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Post-war recovery snagged by language hurdle

Less than 15 percent of the police force in Northern Province speak Tamil, the main language in the war-affected region
Less than 15 percent of the police force in Northern Province speak Tamil, the main language in the war-affected region (Udara Soysa/IRIN)

As residents of northern Sri Lanka piece together their lives a year after the end of a decades-long civil war, a communication gap between Tamil-speaking locals and a predominantly Sinhala-speaking police force threatens to hinder recovery in the region.

While three-quarters of Sri Lanka's population speaks the official language of Sinhala, in the Northern Province the overwhelming majority of people speak Tamil, the language taught in the region's schools.

However, less than 15 percent of the area’s 15,000-strong police force can speak the language, said Nimal Lewke, senior deputy police inspector-general of the Northern Province.

In the region where Tamil Tigers waged war for an independent Tamil homeland, matters of language are intricately linked with identity. Although the region is at peace, language remains a strong dividing barrier.

“Winning hearts and minds is a popular slogan today after the war, but we have to be very practical. We have to understand each other to gain the trust of each other. Language proficiency in the police force is thus critical,” Lewke said.

Some describe the shortage of Tamil-speaking police in the Northern Province - an 8,884sqkm region home to 1.3 million people - as one of the most pressing humanitarian concerns.

“The lack of Tamil-speaking police officers in the northeast will be a long-term obstacle to the development of the Northern Province,” said Suranga Weerasekara, an aid worker from Jaffna District. “People are reluctant to go meet with law-enforcement officials due to a lack of Tamil-speaking police officers in the north.”

According to Thirunavukkarasu Sritharan of the Eelam People’s Revolutionary Liberation Front -Pathmanabha wing, a Tamil political party, “this is one of the most important issues in the north. People are affected by the lack of Tamil-speaking police officers in newly resettled areas like Kilinochchi and Mulativu districts and Jaffna.”

Incentives to learn Tamil

In 2009, the police department started offering monthly bonuses to officers who could speak Tamil, while books teaching Tamil were introduced at police stations. The government, meanwhile, now works with the Asian Development Bank to provide Tamil language courses for police officers.

“I have been in the northern police force since 1985, and I have seen first-hand how the lack of Tamil proficiency affects police operations,” said Lewke, of the provincial police. “We must understand the mindset of the community to establish law and order.”

A military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told IRIN that during the war, rebel Tigers prevented other Tamils from joining the police in Sri Lanka.

“The Tamil Tigers killed many Tamils who were involved in the police service. Some of them were abducted. This is why we have the current situation. With peace prevailing, this situation is bound to change,” he said.

According to Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on political violence and terrorism, “unless government officers and policemen are able to communicate effectively, exchange ideas, share views and build friendships, they will not know what is going on in the community.

“The key to community-led policing is knowledge of the local culture, language and religion,” said Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. “The key to detecting terrorist threats, terrorist intentions and capabilities is knowing the community."


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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