influence of the British. So, British rules and their system had benefited the Tamils quite a lot, which I learnt from my uncles and parents. Talking about the opportunities, we had only two universities, one in Colombo and the other in Candy. They were far away from our Tamil areas. We were motivated to study but there was no industry in Jaffna and the north. I don't think we had much of an industry other than what we were famous for: teas, coffees and cocoa and things like that. But they were in the South. But other areas were growing paddy and rice. Some other parts of Sri Lanka had tourism. As far as higher education in concerned there were very few places available at the Universities. That's why the government had to start something called standardisation which required an admission test. Due to this system most of the places were taken by the Tamils because they were really doing their work. So, when the exam results came out all the universities were filled up with Tamils. The government had to rationalise the situation.

Which means most of the opportunities were taken by Tamils and then the Sinhala population must have felt angry? about it.

Correct. Obviously, they must have felt there was not much of a chance for them to get into university, so they must have been shouting at the government. 

Was there anything in the news those days to show that they were reacting against this?

To be honest, no. Personally, I didn’t come across anything those days. It may have happened. Obviously, we were children or youngsters not reading the newspapers, and political thinking wasn't there among us students.

Was there still the feeling of suffering discrimination among Tamils? Was there normal interaction between Tamils and the Sinhala people?

Even though my father had stopped working in Colombo [the capital] my uncles had been working in the South. I had gone on holidays to the South, like in the Kandy area. But during our holiday periods we didn’t have any interaction with the Sinhalese as such because it was a holiday. We stayed with the family group. My political awareness came about in 1971 with the introduction of the standardisation policy by the government. Only then, my eyes were opened. I could see the writing on the wall that there is going to be a lot of competition if I chose to study somewhere in Sri Lanka. That was the main motive for leaving as I said earlier on. Maybe the beginning of the Sri Lankan Tamils’ feeling of being discriminated against started here, though there could have been other issues before.

You said you came alone as a student and you continued your life here. As you were here things were changing back in Sri Lanka. What had s a normal, common life between communities was starting to become polarised. So how do you see this? From when did it start and how did it affect you while being a student in the UK?

I came in 1972 as a student. I had to fund myself. In those days it cost a lot to go back to see your parents (choking with feelings). So, I carried on with my studies and didn't go back to Sri Lanka for some time. The first time I retuned was in 1981. In fact, my mother died in 1978 while I was in my final year of education. But I couldn't afford to travel to Sri Lanka to see my mother for the last time. Then my father fell ill in 1981. He died on the same day that I managed to see him at the hospital. After the funeral was over, I took up the opportunity to go round the country. We joined my niece, who speaks Sinhala very well, and went around many parts of Sri Lanka. During this time, I couldn't see any difference or detect that something is going wrong in Sri Lanka. So, I enjoyed myself and came back. I still remember talking to these guards through my niece at Srimao Bhandaranayake's memorial hall. Everybody was friendly and I couldn't detect any sort of animosity or anything towards Tamils during that holiday period. So, I came away having no sense of the disturbance in Sri Lanka and carried on with my work.

When you studied in Sri Lanka were there bilingual schools or only single language schools?

If you were in the Jaffna area or in Jaffna district, as far as I know, the teaching was conducted mainly in Tamil; but obviously you have a chance to learn English as a subject. But I can't recall if we were given a chance to learn Sinhala. When I said I was learning Sinhala in '81-'82 that was due to my personal motivation.

And that would be same in the South, Tamil was not offered as a medium of instruction in schools?

I don't think the choice was given to the Sinhalese either. But I think, looking back at all the other conflicts, I doubt if the Sinhalese would have wanted to learn Tamil. 

So, if someone speaks Tamil and ends up in a Sinhala area unless they know a second language like English as a link language, they wouldn't be able to communicate with each other?

Correct. But the main working language those days was, certainly up till 1972 when we became a republic, was English. Like in Wales, local people would speak in their own language but when they went  to work, for both the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the official working language would have been English. And the other Tamils who were settled in the South I am sure they would have picked up a lot of Sinhala ; not necessarily by studying it inschools but through normal living.

So, it was normal for Tamil people to go down South to work and live among the (Sinhala) people?

Yes. Jaffna Tamils would have gone to the Southon paid job.. As I said, my uncles and brothers in law, were involved in tea factories. So, they would have been communicating in Sinhala as well as in Tamil and English.

During which year did things start changing in a big way and how did you obtain information about the changes and how were you affected by that?

My starting point was taking part in a protest for the very first time in '71. All the Jaffna students took part in a march against the introduction of this standardisation policy in education which was a discriminatory policy trying to cut down the intake of Tamil students at universities. I think the answer should have been to build more universities and give us opportunities to work. They weren't looking far ahead but making ends meet by cutting down the student numbers. But they were not thinking about the future prospect of Tamils as such. They wanted to be educated but there wasn't an outlet.

When did it start affecting you here?

As I said, in 1981 I had no knowledge of any warning that something was about to happen. The very first time that I started to hear this, I think, was in 1983. It may have been happening there; but I was not getting much information because I was living in Wales as opposed to London. In London we have a larger community of Tamils but I didn't have much contact with Tamils there. I had participated in the '71 protest and then I left the country. But people who lived back there must have been feeling the pinch. And the lack of opportunities for them was when the Tiger movement was born. Again, I don't dwell upon that history exactly when the Tamils as a whole wanted to make a claim for Tamil Eelam with a separate country. I wasn't party to that at all. But I am not sure when that was, before or after '83 to be honest. That needs to be checked.

Did any of your family members who lived in Sri Lanka suffer during the conflict?

Yes, they couldn't stay in the same house. Their houses were bombed and they were on the move from one place to another. One of my brothers had come to the UK in 1969. Other than that, all my other brothers and sisters were still in Jaffna. Luckily, my parents had died before 1981. Our house was bombed and also because it so happened that one of the lead figures behind this Tamil Tiger movement-- I think he was from Urumbaroy village where my family lived--so, our village was targeted  from day one itself. One of our uncles who was living in the village was shot dead in his own property.

Does your family still live in that area?

No. After that incident my sisters left. Two of my sisters moved to Canada. One sister is in London. One brother moved away from Jaffna to Colombo. He didn't want to leave Sri Lanka for other reasons. So, he was there until last year.

Do you think that reconciliation between the communities is ever going to happen?

I am counting on Amnesty International and Human Rights groups. But to be honest, I wasn't a supporter of a separate state. Obviously, I came here and can't speak for the feelings of people who couldn't leave Sri Lanka. They had to decide what was good for them. So, whatever I say is my own view. I wasn't quite keen on Tamil Eelam as such because I thought I have the right to move around the whole of Sri Lanka and live wherever I want. That's the feeling I had.

Are things getting better in Sri Lanka?

Not having t lived and carried on with the daily life there I haven’t experienced the real feeling of going to a hospital, educating children there it’s difficult to say. But I certainly understand how Tamils were treated. By forcing a settlement through guns is not the way forward to build harmony.

So the people who felt defeated will not be that open for anything you think.

Certainly, they will be feeling that and certainly people who have moved around and settled as refugees will still carry the same feeling and sense of burden . Even we couldn't do much as a community. But we were protesting with our government here....... in 1983 asking the government to intervene. Some countries didn't want to pay attention. They simply, for various reasons dismissed it as an internal problem for the Sri Lanka government to resolve.

So, you feel that Sri Lankan Tamils were let down by the world community?

Yes, because they, actually, hide behind the (argument) that it is an internal matter for the Sri Lankan government. I think that is no longer valid, not only in Sri Lanka but any other country if the government of the day is not looking after a group of citizens or a community. There should be somebody to oversee what was happening. No government can, actually, advocate killing of another group of citizens.

So, you have not much hope about going back to Sri Lanka.

Based on my knowledge there is a slight difference between an economic migrant and refugees. Even though I wasn't a refugee, (maybe I should put myself back as economic migrant) towards the end because I couldn't get back I ended up becoming a refugee. An economic migrant whenever he goes back to his country and his village feels that he has an Eelam people and identifies with them. But sadly Sri Lanka, specially Jaffna, is no more my home because everything we had is sold and my family is scattered. Nothing much remains there. So we cannot go back and say “this is my grandparent's family or house.” That is the sad thing....

So, in some ways one can say that you were rendered a refugee.....

Yea, kind of.... correct.... correct.

Because having come here you can't go back to where you lived before.

That was one of the main reasons I gave up my citizenship even though I had not much knowledge about dual nationality etc. I was frightened as well. I had to safeguard my position here rather than being sent back. That's why I took a  British passport thinking that I still can hold on to Sri Lankan passport at least up to the time that it expires. But then I was told by the Home Office that under the standing regulations that has to be sent back to the Sri Lankan government. So, on the spot I lost my Sri Lankan citizenship and that was it.

So, a citizen rendered a refugee and now when he goes back, he becomes a tourist in his own country of origin.

That is the feeling I have. The feeling of home is the most common thing to all That's why I envy the people from India and any other country who have made UK as their home. Their enjoyment, the feeling, the facilities they have are no longer there for us..