Equality of Tamil a facade
[TamilNet, Monday, 01 September 1997, 11:10 GMT]
In early July a presidential directive was issued to the pre-dominantly Sinhalese Sri Lankan civil service to give equal status to the Tamil language. As the directive is widely perceived as a public relations exercise staged for the benefit of the international community, it has barely received any attention. From Colombo's jails to Jaffna's streets, the use of the Tamil language is being systematically stamped out in a bid to irrevocably assimilate the Tamil people under Sinhalese control.
Six weeks ago the Sri Lankan President, Chandrika Kumaratunga wrote to government ministers to say that the 'several instances of failure' on the part of government institutions had been brought to her notice'.
This was a notably curious observation on her part, since the suppression of the Tamil language is one of the fundamental forms of the anti-Tamil discrimination which lead to the Tamil populace on the island demand for independence from Sinhala rule.
In her letter, President Chandrika said "I dread to think of the plight of citizens who receive letters in a language which they do not understand." Her feigned innocence was clearly meant for international consumption: the President would have been aware of the various instances in which the suppression of Tamil language has far more severe implications than unanswered letters.
Tamil civilians arbitrarily arrested in mass roundups in Colombo are being charged in Sinhalese. Several human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International have stated that 'confessions' are being beaten out of Tamil prisoners: they are tortured and assaulted until they submit and sign statements that are written in Sinhalese.
The Sri Lankan judicial system is also dominated by Sinhalese. To date, no effort has been made to build a bilingual environment in the courts. A few dozen interpreters are available, however most of them are Sinhalese who've learned some Tamil.
The street names in Tamil villages that have been captured by Sinhalese troops are routinely replaced by Sinhalese ones. Villages and even entire districts have been renamed in Sinhalese.
The Manal Aru region connects the northern and eastern parts of the Tamil territory. The Sri Lankan government started a process of colonising this area two decades ago (in a bid to bisect the Tamil homelands) and renamed it Weli Oya ( a literal translation of the Tamil name).
In the Jaffna peninsula, which was captured by the Sri Lankan army in early 1996, a concerted effort is underway to undermine the purely Tamil heritage of the region. Sinhalese workers have been brought in large numbers to build Buddhist statues in several key locations. The residents have been told to pay homage to the 'Sinhala lion flag'.
The commander of the 30,000 Sinhalese troops in Jaffna has taken a personal interest in forcing the local Tamil population to use Sinhala. He has ordered all Tamil students and teachers to sing the Sri Lankan national anthem in Sinhalese. Several streets in this ancient Tamil cultural capital have been given new Sinhala names. The military administration on the peninsula functions in Sinhalese.
The use of their respective languages has been a central issue in the conflict between the Tamil and Sinhalese people. Anti-Tamil riots in the fifties and sixties (long before the Tamils started an armed struggle) often saw Sinhalese thugs smearing tar over Tamil words on road signs, and attacking other Tamil signs.
Some shop owners recall wryly that the Sinhalese thugs painting over the Tamil shop signs had such a poor grasp of their own languages that they would often misspell the Sinhalese names.
In 1956, the Sinhalese government introduced 'Sinhala Only Act', which replaced English with Sinhalese as the official language of Sri Lanka. In the late 80's, as a token gesture to blunt international criticism, the use of Tamil was permitted in the north and east of the island, where the Tamil homelands are located.
However, with the Sinhalese dominating the government and military, the use of the Tamil language in government has been systematically reduced over the years. This intentional eradication of a language is one of the aspects of the genocide which the Tamils maintain is being carried out on the island.