Sri Lanka: Language a key element of ethnic strife in Sri Lanka

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Wed May 16 13:34:45 UTC 2007

 By B Muralidhar Reddy

Language is a key element of the ethnic strife in Sri Lanka. The infamous
1956 Sinhala Only Act is universally acknowledged to be the main trigger
for the tensions between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamils who make up
the single largest minority. Every successive government in Colombo since
1956 has accepted the enormous damage the act has done to the country's
social fabric and vowed to redress the situation. The 1957
Bhandaranaike-Chelvanayagam pact was the first public demonstration of a
government's intent to correct the situation. It proved to be short-lived
in the face of resistance from chauvinists. Ever since it has been a story
of promises made and broken. Tamil was accorded the same status as Sinhala
as a follow-up to the 1987 India-Sri Lanka Accord. However, every
government after the Accord fell short in implementing the commitments
made in respect of recognising Tamil as a national language.

The Official Languages Commission (OLC), constituted during the tenure of
Chandrika Kumaratunga, in its November 2005 report meticulously documented
the deficiencies in the system on implementation of the languages policy
and made elaborate recommendations to correct them. Almost one and half
years after the commission report, progress in the translation of the key
recommendations into reality has been tardy. On May 9, OLC chairman Raja
Collure released a supplementary report on the 2005 document with
recommendations to the Government to put in place a mechanism for a speedy
and realistic approach on use of the language problem as an effective tool
in the over-all endeavour towards resolution of the ethnic conflict.

The dual language policy with English as the link language can be
implemented only if the government is ready to pay heed to the OLC's
practical recommendations. Says Mr Collure: "Neither national integration
nor durable communal amity could be achieved without giving effect to the
constitutional provisions on language. Any discrimination that results in
the failure of the government to faithfully implement the official
languages policy also constitutes a violation of the fundamental rights of
the citizens so affected." The facts in figures, as documented by the OLC,
bring to fore the sorry state of affairs on implementation of the language
policy. Sri Lankan Tamils (13 per cent), Tamils of recent Indian origin
(six per cent), and Muslims (seven per cent) form the Tamil-speaking
population of the country. Mr Collure, quoting statistics released by the
Department of Census and Statistics in 2000, says that even though the
Tamil-speaking people comprise 26 per cent of the island's population,
they make up just 8.31 per cent of the public service.

"If you take the Wellawatte Police Station [in Colombo] as a simple
example, Tamil citizens are not able to make a complaint in their
language. This is despite Wellawatte being a predominantly Tamil area. To
give another example, most of the traffic signposts in the city are in
Sinhalese," he points out. The Mahinda Rajapaksa Government has agreed in
principle to make it obligatory for new recruits to the government service
to be proficient in Sinhala and Tamil and introduce an incentive scheme
for the public servants already in service to obtain second language
proficiency.  Further, the OLC has recommended making Sinhala and Tamil
compulsory subjects at the secondary school level and recruitment of
sufficient number of Tamil speaking public servants and conversion of the
Official Languages Department as an independent institute.

In its latest report, the OLC has called for the creation of a new
institution for translations and interpretations. It says: "The proposed
institution for translations and interpretations may be modelled on the
Bureau of Translations in Canada which provides services in translations,
interpretations and terminology."

Via The Hindu, May 15


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