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Covid pandemic, KNDU debate and civil-military relations

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By Dr. 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 get back to ‘normal’ at least until 2023. This is assuming that our governments would be able to implement viable vaccination programmes 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 continued economic devastation, weak workforces due to poor health conditions, disrupted international trade relations, and environmental catastrophes. It is not clear what kind of a political-economic ‘model’ would hold for the future as liberal capitalism is the root cause of most of the present disasters, plundering of natural resources, pollution of environment, displacing of animals and over exploitation of the human resource.

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 politics, protests, strikes or even ‘plans 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. This is exactly what is happening in countries like Australia where I live at present. Strikes and protests are staples in the democratic menu, but not exactly under conditions like the prevailing 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 France, there were not much opposition to lockdowns, face masks, social distancing, or strict guidelines. Australia managed the situation quite well, like New Zealand until recently.

Perhaps because of the successes, Australia also got a little complacent and the vaccination roll-out got delayed. This appears to be the key reason 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 doctors or nurses, although there are similar pay anomalies and grievances on their part. They were patient and tolerant.

Of course, the grievances in Sri Lanka are more grave, as a poor and developing country. Moreover, politics is exceedingly hot. Education is a field greatly affected in both countries with obvious future repercussions. In Australia, teachers are cooperating fully, conducting online teaching. In Sri Lanka, obviously there are problems, but teacher protests are completely undermining the efforts to resolve them.

Australia has the necessary resources to offset the adverse economic effects on employment and businesses, due to lockdowns and other restrictions, through job-keeper, job-seeker and business concessions. However, such possibilities, in Sri Lanka, are limited. In controlling the spread of the virus, Australia is implementing extremely effective contact-tracing measures and asking people to follow strict rules. While this type of accurate measures are difficult in SriLanka, many people who are infected or possibly infected appear to be taking these instructions lightly.

Because of, people’s widespread mistrust of the police, the application of these regulations 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, state or provincial levels. The opposing Labour Party cooperates 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 brought the military into the scene and prevented any protest from taking place during last weekend. Soldiers are also deployed 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 rights.

 

KNDU Debate

Although the pandemic is the main challenge at the moment, the government, the Opposition, the civil society, media, academics or any other party should not neglect addressing or discussing other issues. What is necessary is to understand the circumstances, and prepare for the next stage, without unnecessarily postponing anything else. Therefore, the KNDU (Kotelawala National Defence University) debate is important but it should be placed in the broader context.

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 universities. This year the University Grants Commission (UGC) intends to enroll an 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 university education.

Under the UGC, there are 15 universities and the average student intake is around 2,000. The expansion of university education has been lethargic, from my experience, due to the centralised control of the UGC. At least universities like Colombo, Peradeniya and Moratuwa should have been granted autonomy a long time ago, to expand, be efficient and innovate.

KNDU has been under the Ministry of Defence and independent from the UGC. The property was donated 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. KNDU is primarily a defence university (special purpose), but admits civil students. The teachers are mainly military but with other reputed academics participating.

 

Some questions

There can be (and are) inconsistencies and weaknesses in the proposed Bill for the KNDU. But such weaknesses exist 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 jeopardises free education. General Sir John Kotelawala Defence Academy or University was in existence since 1981, but there was no such opposition before. There are private universities, but those are also not opposed, but patronised by some. KNDU fees should be reasonable and it should not be a profit making enterprise. Some public universities running on a fair-fee basis, with other assistance, would help expand ‘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 Sri Lanka to be on 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 emotional outburst. During 2005 and 2010, I was affiliated with the KNDU, mainly teaching human rights. I have known many civilian academics teaching different subjects in KNDU then and thereafter. Since then, the civilian student population has expanded even to the point of including foreign students. The interaction of civil and military, local and international is a healthy atmosphere at the KDU.

Student unions are barred at KNDU. Instead there are social clubs. Military training is reserved for military cadets. Perhaps sports should be promoted for civilian students (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 the UGC or such organisation.

 

Civil-Military Relations

I believe the newly proposed KNDU Bill 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 with civility.

In Australia, a Civil-Military Centre (ACMC) promotes this scenario. The Centre also includes the police in its programmes. Its mission statement is, “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 the context of a pandemic like the Coronavirus, recurrent floods, landslides and droughts, and oceanic 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 equal prominance. 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 jeopardizing free education.

 

A civil-military seminar in Australia (ACMC)



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Opinion

Yohani – not our Manike?

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It is very heartening to hear that both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader of India have expressed their appreciation of the song Manike mage hithe, sung by the local artiste Yohani de Silva, which had gone viral in this part of the world.

Sadly, neither the government nor the Opposition bigwigs of Sri Lanka have congratulated her in the media, taking into consideration the vast amount of foreign exchange she is bringing into this country.

Indrasena Samaratunga

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Opinion

Must give way to ambulances

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The introduction of the Suwa Seriya free ambulance service has helped many patients, afflicted with serious illnesses, to get to the hospital in double quick time, saving the lives of many people who would otherwise have succumbed to serious ailments such as heart attack, or grave injury resulting from serious accidents. We have to thank Dr. Harsha De Silva for all he has done to see this very important service established with the help of the Indian Government.

There have been a few people trying to take credit for getting this ambulance service from the Indian government, but it was the sole effort of Dr. De Silva that saw this through. The Suwa Seriya ambulance comes to the location where the patient is, very quickly. Now the Suwa Seriya ambulance service is available throughout the island, a boon to people who cannot afford to pay for an ambulance to get to a hospital.

Along with the Suwa Seriya, there are a large number of ambulances attached to government and private hospitals. We hear the sirens of ambulances throughout the day. When an ambulance is rushing to a hospital, it is absolutely necessary that motorists give way. It is noticed that most older motorists try to move their vehicles to make way for the oncoming ambulance to proceed without a hassle. But some younger motorists, driving expensive SUVs, and some private bus drivers, who think they own the road, do not give way for the ambulance to proceed.

It is imperative that all motorists abide by the rule to give way to an ambulance as soon as the siren is heard. It is the duty of all motorists to enable an ambulance to reach the hospital soonest.

H.M. Nissanka Warakaulle

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Opinion

Mr. President, please let this be a turning point!

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By Rohana R. Wasala

When I pen these words, most Sri Lankans are still sleeping. I am ahead of them and awake. That is because of the time zone difference between where I live and Sri Lanka, my country of birth. As usual, as the first thing I do in the morning, particularly these days, I glanced at the headlines in The Island epaper, and was depressed to read the banner headline “Ratwatte remains a state minister despite resignation over running amok in prisons”, with the following underneath it:

“State Minister of Prison Reform and Rehabilitation Lohan Ratwatte yesterday told The Island that he had informed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that he would step down immediately from his post as the State Minister of Prisons. However, he will continue to be the State Minister of Gem and Jewellery Industries”.

Having earlier read and heard over the media about Lohan Ratwatte’s alleged escapades in prisons on Sunday (12) night, I have been eagerly waiting to read a newspaper headline like “Deputy Minister remanded; a good start to meeting challenge to rule of law”, for I expect nothing less from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. As a disciplined and determined executive, with a military background, he, I assume, tries to handle the toughest cases with the strictest adherence to the law. He appears to rely on the ministers and the government servants, serving under him, to follow his perfectly lawful commands in a spirit of military discipline, mutatis mutandis, in the context of civil government. Whatever the likely or actual response to the extremely embarrassing deputy-ministerial episode (not the first involving LR), it should be of a kind that contributes to a restoration of the fast eroding public faith in the hoped-for Gotabaya rule. The Island editorial of Thursday (16) under the arresting heading “Arrest them” offers sound advice. I drew some solace from that. For I realised that there is at least another person of a like mind.

I was even more shocked and disappointed by the Commissioner General of Prisons Thushara Upuldeniya’s attempted absolution of the Deputy Minister. According to the online Lanka C News (September 16), the Commissioner has said that the Minister visited the prison to discuss pardoning some prisoners and that the he has the right to visit the prison to discuss with the inmates at any time of the day. The Commissioner might be technically right, but I am doubtful about the lawfulness of what the Minister has done, especially in his alleged inebriated state. Upuldeniya was handpicked by the President for the extremely demanding job. His coming to the defence of LR was a bolt from the blue to the innocent peace-loving law abiding citizens of the country who have been for decades persecuted by the persistent menace posed by the unholy alliance between criminals and some jailors and a handful of politicos providing together an impregnable bulwark for the first.

However, since the case hasn’t yet been verified or investigated, we don’t know for sure whether the Deputy Minister is guilty of going berserk under the influence of liquor as alleged. As a person embroiled in politics, he could be a victim of some calumnious effort of his detractors, and we must be cautious in passing judgement on him. But again, as he, who has a previous thuggish reputation, has virtually accepted guilt in this case by tendering his resignation, citizens are justified if they expect, as I do, a tougher reaction from the President.

At this moment we should anticipate a presidential response different from the mild rebuke “Anthimai!” (equivalent of a sarcastic “Great!”) that the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa greeted the hospitalised Labour Minister Mervyn Silva with, on December 27, 2007. (I eagerly hope that the President’s deterrent reaction would be known before this reaches The Island readers.) The latter was admitted to hospital after being given a taste of his own medicine following a rowdy interference he committed with the work of a news editor by the name of T.M.G. Chandrasekera at the state-owned Rupavahini TV station over not giving enough coverage as he alleged to a public event that he had organised in Matara the day before. Though very close to MR, he was not an elected MP; he was only a national list MP from the SLFP that MR led. In any case, it was inexcusable that he conducted himself the way he did, for what he did was bound to reflect badly on the President himself. The other employees of the TV station, angered by the uncouth highhanded behaviour of Mervyn Silva, forced him and his notorious sidekick, suspected drug trafficker Kudu Nuwan or Lal or someone (I am not too sure about these trivial details now) to a room and held them there, handling them roughly. Mervyn Silva was heard pleading : “I will tender an apology if you say I have done wrong”. He had. The workers were providing manual proof as best they could.

Mervyn Silva was beaten up right royally, and bundled into his prestigious ministerial Pajero and was briskly driven away to hospital safety. The state Rupavahini telecast the proceedings live for the whole world to see in repeated ‘news flashes’ most of the day that day, as my older readers might clearly remember. It was a sort of news carnival for the wrathful Rupavahini broadcasters and for the scandalised viewers. While watching the scenario live, I convinced myself that President Mahinda Rajapaksa would kick his you-know-what-I-mean within the hour, or at least after his discharge from hospital. To my utter disgust and disappointment, nothing like that happened. The fellow flourished for another eight years under MR’s wing until he betrayed him utterly in 2015, after having abused his well-known humaneness and his reluctance to abandon people who have helped him in the past. Lately, Mervin seemed to try to cozy up to the boss he so treacherously let down; but MR’s brothers have saved him from his erstwhile unequal friend.

I personally believe that we are not going to see such wretched characters protected under President Gotabaya Rajapaksa during the remainder of his term.

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