Education essential for reconciliation

Rajiva Wijesinha interviewed by Rathindra Kuruwita

Many think of truth commissions, new laws and restitution when they think of reconciliation. But in a country like Sri Lanka where there is deep rooted prejudices and mistrust among ethnicities, education can play a key role in achieving true reconciliation. Ceylon Today speaks to former State Minister of Education and former Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (SCOPP) Rajiva Wijesinha to speak further on using Education as a tool, in reconciliation and ethnic harmony.

 Q:  How can we use education to achieve reconciliation?

A: As we noted in the draft National Reconciliation Policy, which the last government ignored, and which this one does not seem interested in either, ‘The perception of discrimination and unequal treatment within the Tamil population arose from a series of administrative changes, such as discrimination against the use of the Tamil language in a context where education was segregated by language. This contributed to deprivation in terms of jobs, which was exacerbated by the State being the predominant employer in the context of statist economic policies’.

Reversing this would be easy if we ensured bilingualism, which is a standard requirement for higher education, in all countries at our level of development or higher. I would advocate making two of the three languages used in this country compulsory at Ordinary Level. This would open up more opportunities for employment for citizens from the North too, while it would ensure that any citizen could communicate with any other citizen.

I should note that by education I also mean technical and vocational training, which is a mess at present. In the last few years, I have spent much of my decentralized budget in the North for Vocational Training Centres, because very little was happening there. The Ministry in Colombo did not develop active training centres, but constructed buildings and set up institutions, which provide jobs for favourites. The present government also seems concerned more with making political appointments to these positions rather than the professional development that is needed. I had plans, when Kabir Hashim first told me he wanted me to look after Technical Education too, to develop a modular system so that we would produce not only technicians but also potential managers and entrepreneurs. We could have got private sector support for this, given the crying need for skilled workers. But I was told that the Prime Minister wanted to hang on to that sector – and since then I have seen no evidence of thinking on the subject.

At another level, we should also have systematized the twinning of schools and universities. I had suggested for instance that Moratuwa University work together with the Eastern University, and Jaffna with Ruhuna. Earlier, I had wanted a major Colombo school to work with a big school in a Northern District capital to do projects for rural areas. Unfortunately the then Secretary at the Ministry of Education got suspicious and did not encourage this.

Finally, we should develop a programme to get educational support from the Diaspora. As you know, this element in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission recommendations has been neglected. Soon after, I took office I wrote to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs about this, but heard nothing. Recently, International Alert had a meeting with youngsters from the Diaspora who wanted to volunteer for work here, but it seems those in authority are concerned only about investment. Even students can understand the need for other systems of contact, as when for instance the Rajarata Medical students asked about getting people from abroad to teach them for particular subjects for particular periods. That type of person to person contact would be ideal, for when people work together they appreciate each other more. But I fear there is little concern about either Reconciliation or Education at a time when grabbing power and winning elections (and not in that order) seem the priorities.

Q:  You have said “when the vast majority of jobs in the public sector require a knowledge of Sinhala, and the education system prevents Tamils, and Muslims too, from acquiring Sinhala, of course they will be deprived of jobs.’ What are the main reasons preventing students from the North and East to learn Sinhala? On the other hand don’t students have the right to learn in a language they prefer and is it not the State’s responsibility to ensure that they are also included in the system?

A: The main problem is an acute shortage of teachers. The State has failed to provide English teachers though it has been a compulsory subject for half a century (compulsory in the peculiar Sri Lankan use of the term, since it is not compulsory to pass an exam in English). Now, though Sinhala and Tamil are compulsory as Third Languages, we do not have enough teachers in those subjects either,of course students have a right to pick their medium of instruction, I am talking now of a second language. We have a chicken and egg situation here, in that the State does not want to make a second language compulsory because there are not enough teachers, and because there are not enough teachers, many students cannot learn a second language. And of course it is the rural students who suffer most. Sometimes, seeing the efforts to stop English medium education that both Ranil Wickremesinghe and some officials in the Education Ministry engaged in, when Tara de Mel and I started it 15 years ago, I begin to wonder whether this isn’t a deliberate ploy to stop our bright rural students from being able to compete effectively. Continue reading

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