[lg policy] Sri Lanka: New language policy aims to build bridges

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Fri Jan 27 14:55:24 UTC 2012

New language policy aims to build bridges

27 January 2012
Lanka’s President Rajapakse launched an initiative for a trilingual
Sri Lanka this week. The programme that aims at the country’s citizens
becoming proficient in Sinhalese, Tamil and English has been lauded by
all. Proponents say that it is one decisive way to build bridges
between the two main communities that have been divided by war for
almost three decades.

The vision to educate  Lankans in Tamil and Sinhalese, with English as
the link language, is no doubt a wise one. It’s a fact that the best
and fastest way to understand another’s culture, dispel notions and
mend bridges is to learn their language. In Sri Lanka, the majority of
the Sinhalese population does not understand or speak Tamil, the
language of the 27 per cent of people, and vice versa. And language,
or the lack of it, has been cited as the root cause of ethnic strife
that has haunted the country for 27 years.

The 1956 Sinhala Only Act which replaced English with Sinhala as the
official language of Sri Lanka has been cited as the beginning of the
cultural divide. After the British introduced English as the official
language of the island in the early 1930’s,  the move to make Sinhala
the country’s official language was first propagated by the first
President of Sri Lanka, J. R. Jayawardane long before Ceylon’s
independence from the British. After the Sinhaese and Tamil
politicians tried to reach compromise, the passing of the Sinhala Only
Act in 1956 proved to be a crucial blow for the minority Tamils.

Making Sinhala the official language had reverberating effects,
ripples of which are felt even today. It divorced almost two entire
communities (the Tamils and the predominantly Tamil speaking Muslims,
the second largest minority) from the cogs of the wheels that ran the
country. Yet, blaming the entire ethnic strife on language does not do
justice to the birth of terrorism that rattled a nation to its core.
The ethnic cleansing of the Muslims in the North, an entire Tamil
speaking community, by the Tamil Tiger terrorist faction in 1990 is
testimony to this.

The healing of wounds of war and festering racism that settles down in
communities over years should take a holistic approach. Learning each
other’s language is just a start. A good beginning, albeit just one of
the many approaches to reconciliation.

One should not forget that racism in Sri Lanka is not limited between
the Tamil and Sinhalese communities. The Lankan Muslims, the majority
of who are trilingual, have been and continue to be target of racial
resentment of a segment of both Sinhalese and Tamil communities.

The country is on the right track to reconciliation. The wounds of war
are deep, and a collective mechanism of reconciliation is in progress.
The desire by individuals to heal those wounds is what would finally
contribute to a long term resolution. Stoking that desire – a genuine
aspiration to overcome boundaries, past hates, current jealousies — is
a tall order.


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