By Jehan Perera –
The withdrawal of the Kotelawala National Defence Academy (KNDU) bill which was to be debated in parliament this week offers more time to the government to reconsider its plans for higher education. The bill generated opposition from multiple parties. Trade unions, including ones supportive of the government such as the GMOA, political parties and civil society groups united in their opposition to the increased role for the military that was explicit in the bill. Due to their success in the war sections within the government and military have come to the conclusion that the military model, with its emphasis on discipline, unity of purpose that arises from a clear top-down chain of command, and ready availability of large numbers to perform tasks at short order, is a desirable model for governance in Sri Lanka. The super performance of the military in performing record numbers of vaccinations in an orderly manner has provided further evidence of the positive role of the military.
However, the fact that governing a multi ethnic, multi religious and politically plural society is a lot more complicated than leading the military would be clear to the government leadership. There was the threat of a combined public protest that would have united the trade unions, political parties and civil society organisations on the issue of the freedom of higher education institutions. The proposed KNDU bill granted military personnel the power to provide educational opportunities to those outside the military command structure and also establish other networks. This would have paved the way for practices prevalent in the military to be exported to civilian life. According to the proposed bill, students are not expected to challenge their lecturers in an unreasonable manner and are expected to pay them due respect in a suitable manner if they perchance come across them outside the campus.
The government also needs to reconsider its strategy to deal with the government teachers’ strike that is now in its fourth week. There is a need for compromise on all sides if only for the sake of more than four million schoolchildren whose education and life prospects are being jeopardised. For nearly a year and a half children have not had physical access to their schools and education for many of them has been on hold as a large number do not even have access to online facilities. As a result they could drop off the education horizon entirely and become a lost generation which the country cannot afford for both economic and moral reasons. The JVP insurrection of 1971 drew its support base from rural youth who saw no future for themselves in the mainstream of society for which education is an essential attribute. The government needs to come up with resources, if necessary by cutting costs elsewhere, but not from school education.
It is a matter for concern that government expenditure on education as a percentage of GDP is only 1.9 percent whereas the average for middle income countries like Sri Lanka is 4.4 percent. Even a much poorer country like Nepal devotes 5.1 percent of its budget to education as they appreciate that education is the greatest wealth that any society can have. Teacher salaries in the government sector are abysmally low at a basic salary of Rs 30,000 going up to Rs 70,000 for a principal of a school. There is no question that the salary structure for teachers needs to be changed and that the proportion of national income devoted to education needs to be significantly increased. Teachers in Sri Lanka, former Education Secretary Dr Tara de Mel has noted, are the lowest paid group of public servants in all of Asia. The lack of government appreciation of the value of education is not limited to the present one, which has been in office for only a year and half but responsibility needs to be placed on predecessor governments as well.
The fact that the teachers unions have decided to forego their planned protest marches and public demonstrations is to be welcomed as a responsible decision made in the larger interests of society. The Covid infection figures are rising at a rapid pace and hospitals and crematoriums are overflowing according to media reports. However, it is regrettable that the strike continues to the detriment of the education of children who will be the future generation of adult decision makers and be more likely to suffer from intellectual stunting than the present generation. Talks between the government and teachers unions have broken down on the last few occasions but here is a need for them to urgently recommence. Resolving the problem, whether at its root or even as a stop gap will require compromise on all sides. Suggestions have ranged from agreeing to grant them a salary increase but suspended for a year or issued in increments as done for academic staff in universities some years ago.
The power of meeting face to face and engaging in dialogue is a way to build trust. It enables preconceived notions, and prejudices that arise therefrom, to be mitigated and for each to see the humanness of the other. A recent dialogue that took place between members of the government led by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and members of civil society demonstrated these constructive features. The government- civil society relationship has been a fraught one since the present government came to power especially with regard to the sensitive areas of reconciliation, human rights and governance. Sections of the government have taken the position that NGOs are a potential threat to national security instead of being seen as a legitimate part of the national polity. In the aftermath of the Easter attack, in which some civil society groups have allegedly been used as conduits for the transfer of terrorist funds, the NGO sector as a whole has come under special surveillance by multiple state intelligence agencies which visit them on multiple occasions and invariably cover the same ground.
The harassment and intimidation of civil society has been one of the key issues flagged by the UN Human Rights Council and the EU in the resolutions they have passed this year which could prove detrimental to the government and to the people unless dealt with constructively. A recent meeting between civil society members under the umbrella of the Sri Lankan Collective for Consensus with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dinesh Gunawardena, President’s Secretary Dr P B Jayasundara and Foreign Secretary, Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage, at the Presidential Secretariat may prove to be an encouraging indication of a shift in the government’s approach towards NGOs. The civil society members who attended the meeting were the Ven. Kalupahana Piyaratana, Rev. Asiri P Perera, Hilmy Ahamed, Visaka Dharmadasa, Rohana Hettiarachchi, Varnakulasingham Kamaladhas, Prof. T. Jayasingam, Dr. Dayani Panagoda, Dr. Joe William and Sanjeewa Wimalagunarathna.
A joint statement issued by the civil society members who represented a multiplicity of peace and reconciliation organisations, as well as being present in their individual capacities, has referred to the issues they brought up with the government and President Rajapaksa’s positive response to their concerns. In their statement, they said that “the President affirmed that he intended to make his twitter post [on reconciliation] a reality and he would be willing to work with them on reconciliation. He spoke of the need to find practical solutions to resolve conflicts such as on the takeover of land in the north and elsewhere and to facilitate improvement of the living standards of communities to make them feel as being part of Sri Lanka. He stated that he is ready to address issues affecting people despite political differences. This included the release of all possible lands immediately within this year, permitting farmers to cultivate the lands within military camps and where necessary to retain lands for military purposes to pay commercial rates and acquire the lands.” The President also spoke of the need to release prisoners, enhance the people’s livelihood opportunities, and conduct Provincial Council Elections soon.
In conclusion the civil society group stated that “Members of the delegation felt that they were able to have freely express themselves at the meeting without a single interference or attempt to regulate their side of inputs. The meeting had the features of democratic conduct and ended with goodwill and satisfaction with the President stating he would meet other civil society organisations as many did good work although there were varied opinions about them.” A similar dialogue led by the President with the teachers union, with GMOA and FUTA about the KNDU bill and with farmers who protest against the ban on chemical fertilisers may be able to pave the way for a new ethos in governance in which there is greater willingness on all sides to put the national interest first. The President who in his previous incarnation excelled in winning war is able to take on the new challenge of excelling in peacemaking.