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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Deutsche Welle – Colombo ‘failing to engage’ with Tamil minority

Five years after the end of Sri Lanka’s decades-long civil war, there are few signs of a government-led reconciliation, MP Rajiva Wjesinha tells DW, arguing that mistrust and suspicion have only grown stronger.

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Shortly after the Sri Lankan army defeated the separatist “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” in May 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared an end to the country’s bloody civil war which had lasted more than 25 years during that period claimed the lives of at least 100,000 people.

Five years after the end of the separatist conflict, Sri Lanka is still struggling with reconciliation between the majority Sinhala community and the Tamil minority. International human rights organizations hold the army as well as the LTTE-separatists responsible for crimes committed during the civil war. UN High commissioner Navi Pillay has repeatedly criticized the government in Colombo for having failed to establish a “credible national process to address abuses.” As a result the UN Human Rights Council recently decided to launch an independent international investigation of human rights violations during the war.

In a DW interview, Rajiva Wijesinha, a member of the Sri Lankan parliament for the ruling coalition, says the government is not paying enough attention to the needs of people in the former war zones and welcomes advice from countries “which have not been unfairly critical” of the Sri Lankan government’s reconciliation approach. Continue reading

Towards Reconciliation

Rajiva Wijesinha

Adviser on Reconciliation to HE the President

 

Four years after the conclusion of conflict, Sri Lanka still has a long way to go to achieve Reconciliation. This is unfortunate, given the enormous efforts made by government to improve facilities for the people most affected by war. But it is not surprising that, as indicated by the results of the last election held in the Northern Province, we have failed to win hearts and minds.

That would not have been difficult had a concerted effort been made. But this requires planning, and unfortunately planning is not something Sri Lanka has been good at. For over three decades now, we have tended to respond to events or rather to crises. The one exception was the care with which, in the period after 2005, we approached the conflict, with all branches of government working together and care taken to ensure the dissemination of clear and convincing information. Following the conclusion of the conflict however all that broke down, and propaganda, often based on parochial electoral considerations, took over, with little attempt at intelligent analysis of ground realities.

Thus we seemed to believe that reconstruction alone would suffice, and reconstruction that placed a premium on cement rather than people. This is on par with the worst delusions of capitalism as elevated into a political philosophy, the assumption that prosperity will trickle down. But this does not work, and Sri Lanka may in the end have to pay heavily for the failure to conceptualize with sensitivity of those who took on responsibility only for construction and not for consultation, who concentrated only on resettlement and not rather on restoration.

Continue reading