About confusing ‘government’ with ‘state’
Posted on December 8th, 2017

By Rohana R. Wasala

This refers to a minor but significant verbal inaccuracy in the feature article by senior economist Usvatte-aratchi under the elaborate title State and govt. not interchangeable: Same goes for revenue and income hoax of free education and free health services” posted in the Lankaweb of December 5, 2017. My focus here is Usvatte-Aratchi’s wrong assumption that the Sinhala word ‘rajaya’ invariably translates as ‘state’ in the specific context. His opening sentence incorrectly suggests that the Sinhala term ‘rajaya’ is an adequate equivalent for the English term ‘state’: On 11 November in the evening news, President Maithripala Sirisena claimed that his state (mage rajaya) would not permit anyone who fought in the war against LTTE to be brought to court for his conduct in battle.” While sneering at the president for allegedly claiming the (Sri Lankan) state to be ‘his state’, the writer implies that the former president was guilty of this same misconception as well (i.e., that the state was his ‘estate’). So, he translates president Sirisena’s mage rajaya” as his state”, which is wrong. Could it be that Uswatte-aratchi’s poor knowledge of Sinhala is the problem? Not likely, though. I think it is a slip of the pen.

The following remarks are not relevant to the content of his essay, except insofar as they focus on his failure (to correctly understand what the president actually meant by the phrase ‘mage rajaya’) colours his opinion about the subject he is dealing with. I wish to leave it for a person more knowledgeable in the economics field to analyze Uswatte-aratchi’s doubtlessly important observations on free education and free health services in Sri Lanka.

To resume my subject, the president has no problem with his mastery of Sinhala. He will never fail to linguistically differentiate between ‘state’ and  ‘government’. What he intended to say and actually did say was mage rajaya” or my government”, by which he clearly meant the Yahapalana administration under his presidency as head of state. This is no different from the British monarch referring to ‘my government’ in the British parliament during the ‘speech from the throne’. (The difference, however, is that the British monarch is only a ceremonial figurehead, whereas the Sri Lankan president is required to play an executive role.) Neither the incumbent president nor his predecessor could be considered so ignorant as to confuse these two very simple concepts. A state in this context is a nation or territory considered as an organized political community under one ruler or administration” which is a permanent political institution, whereas a government is the governing body of the state” at any time. Governments come and go, but the state remains as something permanent. Ordinary Sri Lankans, who are among the most politically aware nations in the world, know the difference between the state and the government. The problem is Usvatte-Aratchi’s erroneous interpretation of president Sirisena’s rajaya” as state”. The president actually meant government” in that speech. The question whether the present president considers the sovereign state of Sri Lanka to be his private property (or whether the former president acted likewise) is irrelevant to us here.

The Sinhala language has precise technical terms to denote the notions of state and government, as English clearly does: State is rajyaya”. Government is rajaya” or anduwa” in Sinhala. But, in rare informal situations where what is meant is contextually obvious, where there is absolutely no possibility of confusion, these Sinhala words (derived from Sanskrit) could be used interchangeably. Ordinary Sri Lankans who are proficient in Sinhala know which term to use in appropriate contexts.

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