Who is responsible for the sign boards that had been put up recently replacing one or both of the Official languages in Sri Lanka with Mandarin, the official language of the People’s Republic of China? Interestingly no Sri Lankan leader seems to have taken the matter seriously, and hence, nobody would ever find those who were responsible for the blunder.
The continuity and the similarity of these provocations by violating the official language policy of the country are puzzling. They also raise the question if the omission of Tamil language – and in some cases Sinhala as well – from name boards of Chinese or Chinese-funded institutions is intentional.
Besides, this provocation is happening against the backdrop of allegations by Tamils that Tamil language is not given due prominence or distorted in sign boards and documents in government offices. Also, replacing Tamil with Mandarin is far more serious than dropping it from or distorting it in such boards or documents.
These provocative acts of humiliation of Tamil (and sometimes Sinhala) at Chinese or Chinese funded institutions has been brought to the notice of the authorities since 2019. When the sign board of the Metro Colombo Solid Waste Management Project was photographed and tweeted to the then National Integration and Official Languages minister Mano Ganesan, causing outrage from many Tamils on social media, he blamed “foreigners” for it.
“The continuity and the similarity of these provocations by violating the official language policy of the country are puzzling”
He had tweeted “Chinese in Sri Lanka should respect local laws. We are receiving complains on sign boards at Chinese projects using Mandarin and English scripts only ignoring both or one of the official languages, Sinhala and Tamil. Our generosity begins only after our lawful local languages are respected by Foreigners.” However, no action to prevent recurrence of such provocations was reported.
Another incident was reported in September last year where the notice board at the Mount Lavinia railway station had been put up only in English and Mandarin, ignoring both the Official languages of the country. It is a station used mainly by locals, despite Mount Lavinia being a destination for foreign tourists. When journalists sought the response of the relevant authorities the Assistant Director of the Official Languages Commission Sivapragashan Mathivanan had stated that some Chinese institutions operating in Sri Lanka have displayed name boards in Mandarin, which is a violation of Article 4 of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. Here, it was not mere usage of a language of another country, but it had replaced official Languages of Sri Lanka. Yet, we never heard anybody being taken to task.
The Port City Colombo, the subsidiary of the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) had issued a statement on May 17 this year clarifying the image of an internal signboard at the Port City construction site that was then circulating on social media, creating another controversy over violating the official language policy of the country. The said sign board too had been inscribed only in Sinhala, English and Mandarin.
Port City Colombo stated that all signboards erected by the contractor within the site were for the benefit of the site employees or authorized visitors and temporary signboards do not require to be in all three official languages. Does it mean that they have not employed Tamil speaking people at the site? The Chinese Company also said that the sign board was removed in last December when the issue was first raised. If the signboard did not require to be in all three official languages, did they remove it for some other reason?
“Another incident was reported in September last year where the notice board at the Mount Lavinia railway station had been put up only in English and Mandarin, ignoring both the Official languages of the country”
It was the incident which occurred last week at the Attorney General’s Department that was most serious among this series of violations of the official Language policy. The plaque that had been erected to mark the opening of the Smart Library of the AG’s Department by Attorney General Dappula de Livera and Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong too had dropped the Tamil language. Though, with the immediate removal of the plaque, it seems to be beyond the knowledge of the highest officials of the department, it was serious as the Attorney General is the Chief Legal Advisor to the Government.
Were these incidents accidental? Then how can one explain the occurrence of this blunder in a similar manner and over and over again? If any hidden hand was behind the similarity and the continuity of this blunder, what might he or she or they be going to gain, except for creating unnecessary issues
The silence on the part of so-called patriots over this blatant violation of the official language policy of the country is deafening. It is pertinent for them to ponder on what Batticaloa District Parliamentarian Shanakkiyan Rasamanikkam tweeted when the issue over the Port City sign board cropped up. He had said “Tamil text is missing, that’s alright! Soon Sinhala will be missing too. Hope Sri Lankans wake up at least then.”
The political background of the time when this issue has cropped up is also important. This is a time when the Opposition parties are talking about a Chinese colony in Sri Lanka, on account of the powers vested in the Port City Commission that is to be appointed under the recently adopted Port City Commission Act.
Language and religion are very sensitive issues, especially in this part of the world. Language has been one of the main issues that resulted in a bloody war for more than thirty years in the country, claiming tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of lives. One cannot forget the immediate consequences and the long-term effects of the Official Language Act, commonly known as the Sinhala Only Act of 1956 and the decision to inscribe the Sinhala letter “Sri” on the number plates of vehicles in 1957 by the Prime Minister S.W.R.D.
Given the relationship between the Tamil People in Sri Lanka and China, one might suspect a Chinese hand behind the omission of Tamil in sign boards that had been talking points lately, despite the absence of factual evidence to prove it. Tamils, whether they are inhabitants of Northern and Eastern provinces or plantation areas are a Dravidian ethno-linguistic groups who trace their ancestry to the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. Hence, there are cultural and psychological bonds between Sri Lankan Tamils and India.
Nevertheless, there was a time – between the early sixties and early eighties – when the Chinese Communist party had a huge influence on the left-minded Tamils in Sri Lanka. The three decade-long war has erased even the traces of that political bond. Tamils are also averse now to China as the latter helps Sri Lankan authorities in accountability issue at the UNHRC in Geneva. On the other hand the relationship between India and China is also well-known. All in all, Tamils are psychologically closer to India than to China and sometimes even to Sri Lanka. Therefore, when the Tamil language is demeaned at places linked to Chinese firms, one has to imagine the feelings of the Tamil people.