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Sri Lanka Launches Bilingual Training to Ease Rising Ethnic Tension


Sri Lanka's Sinhalese-dominated government recently launched a program to spur thousands of its public servants to learn the Tamil language. It is seen as a bold step to ease tension between the country's Sinhala and Tamil ethnic groups. Raymond Thibodeaux reports for VOA from Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

It is hard for some to imagine that Sri Lanka's 25-year war between the mostly Sinhala Sri Lankan army and Tamil militants - a sporadic conflict that has killed more than 70,000 people - is partly rooted in language differences.

But Dew Gunesekera, the director of Sri Lanka's Ministry of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration, says the language divide between the country's majority Sinhala and minority Tamil ethnic groups is one of the causes of the conflict. And, he says, bridging that language gap might be a way out of it.

"Sixty percent of our conflict can be solved through the medium of language," he said. "That is my view."

Under the bilingualization program spearheaded by Gunesekera, Sri Lanka's Sinhala public servants are offered cash bonuses and potential job promotions to learn Tamil. Government officials who speak only Tamil are offered the same bonuses for learning Sinhala.

Gunesekera says only about a quarter of the country's 7,000 public servants speak Tamil, even though it was made an official language 20 years ago.

"Now, for instance let us say you have a Tamil person. He sends a letter to the government in Tamil and receives a reply in Sinhala. He feels that he is a second-class citizen," he said. "Then from the point of employment, when Sinhala was the only official language and the number of Tamil public servants was reduced or minimized. We have 65,000 people in the police department and there are only 600 Tamil speakers in the service. That is a problem."

Historians say Sri Lanka's conflict goes back to the 19th century, when Britain colonized the island with the help of Tamil-speaking administrators. English and Tamil were the only official languages in Sri Lanka. That changed dramatically in 1956, just eight years after independence, when Sinhala was made the country's only official language.

Gunesekera said that at that time, Tamils made up only about 15 percent of the population, but they occupied about 40 percent of the government jobs. He said with Sinhala as the only official language, many Tamils were forced out of government jobs and replaced with Sinhala speakers, stoking distrust between the two ethnic groups. Language quickly became a hot political issue.

The distrust eventually led to bloodshed. Tamil militants, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have waged a brutal secessionist uprising against the government since the 1980s. This year fighting has intensified.

Language classes are not going to solve the problem, says Mano Ganesan, a member of Sri Lanka's parliament and leader of the Western People's Front, a mainly Tamil political party.

"Language was where the ethnic issue began. But language is no more an issue now," he said. "Now, the issue for the Tamil community is right to life. Their existence itself is threatened. You have to protect your life. Then you can for language rights, employment rights, or any other rights."

Ganesan's comments reflect a growing unease in the Tamil community, even in Colombo, where government authorities have strengthened security around the capital to root out suspected Tamil militants in the wake of a recent spate of deadly suicide bombings.

Ganesan said that many Tamils feel targeted for harassment by police and army troops, who have set up dozens of checkpoints in the capital. Human rights groups allege that hundreds of Tamil men have been abducted by authorities and never heard from again.

Like many ethnic Tamils, Ganesan remains skeptical about the government's will to follow through with the program.

"I challenge this minister. I challenge this government. What he is telling you is not true," he said. "There are some efforts by this government lately to give a message to the international community to project themselves as doing the right thing. There is no will within the government to solve this issue."

Gunesekera understands the skepticism. He says both Sinhala and Tamil should have been made official languages in the nation's constitution shortly after independence in 1948. If that had been done, he says, Sri Lanka might have avoided the war.

"It was a mistake, no doubt," he said. "What should have been done in 1948 now I am doing it in 2008."

Gunesekera said he envisions a totally bilingual public service within the next five years. But he admits that he does not speak Tamil himself. Not yet, anyway.