J B Disanayaka is Emeritus Professor of Sinhala, and former Ambassador of Sri Lanka to Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. He has received the hghest National Award “Deshamanya” in 2006, as well as State Literature Awards in 1968, 1971, 1973 and 1991 for Sinhala Books written. He was also awarded the National Award by Sarvodaya Trust Fund, Moratuwa for services for the Advancement of Humanity, Peace & Development in 1996.




Sri Lanka

South Asian countries have a common political heritage: they were colonies of the British Empire, and inherited a number of political issues that had to be addressed in order to ensure peace and tranquility in the region. Struggles of freedom against the imperialists and, political movements for safeguarding democracy in the post-colonial period have caused several historical traumas in different countries. The time has now come to heal these wounds.

Healing, in a medical sense, assumes a proper understanding of the symptoms and careful diagnosis of the causes of the disease. What were the factors that caused historical traumas in this region? There are several factors which are inextricably interrelated, but for ease of presentation, it is possible discussed them under a few themes, such as ethnicity, politics, religion and language.

Politics and religion split India into two: Secular India and the Islamic State of Pakistan; language divided Pakistan into two: Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is commonplace to say that ‘blood is thicker than water’ but the birth of Bangladesh proved that ‘language is thicker than religion’. There are a few Indian states such as Kashmir, Nagaland and Tamil Nadu that are struggling to be born as independent nations.

Ethnicity is a major factor that caused traumas in almost all South Asian nations. In Sri Lanka the problem of ethnicity is linked to the two major ethnic groups: the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The Sinhalese constitute 70% of the island’s population and the Tamils about 16%. The Tamils are of two kinds:  Ceylonese Tamils, who are of indigenous origin and, Indian Tamils, who were brought here by the British to work in their tea estates.

S.J.Tambiah, in his ‘Sri Lanka: Ethnic Fratricide and the Dismantling of Democracy, (1986) says, in his chapter on ‘Two Social Profiles’ that the Sinhalese are a “majority with minority complex” and the Tamils are “a minority with a parity claim”. This, no doubt, lead to the ethnic struggle in Sri Lanka over the last thirty years. The Sinhalese feel that they are a minority because of the sixty million Tamils in Tamil Nadu state in South India.

Language became another cause of dissension. After independence, Sinhala, the language of the Sinhalese, was made the official language at the expense of Tamil. The Tamils felt that it was unfair to have Sinhala Only as the Official Language, even though it was the language of the majority. This was, however, rectified later by making Tamil also an official language.

The claim of the Tamils for a separate state, to be named ‘Ilam’, was the bone of contention of the ethnic struggle. The Sinhalese felt that the island, being a very small geographical entity, has no space for two independent nations. In spite of innumerable invasions from India, from time to time in the past, Sri Lanka was able to maintain its territorial integrity.

Now Sri Lanka has won the terrorist war and is faced with the question of reconciliation. In order to address this issue, the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka appointed a Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation’ in May 2010 “to reflect on the conflict phase and the sufferings the country has gone through as a whole and having regard to the common aspirations of all we have collectively resolved that our people are assured an era of peace, harmony and prosperity”

This Commission of Inquiry (generally referred to as the ‘Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee’ or ‘LLRC’) published its Report in November 2011. It embodies many recommendations to promote Post-conflict Reconciliation. Among them are some that deal with the policies relating to Language.

The Commission made several observations relating to language. Of these the most important observation runs thus:

“The people of the North and East are separated from the people of the South due to communication barriers. Every attempt must be made to create a sense of belonging among all the citizens irrespective of race, religion or social status. It is language that unifies and binds a nation. Therefore, it is essential that policies relating to language are formulated towards this end. It is imperative that the official languages policy is implemented in an effective manner to promote understanding, diversity and national integration” (9.242)

The Commission noted “the sense of marginalization” felt by the Tamils due to the deficiencies in the implementation of the language policy.(9.238). It “witnessed firsthand that even today many persons of the minority communities are made to transact business not in the language of their choice” (9.239).

The Commission recommends that “the learning of each others’ languages should be made a compulsory part of the school curriculum. This would be a primary tool to ensure attitudinal changes amaongst the two communities. Teaching Tamil to Sinhala children and Sinhala to Tamil children will result in greater understanding of each other’s cultures.” (9.243)

In order to implement this Tri-lingual Policy, a Presidential Task Force was appointed to ensure that Sri Lanka would be a tri-lingual nation by the year 2020.

The Commission also makes the following recommendations:

“No district or province should be categorized in terms of language. Officers in Government service should possess language skills to serve in any part of the country.” (9.246)

“It should be made compulsory that all Government offices have Tamil-speaking officers at all times. In the case of Police Stations they should have bi-lingual officers on a 24-hour basis. A complainant should have the right to have his/her statement taken down in the language of their choice.” (9.247)

“The Official Languages Commission is centralized and based in Colombo and not easily accessible to rural citizenry. The Language Commission should be an authority with effective powers of implementation, and also with branches in every province.” (9.248)

“Greater attention should be given to information technology which can be utilized as an instrument to overcome the language barrier. For this purpose, as a temporary measure, software programs can be used for translation from one language to another until long term policies and measures take effect” (9.249).