Two incidents in which Chinese was included on signs for government projects but Tamil was omitted, despite being an official language, have caused Sri Lankans to start questioning the cultural hegemony of China on the island nation as its investments multiply.
Sri Lankan attorney general Dappula de Livera unveiled a plaque written in Sinhala, English, and Chinese, but not Tamil, as required by the official trilingual policy of the country. The controversy erupted after China gifted a smart library to the attorney general’s department. Following a barrage of social media criticism, the plaque was removed without comment from the AG. However, the Chinese embassy tweeted: “We noticed an interim sign in a JV building site not abiding by trilingual rules. We respect all three official languages in Sri Lanka, and urge China companies to follow.” The tweet included images of other Chinese-built structures with Tamil on their signs.
A week earlier, a sign at the Central Park under development in the Chinese-backed Colombo Port City showed a Chinese translation in place of the original Tamil. After the news went viral in Tamil social media circles, Colombo Port City released a statement saying that it was an old photograph, while the news website Colombo Page published a statement by Colombo Port City on a trilingual letterhead claiming that the project was still under construction and the signboards put up by the contractor were meant for employees and authorized visitors, so they did not have to be in all three official languages.
The controversy continued with state minister of national heritage, performing arts, and rural arts promotion Vidura Wickramanayaka telling Sri Lankan newspaper the Daily Mirror: “As a country we should not allow these type of things to happen. We talk about co-existence. An inquiry in this regard has to be carried out…”
Batticaloa member of Parliament from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Shanakiyan Rasamanickam said that it is China that decides what to put on signs in Sri Lanka, adding that Sri Lanka had become “Chi-Lanka.”
The language controversy follows massive opposition to the Colombo Port City by a cross-section of Sri Lankan society, except President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ruling party—Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna. Even some Buddhist monks opposed Chinese control over the Colombo Port City, saying that it would make Sri Lanka a colony of the communist giant.