An Idea to surpass the language impasse in Lanka

Rohan Samarajiva, courtesy of Choices Ideas, 9 March 2009, where the title is “Ideas for Sri Lanka after the War” and where some useful blog comments  will be found; while one from Maskara has been borrowed and inserted here at the end.

I have been asked why I do not write about the war. I did not, because I could not see the clear value addition. But now, as the LTTE’s 18-year control of territory is about to end, things must change. And ideas can play an important role.

There has been consensus across the political spectrum, except at the lunatic fringes, that the legitimate demands of the Tamil speaking people must be addressed.

Deeds, not words:  D.S. Senanayake understood this when he inducted the then political leader of the Tamil community and the proponent of 50:50, G.G. Ponnambalam, into his Cabinet.

S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike knew this when he signed an agreement with the then leader of the Tamil community, S.J.V. Chelvanayakam, as did Dudley Senanayake a decade later.J.R. Jayawardene was instrumental in creating both the DDC system and then the 13th Amendment. R. Premadasa negotiated.

Chandrika Kumaratunge tried to push through the “package” while fighting the LTTE. Ranil Wickremesinghe tried under the CFA as did Mahinda Rajapaksa in the early days of his presidency.

The grand gestures of Constitutional reform have been degraded. We have had 20 years of greater and lesser violations of the 13th Amendment; four plus years of blatant disregard for the provisions of the 17th Amendment; and the nibbling away of the principle of Parliamentary control of government finance by all arms of government. What value is law that is heeded by none?

It need not be one or the other. Let those who believe in Constitutional reforms do their thing. Their exertions will be supported by measurable progress on the ground that I propose. All this time we have had words, not deeds. What if primacy is given to deeds?

Any official language, anywhere, any time:  Let us take as an example the lowest hanging fruit: enabling a Tamil-speaking citizen to interact with the government on mundane everyday matters in her own language.

I am robbed; I am threatened; I am mugged. I need to communicate with the Police. Is it too much to ask that I be able to do this in language I am comfortable in, without having to take my neighbor along as an interlocutor? It appears to be so, in much of the country today.

We simply do not have enough bilingual government servants, even though we have more people working for government, per capita, than any place on the planet. Mr Lionel Fernando tried to solve this problem; Mr D.E.W. Gunasekera is still at it. But the evidence is clear. Conventional approaches are not working.

The solution is staring us in the face. The ubiquitous telephone.

With just a little tweaking of the 1919 Government Information Center, we can enable any citizen anywhere to speak to any government servant in any official language of his choice. Even today, 1919 is one place in government where questions are answered in all three official languages, politely. Why not just extend it into a full-fledged government interpretation service?

If anyone has trouble communicating with a government official, all she would have to do is dial 1919. Ideally this would be a free call. Even if not, it’s better than what we now have. All sorts of bells and whistles can be built in starting with simple conference calling, so that there’d be no need to pass the phone from ear to ear.

Does the government official have to be at her desk? No. Mobile phones work everywhere. You can call from a check point. You can call from the middle of Yala. Will this be limited to the rich? Oh no. LIRNEasia research shows that by October 2008, over 70 percent of households at the bottom of the pyramid (defined as socio-economic classifications D and E, corresponding to households earning less than USD 2 a day) in the country, excluding the North and the East, have some kind of phone. If that is the case for those with the least income, it has to be higher for those at the top of the pyramid.

If someone wants to be picky, they can start a rent-a-phone service. Rent-a-phone is easier than rent-a-neighbor. But there really is no need.

How long would it take to offer anytime, anywhere interpretation services? Weeks, not months. The private company currently operating the 1919 center can be asked to go 24/7 and increase the number of calls that can be handled at any given time. Improve the connectivity of government offices. All very cheap: telecom is the only thing going down in prices these days. But note, you need to buy from the cheapest supplier.

Find bilingual speakers and add them to the current team; take them out of government offices if need be. Accelerate the development of the databases currently used to provide information to callers so that some calls can be handled without connecting back to the government office at all.

Use the built-in capabilities of call centers, analyze the sources, types and times of calls that come in and use that data not only to improve the services from 1919, but also from the physical interfaces of government.

Start using mobile payments. Conference calling. MMS. Imagination is the limit.

More ideas now: Imagine this service rolled out by May Day. Would this not be a good way of showing that the government is more likely to meet the aspirations of the Tamil speaking people than the LTTE?

Not enough, by far. But not a bad start. And much, much better than endless talk that results in dead-letter law.

This is just to get the conversations started. We don’t need more villagers getting massacred and bombs going off. The LTTE will no longer have land. Let us deprive them of their true oxygen: people.

Wait too long and their failures will be forgotten. Address the needs of all our people, including Tamil speaking people, and we will have a united, peaceful country.

That is the choice.

We need more ideas and less celebration. Your ideas as well as mine. Now.

We need more action and less words. Not necessarily the government’s actions. Ours too.

ADDENDUM 1: for  a slide show and other aspectcs of the Samarajiva argument, also see  AND

ADDENDUM 2 – Comment from a blogger MASKARA:

I think this is a great idea. I say so because it is simple, cheap to implement, doable and effective. I would suggest that you should use social networking sites like Facebook to publish your ideas and gather public support, stimulate dialog and come up with more creative ideas.

If used properly such social networking sites can be a very effective tool to unite and mobilize likeminded citizens. I don’t have the right skills to do it myself so i urge somebody to do so.


Filed under communal relations, ethnicity, historical interpretation, language policies, politIcal discourse, reconciliation, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, tolerance, unusual people, world events & processes

5 responses to “An Idea to surpass the language impasse in Lanka

  1. Let me make a comment on Samarajeeva’s proposal that I am in sympathy with. Maskara’s addendum is right on the mark. However, please read on.
    Samarajeeva has suggested the pre-computer and pre-internet version of the technical solution to the tri-lingual problem, using old telephone technology. However, as I suggested in several past essays (the most recent being in November 2011, while the earliest was in 1974 using the possibility of State-Engineering Corporation computers) , you can do much much better with current technology, at a much faster and cheaper, user-friendly implementation using existing cell-phone technology where the language of the client is available for him/her to choose, via his browser:.

    See my essays in:
    <a in Thuppahi's blog

    and in:

    Switching on `Trilingual Competence’ without learning languages, PDF-document.pdf by CDW, 1-Nov-2011

    Why did the efforts of SWRD, Dudley et al fail? I think Samarajeeva has simply dismissed a strong and vociferous political opinion involving catalyzing landslid victories in 1956 as “the lunatic fringe”. Similarly, in 1952, and even in the 1960s Chelvanayagam was listed as the “lunatic fringe”, but he became mainstream at Vaddukkodai (Batakotte), with Senetor Thiruchelvam, Thondaman and other moderates protesting strongly behind the curtain. A patient dies from pathological bacteria and not from main-stream bacteria. So, any solution must be able to deal with the pathlogy of the “lunatic fringe” – mere dismissal of them as the “lunatic fringe” is not enough and that is partly why federalism sold as ‘arasu (sovereignty)’ to the Tamil nationalists, and “power-sharing” to the Sinhalese and to moderate Tamils failed.

    It is interesting to read a political view point from a younger person that I remember was a student at Vidyodaya University in my days there as a Professor. See his essay in the Lankaweb, a newspaper that takes a strong Sinhala nationalist position that Samarajeeva may list as overlapping with what he terms the lunatic fringe:
    The Language Act and Tamil services. Dec. 8th, 2011 Bodhi Dhanapala

    Similar essays have been written by the journalist Don Mahindapala.
    What we can see from Mahindapala, and from Dhanapala’s essay is that the two opposed nationalisms have a battle for hegemony where Language becomes the bone of contention. Other writers from the Tamil side that I am aware of are JohnPulle, Rasalingam, P. G. Anthony, Noel Nadesan etc. I have put links to some of these authors at my website:

    Such authors claim that the whole issue of language is NOT the cause of the political problem, but land ownership of the north and the east, held in the hands of a mere 10-15% upper class Tamils who lived in Colombo. They were absentee landlords who found the power of the central government too irksome for the traditional methods of control of land and property in the North and east, based on the caste system. A good academic study of this needs to be done, perhaps somewhat like in Jane Russell’s book on communal politics in the Donoughmore era.

    No amount of constitutional reform can resolve these problems. But
    education and equal economic opportunity for the masses, especially for the “lower castes” and even upper caste landless are the solutions. Ahilan Kadirgamar’s essay about caste in the North even today seems to say that nothing much has changed in the re-constituted villages. Apparently, the Army shops set up in the North after the war allowed people to shop there at anytime, freely, while the new Tamil-owned shops required the deprived-caste people to come from the back door, or at after hours. However, the TNA and NGOS have mad a huge cry demanding that the army shops be closed. But some Tamils have even written in support of army shops!

    Army ‘Kadaigals’ in the North – Bane or Boon?, Rasalingam, Nov-2011

    So, the solution to the “lunatic fringe” is making people mix with each other by their mutual needs based on business, travel, culture, language and other daily needs of life. The division between the Kandyan Sinahlese (who asked for federalism in 1940s) and the low-country Sinhalese disappeared in about two generations. Technology can play a very big role in speeding this up this process so that it takes only a decade and not two generations. So I welcome samarajeeva’s write up, but we need not use old technology as Sri lanka has leap-frogged the land-line telephones to the cell phones that have browsers and internet technology.

  2. Rohan Samarajiva

    I propose a telephone based solution for two reasons:
    1. The service must be available in the locations where citizens interact with government, such as when a citizen is making a complaint about a lost National ID card. What is available in these locations is the simple telephone (I have provided evidence that most people in Sri Lanka have mobiles). There is no need to have broadband in police offices; not even a need to use the police telephone. It is a little difficult to understand the ground conditions in Sri Lanka government offices for those who do not go to them.
    2. The problem that needs to be solved is that of a citizen speaking one language and the official not understanding. Voice telephony is the optimal solution, not the second-best solution for this problem.

    The other matters are irrelevant. Perhaps, language is not the solution as Dr Dharmawardene claims. But at least we’ll get it off the table if this simple solution is implemented. In the most cynical terms, it will then be possible for those who so suspect to establish the ulterior and evil motives of the Tamil political class.

  3. chandre Dharma-wardana

    The main justification for RohanW’s suggestion is that it is available now, and not that it optimal or inexpensive or easy to implement.

    However, I think RohanS may have under-estimated the situation and the desiderata involved .

    Think of a person e.g., a Tamil expatriate, “Ganesh” returned to Vanni from Poland and does not speak anything else except Tamil and Polish, alanguage he learnt when working in Poland. He is confronted with having to make a statement to a police officer “Perera” in Iranamadu (acient Ranamaduwa) who only speaks Sinhalese . Ganesh can speak in Tamil, or Polish, and select his mobile’s browser to transmit the conversation in Sinhala as well to Perera. Perera immediately understands it in his language , without the need for a “legally certified translator”, and he also has a record of the converation in the original and in translation. Ganesh can also simultaneously transmit the recored statement to his lawyer, in both languages, and a copy to his Polish wife back in Warsaw. The transmitted copies can be encrypted so that no alteration is possible. All this costs virtually nothing – no need to lay land lines etc. In fact, this technology IS available in Iranamadu (Ranamaduwa) today although the translation capabilites (tamil to sinhala and vice versa) have yet to come.

    The old telephone method could only be a stop gap till the new solution is implemented.
    The telepohne soultion means you need a legally certified translator, a legally certified copier of the document done probably by hand since there may be no typewriters, say in Polish if Ganesh choses to speak Polish. A signature of Ganesha in a hard-copy document written in a language that he does not understand is also needed. His lawyer, or his wife can have no immediate access to it. There can be the claim that the hard-copy statement written in a language that Ganesh does not understand was signed under threat.

    Leap-frogging into the best available technology is ALWAYS the optimal solution. Half-backed or obsolete solutions will require another round of modernization and recrimination.

    if we look at the population in the North and extending down to Batti, it is slightly less than 1,000,000 according to the last census. So this is roughly 1/22 i.e, ~4.5% of the whole country. We could take the case of a Sri Lankan who only speaks Malayalam. She may be only 0.01%. Why is it that she has no language rights, if the 4.5% gets full rights? Such iniquities will not occur in the method we propose, since the Malayale lady only needs to click her language setting in the brower asking for attomatic transmission from Malayalam. This is technically more difficult. My solution would be to go from Malayalam to Tamil (a solved problem) and Tamil to Sinhala (waiting to be solved – I gave a technical seminar on this to ICTA in June 2009, in Colombo), so that Perera the unilingual Sinhala officer can listen to the statement and and automatically record the statement in the original and in the translated forms, with encrypted copies to lawyers etc. Such copies will also remain in the memory of the cellphone and may be retrieved later if legal issues arise.

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