By Rajiva Wijesinha –
The attack on contributions to English education for rural students
I was in Singapore last week when a couple of my former students sent me messages that I had been attacked on Swarnavahini by Wimal Weerawansa. It seems he claimed I had made some reforms to the education system that were not practical. One student thought I should respond, another suggested that I give up politics and return to the university system. Hearteningly, he noted that ‘We know your contribution to the education as we were unable to make a simple sentence before entering to the university.’
Therein perhaps lies the rub. I believe I have done more since Kannangara for introducing equity in education, but this has been largely with regard to English. While the pre-University General English Language Training programme was started by someone else, I was involved from the start, in producing readers for the course that students responded to with ease. After I took on the course, along with the best instructor in the University English Units in those days, we transformed the course, and produced text books that were later prescribed for Indian universities – though perhaps that too would be anathema to Mr Weerawansa. Together with that, I was responsible for English courses at the Affiliated University Colleges, initially the diploma course but then, at the request of the UGC, General courses which were mandatory at all Affiliated Colleges.
At Jayewardenepura, whilst coordinating AUC English, I started courses which gave English degrees to students who had not done Advanced Level English. I also started an External Degree, with two and then later three subjects related to the learning and teaching of English. This is now the most popular degree course in the whole University system.
Introducing wider dimensions in University courses, and why this is resented
At Sabaragamuwa, I introduced course units and mandatory core courses, which are now prescribed in many universities. I don’t think anyone before me had studied the changes in university systems introduced by the Americans when they broadbased university education, in contrast to the elitist Britih system, which we continued to maintain long after Britain had realized the need to increase numbers. Before I rejoined Sabaragamuwa – and I should note that several of the AUCs, when they became universities, sought my services – I studied the expansion of core courses (a relative who was an academic in Canada sent me an excellent succinct volume called ‘Getting to the Core’ about changes at Harvard). I also turned down an American offer to visit to observe the 1996 Presidential election, and instead asked for a programme of visits to universities, and community colleges, since I was beginning then (having done some work for the World University Service of Canada on Vocational Training) to understand the need for reform in that area too.
Sab aragamuwa students have done remarkably well since on the job market, and I am touched when I meet them now about their appreciation of the innovations I introduced, which they disliked at the time. But I can see why someone who needs followers unable to discriminate will worry about innovations that give our students greater breadth, and critical thinking skills.
I also did more for the nation as a whole while I was at Sabaragamuwa, since I was asked to coordinate the degree programme at the Sri Lanka Military Academy. One had to be tactful then, to steer between my fellow academics, who thought soldiers did not deserve degrees, and those officers who thought we were trying to turn military men into impractical eggheads. Sarath Fonseka was amongst these latter, and indeed tried to get rid of the degree programme when he became Army Commander, but on the first occasion we met, he told me that the officers who had degrees were ‘well motivated’. This I believe was high praise from him, and indicated a man who was able to learn from experience.
The English medium option in government schools, and its elitist and anti-elitist opponents
In 2001 I was responsible for reintroducing the option of English medium in the government education system. I had long advocated this, and Tara de Mel, who had been thinking of allowing this in a couple of schools, in Colombo and Kandy (which I thought would be disastrous, and confirm the view that English was a privilege for the elite), agreed to allow it nationwide, if I ran the programme. Sabaragamuwa agreed to my doing this part-time, and in 2002 the first batch of government school students began English medium in Grade 6.
Though Wimal Weerawansa obviously dislikes the programme, a far more effective opponent was Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had become Prime Minister at the end of 2001, and tried to kill the programme. Fortunately his Minister of Education, Karunasena Kodituwakku, was more enlightened, and together we managed to keep things going, despite opposition from the diehards in the Ministry of Education and the National Institute of Education. Interestingly, Tara became a great fan of Wimal Weerawansa during this period, and even voted for him in the 2004 General Election, which I thought a triumph of sentiment over reason. Like her mentor, President Kumaratunga, she seemed overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers.
In 2004 then, with President Kumaratunga back in charge, we managed to rescue the Engish medium programme, though I fear that the teacher training and materials development programmes that we had put in place to promote excellence had fallen into abeyance, since the Ministry had realized how lucrative it could be for them, if they undertook these tasks. Tara did not want me however to rock the boat, given too that she had to work with officials at the NIE and the NEC whom President Kumaratunga had appointed without consulting her, who had a more old fashioned approach to education, and were easily influenced by dogmatic officials.
Instead Tara wanted me to do more about curriculum reform in general, and we developed new concepts though unfortunately President Kumaratunga’s term was cut short and very little of what we had prepared was carried through. Tara, who was an excellent administrator, could not work to capacity in 2005, because the President had taken her away to do tsunami work, which was unnecessary and wholly counter-productive.
The role of Parliament, as well as the Executive, in developing reforms
But I realized then that we needed to engage in even more comprehensive reforms, and that those who should have been pushing these were slow to move and limited in their capacity to conceptualize. It is for that reason that I believe I can contribute more now by being in Parliament, and the changes I have managed to introduce into the draft policy paper are witness to the impact even one coherent thinker can have. I should add that, when some of my colleagues were critical of my stance on the impeachment, and noted – as I gather Mr Weerawansa did on Swarnavahini – that I was not an elected Member of Parliament, the Deputy Minister of Education, who is as dedicated as I am to reforms that will benefit rural children, pointed out the contributions I made in Committee.
I could of course have done more, and I gather that, way back in 2010, I was considered for the position of Minister of Education. I was told however that the President’s Secretary had noted that I was not popular, a perception that Mr Weerawansa probably contributed to, for he was trying at that time to stop me being appointed to Parliament, so that another member of his National Freedom Front could get in instead. I have no doubt he believes that Mr Achala Jagoda has contributed much more to the nation as a National List MP than I have, though it is odd that he denigrates me but does not do the same with regard to Mr Jagoda, who is a charming man, and fully deserves the position to which he has been appointed, to represent the NFF and its agenda in Parliament.
Why Mr Weerawansa is again on the rampage about me I have no idea. It could be because he has heard that there is great despair about the education system, and it is possible that those who have a wider vision have realized that they need someone able to conceptualize to put things to rights. I should note however that, while this is a responsibility I would accept if it were offered – unlike the post of Minister of Higher Education, where I believe we have an excellent Minister, who like me has drawn Mr Weerawansa’s wrath, though for his policies rather than his personality, which is much more charming than mine – I still believe, as I said back in 2010, when Rupavahini assumed I would be a Minister, and the portfolios of Foreign Affairs and Education were mentioned, that I could make a much greater contribution to Reconciliation. I am no longer sure now that I can achieve as much as I could have in 2010 in that field, but I know that no one else is interested in Reconciliation in itself, or capable of achieving anything, except I should note for the Civil Servants now in charge of the LLRC Action Plan, whose capacity and commitment are not at all in doubt.
But clearly Mr Weerawansa would not want me to be entrusted with any responsibility, and I can understand this, given his perspective on the world in general. I am after all in good company, for he has recently attacked the Secretary to the Treasury, a much more significant figure than myself, and he has also single-handedly taken on the United Nations, which is more powerful than all of us put together.
The rationale for the President’s affection for Mr Weerawansa
In the latter instance, his hunger strike was stopped by the President himself, and I can understand this action of the President, as I explained to the Sri Lankan – a Sinhalese Buddhist I should note, in case I am accused of trumpeting the views of aliens – in Singapore who thought the President should not have interfered.
The point is, the President believes in feeling and expressing gratitude, and that is why he indulges Mr Weerawansa so much. Mr Weerawansa stood by him at a time of trial, when Sarath Fonseka had emerged as the common opposition candidate for the Presidency, and there were fears that chauvinists and nationalists who had previously supported the President would switch sides.
I suspect this is what the Americans, who described Sarath Fonseka as their secret weapon to influence the President, hoped for. Perhaps they dreamed that Mr Fonseka and the President would split the Sinhalese vote and allow Ranil Wickremesinghe to be elected. But Ranil was too wily a bird for that and, having read the writing on the wall, he withdrew. And meanwhile, though the JVP supported Mr Fonseka, other nationalist forces, including Mr Weerawansa, stuck with the President. Naturally he is grateful for that, and though as a result the Americans are getting what they wanted, in a weakening of the Presidency in time for the next election, I do not think this was anticipated, fascinating though such a conspiracy theory would be.
Why and how did this manoever contribute to the problems we now face, even though Mr Weerawansa’s adherence way back in 2010 may have helped to make Mr Fonseka’s defeat so crushing? The seeds were sown, I believe, in the manner in which government responded to his allegation about the White Flag case.
The disastrous precedence set by the handling of the White Flag case
I was rung up by Mahinda Samarasinghe the morning the story broke, about appearing at a press conference he had been asked to conduct, to refute the story. I was in Kandy, and could not make it, but having got information about what Sarath Fonseka had said with regard to the same story a few months earlier (essentially claiming credit for having got rid of the surrendered himself), I called Mr Samarasinghe to tell him to point out that the man was a liar.
I found Mr Samarasinghe in a state of disappointment, a common phenomenon I have now found in someone who is always willing to do his duty by the government, but is often ignored and belittled until government realizes there is no one else willing to undertake difficult tasks. On this occasion he had been told that he would not be in charge at the press conference, and instead the central role would be given to Mr Weerawansa.
It was a vintage performance, based on the claim that Mr Fonseka was a traitor to have said such things about the heroic Sri Lankan armed forces. And so government fell into the trap that perhaps Mr Fonseka, who is also a wily bird, set when he realized that his original statement about what he had done in the White Flag case made him a ready scapegoat for any allegations about abuses in the course of the war. I had indeed previously told government that it should respond politely but forcefully to the Kerry report, where most allegations could be refuted through attention to the evidence I had prepared in the days of the Peace Secretariat. The one thing that could not readily be refuted was Sarath Fonseka’s statement at Ambalangoda, that he had dealt as required with the people carrying White Flags, contrary to the instructions issued from ‘air conditioned rooms’, and therefore I suggested that there should be an inquiry into this.
But when Mr Weerawansa introduced the concept of treachery, it became impossible for government itself to investigate the matter as it should have done. Blanket denials, with claims of treachery for anything outside the agenda Mr Weerawansa had set, became the order of the day. So I became a villain for pointing out that Sarath Fonseka had withdrawn his original claim to the Leader, so much so that I was accused by the NFF of having gone with Mohan Peiris to New York on his abortive mission to Ban ki Moon with regard to the Darusman Report.
Why implementation of the LLRC Report is so difficult
And so, while the LLRC has pointed out the absurdity of most allegations, but noted the need to look into the question of what happened to some of those who surrendered, we have failed to work on those elements conscientiously and transparently. Instead we seem to be stuck in a mindset which sees investigation of any allegations as treacherous.
We are thus an easy target for those who criticize us as being in total denial. But unfortunately there are those who still think that it is this mindset that won for President Rajapaksa the election of 2010. This perception is flawed, though it may have contributed towards his large majority. But as that majority is eroded by what seems continuing extremism, it would make sense for the President to think again.
I do not mean he should turn on Mr Weerawansa. The man has done him some service, and that should not be forgotten. But someone who managed to alienate those positive elements in the UN who did so much for us, who prevented us from treating them as friends to work together with to counter the worst excesses of the Darusman Report, who simply cannot understand that there are many elements in the international community who are positive, and whom we should interact with, if only to stop them being swept in the wake of the more aggressive negative elements – such a person will in the long run do more damage than good to the Presidency and the country.
I am not important in the larger scheme of things, and if the President is to be prevented from making use of proven capacity and intelligence, that is a problem for him and the country, not for me. But P B Jayasundara is important, and sniping at him will not help with the confidence the country needs. And continuous attacks on forward looking policies, and in particular the educational reforms the country needs, will lead us into a dead end. Perhaps Mr Weerawansa can continue to enjoy startling electoral success only in such a dead end, with a populace that is not educated to its full potential. But the Sri Lankan people deserve better.