Language parity is one of the biggest challenges to Sri Lanka’s peace and reconciliation efforts, and indeed its future. Without it, it is doubtful if it will ever be able to move forward.

This has been a historical grievance. Though one of the national languages, the Tamil language’s applicability has been largely confined to the areas where Tamil-speaking people are the majority

The language issue, viewed by many as a contributing factor to the civil war from 1983 to 2009 between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), is gaining prominence once more, but little has been done to address it.

Tamils comprise 12 percent of the country’s 20 million inhabitants, Muslims make up 8 percent, and 73.8 percent are Sinhalese, 2012 government figures showed. Tamil is constitutionally recognized as one of two national languages and is the mother tongue of one-fifth of the population, spoken mainly by Tamils and Muslims.

Nonetheless, Tamil has yet to enjoy parity of status with Sinhala, which has long been a divisive issue.

“If you don’t speak Sinhala, it’s difficult to get a good job,” said a Tamil resident in Colombo, who speaks both languages fluently, unlike most Sri Lankans. “Getting a government job is impossible.”

If you need a driving license or passport, or visit a government hospital in Colombo, you will likely need a translator to help you fill in the forms, while police reports – even in mainly Tamil-speaking areas – are often in Sinhala. Many Tamils claim they are routinely asked to sign police reports they don’t understand. The whole thing is degrading for Tamils.

Historic grievance

A Sinhala-only language law was passed in 1956 and although it was never fully implemented, Tamils saw the move as discriminatory, fuelling longstanding ethnic tension between the two communities. For many Tamils, language was the tipping point in their feeling of disenfranchisement, and the spark to ethnic riots in 1958, which left hundreds dead. Sinhalese say it was an attempt to move away from English as a national language – not to isolate Tamils.

Chapter IV of the 1978 Sri Lankan Constitution [ ] states that Sinhala and Tamil are both recognized as official national languages, while English is the link language.

Despite this recognition, many believe the wording in the constitution is faulty, and elevates Sinhala – with the exception of areas in the north and east – as the official language of Sri Lanka, placing Tamil in a secondary position by default.

Under Article 18 of the constitution, as amended by the 13th Amendment in 1987, “the official language of Sri Lanka is Sinhala (Article 18.1), while “Tamil shall also be an official language” (Article 18.2).

To avoid language discrimination, the law also states that citizens have the right to services and communication in either Tamil or English in areas where Sinhala is the language of administration, with access to translators, but in practice this is not the case.

Activists say many Tamils have to transact much of the official business that affects their daily lives in Sinhala, and there are reports that the government is making consistent efforts to promote the use of Sinhala among civil servants in the mainly Tamil-speaking north.

Most of the 15,000-strong police force in the north [ ] cannot speak Tamil.

Large swaths of the population in the north were cut off from the rest of the country during 27 years of war and cannot speak Sinhala, while thousands of Sri Lankan soldiers now in the north do not speak Tamil. This compounds the difficulty of communication and leaves both sides with little choice but to speak to each other in English.

Even so, daily interaction is often difficult as many ordinary Sri Lankans outside of government cannot speak English. Some reports [ ] suggest that just 10 percent of the population can speak English competently.

“It’s a strange situation. We’re all Sri Lankans, but can’t speak to each other in each other’s language,” said one Jaffna resident.

How Sri Lanka’s education system embraces its language diversity is also problematic. In terms of the constitution, “A person shall be entitled to be educated through the medium of either of the national languages,” but Tamil has yet to be promoted for greater integration at the school level, say activists.

It’s a tool that is used to divide children and to actually feed Tamil and Sinhalese nationalism. Although Tamil is taught in schools, it has failed to produce a significantly bilingual nation.

Most Tamils living in the south of the country speak Sinhala, but few Sinhalese speak Tamil, and few of the increasing number of Sinhalese tourists visiting the north are able to converse easily with their fellow Sri Lankans in the north.

Moving forward

As Sri Lanka works to rebuild and restore stability in the north, where hundreds of thousands of displaced have returned to their homes, many believe the opportunity to address this issue is at hand. Ensuring language parity is as important as resettlement and rehabilitation.

A recent report [ ] by the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives notes that language is an ideal instrument of unification in post-war Sri Lanka. Language rights are an integral part of identity. Legal protection of this right is inadequate. Implementation is important.

Many Tamil-speaking Sri Lankans feel their language is being undermined in an effort to suppress their cultural identity. Successive governments have failed to implement the country’s official language policy which has contributed to keeping communities divided by creating an enormous language barrier.

A fresh starting point could be the implementation of recommendations made by the 2011 Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), a post-war, government-appointed commission set up to look into the root causes of ethnic strife.

Creating greater awareness of linguistic and cultural affinities among the different communities would be an effective instrument for promoting greater reconciliation, the LLRC report said, and suggested that this be given the highest priority.

Since the war, the government has made a number of efforts to raise greater awareness of linguistic and cultural affinities in the north, but has done less in the south.

Recommendation 9.277 calls for the national anthem to be sung in both languages at all national events to further unity and reconciliation. However, during this year’s Independence Day celebration in Colombo, the tradition of singing the song only in Sinhala was continued.

On March 21, 2013, the UN Human Rights Council approved a second resolution requesting the Sri Lankan government to do more to address alleged wartime rights violations, but observers question whether such resolutions can create meaningful change.

The latest resolution, sponsored by the USA, is similar to 2012’s, calling on the Sri Lankan government to “to fulfill its public commitments, including on the devolution of political authority, which is integral to reconciliation and the full enjoyment of human rights by all members of its population.” [ ]

The new resolution calls on Sri Lanka to formally respond to UN “Special Rapporteurs” – investigators working on behalf of the UN – who have pending requests to visit the country to cover such issues as minority rights; freedom of peaceful assembly and association; freedom of opinion and expression; extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and enforced or involuntary disappearances, according to the latest report [] on Sri Lanka by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.

The resolution once again put the onus on the Sri Lankan government to act on allegations. Instead of the international investigation that Pillay called for in her report, the resolution called “upon the Government [of Sri Lanka] to conduct its own independent and credible investigation into allegations of violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.”

Sri Lanka project director at think tank International Crisis Group (ICG), said the resolution was unlikely to change much. “The latest resolution is unlikely to have any immediate impact in Sri Lanka,” but he added:

“If the [Sri Lankan] government does continue to ignore these international concerns, I expect the pressure will grow, with an increasing chance that in the next year or two the Human Rights Council will authorize an international investigation and that other international bodies will take stronger action.”

The assessment was shared by a member of the Rights Now Collective for Democracy, a Sri Lankan NGO. “Although the resolution falls short of expectations, it’s a step in the right direction, in the context that wheels of international justice turn slowly,” he said.

In March 2012, the US introduced a similar resolution to the Council [] that sought a roadmap from the Sri Lankan government on how it would implement recommendations [] from the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) – a Sri Lankan government-appointed body that investigated the conduct of military and rebel operations during the final months of the country’s civil war (1983-2009).

According to the UN, tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final days of the war between government forces and the LTTE, who had been fighting for an independent Tamil homeland.

In her latest report on Sri Lanka, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Pillay said, to date, the government “has not adequately engaged civil society in support of a more consultative and inclusive reconciliation process”.

Pillay renewed calls for an international investigation into allegations of rights abuses and wrote that despite progress in resettling more than 400,000 war displaced, and work on highways and other infrastructure projects in the former northern war zone, “considerable work lies ahead [ ] in the areas of justice, reconciliation and resumption of livelihoods.”

Colombo-based advocacy NGO Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) has accused Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government of selectively carrying out LLRC recommendations in the National Plan of Action (NPA), [] approved in July 2012. The NGO wrote of a “disconnect between suggested activities and the problems on the ground”.

Analysts say the lack of answers and action on those who went missing, [] were killed or were abused during the conflict, as well as lack of power devolution to ethnic Tamils in the north’s former war zone, have stunted progress on accountability.

Colombo countered claims of selective implementation by arguing the NPA is an evolving process with “short, medium and long term goals”, Minister of Plantation Mahinda Samaraisnghe, leader of the Sri Lanka delegation to Geneva, said in his address to the Human Rights Council on 27 February. []

The 2012 resolution has hardly achieved anything apart from increasing domestic criticism of the government’s alleged inaction on the LLRC recommendations. And the 2013 one would have been more effective had it given wider investigative powers to the UN Human Rights Commissioner – which it did not.

2012 resolution “rather weak”

A group of Christian clergy from the island’s north and east wrote to the Council on 18 February, calling last year’s resolution “rather weak”. They said lacklustre action was due to lack of political will and not capacity. The signatories said cooperation with the UN would be insufficient to force change and called for, instead, an international independent commission of inquiry to look into allegations of violations committed by all sides during the war, with a proper witness protection mechanism, citing findings from a UN Secretary-General appointed panel of experts that investigated accountability issues in 2010. [ ] And while domestic critics have become more vocal, they are still a small contingent.

Meanwhile, international criticism has dead-ended. International criticism has yet to lead to any real reforms – just more government promises that are never honoured.

Not that this has stopped international groups, including ICG, from publicly criticizing the government. ICG released its report, Sri Lanka’s Authoritarian Turn, [] on 20 February with Human Rights Watch’s Sexual Violence against Tamils by Sri Lankan Security Forces [ ] following a week later. A documentary produced by a team of UK journalists, No Fire Zone [] – the third in a series on the bloody conclusion of Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war – started screenings on the sidelines of the ongoing Human Rights Council meeting, despite a formal Sri Lankan government protest.


A possible effect of the latest resolution may be countries downsizing their delegations – or boycotting altogether – the biennial Commonwealth Heads of State Meeting [ ] set to be held in Colombo in November. If the government aggressively resists action advocated by the Human Rights Council, at least some of the 54 Commonwealth states may boycott the upcoming meeting to send a strong symbolic signal.

And while the boycott may not result in any serious change in the ground situation in [the] short-term, such symbolism is still more potent than resolutions.

The Commonwealth meeting could be a catalyst for more critical action on Sri Lanka, whose government would chair the scheduled meeting.

Economic sanctions

Both the 2012 and 2013 resolutions limited outside “interference” (for example, international sanctions), putting the onus on the Sri Lankan government, noted CPA. [ ].

Though still a “remote” possibility, Sri Lanka may lose out on export earnings if investors react negatively to the latest resolution, said a leading local economist who asked not to be identified.

In August 2010, the European Union (EU) suspended a preferential tariff agreement, Generalized System of Preferences Plus, which had been granted to Sri Lanka since July 2005. The scheme is available to “vulnerable” countries that have “ratified and effectively implemented” a number of specific human rights, labour law and good governance conventions.

In announcing the suspension the EU said an investigation from 2008-2009 found shortcomings in Sri Lanka’s implementation of three UN human rights conventions – the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

While the EU suspension shuttered some garment factories, the overall impact has not been “debilitating”, [ ] according to the Joint Apparel Association Forum, a Sri Lankan clothing industry body.


Over 70 million Tamils live in India.

As during the 2012 Human Rights Council meeting, India’s government played a key role in limiting the 2013 resolution to seeking action from the Sri Lankan government, as opposed to calls from human rights activists to also threaten sanctions. India’s government wants to minimize other countries’ leverage, partly to avoid the appearance that India has been overshadowed.

“India as a policy does not support sanctions,” said Ramani Hariharan, a former Indian intelligence officer who headed the intelligence unit of the Indian peacekeeping forces in northern Sri Lanka in the early 1990s.

Hariharan said with India’s national elections due in 2014, the central government there is feeling pressure from parties from its southern state of Tamil Nadu – ethnically allied with neighbours in Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominant Northern Province – to be more aggressive in pressuring Sri Lanka to act on longstanding humanitarian grievances.

He added that New Delhi would likely try to persuade Colombo to devolve power to the Tamil minority in the north, rather than support sanctions or an international investigation.

The 13th constitutional amendment, signed in 1987, introduced a system of nine provincial councils designed to devolve power to areas where Tamils live. Currently, all but the council in Northern Province – the country’s only Tamil-dominant province – is operating, though the president was quoted recently in regional media as saying that council elections are scheduled there in September.

“India will be satisfied as long as [the Sri Lankan] Rajapaksa [government] provides face-saving alternatives,” concluded Hariharan.

The 2013 resolution welcomed the government’s announcement that it planned to hold the Northern Provincial elections. Provincial elections in the former war zone have been one of India’s key demands.

Fernando, the local activist, said if the government softens its stance and indicates a willingness to cooperate with international critics, then calls for an international probe may weaken.

But ultimately, ICG’s Keenan said – external pressure failing – the impetus for change must be from within. “Ultimately, real change can only come from Sri Lankans.”

Attacks on Buddhist Monks And Sri Lankan Visitors To Tamil Nadu Must Cease

Meanwhile, Tamil Information Centre, based in the UK, has protested against the recent attacks on Buddhist monks and other Sri Lankan visitors in Tamil Nadu. It has said that these attacks are callous and disgraceful and will not help the Sri Lankan Tamils, but may cause them more harm.

Certainly, there is no justification for these acts from either a political perspective or, in truth, from the perspective of any other moral and freedom-loving people.  These acts diminish the pride, dignity and freedom of Eelam Tamils.

Tamils have always prided themselves in their age old tradition of welcoming visitors. Pilgrims of all faiths should be permitted to pass without hindrance or harassment and such curtsy should be extended to all travelers from Sri Lanka.

It has said that while it recognizes that heinous and immoral acts are being carried out by certain sections of the Buddhist clergy against Hindus, Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka, we must emphasize the importance of identifying the perpetrators and desisting from accusing all Buddhist monks, many of whom speak out and campaign for tolerance and peace.

We respect and appreciate the profound sentiment and the immense support of the people of Tamil Nadu for the cause of the Tamils in Sri Lanka.

But it is important that we work together towards the common goal of achieving justice for the Tamils and re-establishing democratic principles, freedoms and human rights for all people of Sri Lanka. We believe that attacks on Buddhist monks and pilgrims will only encourage further violence and will not contribute towards achieving justice and peace in Sri Lanka.

We urge the media to act responsibly when reporting on such attacks. The media must ensure reports are accurate and sensitive and do not encourage rifts between religions or communities.

TIC calls on the people of Tamil Nadu to offer all necessary assistance to the victims of the recent attacks and the political leaders to intervene to stop these attacks on civilians travelling from Sri Lanka.

The TIC also urges the authorities in Tamil Nadu to take all possible preventive measures and begin an immediate campaign through the media and other means to prevent such attacks in the future.

Tamil Information Centre 


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