Colombo, Human Rights, Peace and Conflict, Post-War

Even post-war, discrimination runs deep in Sri Lanka

It was one night some years ago that I realized how deep discrimination against Tamils runs in Sri Lanka. We were all stopped at a checkpoint and I happened to notice that my friend’s National Identity Card (NIC) had some extra lettering to mine. At a glance, it somehow seemed more crowded than mine. After going through the paces at the checkpoint, I asked for my friend’s NIC to have a closer look. It was only then that I discovered all Tamils have their names and addresses written in Tamil, in addition to and under the Sinhalese script. I realized then just how deeply ingrained discrimination ran in our system.

I’ve heard the justification that NIC’s are written in Tamil so that the “holder” is able to read it him/her self. Fair enough. I’ve also heard the explanation that there are Tamil officers in the forces, so this’ll enable them to check NIC’s as well. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but are only Tamils checked at check points? If not, how then can this “explanation” hold any water? If the justification is for both the holder and reader of an NIC to be able to read it, then all NIC’s of all Sri Lankans should be written in both languages. Yes, this should have been done way back in time, but, I’d say it’s better late than never especially in post-war Sri Lanka where we are told there are no majorities and minorities any more. Yet, discriminatory NIC’s are merely the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

Just yesterday I looked at a Tamil friend’s Birth Certificate and discovered that it has been filled up and signed in Sinhala. Of course the form itself is tri-lingual but, as far as my friend’s knowledge of what’s been filled in, her guess is as good as anybody else’s. She can’t read her own Birth Certificate! Yes, one can get a translation, but for a nation that “prides” its multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural heritage and of course a newly established “Sri Lankan-ness” we all seem to claim with a gusto, should not all us citizens have our basic documents written in our respective mother tongues? Two friends of mine from Jaffna and Batticaloa told me that their Birth Certificates had been filled out in Tamil, possibly because it was difficult to locate a Sinhalese Registrar in the North and East around twenty years ago. But the reality remains that not all Tamils are from Jaffna or the East. Must they be born in a Tamil majority area to enjoy a fundamental right?

Another friend has five pages of ‘signed’ divorce papers she cannot read. Her husband (also Tamil), was provided with a one-line translation of this document, stating the clause under which she was filing for divorce, and by when he should appear/appeal to the Court.

Yet another friend was unable to get a withdrawal form in Tamil to withdraw some money at a State Bank. She was even reluctant to drop an ‘anonymous’ complaint into the complaint box for fear of being traced and possibly harassed or worse. If something as simple as an 8”x3” bank form cannot be translated by the State, what hope is there then for an official document?

I was also told of an instance where a Tamil had to make a complaint to the Police regarding an incident of assault on her husband. The entire statement was taken down in Sinhala and she had to sign it purely based on trust. In retrospect, she says that it could have said anything at all. Shouldn’t understanding and knowing what you’re signing be a basic prerequisite in a multi-lingual, multi-ethnic country?

I don’t even have to step very far out of my home to find examples of this systemic discrimination. A few weeks ago my domestic handed me a bunch of documents and told me that he was due some money for working in the plantations. He wanted me to see where he should go to collect the money and how much was due to him. The forms were all in Sinhala.

Think about something most people take for granted – ‘bus boards’, which are predominantly in Sinhalese only. A lot of State run buses have the tri-lingual stickers, but even here the font size of the destination in Tamil is much smaller than the name in Sinhala.

Responses to appeals made to the President’s Fund, notices at the Western Provincial Council Motor Vehicle Department, letters from the Grama Sevaka’s Office, notices in government hospitals – the list runs endless where Tamils cannot engage with the State in an official language guaranteed by the Constitution, also their mother-tongue. If Tamils are in fact “legitimate” citizens of this country, (as so vociferously proclaimed time and again) why must be there be a need for them to depend on/spend for translations, or rely on their Sinhala friends to interpret documents?

As a friend told me recently, “If I’m not “citizen” enough to be entitled to such basic rights as these, then don’t expect me to adopt or uphold a superficial “Sri Lankan-ness” that doesn’t even acknowledge my existence.”

I don’t need to tell you my friend’s ethnicity.