21 October, 2021

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Semiotic Aspects Of The Discourse On Ethnic Conflict In Sri Lanka; A Re-Reading Of Modern Mega-Tragedy

By Michael Fernando –

Dr. 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 meaningjoint 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.

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Latest comments

  • 7
    2

    With all due respect the mistranslation it self was time and again intentionally created by politicians with the support of religious heads. The major parties played this game of bluff since independence, for their own personal gain and thereby managed to keep the voting public amused. But this alone does not explain the tragedy. There are others like immorality. Envy. Jealousy. Racism bigotry and whole lot
    In short the Lankan mentality is such, is to take pleasure seeing their neighbors house gutted . not realizing their own suffering.. Is there a word to describe such thinking???

    • 2
      0

      In German there is a word. That is “Shadenfreude” which can be transated into Sinhala as “kalakanni santhoshaya” (කාලකන්නි සන්තෝෂය). Btitisher say that they don’t have such a concept and their languge also doesn’t have a word to express that concept!

      • 2
        0

        “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.”

        It would be a good thing if this were true, but I doubt it. What is the basis for your statement? Have any surveys shown this?

        My understanding is that Sinhalese politicians remain implacably opposed to Federalism, or any other forms of power sharing with Tamils and other minorities, and that has been at the root of the continuing problems in Sri Lanka.

        • 2
          0

          Federal system is good for this country. Those who understand the real meaning of Fedaralism would definitely agree with it. Those who are against the national harmony do not want to see the good side of Fedaralism !

  • 2
    6

    A solution cannot be found in a space where no solution exist.
    .
    EVERY Sinhalese is a majoratarian, EVERY Tamil is a separatist and EVERY Muslim is a fundamentalist.
    .
    Tamils and Muslims are united against the Sinhalese, Muslims and Sinhalese are united against Tamils and Sinhalese and Tamils are united against Muslims.
    .
    There are 330 million(tis tun koti) gods to protect Buddhists, a ministry of gods headed by Brahma to protect Hindus, all mighty God to protect Christians and one-and-only Allah to protect Muslims.
    .
    Actually all aspects of the ‘problem’ are well balanced while this guy is wading through dictionaries to find yet another ‘solution’.
    Good luck.

    Soma

  • 5
    8

    Dr. Michael Fernando talk about an ‘Ethnic Problem’ without telling what is the ‘Ethnic Problem’ in Sri Lanka.
    Vellala Tamil Politicians use different terms such as ‘National Problem’, Minority Problem’, ‘Tamil Problem’, ‘Ethnic Problem’. But they themselves do not know what is the ‘Problem’ and how the proposed solutions solve the problem.
    After LTTE Tamil terrorism was defeated a large number of Tamils from North and East have moved to the South. How these people will benefit from ‘Devolution’, ‘Federal System’ or a ‘Confederation’?
    These Vellala Tamil politicians who talk about ‘Tamil Problem’ oppress low caste Tamils in Yapanaya. Can someone tell how ‘Devolution’, ‘Federal System’ or a ‘Confederation’ help those low caste Tamils. In fact, they opposed giving Land and Police powers to NPC because they know very well the outcome.

    • 10
      2

      Eagle Eye,
      You keep hammering on behalf of ‘some’ oppressed Tamils. I thought that by now, a member or two of that oppressed class would have come forward to thank you for fighting for them. Not a single has. Why waste your precious time on them. Let those thankless bastards suffer

      • 1
        5

        Nathan,
        Those oppressed low caste Tamils in Yapanaya do not visit prestigious web sites like CT dominated by Vellala Tamils of Tamil Diaspora. Is it alright if Vellala Tamils who make big noise in the international arena about majority Sinhala Buddhists discriminating against minorities keep on violating human rights of their own people because they were born to so called ‘Low Castes’ in Hindu society? Man, this is called ‘HYPOCRICY’.
        When Sinhalayo gave citizenship in Sinhale to Dravidians brought by colonial rulers, they were given equal rights but Vellala Tamils are denying that to their own people.

        • 3
          0

          Eagle Eye, So you think that you found a smart way out, claiming that low caste Tamils do not visit web sites like CT. Now, you are insulting them. How unkind!

      • 3
        1

        Nathan,
        He should be talking about oppressed Sinhalayo. He himself wouldn’t be admitted to the Siam Nikaya.

        • 4
          0

          Federal system is good for this country. Those who understand the real meaning of Fedaralism would definitely agree with it. Those who are against the national harmony do not want to see the good side of Fedaralism !

    • 2
      5

      Tamil problem created by Terrorists, Separatists, Extremists oriented Tamils. The peace-loving Tamils are suffering because of the above oriented Tamils. Please allow those Tamils to live peacefully in Heladiva (Sri Lanka). Decent Tamils like Alfred Duraiappa, Kadiragarmar and Ananda Sangaree for example.

    • 5
      0

      By ethnic harmony we mean equal opportunities for all citizens irrespective of their cultural differeces.

      • 1
        1

        Dr. Michael Fernando
        Can you please tell us:
        • What is it that the Sinhalayo are enjoying that the other communities are not enjoying because they are not Sinhala?
        • What is it that the minorities do not enjoy because they are the minority which the majority enjoys because they are the majority?
        • What is legally, constitutionally and legislatively given to the majority that is not given to the minorities?
        • What is it that the Sinhala Buddhists are enjoying that the other communities are not enjoying because they are not Sinhala Buddhists?

        As a matter of fact, there are certain things that only Tamils and Muslims enjoy. Vellala Tamils have been allowed to retain a Malabar customary law called ‘Thesawalamei’ that they brought from Malabar.
        Muslims have been allowed to enjoy few privileges such as special marriage and divorce laws, Kadhi courts, freedom to marry several women and underage women and special leave for Muslim women. Muslims are allowed to marry Sinhala Buddhist women and convert to Islam but if a Sinhala Buddhist marry a Muslim woman, she gets harassed by Muslims.

  • 2
    1

    Mr Fernando
    Unfortunately,the concept of ethnic harmony as described by you, is beyond the comprehension of low IQ ed people like Eagle Eye, N. Perera, et al.
    That is the main problem in SL.

  • 0
    0

    The essay dive in well deep in, but did not come out with any pearl. No solution to offer. A begging hungry man is offered a royal recipe, but no food for his hunger. Essay explains the problem faced in one part, defining the problem and finding the name for the solution. By its path, it stayed what happened after the war, other than Federal party’s name translation. It did not interpret results from incidents like JR’s Kandy Walk or tearing off of Banda-Chelva pact or the court verdict on CV & Sumanthiran’s election manifesto using federalism, in its viewer angle. Article talked about missing empathy, which misdirected communities’ faith instead which could have been prop up with in communities after war. After celebrating with Kiribath & Fire Crackers, Old King militarized North with Rapist Army, 1:5 to 1:2, then declared that there was no minority in Lankawe. He used anti-Ekeeya Raj talks to sweep over the Local election and derail “Sampanthar Aiya’s Secret Solution. After Local Election, rude waken from his deep slump of Secret Solution, which was overturned by no hope for 2/3 in Yahapalanaya by sudden rise of Slap Party, Sampanthar delivered a long passionate, persuading speech in parliament requesting Old King not to divide the country further by his actions, but unit it by devolving power.

  • 0
    0

    A good Essay (Paper), recommend to those who wants look at the problem in a different dimension.

  • 3
    0

    Many may not know Dr Michael Fernando the quiet retired Peradeniya don.
    He was in the Department of Sinhala. He remains a committed leftist. He was very popular among students, much of it owing to his activity on promoting theatre and his caring nature.
    His interest in communal harmony runs deep; when communal tension was whipped up by mischief makers at Peradeniya in May 1983 with several incidents of violence, the VC wanted a few members of the academic staff of both Sinhala and communities to talk to students about the importance of harmony.
    Not many volunteered under the prevailing conditions where one could be branded this or that, and many non-UNP dons were reluctant to rise to the occasion owing to understandable political bitterness .
    Michael reluctantly agreed, because he felt that communal harmony was more important that settling sores with the UNP.
    He went on to address a large gathering of students at James Peiris Hall in the evening. His talk was heard in pin-drop silence and it made a difference to the situation in the campus.
    But events in the country took a nasty turn. Yet the peace that prevailed in Peradeniya during July-August 1983 owed much to the likes of Michael and some sensible elements cutting across party lines.

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