Former Sri Lankan president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga said the passing of an infamous law that made Sinhala the island’s sole official language was done as means of giving back a ”Sri Lankan” identity.
Ms Kumaratunga, who now heads the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, said that after 450 years of colonial rule by “white rulers”, the island’s leadership “felt they needed to express their identity by regaining an important place for the language of the Sinhala people”.
Her father, S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, introduced the bill in 1956 and was a major grievance for Tamils at the time, instantly disenfranchising them from government jobs across the island. Peaceful protests against the bill by Tamils triggered a violent reaction from the Sinhalese, including the Gal Oya riots, where 150 Tamils were killed by Sinhala mobs.
The legacy of the law continues to this day, where government and police forms are still routinely found in Sinhala Only. Cases continue to be reported of Tamils arrested by Sri Lankan police and forced to sign confessions in Sinhala.
“We know that language is the major driving force of a people,” said Ms Kumaratunga. “They felt they needed to express their identity by regaining an important place for the language of the Sinhala people.”
“They did not see it as a racist move,” she insisted stating it “was a means of giving back to the country, the Sri Lankans, its identity”.
The former president was speaking on new initiatives launched by the government to give the Tamil language equal status on the island. Examples she brought up included government doctors being made to take a two-week course in Tamil. She suggested expanding such a move to Sri Lanka’s police.