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Last updated: 17 March, 2010 - Published 18:27 GMT
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Police statements in Tamil

Police stations in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, have for the first time opened special units to take down statements in the country’s main minority language, Tamil.

The move has been hailed as a small but vital step in the country which has a lingering ethnic divide and whose decades-long insurrection and war arose from this.

Generally if a Tamil-speaking Sri Lankan in Colombo wants to give a statement at a police station, he or she has to rely on a friend to translate into Sinhala, the language overwhelmingly predominant in the police force. That produces a written document they may not understand.

Tamil-language facilities up to now have been ad-hoc and unpredictable. That’s changing. Four police stations in the city’s suburbs will now have units to cater to the needs of Tamil-speakers, and there are plans for more. Some are staffed by an expanding number of Tamil policemen and women, others by Sinhalese who’ve been trained in the language.

The state-owned Daily News calls it a small step to build and consolidate inter-racial harmony. It says the fact that this change took more than 60 years to achieve after Sri Lanka’s independence shows what it calls the “indifference and lethargy” of bureaucrats and politicians.

Although Sri Lanka’s population is three-quarters Sinhalese, Tamil is the mother tongue for not only Tamils but also the Muslims, seen as the third ethnic group. According to the 2001 census, within Colombo’s metropolitan area Tamil-speakers actually constituted a majority, 55%. People living in cities in the north and east of Sri Lanka, where Tamils are in a majority, have told the BBC that in recent months Tamil-language facilities in police stations have expanded markedly.

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