By Michael Fernando –
The civil war in the South Asian Island state Sri Lanka came to an end in April 2009 with the defeat of the separatist armed struggle carried out by the LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers for a Elam) by the government military forces. What has been happening in this country since about 1936 under colonial and postcolonial conditions is a real human tragedy.
One of the main problems of the discourse on ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is the confusion created by the linguistic and nonlinguistic signs used by the discussants and their witting or unwitting interpretations by the stakeholders e.g. political leaders, religious leaders, academics and general public.
The Semiotic approach that studies the creation and communication of meaning in society helps to understand the confusion created by attempts of the main actors of the whole drama of the ethnic conflict to put forward their arguments. The advantage of this method over many other approaches is that it examines not only linguistic but also other signs used by individuals, groups of people such as political parties and the state.
This paper attempts to highlight some central linguistic expressions targeting the Sinhala speaking population in Sri Lanka especially those that have created confusions, misunderstandings and misinterpretations among the audience.
Almost all the main concepts that denote the subject under discussion such as nation, nationality, ethnicity, have created diverse meanings which have confused the partners of the discourse and their audience as well.
The widely used Sinhala equivalent for the word nation is jatiya or jati as in the case of many South Asian languages. In the Sinhala language there are several meanings for this word such as birth and cast. Furthermore the words jatiya or jati are also used to depict the status of a group of people as low and high by adding adjectives denoting its standing in the hierarchy. Already in 1922 one of the pioneer Sinhala social reformers wrote that Sinhala jatiya is one of the two greatest jatis in the whole world. The implied subordination of other national cultures has done lasting harm.
Another problem concerning the terms nation and nationalism was the use of them by many scholars from a Eurocentric point of view. According to one scholar “In Western Europe the process of state building preceded and assisted the process of nation-formation. In consequence, the concept of the nation that developed from this process focused on the political community as defined by the institutional and territorial framework.” Using the word “nation” in this sense to explain the ethno-cultural social groups in countries like Sri Lanka created confusion between the participants of the discourse and the audience.
An important concept for which the partners of the discourse have not yet found a term to convey it to the audience is ethnicity and the adjective ethnic. The Sinhala equivalents of these terms are janavargikatvaya and janavargika respectively. The Sinhala words can be easily interpreted as “race” / “racial” thus confusing the audience. From the early stages of the discourse on ethnic conflict, the difficulty of finding Sinhala terms to convey the “meaning” of these concepts was recognized. Some scholars even opted to use the English term “ethnic” in their writings in the Sinhala language. However this was a futile exercise.
During the last four decades the conflict has been turned into a civil war causing severe damage to the human lives, the economy and the culture of the country. Attempts to find a solution to the conflict have become extremely complicated and complex. In the process of searching for a solution to this conflict there has been a discourse both in the national and the international arenas. On the one hand are the forces that believe in a military solution belonging or supporting the two main camps of the conflict. On the other hand are the forces that believe in a peaceful solution belonging to all nationalities of the country. The discourse involving all these actors are marked with semiotic factors that are detrimental to any peaceful settlement of the conflict.
One of the main suggestions put forward by national and international partners of the discourse as the basis of any peaceful solution is the “Devolution of Power”. This concept has nevertheless created misunderstandings in the minds of the majority of the Sinhala speaking population who are in favor of a negotiated settlement. The concept “Devolution of Power” is translated into Sinhala as balaya bedeema which is commonly understood as “division or separation of power” and the intended concept “sharing of power” is not clearly conveyed..
Thus the concept “balaya bedeema” has produced and communicated more than one meaning. Understandably those who are against any type of devolution of power have made use of this misinterpretation saying “balaya bedeema definitely leads to a rata bedeema”(Division of power leads to a division of the country.) Those who aware of the ambiguity conveyed by the Sinhala translation of “devolution of power” searched for alternative words or phrases. These attempts led to another dialogue resulting in the emergence of new phrases like balaya vimadhya gata kireema (decentralization of power) and bala havulkarakama (sharing of power). This debate itself initiated another dialogue which made the “devolution of power” acceptable to a larger section of the population and created a situation where the main political forces of the country have recognized “devolution of power”as the prerequisite for solving the current ethnic-conflict.
Another revealing example which explains the resulting confusion in the discourse is the introduction of the concept of “Federalism” which is translated into Sinhala as “pedaral vadaya”. (Political scientists and some “educated” politicians use words like sandheeya). Unfortunately a great antipathy developed against this concept among many Sinhalease as they linked up “Federalism” with the Federal Party which was established by Tamil politicians in 1949. The Tamil name given to the party was Thamil Arasu Kachchi (Tamil State Party). The majority of the Sinhalese thinks that Federalism leads to a division of the country. (Interestingly the term “Federalism” is translated into Tamil as samasthi and kûttatchi conveying the meaning “joint rule”.) However among the leaders of the majority political parties support for a federal solution is gathering momentum due to their attempts to understand the concept through practical examples.
Some of the main concepts such as Êlam, nijabhumi, eksath, ekeeya which have been used by the main groups involved in the conflict and also in the discourse have also greatly confused the stakeholders. Even though serious studies have been carried out examining the above mentioned concepts, and the results were published in main three languages of the country, they have not reached the main stakeholders i.e, the masses of the country.
One of the significant characteristics of the discourse on ethnic-conflict in Sri Lanka is its trilingual character, the languages used by the partners of the dialogue. The language used by policymakers and the elitist leaders including academia is English. Sinhala or Tamil are the languages used by the masses belonging to the main three ethnic groups. Production of concepts/meanings was mainly in the English language by borrowing or assimilating Euro-American concepts often creating misunderstandings and misinterpretations. On the other hand there is hardly any serious dialogue between monolingual Sinhala and monolingual Tamil population.
The whole Peace process and the discourse on the ethnic conflict in the country suffers considerably due to such semiotic problems, especially due to the difficulties of the communicating the meanings of the suggested solutions to the masses. This situation is not only disadvantageous for the forces for peace but also advantageous for the schemes of those who are against any type of peaceful settlement. They could make use of this state of affairs very effectively to achieve their purpose.
One might argue that this is a minor problem created by wrong translations/adaptations and can be easily remedied by finding more suitable words and phrases. However it is not only a problem of the use of words and phrases. The crux of the matter is the insensitiveness to the process of the production and communication of meanings that has already done serious harm to rapproachment and ethnic harmony.
From a semiotic point of view “signs” other than words such as a flag or acts like arson or common celebrations can create and communicate “meanings” or messages that affect the ethnic harmony in a society positively or negatively.
Awareness of the social semiotics i.e. the functioning of the meaning bearing process of society and the sensitive response of individuals and social institutions towards this process is one of the basic preconditions in achieving harmony in a multicultural society, even though the finding of a final solution for the conflict is a political exercise.