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Expert Opinions:
Correct Use Of National Policy On Language Would Solve Sri Lanka’s Racial Problems

There are many rules around English, Tamil, and Sinhalese. The problem is that none of them are properly used, experts say.

02.10.2017  |  

Article numbers 18(1) and 18(2) in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka state that Sinhala and Tamil Languages shall be the official languages of Sri Lanka. It has been mentioned by this, that all government documents, forms, notifications (including name boards) shall be in, or published in, all three languages: Sinhala, Tamil and English; that replies to the general public should be in the language of their communication; that in the event where the reply has to be sent in Sinhala, a Tamil or English translation should be annexed with it; that whoever it may be, a citizen can contact government offices in his or her own language; that facilities for this purpose should be available in all government offices; that in the government educational institutions and teaching centres, unless they are separate institutions based on languages, teaching in the three languages should be assured; that during the discussions at government meetings attended by those who are not proficient in the Sinhalese language, translation facilities should be made available and notes should be provided in their own languages; that compelling a person to give a statement in a language the person does not understand, that forcing a person to sign a statement written in a language the person neither understands nor reads, and trying to contact a person in a language other than his mother language or the language in which the person made the contact shall be presumed not only as violation of his language right but also as a  violation of his basic rights; that in the incidents where language rights are violated during government and administrative procedures, the affected parties shall file a case in the court of law against the violation of basic rights, complain to the Human Rights Commission or bring it to the notice of the Government Official Languages Commission.

When a complaint is made, they use pleasant words, never lose their temper and say the matter will be rectified. But they  cheat us anyway because the law is not practiced in Sri Lanka.

Ever since the above language reforms were passed and implemented, and even though 18 circulars were issued regarding the implementation of Tamil language by successive governments, it is obvious that the implementation of Tamil language has been negligent and that it lags behind.

“There is a situation that prevails where many people complain about losses due to delays in translating the documents sent by ministries in Sinhala to people who only speak Tamil,” said Douglas Devananda, the MP for Jaffna and the leader of Eelam People’s Democratic Party during parliament’s question time in June of 2016.

The Sri Lankan policy on language is tri-lingual. The language law is also tri-lingual. So all official government forms should be in three languages.  But in spite of continuous instructions, all forms are not found in three languages.  Particularly, the Tamil language is not given its due place.  This should not be permitted any further.  The Tamil language should not be neglected in this manner.

“No officer can claim that he is not aware of the language law,” Mano Ganeshan, the Minister for National Co-existence Dialogue and Official Languages said at the inaugural ceremony of the service to translate government forms into three languages in August this year.

“Five people were appointed to the Official Languages Commission,” Tamil academic and former vice-chancellor of the University of Jaffna, Ponnuthurai Balasundarampillai, added; the professor had also been on the Commission between 2010 and 2015.  “Of the members, three were Sinhalese, one Tamil and one Muslim.  We, the Tamils, were a minority. Our arguments seemed to be ineffective.  On the other hand the number of staff members in the commission was 29,” he continues. “Of this number there was only one Tamil person in the clerk grade. We objected this. Later three Tamils were appointed to this office. In the Sri Lankan Constitution and bylaws, the language policy is outstanding.  But it is not so in practice.  The feeling with which I left the commission as that we [the Tamils] are being cheated,” Balasundarampillai concludes.

“The government officials do not any intention of implementing the language policy.  There is no compulsion in this regard.  There is no punishment whatsoever for failing to implement the language policy,” the academic noted – there’s no opportunity to take the case up in  court of law, and often those who might be tempted to do so are worried about backlash or reprisals.

“It is especially because of this, that the implementation of Tamil language is not taking place in Sri Lanka.  The officials are not concerned about this” Balasundarampillai continued.

The academic then gave an example: “The transport service in Sri Lanka is for all the people. The information regarding this service should be in three languages. But often the Tamil language is ignored. In most railway stations, except in important stations like the Fort station, announcements are not made in Tamil. This means that the transport service is for those who know Sinhalese. Though the official language commission has trained 100 railway officers, in most stations in Sinhalese areas, announcements are not made in Tamil.”

An August 2017 report from the Ministry of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages confirms this. “Today we are starting with the task of collecting inappropriate forms that are not printed in three languages from 882 government offices in Sri Lanka and we will translate them into three languages,” the report said. “After having them translated into three languages, they will be reprinted and sent to the respective offices. Compact disc with software will be sent with them, so that these offices may print more forms later with all three languages.”

“The Tamils’ failure to establish their linguistic rights means that this problem is an ongoing one,” says Balasundarampillai. “In the north and east, Tamil should be the primary language in use. But in Trincomalee and Ampara most of the government meetings are conducted in Sinhalese. Tamil translations are not provided. Fearing adverse effects, Tamil officers are hesitant about requesting Tamil translations and so it goes on. Similarly in the Colombo Municipal Council, where the majority are Tamils and Muslims, all services are in Sinhalese only. When complaints are made in this regard, they say action will be taken but nothing happens” Balasundarampillai argues.

“We are cheated continuously,” he continues. “And there is a new strategy now. When a complaint is made, they use pleasant words, never lose their temper and say the matter will be rectified. But they  cheat us anyway because the law is not practiced in Sri Lanka. And there is no effective scheme in force for the proper implementation of it. As a result it has failed.”

Balasundarampillai believes that the country’s Sinhalese don’t think they have to change anything because they believe that the country is theirs and that they do not need to concern themselves with the Tamil language.

“The president and the prime minister should take direct action,” the professor argues. Owing to this [attitude] language policy has not been implemented. Though there are small improvements but they cannot be considered as much of an achievement.”

The way the language policy is implemented, it makes even Tamils ignore their own language.

Another example:  At  the University of Peradeniya in central Sri Lanka, the certificate of graduation does contain all three languages. But the front page is entirely in Sinhalese and only on the rear, details are in Tamil and English. The Tamil and English could have been printed next to the Sinhalese.

Usually a Tamil student will select English as his preference, because the student needs these details in English for him to study in a foreign university. So you get the situation where a Tamil student  does not find it desirable to have the details in Tamil.

The University of Jaffna, which is situated in a Tamil speaking area gives equal status to all three languages, on the same page of its graduation certificate. The particulars are also given in three languages. While the language policy is properly implemented in Tamil areas, it is not in the Sinhalese areas.

In the universities it will be stated that the course of studies will be conducted in English. This is only implemented 100 percent at the  University of Jaffna. But the intake of Tamil students is very small in Colombo, Peradeniya and Ruhuna universities. Tamil students are excluded by lecturers who conduct their lectures in Sinhalese even though the course is supposed to be held in English. This has created a situation where the Tamil students give up their studies due to frustration, or get much lower marks at completion of their studies. Looking at this you can see why some of the government offices work the way they do with language.

Further examples are easily found. For instance, in the way that labels for consumer goods are printed. Tamil is given third place, printed in very small letters in one corner.  Banks will only open accounts using name sin Sinhalese.

Almost half of all of our racial problems would be solved if the laws about language were properly implemented, Balasundarampillai argues.

The minister responsible in this area, Ganeshan, agrees. “When I assumed my duties, I found that many government officials in this country were not aware of the country’s language laws. Now I have become a doctor – a doctor of language, that is.This non-implementation of the policy around languages is a national disease,” Ganeshan concludes. “And I have started prescribing the cure.”