Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dr. Upasiri Silva's Personal Account of Discrimination in Sri Lanka

Posted by Sanjeewa Karunaratne

I joined the Public Works Department of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon ) in 1956 September 15th. The intake had more Tamils, but only 7 Sinhalese and one Muslim. The then PWD was full of Tamils and Sinhalese comprised not more than 10%. Not only PWD, Irrigation Department, Police Department and Health Department were the other major government departments where Tamils dominated. According to the statistics, the University of Colombo, Peradeniya and the Medical College were completely dominated by Tamils.

Referring to the 1956 Sinhala Only Act, it is a mistaken belief that Tamils got discriminated from that Bill.

1956 Sinhala Only Act was suspended indefinitely, the same day it was passed in the Parliament by PM (late) SWRD Bandaranayke by a special Gazette notification and the use of Sinhala was not systematically used till I left Sri Lanka in 1973. Because the use of Sinhala was suspended indefinitely Tamil Public servants never had any trouble in working in English. 1958 riots were not due to the Sinhala only Act, but due to introduction of Sinhala "SRI" by the Minister of Transport, Hon. Marickkar (a.k.a Sinhala Marickkar). Introduction of "SRI" was never accepted by the Tamils for Vehicle registration.

All Sinhalese Officers were supposed to sit for a Tamil Examination and be proficient in Tamil to get their next promotion and those who refused to sit but got qualified in Tamil got full pension under the Official Language Act. Vice versa, it was compulsory for Tamils also to sit for the Sinhala proficiency examination to continue in the service. Every one who passed these examination were paid Rs. 500 a princely sum at that time. Most Burger Officers refused to sit for these examinations and they got the full pension and migrated to other countries especially to Australia. Most Sinhalese and Tamils also took the full pension and joined the private sector.

Till I left Sri Lanka in 1973, in the Department of Buildings and the Department of Highways (PWD was separated in 1968) most Engineers and Technical officers were Tamils. In the District Hospital at Balapitiya and Pollwatte in Ambalangoda, where I come from, I never came across a Sinhalese Doctor till my departure. My promotion in the PWD was delayed by a Tamil Director for 4 years as he placed Tamils on top of the list as Seniority played a major role in the promotions.

The statement that Sinhalese discriminated against Tamils never happened in SL in 1956, but after 1973 when the Sinhalese people became the majority position holders in the government. But the private sector was still dominated by the Tamils. Even today Tamils have a fair share of the positions in the government sector but their share in the Private sector is more than in the government sector. I am well aware of this as I worked in Sri Lanka from 2005 up to 2007 as a Consultant. Now, in Colombo we have more Tamils than Sinhalese. Sinhalese are the third majority in the Western Province.


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