By Laksiri Fernando –
Covid-19 pandemic undoubtedly is the central challenge Sri Lanka is facing today along with other countries. All indications are that the world might not be able to come to ‘normal’ at least until 2023. This is assuming that our governments would be able to implement viable vaccination programs and other necessary measures with people’s cooperation.
Gravity of the Pandemic
Even that ‘normal’ might not be the ‘past normal’ with most countries facing economic devastations, weak workforces on health conditions, international trade relations dislocated, and environmental catastrophes continuing. It is not clear what kind of a political-economic ‘model’ would hold for the future as liberal capitalism being the root cause for most of the present disasters plundering natural resources, polluting the environment, dislocating animals and overexploiting the humans.
In the case of Sri Lanka, so far the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic has been handled satisfactorily, although the necessary cooperation from some important sections has not been forthcoming. The near future, however, is not very clear given the devastating effects of the fast spreading new Delta variant. Nevertheless, there are sections in the polity who want to desperately continue their past politics, protests, strikes or even ‘planning to overthrow the government’ disregarding these conditions.
To the people, politics in a democratic system is about choices through trial and error. They did a trial in 2015 and found an error. They have again done a new trail in 2019/2020 and may be evaluating the results. The best possible choice for the people under democracy is to get the best out of any government that they elect during the tenure through dialogue, cooperation, non-cooperation, criticism and constructive criticism etc. This is exactly what is happening in a country like Australia where I live at present. Strikes and protests are normally in the democratic menu, but not exactly under the conditions like the present coronavirus pandemic.
Measures in Australia and Sri Lanka
Until recently Australia managed the pandemic fairly well given the cooperation the central government and state governments received from the oppositions, medical professionals, health workers, trade unions and the public. Unlike a country like France, there were no much opposition to lockdowns, face masks, social distancing, or strict guidelines. Australia was managing quite well like New Zealand until recently.
Perhaps because of the successes, Australia also got little complacent and the vaccination rollouts got delayed. This appears to be the key reason why the virus started to spread again particularly in Sydney (NSW), in addition to the attack by the virulent Delta variant since last month. Now there are strict rules again. Compared to Sri Lanka, the public health system is quite advanced and the private sector is cooperating. There were no strikes or protests by the doctors or the nurses although there are similar pay anomalies and grievances on the part of them. They were patient and tolerant.
Of course the grievances in Sri Lanka are more, as a poor and a developing country. Moreover, politics is exceedingly hot. Education is an area greatly affected in both countries with obvious future repercussions. In Australia, teachers are cooperating fully in conducting online teaching. In Sri Lanka, obviously there are problems, but teacher protests are completely undermining the efforts in resolving them.
To offset the adverse economic effects on employment and businesses, because of lockdowns and other restrictions, Australia has necessary resources to offset them through job-keeper, job-seeker and business concessions. However these possibilities in Sri Lanka are limited. In controlling the virus spread, Australia is implementing extremely effective contact tracing measures and asking the people to follow strict rules. While this type of accurate measures are difficult in Sri Lanka, many people who infected or possibly effected appear to be taking these instructions lightly.
Because of people’s widespread mistrust of the police, the rule application through the police in Sri Lanka has become difficult. This is not the case in Australia. There is no apparent opposition to lockdowns or other government measures by opposition political parties at the national or state/provincial levels. The Labor Party in the opposition is cooperating with the government, critically as necessary.
There were some protest demonstrations against lockdowns recently in Sydney and Melbourne which were forcefully dispersed and the perpetrators were brought to justice with punishments and heavy fines. This kind of pandemic control might not be possible in Sri Lanka given the present political culture and people exercising freedoms without responsibilities.
The NSW government has brought the military into the scene and prevented any protest happening during the last weekend. Civil-military relations are high in Australia compared to Sri Lanka. The soldiers are also employed to ‘knock door-to-door’ in local government areas where strict lockdowns are implemented to reprimand those who disobey. Of course these measures are implemented with civility and respect for people’s other rights.
Although the pandemic is the main challenge at the moment, the government, the opposition, the civil society, the media, academics or any other should not neglect addressing or discussing other issues What is necessary is to understand the present juncture, and prepare for the next stage without unnecessarily postponing anything. Therefore, the KNDU (Kotelawala National Defence University) debate is important but it should better be placed in the broader context. What is it?
There is a pressing need to expand, upgrade and diversify university education, of course without violating the basic principles of free education. While around 350,000 students sit for the admissions examination (GCE-A), and around 200,000 students qualify for admissions, only around 30,000 are admitted to the universities. This year the UGC is indenting to enroll additional 10,000 students to bring the number to around 40,000. Annually over 10,000 students go abroad for their education. These figures very clearly show the need to further expand the university education.
Under the UGC (University Grants Commission), there are 15 universities and the average student intake is around 2,000. The expansion of university education has been lethargic, to my experience, due to the centralized control of the UGC. At least the universities like Colombo, Peradeniya and Moratuwa should have been given autonomy a long time ago to expand, be efficient and innovate.
KDU has been under the Ministry of Defence and independent from the UGC. The property was given generously by Sir John Kotelawala and as a fee levying university it has become largely self-reliant. Its capacity has increased over five-fold, admitting less than 200 students at the beginning and increasing eventually to around 1,000 per year. KDU is primarily a defence university (special purpose), but admits civil students. The teachers are mainly military but with reputed other academics participating.
There can be (and are) inconsistencies and weaknesses in the proposed bill for the KNDU. But such weaknesses are there even in the Universities Act (1978). It is up to the government and the opposition to sort them out.
1. KNDU is primarily opposed claiming it kills free education. KDA/U was there since 1981, but there was no such opposition before. There are private universities, but those are also not opposed, but patronized by some. KNDU fees should be reasonable and it should not be a profit making enterprise. Free education should not be understood artificially. Some public universities running on a fair-fee basis, with other assistance, would help expanding ‘fully free education’ for needy students while expanding the university system in the country as a whole.
A university (first) degree today is considered only a basic qualification internationally. Therefore, expansion of university education is a must for the Sri Lanka to become par with other countries in knowledge, skills and capacities. KNDU appears to make a useful contribution towards this end.
2. KNDU is also opposed because of its military affiliation or nature. This is largely a misplaced and/or an emotional outburst. During 2005 and 2010, I was affiliated with the KDU, mainly teaching human rights. I have known many civilian academics teaching different subjects then and thereafter. Since then, the civilian student population has expanded even with foreign students. The interaction of civil and military, local and international is a healthy atmosphere at the KDU. .
It is the case that student unions are not allowed at KDU. Instead there are social clubs. Military training is only for military cadets. Perhaps civilian students should be promoted for sports (aiming at Olympics!). Sri Lanka is poor in sports except for cricket. Of course the quality and standards of KNDU courses, curricula and teaching should be reviewed by UGC or any such organization.
I believe the newly proposed KNDU can play a major role in civil-military relations. This is something neglected in Sri Lanka. Defence forces are and should be ‘People’s Defence Forces.’ They are not enemies of the people and should not be the case. The defence personnel, and also the police, also should learn how to deal with the people in civility.
In Australia, there is a Civil-Military Center (ACMC) promoting this task. The Center also includes the police in its programs. Its mission says “We work in contexts where there are no easy answers, where the environment is always changing. Our purpose is to support civil-military-police capabilities to prevent, prepare for and respond more effectively to conflicts and disasters.”
Particularly in a context of pandemics like coronavirus, recurrent floods, landslides and droughts, and ocean disasters like X-Press Pearl, the field of study of ‘civil-military relations’ both in theory and practice is important. In all these activities women should be given an equal place. The proposed KNDU Bill, with positive amendments, can expand university education, upgrade and diversify courses and curricula, and also promote civil-military relations, of course without killing free education.