The Attorney General and the Chinese ambassador unveiled the plaque which carried the controversial Mandarin text
The Attorney General’s Department has come under fire since the opening of an internal library facility on Wednesday, May 19. Attorney General Dappula de Livera and Chinese Ambassador Qi Zhenhong were photographed unveiling a plaque, of which the text appeared in Sinhala, English and Mandarin. Following social media backlash, especially on Twitter, the Attorney General’s Department said that the plaque was removed on Saturday.
“The plaque did not contain the script in Tamil, by an inadvertent omission,” a spokesperson for the outgoing Attorney General said.
A new plaque with all four languages will soon be erected, the Department assured.
The Chinese Embassy was quick to respond on Twitter to mounting criticisms, that as the facility was an internal E-Library of the Attorney General’s Department, funded by the Government and People of China, the Chinese script was placed on the plaque as a kind gesture towards China.
This however has not been the first instance where the Tamil script has been replaced by Chinese. In 2019 a name board appeared with Sinhala, Chinese and English Script at the Aruwakkalu sanitary landfill project, which raised similar questions and criticisms.
It was also pointed out that several project sites, especially ones led by Chinese corporations had signboards erected with only two languages, Chinese and English, inconveniencing local workers. Similarly, shops and restaurants operated by Chinese nationals with only Chinese and English language signage had also popped up in central Colombo from time to time.
Although Tamil script being replaced by Mandarin is a relatively new phenomenon, the issue of Tamil language being omitted in official signage is not. Many critics of the government view this as a reflection of continued discrimination against the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka. Former Minister of National Integration and Official Languages and Tamil Progressive Alliance leader Mano Ganesan taking to Twitter said that the removal of the plaque which violated the Official Languages Act was commendable. But he questioned as to who was responsible for the omission.
“Plaque of #Chinese gifted Smart Library at AG’s Dept “inadvertently” failed to contain #Tamil script, violating Official Languages Act is being replaced. Commendable..! But who’s ‘misadventure” was it? #AG, #ChinainSL or #GoSL? #lka” Ganesan tweeted.
Patterns of omission?
A week earlier, MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickan observed a similar pattern when he tweeted a photograph of a sign stating “Central Park” in Colombo’s Port City, where once again the Tamil script was omitted.
“Tamil text is missing, that’s alright. Soon Sinhala will be missing too. Hope Sri Lankans wake up at least then,” he said. The Chinese Embassy in Sri Lanka responded to the text stating that they respected the trilingual rules, urging Chinese companies to follow suit.
Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara, who once held the ministerial portfolio of Official Languages has spoken of the issues that upcountry Tamils faced in obtaining State services in the Tamil language. During his tenure, he has also attempted to resolve several key issues with the National Languages Commission, including the provision of State services in all three languages.
“We have seen several instances in the past where the Tamil language was omitted from official plaques, violating the Official Languages Act. This has occurred even very recently. But it’s more worrying when the Attorney General’s Department — the office of the government’s chief legal officer — makes such blunders”
In 2016, following Former President Maithripala Sirisena’s approval to sing the national anthem in Tamil, Minister Nanayakkara, an Opposition party member at the time, stated that he saw no problem in allowing a Tamil language national anthem to be in use.
Former Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse too has spoken publicly of the importance of bridging the language divide, without which, he said progress would be impossible.
Former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran has drawn the attention the struggles citizens face in obtaining police services in the Tamil language in the past. However, not all members of 225 lawmakers display similar sensitivity to the matter.
The Sri Lankan Constitution recognizes that Sinhala and Tamil are both recognised as official languages, while English serves as a link language. Yet, language parity has been one of the key challenges to reconciliation efforts in Sri Lanka, a need that was recognised by some governments more than others. While the Constitution states that that Tamil and Sinhala are both official languages, the wording is crafty, in a way that it can be interpreted that the Tamil language has at some secondary level importance.
“The official language of Sri Lanka is Sinhala” while “Tamil shall also be an official language,” with English as a “link language,” the Constitution states.
The Chinese Embassy was quick to respond on Twitter to mounting criticisms, that as the facility was an internal E-Library of the Attorney General’s Department, funded by the Government and People of China, the Chinese script was placed on the plaque as a kind gesture towards China
The history of language parity
Sri Lanka’s language divide has deep roots until the Sinhala-only Act of 1956, which fuelled long-standing tensions between the Tamils and Sinhalese. For the majority of Sinhalese, it was embracing nationalism and stepping away from colonial ways. For many Tamils, this was a tipping point, and the cause of widespread anti-Tamil riots, which claimed the lives of hundreds.
Recommendations had been made under the J.R. Jayewardene leadership to establish local languages as official languages, replacing English. However, the proposed changes were time-consuming and slow-paced. In 1951, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike departed from the United National Party, citing inaction to address the language dispute. In 1956, the new government of S.W.R.D Bandaranaike passed the ‘Sinhala Only Act, as the initial step in realizing one of the main campaign promises of the election which assured Bandaranaike a landslide victory.
Not all Sri Lankans were in favour of this bill. The Sinhala Only act essentially made Sinhala the sole State language, downgrading both Tamil and English. Following major opposition, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, the leader of the Tamil Arasu Katchchi (Tamil Federal Party), demanded that the country be made a Federal State. The negotiations resulted in what was named the 1957 Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam pact, which allowed the official use of Tamil in Tamil-speaking provinces, especially in the North and East.
In April 1958, while J.R. Jayewardene-led opposition grew, Bandaranaike buckled under pressure from both within and outside of his party, and nullified this pact. The decision paved way for the anti-Tamil pogroms of Sri Lanka.
More than just a language problem
The language problems Sri Lanka is facing at present, however, has far-reaching implications, according to one political activist. Taking to Twitter, Rasika Jayakody, Propaganda Secretary of the Samagi Tharuna Balawegaya questioned why the AG’s Department allowed the Chinese government to fund this facility. To which the Chinese officials swiftly responded:
“Dear Rasika, You won’t be surprised to learn that the Supreme Court Complex was constructed by Chinese aid in 1989, under a request by the Ranasinghe Premadasa Govt.”
It was also pointed out that several project sites, especially ones led by Chinese corporations had signboards erected with only two languages, Chinese and English, inconveniencing local workers. Similarly, shops and restaurants operated by Chinese nationals with only Chinese and English language signage had also popped up in central Colombo from time to time
But Jayakody believes that this only adds to a growing list of concerns. Speaking to the Daily Mirror, Jayakody said it’s even more worrying when the Attorney General’s Department makes blunders.
“We have seen several instances in the past where the Tamil language was omitted from official plaques, violating the Official Languages Act. This has occurred even very recently. But it’s more worrying when the Attorney General’s Department — the office of the government’s chief legal officer — makes such blunders,” Jayakody said.
“What is most unfortunate is that until the newspapers pointed this out, no one in the Attorney General’s Department — including the AG himself — realised how deep this issue is.”
“How is this even possible? This a serious indictment on the Department,” he charged.
Former Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran has drawn the attention the struggles citizens face in obtaining police services in the Tamil language in the past. However, not all members of 225 lawmakers display similar sensitivity to the matter
“I am thankful that the media institutions pointed this out. But this should not have happened in the first place. We also hear that the plaque in question has been removed and will be replaced with a new one. It’s important that the Department tenders a public apology over this oversight. The problem does not end with the replacing of the plaque, however. It was while the Colombo Port City Bill was being debated in Parliament that the Chinese Embassy participated in the opening of the ‘Smart Library’ for the AG’s Department that they had funded. It came amidst serious questions as to how the Attorney General gave his approval on the Constitutionality of this controversial Bill,”
Jayakody also stressed that our collective memory should not stray away from the fact that the AG’s Department earlier accepted a multi-million dollar cheque from the Chinese construction company involved in Port City during a fund-raiser for the Easter Sunday victims.
“How credible does this make the AG and the Department? The Department should have looked at these so-called “favours” more judiciously without risking questions over its integrity. It is very sad to see that the AG’s Department act in this manner, without assessing these issues carefully, as it is expected to,” Jayakody opined.