Monday, 08 August 2022 17:17

Language for Reconciliation

The issue of language was a key dividing factor in the early years of Sri Lanka’s independence and one of the root causes of the ethnic conflict that escalated into a 30 year internal war, and continues to be a great divider.

The problems began with language legislation in 1956 that made Sinhala the only official language. This had a practical consequence because it took the right to equal opportunity to state services away from Tamil speakers. More than six decades later, this injustice to Tamil speakers has been corrected both politically and technically with Tamil being made an official language in the constitution in terms of the 13th and 16th Amendments. The constitution gives equal place to the Sinhala and Tamil languages and ensures that Tamil will be the language of administration in Tamil majority areas.

However, in practical terms Tamil speaking people continue to suffer from unequal treatment where language rights are concerned, therefore there is a need to promote awareness and sensitivity about language rights.

Based on the need for language bridging, the Language to Reconciliation (L2R) project is being implemented with funding from the Canadian government.

Four focus group discussions and a capacitation workshop were conducted for 35 participants in the Batticaloa District and 34 participants in the Gampaha District under the project. The focus groups included government officials, religious leaders, Community Police officers, community business leaders and Local Inter Religious Committee (LIRC) members.

There were 30 participants at the capacitation workshop in Batticaloa who were made aware of the language rights and language policies in the country. They were told about the institutions and bodies they could reach out for assistance on language right violations.

During the focus group discussions and the workshop, participants highlighted these issues:

  • Grama Niladhari officers lacked knowledge of English. Circulars in the second language are not shared or are being delayed.
  • Leasing companies provide documents in English and explain them in Tamil but it is the people’s right to have the document in the language they prefer before signing the agreement.
  • In the district courts, English is used in communicating and issuing judgments so people cannot present and understand the complaints and judgments.
  • The main airport does not have documents in three languages.

To bridge the language gap in selected districts, Sinhala language classes were held for 40 participants in the Batticaloa District and 31 participants in the Gampaha District. Both the language classes were conducted by the National Institute for Language Education and Training.