Letters to the Editor

28th April 1996


Deeds and not words needed

After the Sinhala-Tamil New Year holidays I went to the Bank of Ceylon, Kollupitiya branch on 15.04.96. On my entering the bank I noticed a large notice board, the size of a school black board, on which were written the words in Sinhala "Subha Aluth Avuruddak Wewa". There was nothing written in Tamil or English, though there was ample space on the board.

What would it have cost the bank to write its greetings in Tamil and English also? Could not it have been written with the same piece of chalk that was used to write the greetings in Sinhala? If there were no Tamil officers in the bank, the bank could have asked some of its Tamil customers and one of them would certainly have obliged and written the two-word greetings "Puthuvaruda Nalvalthukkal". And so in English too, "Happy New Year".

Perhaps, the bank was dead certain that the New Year was not going to be happy for the Tamil speaking people!

This is not the only institution that has relegated Tamil. If it was the only institution I would not have written this letter to the press but would have written to the bank itself. Relegation of Tamil is the order of the day, by design or fault, in almost every institution, though there is no paucity for assurances and declarations whenever these matters are taken up in the press, on the platforms, in seminars and in Parliament by Members of Parliament. What is needed is willingness and not words. An ounce of deed is worth more than a million words.

If the government is unable to get Tamil also equal treatment in institutions under it, how then, I am wondering, is it going to get its package through the Referendum even if it gets it through the Parliamentary Committee stage and the Parliament?

If the majority community is not thinking of the Tamil language when they put up notice boards in Sinhala, when they, if I may say so, are not thinking of their brother's children when they are serving food for their own children, how can unity be brought about?


Colombo 13

Bridging the communal gap

Reading the plethora of views reflecting various shades of opinion on the ethnic conflict that is tearing our country apart, extremist views on either side of the ethnic divide seem to get pride of place. Moderate views and methods to promote peace and harmony are seldom highlighted. The confrontation between the government and security forces versus the LTTE, with all the political parties and groups ranged vociferously, in various uncompromising positions are ranged on either side. Whilst there have been muted appeals for peace from some religious and other groups, there's little that is positive about finding ways and means of creating the climate for peace, by examining the issues involved.

Maybe we should start from the premise that there are no victors in any war. The death toll on both sides has been and continues to be horrendous - of soldiers and civilians alike. Recently a daily paper published details of casualties both dead and injured from 1984 to the recent Central Bank bomb blast, from the Hansard. Maybe the LTTE should publish similar statistics too. The dead and injured, to whichever side they belonged are all people of this country. No one has accurate figures for the number of refugees both in this country and abroad. The pain they endure in their exile can only be imagined!

If the differences between Sinhalese and Tamils were that insurmountable, more than half the 12.5 percent of Tamils in Sri Lanka, wouldn't continue to live and prosper in predominantly Sinhalese areas. Horrific and regrettable periods such as in 1983 were not caused by a mass movement of Sinhalese against the Tamils. This is why there are more Tamils living in Colombo and other major cities and their suburbs than ever before.

There are large numbers of high- ranking Tamil officials, judges, lawyers, doctors, accountants and businessmen in the forefront of public life today. Marriages between Sinhalese and Tamils are on the increase too. Up to 1956, when children in schools studied together and were not streamed according to their language medium there was no consciousness of a specific Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim or Burgher identity and there was no animosity - one against the other. The friendships made between individuals in those halcyon days are still vibrant. So how could that scenario change to the present one of untold and wanton destruction and loss of life? Is Eelam , devolution or even heaven on earth worth it? If a referendum were taken today, the overwhelming majority of both Sinhalese and Tamils will opt for peace and amity.

There have been serious lapses by the two main communities and successive governments and ordinary people too must share the blame. Maybe. examining some of these lapses and trying to remedy them will create the right climate for peace. The responsibility for the present situation is largely the fault of successive governments, which were and are more concerned about vote-catching devices than acting in a far-seeing and statesman like manner.

Language is a sensitive issue and no lingual group wants anther's language rammed down their throats. So why was the letter (Sri) introduced into the number plates of cars? A good deal of bitterness and antipathy could have been avoided, if the present non-controversial numbers were used instead. It's no good accepting parity for Sinhalese, Tamil and English if it's not taken to its logical conclusion. All street names, public notices, government forms etc., should be in all three languages and whoever is responsible for not providing this should be severely and publicly dealt with.

Every citizen should have the right to use the language of his/her choice whether it is in a government office, police station, court of law or wherever. The ideal to aim for, is to have all officials competent in the three ]anguages. If sufficient incentives are given, this should be a possibility. Till such time, a practical solution would be to have an adequate number of translators and an efficient translation service, as happens in many countries, where myriad languages are catered for. If all children study not only in their mother tongue Sinhalese or Tamil, but the other language as well as English from the beginning, the present lack of communication will disappear. People too will begin to shed their mutual distrust if they can understand each other. This has been and is an important factor in the mutual animosity, generally felt between Sinhalese and Tamils.

Racial stereotyping may be another contributory factor responsible for widening the gap. While the Sinhalese regard Tamils as thrifty, hard-working and ambitious, even these laudable qualities are derided and made fun of. Another habit among many Tamils is talking in Tamil in mixed company which makes the non-Tamils feel left out and marginalised. This trait is magnified in areas where both Sinhalese and Tamils reside. While their neighbourliness and general friendliness with the Sinhalese and others is perfunctory at best, they will be in and out of their Tamil neighbour's houses... their children playing exclusively only with their children etc. In the workplace too the close knit camaraderie which extends to favouring fellow Tamils, if they have the opportunity is seldom found among the Sinhalese.

As a Sinhalese, I'm not sure how Tamils stereotype the Sinhalese. Probably as lazy, easy going, rather unambitious types, with an ability to exhibit extremes of feeling when tragedies such as assassinations of national figures etc. hit them, or when governments are overturned or as we recently witnessed, when cricket mania held them enthralled. Any others, we are not aware of? Maybe discussing them will bring them out into the open.

However, people have lived with these and other stereotypes for ages and its only during periods of racial tension that they surface, become animosities and cause problems. There should be a determined effort to dispel such prejudices and notions. Maybe, the process should start early in schools, where active awareness of the different racial, cultural and religious identities are an integral part of the school curriculum. Ways must be sought to integrate what have now become mutually antagonistic Sinhalese and Tamil streams in schools. For instance in games, sports etc. instead of pitting Sinhalese against Tamil, it could be combined teams consisting of both races. Instead of finding what is different, couldn't a subject like social studies stress what is similar? If a climate for peace is engendered, it hopefully will be possible for an exchange programme between Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim and children of other minorities, not just in the south, but in the north and east too. If amity was possible a few decades ago, why is it an impossible dream today?

Rita Perera


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