Lack of Tamil-Speaking Police Handicaps Sri Lankan Civil War Recovery

Talking to police officers can make even the most law-abiding citizen feel just a wee bit nervous. Can you imagine if the officer didn’t speak your language? In Sri Lanka, a devastating civil war that lasted for decades is finally over.  However, a lack of Tamil speakers on the country’s  police force  is slowing the healing process in Tamil-speaking regions.

Tamil is the primary language spoken in Sri Lanka’s Northern province. However, most of the rest of the country speaks Sinhalese, as does the majority of the country’s police force. In fact, according to  Irinnews.org, less than 15 percent of the police officers working in the Northern province are able to speak Tamil.

The civil war was waged by the Tamil Tigers against the Sinhalese-speaking government. Now that the war is over, the two sides need to learn to trust each other again, but the language barrier between ordinary citizens and the police makes that more difficult.

For example, the article quotes Suranga Weerasekara, an aid worker from the Northern Province’s Jaffna District:

“The lack of Tamil-speaking police officers in the northeast will be a long-term obstacle to the development of the Northern Province. People are reluctant to go meet with law-enforcement officials due to a lack of Tamil-speaking police officers in the north.”

Why are there so few Tamil-speaking officers? According to IRIN, the Tamil Tigers saw local Tamil-speaking citizens joining the police force as a betrayal, and often used violence to punish them and to scare other Tamils out of joining.

Fortunately, the Sri Lankan government recognizes the importance of having police officers who can speak the local language, and they are offering incentives for Tamil-speaking officers to sign up and for Sinhalese-speaking officers to learn Tamil. Hopefully, their efforts pay off and they are able to develop a police department capable of communicating effectively with the community it is supposed to police and protect.

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