New language policy aims to build bridges

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.

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Published: Fri 27 Jan 2012, 10:49 PM

Last updated: Fri 3 Apr 2015, 11:25 AM

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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