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

Strengthening The Reconciliation Process In Sri Lanka

I am pleased to have been asked to speak today on Reconciliation, at the meeting to mark International Women’s Day, because it is clear that women have a great role to play with regard to Reconciliation. Most important perhaps, in today’s context, is the need to act as advocates for coherent policies and actions with regard to reconciliation. I must admit to being deeply disappointed that this government, which we welcomed with such hopes, has put reconciliation on the back burner. It cannot assume that healing will come just because of goodwill, just as it cannot assume that prosperity will come to all of us through economic growth. We need concerted action, and that action must be based on carefully prepared plans.

One of the problems though with this government is that it is led by people who avoided the responsibilities of the political offices they held in the last few years. So we have no understanding of good government, because there was no effort to engage, and for instance promote efforts to strengthen Parliament against the encroaching executive. At Consultative Committee meetings with regard for instance to Resettlement, or Public Administration Reforms, members of the Opposition did not turn up, and they did not raise issues that continue to affect those who suffered in the conflict. And now they make platitudinous pronouncements about pursuing reconciliation, but have not set up a dedicated mechanism. They have ignored the work done by the LLRC Action Plan Task Force, they have ignored the draft National Policy on Reconciliation, which can easily be adopted, with amendments if needed. They seem, with no knowledge of mechanics, determined to reinvent the wheel, and are meanwhile content to trundle along on skateboards. Though the recent appointment of a Task Force on Reconciliation is welcome, it would have been better had this occurred as the government was elected, so that work could have commenced at once.

I have sent the head of the Task Force a copy of the draft policy, because, prepared as it was with inputs from the more civilized elements in all political parties, as well as constructive members of Civil Society, it has a lot of suggestions that could easily be taken forward. The last government unfortunately did not want to act because, like ostriches with their heads in the sand, they wanted to claim that there was no problem. Continue reading

Sri Lankan minister calls on poets to help unite a divided nation

A view of Ella in Uva province: poets are being asked to turn their attention from poems extolling the nation’s beauty to rethinking what it means to be Sri Lankan. Photograph: WestEnd61/Rex

A view of Ella in Uva province: poets are being asked to turn their attention from poems extolling the nation’s beauty to rethinking what it means to be Sri Lankan. Photograph: WestEnd61/Rex

For centuries, the poets of Sri Lanka have sung the praises of the island nation’s stunning physical beauty – and spoken too of the conflicts that have torn it apart. Now, the government is looking to the country’s literature to heal the wounds of a brutal civil war.

Rajiva Wijesinha, the recently appointed minister for higher education, has called on universities to organise programmes of poetry, along with sports, drama and dance, to “bring together” the largely Buddhist Sinhala majority and the largely Hindu Tamil minority.

“The arts are important. They can only be a part of a much broader effort, but should not be neglected. Nothing will make everyone happy but you can reduce the intensity of grief and anger,” Wijesinha, who recently published an anthology of poetry translated into English from both the main local languages, Sinhala and Tamil.

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Diaspora Lanka Report : 28 September to 31 December 2013 – Part 9

4.6 Formalizing relationships

Discussions with Prof Rajiva

Discussions with Prof Rajiva

Diaspora Lanka has hit a snag. Since July last year the Government Agent of Mannar (GA), Urban Council Mannar (UCM), the Assistant Commissioner Local Government (ACLG) and the Urban Development Authority (UDA), key partners for the past two years, now want DL to gain formal approval from the Presidential Task Force (PTF) before they will continue to work with us. Diaspora Lanka wrote to the PTF in 2011 seeking this approval. In a lengthy phone response, the PTF Secretary informed us that we did not need their approval for our activities because we worked through local agencies, and if project approval was required, the local entity would naturally seek that. Now the rules seem to have changed and DL is in the process of gaining such approval.

Activities summary from the last visit to Sri Lanka

• Presidential Advisor on Reconciliation Prof Rajiva Wijesinha and Jeremy met with Mr Divaratne, PTF Secretary, about the matter of formal approval. He would like DL to establish a formal relationship with the UDA to streamline and make more efficient our work with government. Mr Diva also rang the new GA, arranging an appointment for DL to meet him.
• DL met with the UDA Chairman who directed the UDA Head of Business and Jeremy to draft an MoU between the UDA and DL. The document was written the next day, discussed at a directors’ meeting and forwarded to the UDA’s legal section. A letter of request along with requested registration papers were also provided by DL.
• A follow up visit and phone calls were made requesting formal approval by the UDA and PTF.

Next steps

• Write to the UDA Chairman and request he inform DL of the progress of the MoU.
• Write to the GA of Mannar seeking his help in expediting the finalization of the MoU.

Reflections

Without the signing of the MoU by the UDA and written approval from the PTF, Diaspora Lanka’s more strategic work is currently in a holding pattern.

DL meets with Mannar GA

DL meets with Mannar GA

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

Reconciliation through Poetry

Can poetry reconcile people of different ethnic, religious and cultural backgrounds to each other? Can poetry heal the wounds left behind by conflict and wipe away the tears? Can poetry build bridges and bond people together?

Professor K. Satchithanadan of Delhi University, one time secretary of the prestigious Sahitya Academy of India, had no direct answers but made it clear that poetry gave voice to the voiceless, power to challenge injustice and oppression and pricked the conscience of humanity. This message of humanity was conveyed by him and a team of Sri Lankan poets, So Pathmanathan from Jaffna, Ariyawansa Ranaweera from Colombo, and myself from Kandy. Led by him, we visited three higher institutions of learning- namely the University of Peradeniya, the Eastern University and the University of Sabaragamuwa, Belihuloya.

The three poets represented the three languages used in Sri Lanka- Sinhala, Tamil and English. Significantly, they were bilingual and bonded with each other culturally and aesthetically. Above all they shared the enthusiasm to reach out to each other and facilitate others to reach out to them and to each other. The three contexts in which this sensitizing and humanizing activity took place were well selected in terms of background, audience and response. They also formed a cross section of the Sri Lankan population Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim. At the University of Peradeniya something akin to this session had been done by Professor Rajiva Wijesinha when his book ‘Mirrored Images’ was made familiar to the academic community and the alumni there. But this session had vertical proportions in that the participant audience comprised senior academics, academics and students. The audience was participatory and as was to be expected critical. Professor Satchithanandan took them on intellectually as well as poetically. He raised awareness through his very erudite lecture, taking the audience through the ages from Ramayana to Faustus, from Neruda to modern poets who write poetry of violence. He charmed with his recital of his own poetry. He showed without doubt the power of poetry.

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Reconciliation and the role of India

Reconciliation and the role of India

Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP

At the Observatory Research Foundation

Delhi, December 13th 2013

I must admit to being deeply worried about the current state of relations between India and Sri Lanka. I contrast this with the excellent situation that obtained in 2009, when India was the chief component of the protective barrier against efforts to stop us eradicating terrorism from our shores. One might have thought that this was a goal the whole world would have supported, but sadly this is not an ideal world and countries will naturally put their own self interest first. Fortunately, not only did India’s interests coincide with our own at that stage, but given the terrible toll terrorism funded by external sources was taking on both our countries, I think it is also true to say that we worked in accordance with the highest moral perspectives.

But the aim we shared then, of eradicating terrorism on our shores, went hand in hand with another commitment, which was the promotion of pluralism in Sri Lanka. This again is a moral goal, but it also has a practical dimension, in that the full incorporation of the Tamil people in the body politic in Sri Lanka would have reduced the potential for future terrorism.

Sadly Sri Lanka has not pursued the Reconciliation process with the commitment it requires. Given its urgency I believe we should try to understand the reasons for this, and try to overcome them. In this process India has a significant role to play.

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Getting the balance right – David Cameron and foreign relations

Soon after David Cameron had left Sri Lanka, the Sunday Times in England published a satirical piece about his visit. It accused him of behaving like a public school prefect and treating the Sri Lankan President like a fag, a junior schoolboy who was at his beck and call.

Cameron’s was certainly a brilliant performance, full of British bravado. Having decided, correctly in my view, that he would attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, he had to contend with the anger of those who have in effect been running British policy with regard to Sri Lanka, which has been deeply negative about our success in overcoming terrorism in this country. He had therefore to put in an aggressive performance to keep them happy, and this he certainly did.

I do not mean only the extremist members of the diaspora, who have been enormously successful in lobbying British politicians where it matters. Having concentrated their attentions initially on Labour, and obtained brilliant results through David Miliband, they were quick to switch in 2010 when the Conservatives won, while the Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry floundered, and did not even bother to appoint a High Commissioner to England for a lengthy period.

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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.

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Reconciliation towards Achieving Social Justice: Youth Perspectives

by Selyna Peiris, Attorney-at-Law

Keynote Speaker at the National Policy for Social Integration; Discussion Forum on Access to Justice and Legal Resources jointly Organised by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations & Strategic Studies and the Ministry of Social Integration and National Languages, September 2013.

The topic at hand contains a few terms, which are “buzzwords” in post-war Sri Lanka and used by many in various circles when addressing different development and social integration issues. Let me pick some out and attempt at the outset to connect these terms to today’s discussion and set the foundation for my presentation.

First let us begin with defining what “Social Justice” should be in the Sri Lankan context. Paraphrasing many a definition, one which suits the context is that “Social Justice”refers to the idea of creating an inclusive and democratic society that is based on the principles of equality and unity; one that understands and values human rights and further recognizes the dignity of every human being. If that is the desired goal, then how do we “reconcile” our fragmented society towards this? Sri Lanka as we all know is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural diverse Island. A unique particularity about the composition of this multicity is that more than half the population is of one religion, ethnicity and culture. This is therefore naturally reflected in the representations at the administration, policy-making and legislating bodies within the country. In light of this and among other reasons, the “other” or the minority of this composition may often feel excluded. Since Independence, we have seen that this feeling of exclusion has led to various conflicts in our society. Therefore, the process of reconciliation should then entail changing the relationships of these antagonistic parties for the better by taking actions that make one’s view or belief compatible with the others.  More importantly, it should contain actions which are genuinely seen as being collectively beneficial for all Sri Lankans.

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