Galle, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance

War Disguised in Peace Clothing

Recently I had the privilege of spending my Sunday morning with an eminent panel of academics discussing ‘Language, as a Pathway to Peace’. The Galle Literary Festival is an excellent event and its willingness to venture into the topical and relevant, is praiseworthy. Anyone who has followed the ethnic (or is it just ‘terrorist’) conflict in Sri Lanka will understand the hugely divisive role language has played in its history. It was interesting – although not entirely satisfying from a hopeful’s perspective – to hear the role of language as a tool for peace, being discussed by a host of reputed Sri Lankan minds.

The panel consisted of Professor Neloufer De Mel, of the English Department of the University of Colombo, who has researched widely on the subject of language and integration, Paikyasothi Saravanamuttu and his protégé Sanjana Hattotuwa from the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), writer Jean Arasanayagam and Rajiva Wijesinha, head of the Secretariat for the Coordination of the Peace Process (SCOPP). The panel was moderated by Dr. Rama Mani, head of the International Centre for Ethnic Studies who was accurately described as ‘delicious’ by Ashok Ferrey. Despite her obvious learning in the topic for discussion, Dr. Mani was unfortunately made to play the role of boxing referee towards the end of the session as it disintegrated into a very civil exchange of barbs.

The discussion began with a spiel from Jean Arasanayagam, who was seemingly the only direct victim of the current conflict. She has written extensively of her unfortunate experiences during and post 1983 and seemed in the best position to give us an insight into the trauma of those times. The introductory messages were ones of language as a tool of communication and generally trod a fairly non-confrontational path, despite Arasanayagam’s animated conviction.

Rajiva Wijesinha though, in his attempt to outline the history of the Sri Lankan conflict harked back to 1943 as a starting point, when JR Jayawardena introduced a bill to make the medium of instruction in schools, Sinhala. He glossed over the fact that the bill was later amended to include Sinhala and Tamil at the insistence of parliament. What is startling though, is his complete, and possibly convenient, disregard of the State led discrimination which happened in 1956 with the ‘Sinhala only’ saga, thereby alienating a more than significant part of the Sri Lankan populace. Unbiased commentators would perhaps rate this incident far higher in the political faux pas stakes than 1943, especially given the riots that took place soon after. There were no ethnic riots in between 1943 – 1956. Wijesinha did however, con us into believing that he had a sense of perspective on linguistic/ethnic tensions, and endorsed the very practical idea of teaching policemen Tamil. Given that understanding of each other’s language is the first step to understanding each other – this effort is laudable indeed. However, he did admit that a follow up on the initiative had not yielded the proper results, as the policemen in question were still busily learning the Tamil alphabet. Tamil Sri Lankans have always complained of intimidation bordering on harassment at checkpoints, a nuisance that the rest of us have learned merely to tolerate. For Tamil Sri Lankans this is not merely a nuisance but a several times a day ordeal. It is commendable indeed that the Peace Secretary has realised that the Rajapakse regime is perpetuating the abstract violence originally meted out by SWRD Bandaranaike, and is doing something proactive to try and ‘arrest’ the situation. It is this appearance of apparent bona fides that leads me to believe Wijesinha is equipped with the levels of comprehension that the administration he remains an apologist for, does not possess. However, as the events of the morning showed, these bona fides are quickly forgotten.

The constitutional framework of Sri Lanka as it currently is allows for all communities to be eased. The stubborn refusal to implement these constitutional safeguards by successive governments has been a cause for concern. The constitution provides that Sinhala and Tamil shall be the official languages with English being the link language. Wijesinha – to be fair to him – seems to be taking the pains to ensure English is once again taught within the government education system. Due to lack of resources mainly in teaching expertise, it is difficult to imagine this being a countrywide project in the immediate future. We were informed though that several thousand schools had already been provided with English teaching facilities. Whether English can be taught to the levels that De Mel wants them to reach is not the priority at this time. Instead we must ensure that communities can communicate with each other and have the tools with which to do that. It was a common consensus among the group that English was the way forward as opposed to one of the more identifiable languages of Sinhala or Tamil. Rooting for one language will automatically alienate the other and it seems commonsensical that English be the chosen medium. The initiative to teach English more proactively, rather than just as another subject must be applauded and supported. Whether the state will do that is another question altogether. The current situation states that they have other priorities.

The CPA representatives, in response to Dr. Mani’s opening, agreed that conventional media is still the most powerful medium. Newspapers, radio and television are still influential shapers of opinion. As Hattotuwa observed, the CPA as an advocacy organisation needs to use alternative media while at the same time not ignoring the conventional ones. It is the Sinhala papers and state run media that carry the message of war mongering to the people of the South, and it is time that those evangelists of peace stopped preaching to the converted and took their gospel to the dark regions of rural, uneducated, prejudiced Sri Lanka, which, by some cruel twist of a colonial experiment, exercises a majority of the country’s democratic franchise. Despite the fact that Galle is in the South, the Literary Festival doesn’t exactly count as a tour of duty for the peace missionary. Whether it is through partner organisations or foreign funds, the CPA must ensure that its message of awareness is spread with the same alacrity that the Goebbelsian propaganda of the government.

Neloufer De Mel, quoted once again from one Homi Bhaba, one writer whom I stubbornly refused to read before dropping out of university – “To understand a language is to assume a culture”. She (and Bhaba) is right. Speaking someone’s language breaks down the barriers of the ‘the other’, and it is a step towards sharing a culture. However, her intention towards the full integration of language in a wonderful hybrid society is unrealistic. While she is able to understand the necessity for functional English, she is unable to reconcile the functional knowledge of another language as being a step towards peace. While the ability to be a ‘native speaker’ in more than one language is an admirable goal, it is necessary to acknowledge that it is a goal sorely out of reach of the vast majority. While teaching Tamil to policemen at checkpoints may not be ideal for Professor De Mel, it is practical and definitely an improvement on the status quo. It is necessary to strive towards greater levels of understanding between communities, but it would be futile to refuse to begin a long journey because the first step seems insignificant. Wijesinha and De Mel were clearly at odds on the need for functional language skills, and the difficulty these two highly acclaimed academics had in reaching compromise does not augur well with regard to the ability of the man on the street to find some commonality with a stranger whom he does not agree with. This country has hardly ever been united, with a tiny land mass being home to several communities and kingdoms simultaneously. The one ruler in the north, one in the south scenario is not a new one. So to expect each culture to wholly embrace the other is nothing more than a pipe dream. The goals have to be realistic in order to be achieved. As it stands, it would seem that coexistence, rather than complete integration is the need of the hour.

Indeed, this fact was apparent when Jean Arasanayagam reacted quite strongly to the jargon that had been used by her fellow panellists. She condemned the use of the word ‘other’ and said it made her feel marginalised. This coming from a writer of the English language was disturbing as it showed a defensive reaction to labelling, however accurate or non-discriminatory. If this is the reaction of a senior literary figure what hope does the common man have? It is time the peace propaganda spoke to the people in a language they understand. The CPA had always taken up the position that this is not their brief. However, what is the point of their advocacy if it is confined to posturing politicians and the mutually reliant NGO community. Implementation is to policy what eating is to the pudding.

Wijesinha continued his meanderings something along the lines of – and this is paraphrased – ‘all these foreigners have lots of money to give Sara, (Saravanamuttu), but they won’t give poor me any money to teach policemen Tamil’. Perhaps the man – to whom I previously attributed some comprehension – should understand that as a government appointed official, he represents a xenophobic institution that has a horrendous human rights record, and has a history of telling NGO’s to ‘go away’ for no apparent reason. Then, he has the gall to accuse the hand that his government is busily biting, of not funding his pretty policies. Perhaps, as someone suggested, he should ask his employer, i.e. – His Excellency the President, why some of the revenue generated by the plethora of new taxes introduced by the last budget are not sent SCOPP’s way to teach the poor policemen Tamil for crying out loud. But nay, said the Peace Secretary – for any of that to happen this government must first, ‘defeat terrorism’.

War is, after all, a legitimate means of achieving peace.

It is unfortunate to note that some (not all) of the panellists tended to react quite adversely to criticism, or the presentation of alternative points of view. The resemblance to the Rajapakse maxim of ‘eliminate all opposers’, was apparent. This is indeed a cause of much regret coming from those who are not politicians. Educated people, with a heightened sense of awareness must a set an example for the better…not for the worse. The ability to display discipline and decorum and respect for another point of view and another individual is the key to peace. Little of this was displayed that Sunday morning. No wonder the peace process is being scoppered (sic).

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  • Perhaps the seven points of the Prague Manifesto:
    might have some relevance here? People elsewhere are struggling with similar issues, and the effect of World English hegemony on the world’s linguistic diversity is almost too alarming to contemplate. And won’t you feel victimized by Gordon Brown’s renewed campaign to linguistically colonize the whole world?:
    What is happening to equal language rights and linguistic democracy for all?

  • Dayan Jayatilleka

    doubtless this self confessed university drop-out confronted and unmasked the perfidious professor rajiva wijesinha when he/she had the opportunity to in galle.

    and if not, why not?

    I wonder what sri lanka’s most brilliant ( and bilingual) young literary critic, cornell university and now peradeniya lecturer dr wasantha amarakeerthi liyanage ( who probably wasn’t even invited to galle) has to say about the revelatory description of “the dark regions of rural, uneducated, prejudiced Sri Lanka, which, by some cruel twist of a colonial experiment, exercises a majority of the country’s democratic franchise”…

  • Mahen

    Please do not forget the Singhalese racist act of D.S.Senanayake deprving all Planation Tamils (over 1 million) of their citizenship soon after independence and their voting rights, the ethnic cleansing by Srima Bandaranayake deporting 600,000 Tamils to India, and Singhalese miltary uprooting Tamils from Manalaru and other Tamil villages in Eelam, the series of massacre of Tamils in the repeated organised violence by the Singhalese state and thugs from 1956 to present times. The Tamils need their own police force to protect Tamils. The occupation army of Singhalesee should be withdrawn from Eelam. Why send Singhalese policemen to Notheast. Why cannot Tamil police officers be recruited to serve there.

  • sham

    “Educated people, with a heightened sense of awareness must a set an example for the better…not for the worse”

    Where were these people when Prabakaran started eliminating Alfred Duraiappah and them? Didn’t he kill all the intellectuals 1st?

    [Editors note: Comment has been edited for clarity]

  • sham

    “It is the Sinhala papers and state run media that carry the message of war mongering to the people of the South, and it is time that those evangelists of peace stopped preaching to the converted and took their gospel to the dark regions of rural, uneducated, prejudiced Sri Lanka, which, by some cruel twist of a colonial experiment, exercises a majority of the country’s democratic franchise.”

    One has to love the way that people in colombo’s air offices , somehow always keep thinking that they have to make the correct decisions for the UNEDUCATED, IGNORANT MASSES. ” – they all keep thinking that MASSes are ASSES. i would have thought that by now they would have realsied that rural masses control the franchise system.

  • nandasena

    I would like to ask Sham where was law and order in Sri Lanka when Tamils were killed,raped,and robbed and houses burnt in Colombo and other towns periodically since the mid 50’s. Where was law and order when peple were killed during the International Tamil conference which was held in Jaffna in 1974, burning of the Jaffna Library in 1981. Atrocities perpetratrated against unarmed Tamils were too numerous to mention. Pirapaharan was a baby then!! LTTE was the by product of Sri Lankan GOVERNMENTS TERRORISM against its Tamil citizens!!

    I wonder why the sinhalese never accepts this. Does it means that Tamils, being a minority has to grin and bear all the atrocities heaped on them!! Has the Government ever apologised for the atrocities committed against the Tamils? Have they ever paid compensation to the victims? Government is responsible for Thousands of civilians deaths by aerial bombardment. The Sinhalese never care or even accept this(except for few enlightened Sinhalese). There are thousands of displaced refugees languishing in refugee camps for years in Tamil areas while their houses are being occupied by the security forces in the guise of HIgh security zones!! School, hospitals in Tamil areas are being bombed. Attitude of the average sinhalese is “we don’t want to see, we don’t want to hear, we don’t want to speak!! But if it affects the sinhalese areas they make a big hue and cry.

    Even now there are hundreds of abductions, killings,demanding ransom,”made to dissappear” mainly against the Tamils in the heart of Colombo, Batticaloa, Jaffna, Mannar,Vavuniya and other Tamil areas. What has the Government done about them? Recently there were 16 corpses with signs of torture found burried in Kebitigolawe. They are believed to be Tamils killed by the security forces. The government did not make any effort to identify the victims and the case in now forgotten, just like thousands of forgotten deaths of Tamils!! Are they not humans? They also have a family and loved ones like normal people!

    Mahinda took 2 years to present this “old wine in new bottle” just to placard the International Community(money lenders/donors)and to buy time for his genocidal war!! The government has no meney for development, but has money for its killing spree!!

  • Sophist

    The drop out did indeed confront the learned Peace Secretary. Sham makes a good point….the masses control the franchise. We all know this. But would you let your 12 year old decide where to invest your hard earned money? Sadly, it is the twelve year olds without any hard earned money, that ‘control the franchise system’.That can’t be right Sham can it? A chap I met confessed to voting for MR because he had a moustache and that is a sign of bravado and virility. Forgive me for not feeling safe in the judgement of those who decide my destiny for the next 12 years.

  • Mevan

    Why cant the Government make Sinhala, Tamil and English compulsory in all schools for all students? This will transform the situation in one generation; the results could have been seen by now if this had been done in 1985. It will be even more effective if we can romanize as done by Malaysia and Indonesia.

  • ealem boy

    By saying Alfred Duraiappah is a Tamil intellectual shows how much sham knows. A.D is wannabe politician who will do anything if he can gain some thing [edited out].

  • Editors note – For those who don’t know Alfred Duraiappah’s significance, read the note here (by the UTHR) and the Wikipedia entry here.

  • N. Ethirveerasingam

    Mevan’s suggestion to make all three languages compulsory may not even improve communication between the two communities let alone improving the current situation in one generation. Take GCE ‘A’ Level students, all of whom were taught English, one period a day, five days a week for 5 to 8 years, who are from schools outside Colombo and try to communicate to them in English. None of those, from Matara to Jaffna, who I tried to communicate in English, over a period of 12 years, could speak, read or write English that one could understand. The English education infrastructure gradually became extinct. Now you only have the skeletons that the education system is trying to resuscitate.

    Ruhuna University conducts Agriculture classes in Sinhala and the final year students write their senior thesis in Sinhala. The medium of instruction in agriculture is supposed to be in English. This approach shuts out the Sinhala students from the agriculture literature that appears in Journals and books in English. The University of Jaffna approach is more practical. They teach the first year students in Tamil while the students try to learn English. The second year students are taught in Tamil interspersed with English. The third and fourth year students are taught in English and their thesis are written in English. The suggestion to Romanize the alphabets of Tamil or Sinhalese are I hope is not a serious one. The scripts of the two languages are a unique invention of our two cultures. They are also an art form.

    “Parity of Languages” will not solve the ethnic problem but it would help communication between the two nations and allow them to understand one another better. Hashan Thilakaratne, a cricketer who I admire, came to Kilinochchi soon after the tsunami with cricket administrators and players to present scholarships of Rs.1000 per month until the age of 18 to children who had lost both parents or lost the family’s main breadwinner. These children were from the Vadamarachchi East and Mullaitivu coastal areas. He magnanimously spoke in Tamil even though he read his speech scripted in Sinhala. It created a lump in my throat. More than 4000 people who attended the ceremony, including senior members of the LTTE, most of whom have appreciated his cricketing and captaincy skills, thought Hashan’s gesture expressed his concept of equality, his compassion for the children who were deprived of their parents and for a community that the war and tsunami have put in distress. He wanted to touch the traumatic children and adults to express in their language his anguish and desire to help. He and his team of players and coaches later coached the children for two hours, communicating through the game of cricket and using it as a therapy for the children to cope with the trauma of war and the tsunami.

    Language is like a spoon. It brings out only what is in the pot. After the pot is emptied, it brings out only the clay, lead, aluminium, cast iron, pewter or teflon scraps from which it is made. If we are to go with what Dayan Jeyatilleka and Rajiva Wijesinghe have been saying recently in various local and international forums, their English spoons are bringing out the scrapings of lead in their Sinhala pots. “Sophist” is in excellent company as a ‘drop out’ – Microsoft and Apple inventors and entrepreneurs, not to mention Sivaram were “dropouts”. Below is a piece of ‘lead’ that Rajiva Wijesinha spewed out in criticizing Senator Leahy, the author of the amendment to restrict US military aid to Sri Lanka,

    “Sadly, Senator Leahy, like most foreign observers of the Sri Lankan scene, has no sense of time. This is accompanied by an imprecise use of English, doubtless promoted by those who have said loud and often that the Sri Lankan government is responsible for the breakdown of peace talks. Senator Leahy is more circumspect than most, in qualifying with the words ‘at times’, his perception of the past willingness of the LTTE, regarding which the use of the perfect tense seems inappropriate. But then he moves to a present tense modal verb, which makes no sense given factual realities.” (

    Language is not the main issue in our ethnic conflict. It is the balanced rights of the two communities that is the bone of contention. The rights of a community are not based on the number of people in a community. This is the core of our problem since 1917. Not just the language. The language issue is subsumed in the rights of a people. Language was the tool that the Sinhala majority tried to use to gradually deny the rights of the Tamil community and to assimilate them into the Sinhala culture. Giving parity of status to Tamil language and denying the rights of the Tamil community will not bring peace to Sri Lanka. SWRD and his majority tried to snatch their ‘Spoon’ from the Tamil people and give them a Sinhala Spoon. Their expectation was that the docile Tamil population would replace the Tamil rice in the Tamil pot with the Sinhala rice. The thinking was that, in time, through revisions and manipulations of the constitution, the Tamil rice and later the Tamil pot could be replaced. Tamil reactions were docile at first. Then protests took the form of peaceful demonstrations. When the reactions to non-violent demonstrations were meted out with violence, Tamils resorted to armed resistance.

    Sam Wijesinha’s book, All Experience, gives a sketch of the leaders of Ceylon in the style of Plutarch’s Lives. A quote from his reflections on SWRD gives a glimpse of history worth reflecting by all, including Sam’s son Rajiva.

    “ In an election rally in Polannaruwa in 1956 he unleashed a vibrant tirade that dug deep into the issues of race and language. When he was returning to Colombo late that night in MWH de Silva’s car, MWH said to him, ‘ You have sowed the wind, our people have to reap the whirlwind.’ Pat came the reply from the master of the mixed metaphor, ‘We will cross that bridge when we come to it.’ Bandaranaike indeed might have managed to maneuver the country across that bridge. Unfortunately, indeed tragically, he was one of the first victims of the whirlwind and his life was not spared for him to make that crossing.”

    SWRD did not create the ethnic problem. He was a willing tool that let the genie out of the bottle in exchange for power. But the wishes he wanted to safe guard the rights of the Tamil people were not granted by the genie. Instead it took his life. It continues to take the lives of the Tamil people, through its anointed leaders, to feed its ego.

    Language expresses the culture of an individual and the culture of that linguistic community. It is in a language that the thoughts and creations of an individual, and that of the community, are encoded, preserved and transferred to future generations. Language in turn helps the mind to create new ideas in speech and in print in much the same way that hands paint or sculpture new forms which were conceived in the thoughts of the conscious and the unconscious mind and are expressed on the canvass or in the round.

    Depriving the Tamil community of the right to govern all of its affairs, leaving it only the “privilege” to abide by the dictates of of the Sinhala community, in the guise of democracy, will result in the constitutional genocide of the Tamil community; this will be the case even if parity of the two languages is achieved against the odds. Without these rights, but with parity of languages only, Tamils will realize that a Sinhala spoon will be more beneficial than the Tamil spoon to get the Sinhala food out of the Tamil pot. Soon they will realize that the Sinhala pot gets better and more food than the Tamil pot. For the Tamils there will then be no need for either a Tamil ‘Spoon’ or a Tamil pot. Soon the Tamils in Eelam will become assimilated into the Sinhala pot in Sinhala Sri Lanka. Many Tamils have already achieved this dubious distinction and the rewards that go with it.

    Can we prevent our armed conflict ending up with both pots being reduced to smithereens? Preventing this outcome is now in the hands of the two protagonists who both seem bent on war. Prevention is also in the hands of the international gods, whom Dayan and Rajiva, or whomever they serve, will be unable to continue to feed the swill from their pot. The longer the Rajapakses’ and their elk fill the Sinhala pot with their swill, the longer Dayan, Rajiva and others will be dishing it out hoping that the international community will swallow it. Such is their understanding of the appetite of the international community.

  • sham

    how about lakshamn kadiragamar and neelem thirichelvam? full list available at the MOD website… One mans meat is another mans poison ealem…

  • ealem boy

    Amen Sham, Thats what tamils have been trying to tell you guys for long time. your “terorist“ is my savior and my traitors are your interlectuals. The list on MOD web site is not even worth of the paper if you want to print them because all lies. Don`t let people brain wash you with false propaganda like how they are telling how many LTTE they are killing every day in manner. Just keep read groundviews, you will some day start to ask questions.


  • Ground Views have done a great disservice by allowing this article to be published – Mr. Ethirveerasingam is right when he says that SL lost out a lot when English was dropped out. I am sure that the rural and villagers who are the cream of any nation state would have come around to understanding the English language well and would have benefited a lot. I am from a rural village and on a rare occasion would go along with the comments made by Dayan Jayathilake but much stronger. This author of this article is a clumsy lightweight