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A Visionary Ahead Of His Time

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“MY JOURNEY WITH THE COMMANDO REGIMENT” BY LIEUTENANT COLONEL SUNIL PEIRIS reviewed

by Merril Gunaratne, Retd. Snr. DIG Police

This book is an autobiography of an innovator, discoverer, and explorer whose accomplishments bore the stamp of novelty and a new direction in the art of war. Lieutenant Colonel Sunil Peiris was only a captain with a mere nine years service in the army, when he was handpicked in 1977 to produce or assemble a new force or band of elite men to face any hostage or hijack situation that may arise with the inauguration of the new national SriLankan Airlines.

Incurring the ire and envy of many others barring a few in the army, he not only rose to the daunting challenge before him, but pioneered a fighting force, a regiment rather than a mere 100 men, which with the passage of time became the forerunner to the famed and feared ‘Special Forces’ of the Army. He created its nucleus, laid it’s foundation, and his regiment emerged as the answer to the most dangerous situations that beset defence forces in the face of the scourge of terrorism in the north and east of the country.

His story, narrated with telling force against the backdrop of envy, jealousy and impediments in his way is one of tears and toil. But for all his disillusionment, he eventually won recognition for being a visionary, a contributor to the most daunting standards in prosecuting a war and, above all, as someone who offered a new approach to the art of war against a new enemy – terrorism. These unique accomplishments was the work of a young officer mature beyond his years, without the support of many superiors in the army. It would therefore not be wrong to call Sunil Pieris the “man of his time” in the defence forces.

President JRJ’s directive to the young captain was in a way specific, but in another respect, hazy and ambiguous. The new force to be set up was to contend with hijacks and hostage taking. But the directive also left ample room for Sunil to innovateas exact details about how he was to set about his assignment were not part of the presidential fiat. It was probably such scope for maneuver that inspired Sunil to go beyond the fiat. His instinct and determination dictated the rest.

When Sunil undertook his mission, terrorism had yet to emerge as a major scourge following ethnic disturbances of 1983. There were sporadic forays by terrorists, with attacks on police stations, the murders of Alfred Duraiappah and of isolated policemen. It took some time for the defence establishment to realize that a storm was to follow the relative calm. The, defence forces in late 70’s were not exactly equipped to deal with this new type of warfare. Terrorists were an elusive enemy with emphasis on stealth and surprise and where they gunned down targets in small groups. They practiced the lesson of Mao Tse Dong that “we hit when you run, run when you hit”. With time, police proved “easy prey” for the terrorists. National intelligence was groping in the dark, and army troops realised that conventional methods of war were hopelessly misplaced against the new adversary who avoided confrontations and preferred to spring surprises.

Lt. Colonel Sunil Peiris was way ahead of times. Exploiting scope to maneouvre by a fiat that somewhat lacked precision and clarity, Sunil, confidence overflowing after his successful efforts to create an admirable outfit against hijacks, saw prospects of using the same methods employed for enlistment, training, discipline, and a rigorous work ethic, to enlarge numbers from a Commando Squadron in 1980 to a Commando Regiment in 1986. He envisioned that his outfit could emerge as a “broad spectrum antibiotic” to deal with a variety of adversarial threats. He was a visionary who saw the need for the army to undertake search and destroy missions, Long Range patrolling, operations behind enemy lines, Covert operations and urban anti terrorist operations; and all this before terror attacks transformed from a trickle to a torrent after the ethnic disturbances of 1983. The military establishment was fortunate that Sunil advanced from creating a small body of men to satisfy the fiat of president JRJ, towards assembling a Regiment in stages to come to grips with the new type of warfare unleashed by terrorists. The elite Commando Regiment that was his creation produced officers whose virtues were loads of courage and daring, endurance, resilience and supreme confidence born out of varied skills required in extremely dangerous and testing situations. The word “cannot”, could not find space in the commando lexicon.

Sunil not only went down in history for pioneering the precursor to the “Special Forces”, but also, by producing a Commando Regiment with exceptional standards, proved a source of inspiration to other military formations too to emulate the professionalism of the Commandos. He left his imprint firmly on the army, and carved a niche in the annals of military history. He foresaw events ahead of time, prepared and equipped an organisation to overcome emerging challenges, and by raising professionalism to dizzy heights, infected formations around the commandos . His accomplishments therefore had a pervasive impact on the army by serving as a tonic to invigorate other regiments, battalions and formations.

Lt Colonel Sunil Peris, in his book, devotes considerable attention to his spouse, Manisha and his family members. He was deeply grieved by the tragic death of his brother from the Air Force, Eksith Peiris, and his decision to retire in the quest for medical treatment for his wife in the U.K. demonstrated the extremely caring and humane side of his character. He was fortunate that the magnanimity of President JRJ ensured his return to the Army after treatment for Manisha in the U.K.

The last 10 pages of Sunil’s book, pages 210 to 216, are extremely poignant. His presentation of the circumstances which led to his decision to retire, the sorrow that engulfed him in the aftermath of his decision, his grief in leaving the army that was his passion and to which he contributed like no other, may make the eyes of many a reader moist. Sunil was an upright, honourable soldier, and the order by a person in the political establishment to simply liquidate youth was anathema to him. Knowing that further confrontations were likely, he, the type who was not likely to beg and crawl, took the unalterable decision to terminate his career. We have to accord the highest accolades to an officer who stood unflinchingly by his principles, regardless of consequences; and he well knew the sacrifices he had to make, leaving a career laced with novelty, innovation, reform, a legacy which none other could boast of at that time. His story in the book thus had a sad ending. Perhaps the best stories to read are those which do not climax with happy endings.

How do we assess this officer with a robust, imposing appearance, and yet so personable and caring in his relations with those who made his acquaintance? His career was short, a mere 20 years, when he took the unwavering decision to uphold standards and principles and retire in the face of interference. This step alone singles him out as someone extraordinary and exceptional, for those of such ilk are a rarity in our country. His career was laced with accomplishments which constituted a legacy bequeathed to future generations to emulate. His reach even enveloped the police, for their Special Task Force was conceptually inspired by him. There is no harm in the repetition that his influence invigorated other regiments, battalions, and formations of the Army as well. His leadership too was one of precept and example, for he was always the spearhead in dangerous missions. Leading the parachute jumps in Agra, India, come to mind. It is difficult to imagine that so young an officer had acumen to be a visionary, to administer with finesse, evolve structures and organisations, raise the bar in matters of enlistment and training, be extremely solicitous about the wellbeing of his men, and impress his peers and the defence establishment that he was an officer who possessed both métier and mettle to advance to the summit of the army in the fullness of time. What is particularly remarkable about Lt. Colonel Peiris was that he accomplished the impossible amidst brickbats and obstacles of jealous individuals above and around him. That he had to play ‘solitaire’ in what he did, enhanced his repute even further. He was undoubtedly a man for all seasons. The book is certainly timely, for many today may not remember who was responsible for the roots of the Special Forces. The name of Lt. Colonel Peiris should be suitably engraved as to remind posterity that he was the father of the commandos. This is the least that can be done to an officer who left such a legacy. We have also to remember that he had been exceptional and unique in not craving for promotions and medals in retirement. Reading his book, we have to lament that he passed into the limbo of history, unsung and unwept.

MERRIL GUNARATNEFormerly

* Snr DIG Police

* Director General of Intelligence in MOD

* Advisor MOD

* Director of NIB



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Form-ation of Higher Education in Sri Lanka

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By Hasini Lecamwasam

Improving higher education in Sri Lanka is not only important, but essential and long overdue. However, seeking to achieve higher ‘quality’ by ‘form-ising’ the performance of teachers (or the practice of forcing the entire teaching-learning exercise into forms designed to communicate exactly what and what transpires in a classroom) may not be able to bring about the desired change. A new set of four forms introduced recently to this end requires, among other things, drawing up a minutely detailed plan of each and every lesson to be delivered in class, aligned with the Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs), in turn, to be aligned with the Programme Learning Outcomes (PLOs), which should all then be tied to the graduate profile, or the kind of graduate we seek to ‘produce’ at the end of it all. This may, on the surface of it, sound reasonable enough and not encourage serious debate or resistance because, after all, it is only some forms that need to be filled.

Form by tedious form, however, the teaching-learning process at state universities is becoming increasingly constricted, fragmented, monitored, controlled. In this piece, I wish to briefly ponder on the implications of these requirements and the larger trends they signal, while also attempting to reflect on what instead we may do to ensure ‘quality’ in the delivery of higher education.

The problem with form-ation

The larger ‘Quality Assurance’ (QA) landscape in which these developments take place was discussed in detail in an earlier Kuppi Talk by Kaushalya Perera. In a nutshell, QA seeks to standardise education such that study programmes can be assessed against each other, assigned numbers, and ranked accordingly. The deployment of overarching yardsticks for programmes with hugely varying mandates, methods, and content has been the subject of much critique lately the world over, not the least due to its rather warped understanding of ‘quality’ as something that can be objectively established through metrics and audits.

While I do not question the bona fide motives behind the initiative taken with the aforementioned forms, I do think serious reflection on where these developments push us in the longer term is needed. My primary reservation here has to do with the impact of this lesson-wise breakdown on the creative and democratic exercise that the teaching-learning process is supposed to entail. When each topic is broken down into such fine detail prior to the actual occurrence of the ‘lesson’ (for want of a better word), outcomes are foreclosed rather than collectively and organically evolving in the course of the ‘lesson’, which is particularly important to many of the subjects offered in the Arts Faculties. Exactly how many of us are actually quite so democratic in our classrooms is a valid question in this regard, and one I will return to. The point for me here, however, is that for those who do have a sincere commitment to such a democratic classroom environment, such forms and the limiting of the teaching-learning experience they constitute, may be tantamount to strangulation.

Even if the majority of us admit to being very controlling in our classrooms anyway, does that justify going one step further with these forms and institutionalising such control? Should not our commitment be to the emancipatory ideal, rather than simply what most are on board with? There should be meaningful space for creative, organic, and democratic teaching-learning processes to unfold for teachers who wish to make that choice, and for students to explore and think beyond the teacher’s frame of thinking. Micromanaging beyond the general content of a course (laid down in enough detail in the course syllabus) is inimical to even a possibility of democracy existing in the classroom and within the larger university space.

This complete subservience of the teaching-learning process to red tape signals a larger and troubling trend of corporatisation. Corporatisation may be defined as the restructuring of a publicly owned institution to be managed as a business place would be, with a view to privatising in the long term. In state universities, this shift is couched in the supposedly ‘progressive’ language of student-centered approaches and interactive classrooms, hijacked from the democratic pedagogy of the likes of Paulo Freire, but bereft of any of the emancipatory politics within which these methods assume meaning. Despite the use of these catch-phrases, however, such minutely detailed forms signal a return to an extremely teacher-centered model due to the absence of the possibility for students to meaningfully influence the outcome of a lesson, as it is predetermined for them.

The result, as the Kannangara report worried with remarkable foresight some 80 years ago, is students “with much knowledge and little understanding. They have not read books; they have “studied” texts. They cannot write, they produce essays after a set style. They can answer questions but not question answers … Their imagination has been stunted, their originality suppressed, their capacity for thought undeveloped, their emotions inhibited.”

What alternative can we propose?

A valid question countering what little resistance there is to form-ation asks how we can ensure the education we currently deliver is of an acceptable standard, and that everybody observes such. There seems to prevail tacit and widespread agreement that the ‘democratic nonsense’ within universities is what has allowed many to hide behind debates, deliberations, appeals to creative freedom, and so on, without actually doing their work.

In my view, this is an arbitrary causation to draw. Blaming internal democracy for negligence of duties fails to take into account the highly anti-democratic practices at universities that may better explain such behaviour.

Specifically, I think it is the rigidly entrenched hierarchy within universities that blocks the possibility of even dialogue, let alone debate, particularly when it comes to holding those higher-up in the ladder accountable for their actions (or the lack thereof, as the case may be). Hierarchy is why, among many other things, students cannot question the content or the methods chosen by their teachers. As previous Kuppi Talks have endeavoured to show, hierarchy is silently, and therefore very effectively, observed at every level, ensuring the trumping of students by teachers, juniors by seniors, women by men, minorities by the majority, and originality by tradition. It impedes questioning, stifles dissent, and smothers alternative thinking altogether. The problem, therefore, is not that we have too much democracy in universities, but too little of it.

We must make a sincere and sustained effort to radically democratise the university space by relaxing the classroom to allow open and honest exchange between students and teachers; changing the relations of power between seniors and juniors, starting with undoing the practice of deferential treatment; refusing to tolerate snide and not-so-subtle references to ways of dressing and similar gendered remarks; questioning the exclusive use of the majority language in official communications, as a starting point. In doing so, we would be subverting the crippling hierarchy that inhibits thought and practice within the university. Such a radical change geared towards improved quality through mutual accountability, for me, is the only acceptable way of introducing accountability to a space that, admittedly, sorely lacks it.

(Hasini Lecamwasam is attached to the Department of Political Science, University of Peradeniya)

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies.

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THE LOGIC OF PRESIDENT’S PLEDGES IN NEW YORK

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by Jehan Perera

The significance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech at the UN General Assembly, in New York, last week, was his use of the time allocated to him to provide an outline of the government’s policies towards the main challenges besetting the country. The President covered the main issues that confront the world with his focus on Sri Lanka. These included measures to contain the Covid pandemic, the economic crisis, environmental degradation and violence. In the final section of his well-crafted speech, the President went into some depth regarding the government’s approach to national reconciliation. However, the response within the country, has been muted and for good reason. Those who voted for the government, on an entirely different platform, which emphasised ethnic majority nationalism and anti-international sentiments, are quite probably at a loss.

It is only recently that the government has started to speak in terms of reconciliation and obtaining international support for it. At the two elections that brought this government to power, the Easter Sunday bombing and the consequent threat to national security, took centre stage. The majority, who voted for the government, did so to protect it from a variety of security threats they were told of, both within and outside the country. The wretched failure of the previous government to prevent the bombing, the first terrorist act of any magnitude since the war ended a decade earlier, was attributed to the personal weakness of the then government leaders. It was also attributed to the 19th Amendment which sought to give state institutions protection from use for partisan reasons by government politicians and to consequent disintegration of the system of command and control.

A second theme, at the two elections, was depiction of ethnic and religious minorities as potential security threats. This stemmed from the country’s experience of three decades of internal warfare with the armed Tamil separatist movements. This was followed by the Easter bombings by extremists from the Muslim community, who were feared to be having a vast support base both internally within the country and also externally. In these circumstances, the re-centralisation of power within the government hierarchy and greater role given to the security forces, received public acceptance as being part of the government’s democratic mandate. At the same time, by denying the equally legitimate concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities, the electoral results demonstrated the existence of an acute polarisation, and wound, in the body politic that continues to fester to the point of bringing in involuntary and imposed international interventions.

EU MONITORING

The challenge for the government is to represent the interests of all communities and not only the majority who voted it into power. The problem is that the government’s mandate comes, by and large, from the vote of the ethnic and religious majority in a country that has been polarised on ethnic and religious lines, for many decades. An ugly part of this reality is that in the prisons are several hundreds of Tamils and Muslims for the most part who are in custody for periods ranging from a few months to many years without trial. They are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, ostensibly until the security forces find adequate evidence to put them before the courts of law. This contradicts the rule of law and the presumption in our legal system that we are innocent until proven guilty can have negative consequences.

In June this year, the EU parliament passed a resolution that the GSP Plus tariff privileges, made available to Sri Lanka should be withdrawn unless the government fulfilled its obligations in regard to the upholding of human rights. The resolution, expressing “deep concern over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations”, and makes specific reference to the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The resolution notes the “continuing discrimination” against and violence towards religious and ethnic minorities, while voicing “serious concern” about the 20th Amendment passed in 2020, and the “resulting decline in judiciary independence, the reduction of parliamentary control, and the excessive accumulation of power with the presidency”. It also highlights “accelerating militarisation” of civilian government functions in Sri Lanka.

A delegation from the EU is currently in Sri Lanka to meet with members of the government, Opposition and civil society, to ascertain whether the country is fulfilling its obligations to be a beneficiary of EU trade benefits. It is likely that the delegation will be provided with evidence of human rights violations and acts of impunity. There are hundreds of persons languishing in prisons without being put on trial, many of whom are Tamils, suspected to be LTTE members, and more of them are Muslims, suspected of having links with the Easter bombings. When questioned in parliament about the latter, the minister in charge justified those detentions on the grounds that Muslim youth, including the Muslim parliamentarian who had questioned him, could contain Islamic State ideology in their heads and therefore be security threats.

NEW DIRECTION

At the last elections, the most potent theme was the failure of the then government to act effectively to protect the country from the Easter suicide bombings and the pressures from human rights actors in Geneva. Among the issues that loomed large at the last election was also the charge that the previous government was giving in too much to the Muslim community within the country. The fact that the Easter attacks were by Muslim suicide bombers added force to this charge. The prioritisation of national security in the election campaign had popular support. The influential religious clergy, associations of professionals and mass media also joined the battle in earnest and their messages reinforced one another. The recent debate in Parliament suggests the government’s thinking continues to be in sync with the mandate it received at those elections.

However, in his speech in New York, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shown signs of diverging from the politics of the past. The President said “Fostering greater accountability, restorative justice, and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions is essential to achieve lasting peace. So too is ensuring more equitable participation in the fruits of economic development. It is my Government’s firm intention to build a prosperous, stable and secure future for all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender. We are ready to engage with all domestic stakeholders, and to obtain the support of our international partners and the United Nations, in this process.” However, the President’s speech continues to be at variance with the ground realities at the present time and the general manner of governance since the President took office in November 2019.

So far the pledge of a new direction is articulated in words. The time for the government to make the President’s words real and act accordingly is now. This will help to overcome the deep and dark cynicism that has enveloped the country regarding promises made by politicians. The first step would be to apply the logic of the Justice Minister in Parliament. Replying to an Opposition Parliamentarian who called for the arrest of Minister Lohan Ratwatte who stands accused of entering a prison and threatening prisoners with his gun, the justice minister said that everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This also applies to the hundreds of Tamils and Muslims in jail without evidence to charge them in a court of law. The better way to deal with the threats to national security is to win the confidence of all the communities in the Sri Lanka by treating them without discrimination, as children of one mother, as our national anthem proclaims.

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Face shields, sans masks, on TV shows!

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Face shield ONLY does not provide protection from Covid-19

Covid-19 has claimed many lives, in our part of the world. Quite a few musicians, too, have had to face the music, where this deadly virus is concerned.

However, one is perturbed with the setup seen on some of our TV shows, especially where musicians are concerned.

The Covid-19 guidelines are never adhered to – no masks, no social distancing, etc.

There were reality shows held, post pandemic, where judges were seen even hugging their favourite contestants – with no masks.

With the virus turning deadly, some of the judges took to only wearing face shields. And, we now know the results of their stupidity.

By their irresponsible behaviour (wearing only face shields), they seem to be setting a trend for others to follow.

The question being asked is what are the health authorities doing? Why haven’t such folks been taken to task!

If the man on the street is arrested for not wearing a mask, how come these law-breakers go scot-free!

If wearing a mask is a hassle in an air conditioned setup, then such shows should be put on hold, or held virtual…live stream, zoom, from home, etc., and not with the participation of several artistes, in a studio.

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