[lg policy] Sri Lanka: A tale of two languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Mon May 30 10:54:27 EDT 2016

A tale of two languages By Raisa Wickrematunge
<http://himalmag.com/author/raisawickrematunge/> 30 May 2016

Sri Lanka’s efforts to implement a sound language policy.
 14  69
[image: Print Friendly] <http://himalmag.com/a-tale-of-two-languages/#>

   - [image: Photo : Wikimedia Commons]

   Photo : Wikimedia Commons

   If one were to visit the office of the Official Languages Commission
   (OLC) in Colombo, one would see officials busily filling out correspondence
   to be sent to several government departments. Set up in 1991, the functions
   of the Commission, mandated by Section 18 of the Official Languages
   Commission Act, are to monitor “regulations, directives or administrative
   practices” which violate existing language regulations. The Commission also
   conducts educational programmes on language development and language use,
   and one of its main tasks is ensuring that Sinhala and Tamil are given
   equal prominence in public administration.

   Sri Lanka’s current constitution lists Sinhala and Tamil as official
   languages, with English being given the status of a ‘link language’. The
   wording of the constitution, however, is problematic. Chapter 4, Sections
   18 (1) and (2) of the Constitution proclaims:

   The Official Language of Sri Lanka shall be Sinhala.
   Tamil shall also be an official language.

   This suggests that Tamil was added as an afterthought, or a later
   addition – which, in fact, it was. After achieving independence in 1948
   both Sinhala and Tamil were official languages until a ‘Sinhala Only’ Act
   came about in 1956, taking away the official language status of Tamil. The
   Act was partly reversed in August 1958, with the Tamil Language (Special
   Provisions) Act allowing for education, admission for public service,
   administrative functions and state correspondence to be conducted in Tamil
   in the North and East provinces. The 1978 constitution made Sinhala and
   Tamil national languages but maintained Sinhala as an official language,
   with the current iteration being added in 1987 through the Thirteenth
   Amendment. The amendment was partly fueled by international pressure,
   particularly from India. The signing of the Indo-Sri Lanka Peace Accord
   reinstated Tamil as the official language, among other concessions on
   devolution of power to the provinces. India also agreed to end its support
   for the Tamil separatists.

   Language, as one of the flashpoints of ethnic conflicts, has long been
   cited by many studies as one of the main factors that led to Sri Lanka’s
   civil war. During colonial times, Sinhala nationalists felt Tamils received
   a disproportionate share of civil administration posts. When the country
   finally gained Independence in 1948, the Sinhalese hoped to be awarded a
   greater share of such opportunities, in keeping with their standing as the
   majority community. When this did not transpire, resentment against the
   Tamils grew. Although the situation had been precipitated by colonialists,
   the Sinhalese felt frustrated that their Tamil counterparts were able to
   access services that they could not (since the Sinhalese were not as
   conversant in English). For instance, banking transactions not conducted in
   English were considered illegal until 1953. Even Parliamentary debates were
   conducted in English; permission had to be secured to use either Sinhala or

   In many instances, language equality is still treated as an afterthought.

   Politicians capitalised on this and began proposing resolutions in
   Parliament to declare Sinhala the official language. It was the election of
   SWRD Bandaranaike in 1956, however, that was the turning point. In 1951, he
   led the Sinhala Maha Sabha faction, which he had organised to promote
   Sinhalese culture and interests, out of the United National Party (UNP) to
   form the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

   Although his party originally promoted the use of both Sinhala and
   Tamil, Bandaranaike gravitated towards Sinhala later to mobilise Sinhalese
   discontentment for political mileage. He began lobbying for Sinhala to be
   given status as the sole official language. The strategy worked – in part.
   He was elected Prime Minister in a landslide victory. Once he was elected
   into power, he duly fulfilled his promise through the Official Language Act
   of 1956, popularly dubbed the ‘Sinhala Only’ Act.

   The consequences were devastating. “The Tamils will never forget and
   never forgive the majority community for depriving them of rights which had
   been apparently been secured to them,” retired MP Cyril ES Perera wrote in
   1956, shortly after the act had been passed.

   Since the election of the new government on 8 January 2015, there have
   been some symbolic steps forward in terms of language rights: for instance,
   at the Independence Day celebrations in 2016, the national anthem was sung
   in both Sinhala and Tamil. In 2010, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa
   decided to scrap the Tamil translation of the national anthem at official
   and state functions. Following this, an unofficial ban prevailed even in
   Tamil-speaking areas, fuelled by military intimidation and fearful public

   Today, as Sri Lanka recovers from the devastation of civil war, the work
   of bodies like the Official Languages Commission becomes even more vital in
   restoring the rights of the minorities. Yet, in many instances, language
   equality is still treated as an afterthought.

   In the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learned and
   Reconciliation (LLRC) of 2011, it was noted many people still could not
   transact business in their own languages. The think tank Centre for Policy
   Alternatives, in their research on language rights, reported of an incident
   where a Tamil-speaking pregnant woman seeking treatment at a Government
   hospital in Puttalam, was instructed in Sinhala, and was allegedly
   assaulted by nursing staff because she did not understand the instructions
   and contravened them several times. This is in violation of the
   Constitution as it entitles people “to receive communications from, and to
   communicate and transact business with… in either Tamil or English” even in
   areas where Sinhala is the language of the administration.

   In 2010, prior to the introduction of bilingual police officers
   following directives from the LLRC, a 13-year-old girl arrived at a police
   station in the Batticaloa district in eastern Sri Lanka to report an
   incident of rape, accompanied by her mother. There was only one police
   officer with a basic knowledge in Tamil who was tasked with recording her
   statement. The mother was in tears, while the daughter was silent and
   fearful; misreading the situation, the policeman recorded what he thought
   was an instance of assault against the mother. By the time the error was
   discovered, it was too late. The girl was not examined by a Judicial
   Medical Officer in time, significantly weakening her case.

   The website citizenslanka.org records numerous ways in which Sri
   Lankans’ language rights are violated. Many Tamil citizens have complained
   that their statements are taken down in Sinhalese, even in places such as
   Vavuniya, Trincomalee, Mannar and Ampara, where Tamil-speakers form the
   majority, and asked to sign statements they cannot comprehend. Court
   proceedings here are also usually conducted in Sinhala. Administrative
   tasks such as applying for pensions, obtaining licenses, or registering a
   birth mostly happen in Sinhala.

   Sri Lanka’s political situation being fraught with turmoil for two
   decades, the Official Languages Commission had been somewhat inactive
   initially. Former Chairman of the Commission, Raja Collure, admitted in
   2006: “Successive governments have failed to implement the constitutional
   provision in regard to the use of Tamil as the second official language”.
   Despite the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1987, it was only in
   2005 that Collure compiled a comprehensive report, which showed a
   lamentable lack of Tamil speakers in public administration – just 8.3
   percent. In May 2016, a circular from the Ministry of Public Administration
   notified that written and oral tests will be conducted for public officials
   twice a year in the ‘other’ official language (the one they are not
   proficient in) twice a year. This is one of the steps being taken to ensure
   public officials are conversant in both languages – including through
   courses provided by the Official Languages Department.

   In his office, present Chairman Dayananth Edirisinghe holds up a file
   with several letters, many on government bodies which have failed to abide
   by the terms of the Act by not using Tamil in their official work. “The
   Commission does not have punitive powers – we only record violations [of
   language rights],” Edirisinghe clarified. A few of the complaints are from
   individuals, but there are also letters from civil society organisations.
   One of them has pictures of police signboards in Colombo – when a one-way
   system in was introduced in March 2016, the police put up signboards only
   in Sinhala and English.

   Given that language has been an intrinsic sticking point for the
   Sinhala-Tamil identity politics, it needs more than goodwill to secure
   rights of both sides.

   However, civil-society organisations say that at times, the Commission
   can be toothless. As Professor Lionel Guruge wrote in the *Sunday Leader*,
   “[the Commission’s] jurisdiction is limited to requesting and communicating
   with other institutions to abide by the OLP [official language policy], but
   does not reach enforcement levels. The authority vested in the OLC
   [official language commission] is arguably diminutive, although very few
   stakeholders dare to admit it.”

   One of the major setbacks was when in 2011, the Chairman of Official
   Languages Commission asked the Sri Lanka Insurance Corporation to abide by
   the languages policy, he was pressured to resign by prominent figures, who
   believed he had no authority to dictate changes to other institutions,
   Guruge claimed in the article. Moreover, the routine affair of thousands of
   complaints going ‘unrecorded’ has meant that grievances about mislabeled
   pharmaceutical products, official forms, road signs go unheeded.

   Edirisinghe has only been in the Chairman’s seat for five months. A
   graduate of Vidyodaya University, the Foreign Languages Research Center of
   Seoul National University and the Dongguk University in Seoul, Edirisinghe
   is also the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Korean Association. His appointment
   comes at a crucial moment, as the government is working on the submissions
   made to the Public Representations Committee (PRC) on constitutional
   reform. Here, at last, is a chance to undo the damage caused by the Sinhala
   Only Act. (Following the Presidential election on 8 January 2015, which saw
   Opposition candidate Sirisena elected into office, one of the many promises
   made was to form a constitutional assembly, with the objective of
   re-shaping Sri Lanka’s constitution.)

   In Edirisinghe’s view, there is no need for any major changes in order
   to facilitate a balance – there is already an adequate legislative
   framework in place, giving Sinhala and Tamil equal prominence. The main
   change to the Constitution that the Commission has called for is that
   Section 18 (1) and (2) be amalgamated, so that Tamil is given an equal
   footing to Sinhala as an official language and not treated as an

   Given that language has been an intrinsic sticking point for the
   Sinhala-Tamil identity politics, it needs more than goodwill to secure
   rights of both sides. The way successive political dispensations have used
   it to trigger violence amongst the population also calls for a strong
   official stance to prevent voter mobilisation on ethnic and linguistic
   lines. Following Bandaranaike’s example, the SLFP continued to play on
   nationalist sentiments in order to win votes. Former President Rajapaksa
   was no exception. During his regime, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Sinhalese
   Buddhist nationalist organisation, began to agitate for the protection of
   Sinhala Buddhist rights. At a 2013 rally in Maharagama, which drew 16,000
   people, BBS general secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara stated, “This is a
   government created by Sinhala Buddhists and it must remain Sinhala
   Buddhist. This is a Sinhala country, Sinhala government. Democratic and
   pluralistic values are killing the Sinhala race.”

   Following this statement, a series of attacks began on mosques,
   Muslim-run abattoirs, churches – led mostly by other Sinhala Buddhist
   groups like the Ravana Balaya and the Sinhala Ravaya. While former
   President Rajapaksa officially denounced the groups’ actions, the attacks
   continued unabated. Rajapaksa’s brother, then Defence Secretary Gotabhaya
   Rajapaksa, was even Chief Guest at a BBS event – providing a seal of
   implicit approval. The BBS also publicly said they would back Rajapaksa at
   the Presidential election – which disenchanted minority voters.

   Since then, the BBS and organisations like them have backed out. Yet a
   small anonymous group has begun pasting “Sinha Le” (Sinhala blood) stickers
   on three-wheelers and buses. Just as in 1956, a spirit of insecurity and
   frustration still persists among some Sinhalese – who feel that the new
   Government is “pro-minority” and isn’t doing enough to help maintain or
   pacify the majority, as a trishaw driver whose vehicle bore one of these
   stickers explained. The rhetoric and feelings of frustration stirred up by
   groups like the BBS are yet to be addressed.

   It’s clear that there’s still a long way to go before Sri Lanka gets to
   a place of tolerance and understanding. Yet, there was also a sense of hope
   as citizens gathered to make submissions to the PRC – at least their
   grievances are being heard. Will the new Constitution mend the deep scars
   left behind after the conflict? Only time will tell.

   *~ Raisa Wickrematunge is co-editor of *Groundviews*, a citizens
   journalism website in Sri Lanka.*
   - http://himalmag.com/a-tale-of-two-languages/

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