By Rajiva Wijesinha –
A Presidency Under Threat – Promoting Alienation
I was privileged, a couple of weeks back, to attend the release of the Northern Education Sector Review Report at a ceremony held at Vembadi Girls School. I had last been at Vembadi in 2008, when the then Commander of the Special Forces in Jaffna, General Chandrasiri, arranged what was termed a Future Minds Exhibition. It was at the height of the war, but the General had already begun to plan for the future, and sensibly so for he stressed the need for the development of human resources.
I was struck by the irony now, with the controversy over his continuation as Governor. I will look at that issue elsewhere, but here I will dwell on the fact that the Provincial administration had invited him as Chief Guest, to be given the first copy of the report, and all the speeches made were in a spirit of cooperation. In particular the chair of the committee that had prepared the report, the distinguished athlete Nagalingam Ethirveerasingam, still described as the Olympian, emphasized that the recommendations of the Review were all within the framework of National Policy.
That having been said, the Review is masterly, in clearly identifying many of the problems we face, and suggesting simple remedies. But obvious though many of the pronouncements are, I fear that such an essentially sensible work could not have been produced in any other Province.
There are many reasons for this. I do not think there is any essential intellectual difference between those in the North and others in the country, but I do believe that the urgency of the problem with regard to education is better understood in the North. After all it was simplistic tampering with the education system that first roused deep resentments in the younger generation in the North (Prabhakaran’s batch were the first victims of standardization), and the incapacity or unwillingness of successive governments since then to provide remedies has entrenched bitterness. And whereas Chandrasiri way back in 2008 understood the importance of action in this field, and entitled his Exhibition accordingly, he has since had to serve a political dispensation that cares nothing for the mind.
Secondly, the administration in the North realizes that it cannot expect change from Colombo. Unfortunately other provincial administrations, even though they might understand the inadequacy of current provisions, will not dare to take on a role that the centre has thus far zealously guarded for itself. Thankfully though, I should note here, Dayasiri Jayasekera in Wayamba, perhaps because of his youth and because he does have a future, which will depend on the young, has embarked on some initiatives that are laudable, and which I hope will be replicated elsewhere. Indeed, I suspect the best hope for education now is for him to get together with the Chief Minister of the North and suggest reforms which I have no doubt the other Chief Ministers also will support. If that is done, what seems the built in opposition of the Ministry of Education to productive reform will be the more easily overcome – and the President, who does understand the mess education is in, will I suspect actively promote such changes.
But, that having been said, I gathered that in this instance the Ministry of Education had been nothing but supportive, and indeed it sent officials up for the Review Release. And I was told that it had not tried to block what is another reason for the impressive nature of the Review, namely the participation of personnel from other countries. Unfortunately this had been blocked by decision makers, whether the Ministry of Defence or the Ministry of External Affairs I do not know. Perhaps the distinction is irrelevant given that the latter has totally abdicated judgment in this as apparently everything else to the latter.
But understanding of what goes on elsewhere had also thankfully been able to play a part in the process, as evinced by the seminal role played by Mr Ethirveerasingam. And the Ministry had also involved a wide range of expertise as exemplified by a doctor I met who said he had had the honour to help – whereas clearly he too had been able to contribute conceptually from a practical standpoint. Talking to both of them, I was reminded of the difficulties Tara de Mel and I had had at meetings of the National Education Commission a decade ago, when the Chairman understood nothing about education in general, and our attempts at reform were set back because of the intervention of a conservative monk who had not attended any meetings previously but was trotted out to insist on making history compulsory – a contrast I should stress to General Chandrasiri who had shown himself concerned with the future.
Listening to Mr Ethirveerasingham’s introduction to the Review, I was reminded again by how sadly we have failed to make use of the diaspora following the conflict. The LLRC has recommended the development of a policy in this regard, but nothing has been done about this, and nothing will continue to be done so long as G L Pieris remains Minister of External Affairs and takes his cue from the security establishment.
Why the President permits all this is beyond me. Way back in 2009 he was keen on working with the diaspora and indeed there were many meetings organized for the purpose, as for instance the Business for Peace Alliance conference in Jaffna in January 2010. But all that was totally forgotten soon afterward and, instead of mechanisms to encourage investment, government put in place a Board of Investment that seemed keen to block any initiative. I still recall, during my visit to Australia and New Zealand in 2011, the last occasion when government made active use of my services, the anguish of the businessmen to whom I was introduced by our energetic Consul in New Zealand, about the difficulties of doing business.
But by then the doors were shutting, perhaps because of the siege mentality that overtook government after the Presidential election. I was told by the President that only Gotabaya and I had advised against having it then, but this was in the tone he uses to suggest that I know nothing about politics. This is true, compared with himself, but obviously Gotabaya and I were right (as we were in our view that the Northern Provincial Council elections should be held early), and it is those who pride themselves on their skills on political manipulation who won the battles but are leading us now to losing the war.
The Ministry of Economic Development (along with the Presidential Task Force which, despite the skills of Mr Divaratne, also turned into a blocking mechanism for independent initiatives) became the sole arbiter of socially and economically productive activity in the North. So little was done to ensure the training and investment that would ensure sustainable development. Instead rent seeking became the order of the day, while the military, the only institution that could function without going through the bureaucratic procedures enjoined by the PTF and the BOI and other institutions with Permit Raj mentality, forged ahead with a range of businesses.
I could understand the need for the military to move, when no one else was doing so, but I still cannot understand why they did not do this through partnerships with the people of the North. Just this week an ambassador of a country strongly supportive of Sri Lanka remarked how absurd it was that the staff in the hotel she had stayed at, owned by the airforce (the army and navy also had such hotels she said), were servicemen. Employing locals instead, she said, would have ensured local support for such establishments – a point that seems self-evident, but is clearly beyond the ken, or the planning capacities, of those who make decisions without thinking of the people they are supposed to serve.
Partnerships should also have been set up with the diaspora. But for this to have been done successfully, there was need of cooperation rather than a command mentality. Had the government been serious about reconciliation – or had what I believe to have been the President’s early liberal attitudes not been overcome by the polarizations caused by the elections, and the failure of the security establishment to realize that it had to be subtle rather than fall headlong into whatever traps it thought had been set – we would have appointed distinguished thinkers such as Mr Ethirveerasingam as consultants and given them a role in both conceptualization as well as decision making.
It is no wonder the Tamils are upset. They have so much to offer this country, but instead of making use of their services in a context in which the government might have got credit for achievements, we wasted four years. And though it seems that both General Chandrasiri and the Ministry of Education have cooperated actively in the Review, I fear that the dogs in the manger in government will not allow the recommendations in the Review to benefit students all over the country, but will instead continue to bark without any productive sense of purpose.