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Educational Experience in the COVID19 era : Challenges to Opportunities

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Senior Professor Chandrika N Wijeyaratne

MBBS (Colombo), MD (Colombo), DM (Colombo), FRCP (London),Vice-Chancellor, University of Colombo

I am deeply humbled and greatly privileged to deliver the 2021 memorial lecture to honour Professor J.E. Jayasuriya – a pioneer educationist, academic and a brilliant son of Sri Lanka.

Born on February 14, 1918, he received his education in three schools ending with Wesley College, Colombo. Having excelled at the Cambridge Senior Examination and being placed third in the British Empire he was awarded a scholarship to the University College Colombo from where he obtained a First Class in Mathematics.   

He was the first principal of Dharmapala Vidyalaya, Pannipitiya and forsook a career in the coveted civil administrative service due to his resolute stand on encouraging Buddhist schools. He was handpicked by the father of free education and then minister of education, Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara, to lead the central school established in his own electorate of Matugama.   

Following Postgraduate studies at University of London he was placed in charge of Mathematics education at the Teachers’ College Maharagama until being appointed as a lecturer in the Department of Education of the University of Ceylon. In 1957, he succeeded Prof. T.L Green as Professor of Education, with the singular distinction of being the first Sri Lankan to hold this post.   

In his capacity as Professor and the Head of Department, Prof. Jayasuriya undertook the task of professionalizing education. He was a role model to the academia with his professionalism, erudite outlook, integrity and a deep commitment to his chosen field.. It was his vision that paved the way for the first undergraduate degree- Bachelor of Education awarded by University of Peradeniya in the nineteen sixties. The majority of the first generation of B.Ed. graduates achieved high professional status both locally and globally. The popularity of this course, which is now offered at the University of Colombo, testifies the foresight of Prof. Jayasuriya in developing this programme. While there are moves to expand today’s Bachelor of Education programmes, it is necessary to review these programmes in the light of Prof. Jayasuriya’s vision to maintain the quality of the very study course he designed.

I am captivated by Professor J. E Jaysuriya’s close association with medical education. He assisted Professor Senaka Bibile to establish the Medical Education Unit at Peradeniya. He delivered several guest lectures on measurement techniques and psychometry. He was elected as a Chartered Psychologist (U.K.) having the right to practice as a Psychologist. in the U, K. Later he was the UNESCO Regional Adviser on Population Education in Asia and the Pacific and one of his articles on the ‘Inclusion of Population Education in the Medical School Curriculum’ was ublished in the British Journal of Medical Education.

Educating the educators of Sri Lanka has now become a norm in Sri Lanka, about which Prof Jayasuriya would be extremely proud. The distinct features of Prof Jayasuriya’s approach to education, based on the information I gathered about him, include his distinctive approach to psychology and mathematics, intelligence testing and educational policy with a holistic, practical and pragmatic outlook; that I propose modern-day educationists should emulate. May his memory remain etched in the education landscape of mother Lanka!

 

Preamble

Sri Lanka has remained unique in its obligation to universal education over the past seven decades, well before more advanced countries gave due consideration to this aspect of social development. Despite multiple challenges faced, we have safeguarded education as a sacred and quintessential commodity.

The infrastructure, human resource and facilities for education have remained a priority in the eyes of the general public. Nevertheless, there are many unmet needs of tertiary education in Sri Lanka that caused concern for whole of society over the last two decades. It is noteworthy that University Grant Commission (UGC) statistics show that only six percent of young adults (between 18 and 24 years) are enrolled in state universities, while another five percent are enrolled in other state higher educational institutions. A further six percent are enrolled in non-state higher educational institutes with an additional three percent enrolling for external degree programmes. In total, the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for tertiary education in Sri Lanka is only approximately 20%, being the lowest among all middle-income countries and below the average value of 24% for South Asia.

Furthermore, Sri Lanka has one of the highest rates of brain drain in South Asia. The World Bank figure for migration stands at 27.5% among those who received tertiary education, with an average annual migration level of 6,000 professionals. I consider this to be an underestimate by not factoring in the youth migrating for tertiary education while draining our foreign exchange.

The vision statement of the incumbent head of state, His Excellency President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, elucidated the need to introduce a reformed education policy and aim for no student who is suitably qualified to be deprived of higher education.

While discussion and deliberations were in progress on how this transformation must be addressed, the country faced the first wave of the COVID19 pandemic and a shutdown of all education institutions by mid-March 2020. The Presidential Task Force (PTF) on Sri Lanka’s Education Affairs was established through a gazette notification on March 31, 2020. The PTF which consisted of experts in the fields of education and higher education, was initially formed into three (03) Core Groups to propose suitable recommendations in the education sectors of General Education, Higher Education and Vocational Education. This was probably the first attempt to address education holistically under one umbrella and as a lifelong need. The TF was required to explore differences and variation of students, institutions and available resources.

 

COVID19 pandemic – the basis for the response of Higher Education Institutes

The single purpose required from us was to ensure there was no shutdown of education and to optimize the conversion of the process to online learning. Undoubtedly, adult education was the main sector deemed appropriate for an overnight transformation to the Online Distance Education (ODL) format.

With regard to long-term educational reforms beyond Covid-19 and the national expectations for broadening opportunities in tertiary education, far-reaching changes were required. The PTF recognized the need to transform the current tertiary education sector in Sri Lanka to become a globally recognized tri-partite system that consists of three key types of higher educational institutions (HEIs), namely,

 

1) State and Non-state Undergraduate HEIs

2) Postgraduate Research Universities, and

3) State and Non-state Vocational and Professional Institutions

 

This transformation was proposed with the explicit purpose to improve access to tertiary education, provide more flexibility and mobility within and among the three tiers and sectors, offer diverse opportunities for education, training and career paths, enhance standards, quality and relevance of training and promote postgraduate education, with particular emphasis on research, innovation and commercialization; all of which can upscale the economy and national development.

In terms of the required immediate change over to the digital mode, let us recollect the Sri Lankan State Sector experience with ODL by early 2020, immediately preceding the COVID19 pandemic. The Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL), with a student population of 40,000, had the longest experience with ODL spanning 40 years. Online teaching commenced at the OUSL in 2003, with 50% of the courses made available online. This facility was provided as Supplementary, Blended and as an Online Plus. The open university included formative assessments as assignments, quizzes and discussion forums in the blended online courses. Limited summative assessments (final examinations) were conducted online, under a supervised environment in the computer laboratories of the Regional Centers of the OUSL.

An open-sourced support such as Moodle for the LMS, cloud based digital infra-structure and sustained interaction with LEARN, provided the necessary pathway to achieving the digital transformation.

Indeed, our IT experts provided speedy and unstinted support at the request of the UGC, with our own director of the University of Colombo School of Computing (UCSC) being a great pillar of strength. Permit me to divert here and share with you how this very personality, Prof KP Hewagamage the incumbent director of UCSC, recalls with gratitude how Prof J E Jayasuriya’s book on ‘Veeja Ganithaya’ for schoolchildren captivated his attention and was a life changing experience to learn mathematics from grade six in school! Free access to internet connection via LEARN was negotiated with service providers by HE the President, that ensured that the economically disadvantaged segments of our university population were not left behind. Nevertheless, many of our students still do not own a device to access online and/or have adequate internet bandwidth in their homes to effectively use the LMS. Smart phones were the first best option to ensure a timely transition – and was our only choice.

The concept of a virtual campus through the OUSL system that provides free internet access to students via computer laboratories based in Regional and Study Centers situated in every district was re-visited. Ensuring the provision of a Tablet PC to every student was recognized as priority, so that the new entrants in 2020/2021 are to be provided with student loans for this purpose.

Student centered independent learning was propelled into action. Despite many challenges, this transformation of the educational process would be viewed by the late Professor Jayasuriya as a veritable liberation from a stifled system, that was the main reason for the broader vision to transform education. Without doubt, Sri Lanka was entrapped in a tuition-based examination-oriented rote learning ethos, from which we clearly require to disengage. The COVID19 related shift in demand of educational lifestyle was the ideal opportunity for the deliverance of a more fulfilling and productive educational process and outlook for 21st Century Sri Lanka.

 

Learning Resources for
Online Education

Quality learning resources are vital for the success of online learning. In this context, internationally recognized free and open educational resources are available in the cyberspace free of charge.

It is noteworthy that the Government of India supports the most disadvantaged through an indigenously developed IT platform. Highly ranked Indian universities provide courses on the distance mode through SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds) and share quality teaching learning resources for Indian nationals anywhere, at any time.

 

Learner Support

A distance learner should have plenty of self-motivation. A web conferencing system through which the teachers make regular contacts, both synchronously and asynchronously, enables access for students located in remote locations. As per the OUSL experience, effective learner support is achieved by offering multi-device/ multi-mode learning opportunities to meet the learning needs of a mixed student population.

The COVID 19 pandemic impacted severely on our educational processes and systems. Permit me to share with you my experience in this transition as the administrative and academic lead of the University of Colombo, the pioneer institution of modern tertiary education in Sri Lanka. I consider this experience personifies how challenges imposed by the pandemic were transformed into opportunities.

The need for a flexible attitude to the learning and teaching process is of paramount importance to achieve any success with ODL. I am proud to say that a wider sector of our own staff encouraged their students to engage in home gardening; with a view to augmenting psycho-social adjustment to the sudden transition to home-based education, loss of peer group interaction and encouraged students to support their family economy through agriculture. Nevertheless, tilling the land fell far short of the dignity of university education! Acquisition of skills from hands-on laboratory and clinical settings in parallel with the development of leadership, teamwork, soft skills, sports and recreation were clearly not possible with ODL.

We received baseline information on the major issues faced by the students following relocation in their own homes. The impact had socio-economic and gender sensitive dimensions that required intensive support. Thus, the COVID19 threat of a pandemic brought into focus many unmet needs of the modern-day university student; ranging from the need for self-employment opportunities to sustain student education to their individual preferences for city-based versus. rural living. The wider community of the student groups suffered a major anxiety, with the haunting question – when can we graduate? Thereby, every faculty and institute along with the Sripalee campus and the school of computing, were able to effectively create and maintain channels of communication by linking the students with the central administrative process, in order to ensure a coordinated process for the provision of optimum support. I take pride in recounting this staff and alumni support for students that I believe made a meaningful impact on the personality development of our student population.

Our university, in parallel, was catalyzed into a new work norm – of a digital transformation in our educational activities. Online meetings became standard daily practice to manage the University administration. We took pride on becoming paperless, with the formalizing of an online document management system, with the official use of e-signatures and digital certification which resulted in improved efficiency, transparency and flexibility. The benefits of work from home, adopting healthy practices in the working environment, promotion of innovation to address social needs, with a fair share of the responsibility falling upon university systems were positive developments from the Covid-19 pandemic, that should be harnessed for future implementation.

I reiterate that our staff was very supportive to support the new model of ODL; often taking on re-orienting and re-learning while coping with the additional workload. Traditional wisdom and foresight enabled us to think positively and respond pragmatically. We had a few doubting Thomas’s, but such negative thoughts were considerably mitigated by an overwhelming ethos of resilience. Library information services were required to be digitalized.

Based on anecdotal evidence we have received from most sectors, many students became more aware of e-resources and started using the library journal databases at a greater speed that is supported by the recorded numbers of access or hits.

Online surveys were initiated for obtaining student feedback. We received feedback of the major impact on socio-economic and gender-based violence that soon followed student relocation in their own homes. COVID19 indeed brought into focus many unmet needs of the modern-day university student; ranging from self-employment opportunities in the city through tuition, Uber deliveries etc versus. rural living with no earning opportunity. The general anxiety among students was: When can we graduate? When can we stop being a burden to our parents?

As time progressed the digital engagement became apparent among diverse groups. Student centered community related e-activities, such as the Gavel Club, Societies related to social and cultural groups, leadership development through community service such as Rotaract and Leo clubs held their induction ceremonies on time through the digital mode. Addressing on-line, gender-based violence and psychological issues of COIVD 19, by the Golden Zs that comprises female and male medical students (supervised by a faculty representative of the Zonta Club of Colombo I) was an enriching and novel experience.

Online delivery of learning resources for students with disabilities and their special needs received special attention. The majority of students with special needs demonstrated a preference to attend a face-to-face teaching. The Faculty of Arts that accommodates the great majority of this special group that has developed a centre for disability research, education and practice (CEDREP) affiliated to the Department of Sociology. I am proud to state that CEDREP offers support to all students with disabilities irrespective of which faculty they belong to or which study stream they have chosen. They also individualize educational support and mitigate stigma and marginalization of the students with specific needs.

The digital transition was undertaken as a collective project to ensure a quality transition of Onsite Learning to Blended Learning at the University of Colombo. Blended learning is defined as an approach to education that effectively integrates classroom practices (teaching learning and assessment) with online learning (teaching learning and assessment) practices.

Soon after the COVID19 related shut down we had several inquiries made from highly rated universities in the USA. The foreign university looked to us as worthy partners to sustain their recruitment of Sri Lankan students at a discounted rate of 1/6 their original on campus fees with 10% for our university. Based on the discussion we did express an interest in partnership in the award of dual degrees through the “cyber campus” modality; which is a long process of planning. What brings into focus is that the format of blended learning provides opportunities for external partnerships to collaborate with foreign university in teaching and research.

Let me end by reiterating that consciously or unconsciously our inherent Lankan Culture encouraged us to counter threats imposed on higher education from the COVID19 pandemic by responding to the trendy management acronym VUCA through facing “Volatility with Vision, Uncertainty with Understanding, Complexity with Clarity and Ambiguity with Agility”.

Our fundamental values encouraged us to prioritize, risk manage, make pragmatic decisions, foster a change and seek sustainable solutions, while encouraging quick responses and a holistic outlook.

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Features

2019 Easter Sunday Carnage: An Intelligence Perspective

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By Merril Gunaratne

Retired Senior DIG

The predicament of those in the highest echelons of defence and police bring to my mind past serious failures, not entirely dissimilar to the massacre on “Easter Sunday” in 2019. Somewhere in the mid 1980s, an LTTE group, led by their Mannar leader Victor Fulgencius ,entered the Anuradhapura sacred city and brutally mowed down a large number of Buddhist pilgrims in broad daylight. The Coordinating Officer of Anuradhapura, SSP of the area and those below them, must have been “deaf and blind”, for they could not have been oblivious to the bursts of gunfire, and the plea of countless witnesses who naturally would have looked upto them for intervention. No positive efforts were made even to stall the retreat of the terrorists after the carnage to Mannar. Nor were inquiries instituted to hold senior army and police officers accountable for their shocking inertia. Likewise in broad daylight, a terror group, the TELO, stormed Chavakachcheri police station and razed it to the ground, killing all police officers in the station. The Coordinating Officer of Palaly, when questioned by the President at the National Security Council meeting following the disaster, stated that in such situations, “each service should look after itself”. The question raised was whether the Army should have engaged in an immediate and timely intervention. Here too no inquiry was initiated to identify accountability for the shocking failures. The “PLOTE” group of Uma Maheswaran came untrammelled up to the Nikaweratiya police station, in the Kurunegala district, attacked it and caused mayhem. No inquiries were held: none were held accountable. In the 1990s, the Katunayake Air Force base was attacked by the LTTE and the JVP, separately, causing death and destruction. None were called upon to shoulder the blame. Again, in the early 90’s, the LTTE ruthlessly killed over 600 police officers in the Ampara sector, because the IGP at the time ordered the fighting officers to surrender on an assurance from political leaders that the LTTE would release them. No Commissions nor inquiries were held in this regard.

There is however an essential difference between these instances and the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage. Ample intelligence from India, backed by a plethora of evidence and reports of dangers from the National Thowheed Jamath [NTJ] stored with the State Intelligence Services [SIS], the CID, and the Terrorist investigation Division [TID], had been in the possession of SIS, well before the disaster took place. Therefore the credibility of intelligence received from India was not in doubt, as also time and space available to adopt schemes to plan arrests and flood the country with optimum security. In such a context, the failure of defence and police officers to evolve plans to nip terror in the bud, differ sharply with previous instances. In previous cases, the security forces were taken by surprise. In the case of the “Easter Sunday” carnage, intelligence was available well in advance, so that ample opportunity was available to forestall terror plans.

THE STATUS OF THE STATE INTELLIGENCE SERVICE (SIS) IN DEFENCE

An aspect that came under scrutiny was whether the Director of the SIS had informed the President about the information received from the Indian counterparts. It may not be inappropriate to deal with two matters which find relevance in seeking to understand what ideally should have been done.

First, the SIS is the premier “Intelligence” service in the country, since it is expected to collect and collate intelligence of the police special branch, the CID and the TID, in addition to their own efforts. It is also responsible to monitor political targets, in addition to those connected with subversion, terrorism and espionage. It also enjoys wiretapping apparatus to enhance its capability.

Second, the Director of the SIS is virtually “primus inter pares” amongst members of the national security council [NSC], when it comes to access to the head of state, and in relation to his vital role of leading deliberations at meetings of the NSC with suitable briefs. Each and every director of the national intelligence service in its long history, will vouch for the veracity of this arrangement. From as far back as 1950’s, even superintendents of police in- charge of national intelligence had far more access to the head of state than the IGP; and the IGP did not often know what the Intelligence head had discussed with the President. The authority of the Director of the SIS therefore at times exceeded that of not only the IGP, but many others in the NSC as well. At the time I was Director of the National Intelligence Bureau, President Jayewardene would see only me before 8.00 am, prior to leaving for Cabinet meetings.

Though in pecking order, the Chief of National Intelligence (CNI) is superior to the Director of the SIS, in actual fact, the latter wields far more authority since all agents and informers are controlled by the SIS. In addition, CNI only plays a supervisory role, while the Director of the SIS is the actual operational head of the intelligence agency.

SUBMISSION OF “SPECIAL”OR “SERIAL” REPORTS BY DIRECTOR SIS TO THE PRESIDENT

Being in a position of such privilege, whenever credible intelligence is received, the Director of the SIS has to take two immediate steps. First, he should immediately, through the shortest possible route, despatch a written, classified report to the President, with copies to the Secretary of Defence and Chief of National Intelligence [CNI]. Traditionally, a special ‘Box’ has been used for such despatch to the President, keys available at both ends to unlock and retrieve reports. The ‘Box’ would impress the president that the document inside was of an urgent nature. Depending on the gravity, nature and the urgency of such intelligence, as with the NTJ of Zahran, the Director may even decide to despatch copies to Secretary to President, IGP and Service Commanders as well. He has to concurrently speak on the telephone to each of the recipients of his report, emphasise the credibility and the grave nature of such intelligence, and also propose that the NSC be convened for discussion without delay. Such a standard arrangement of despatch of reports and telephone calls wherever the intelligence is of a grave and urgent nature, is a precedent in vogue from as far back as 1950s. The role of the SIS is to help the NSC to proact, rather than react. The prototypes of the SIS in the service and the police will play a supportive, rather than a leading role. The Director of SIS therefore can galvanise the National Security Council to act, or “put it to sleep”. There has been no indication from the Easter Sunday Commission findings reported in the media that the Director of SIS had despatched a written, classified report to the President.

 

FLAWED “INFORMATION” REPORT SENT TO IGP.

The ‘Information report” which the IGP received from the CNI, enclosed a note from the Director of SIS. It referred to the plans of Zahran and the NTJ to commit terror attacks, and suggested that further inquiries should be carried out. This report is “flawed” because it is not an Intelligence report. If the Intelligence received was credible (in this instance it obviously was), the report should have been in two parts. In the first part, the piece of information should have been reflected. The second part titled “Assessment or Analysis” is the far more important one, where the Director , harnessing his knowledge of the reliability of the source of information, along with his acquaintance of the background and history of the NTJ available in the subject and personal files stored in the SIS registry, should have stated with conviction that the information was not only reliable, but should be discussed as early as possible, and plans evolved to nip the threat in the bud without delay. A question that arises is whether the report of the Director sans an assessment was adequate to galvanise his superiors to ponder about the gravity of the piece of intelligence received. Even though flawed, the recipients yet had material in the report to discuss and plan on an urgent basis. Of course, a proper intelligence report may possibly have woken them up from slumber. In short, the report or note of the director of the SIS was not exactly an Intelligence report in the classic context. Adrian Weale in his book, “The Army of Evil” said, “Broadly speaking, intelligence is information that is gathered and analysed before informing decisions. Without the crucial analysis step …it is of no-value”

 

DEFENCE AND POLICE OFFICIALS TREATING THE INFORMATION WITH LEVITY

It had been unfortunate that senior officials such as the Defence Secretary, Chief of National Intelligence, Director of the SIS, the IGP and his deputies had acted in an amateurish fashion. They were not minions who should have been inactive, amidst such serious information, simply because the President was out of the country. If Defence Secretary , goaded and galvanised by Director of National Intelligence, summoned members of the NSC for discussion, many salutary proposals leading to an effective security plan may have emerged. The Defence Secretary was empowered on his own to summon members of the N.S.C. for discussion at any time. His “inertia” baffles imagination. In an overall context, none of those who received the somewhat “flawed” information in their enclaves considered it prudent to at least ‘put their heads together’ and discuss what should have been done.

 

ACCESS TO SENSITIVE RECORDS IN THE REGISTRY OF THE SIS.

The SIS, by virtue of being the national intelligence agency, is responsible, apart from ferreting intelligence through it’s own network of agents and informers, to collect and collate all overt and covert information from the CID, the Terrorist Investigation Division (TID), and even from intelligence channels in the armed forces. The comprehensive records that they thereby accumulate, are stored in “subject” and “personal” files in respect of each subversive or terrorist target they monitor. These records are suitably classified ‘secret’ or ‘confidential’ so that only those authorised to see them can have access to such records.

The Director of the SIS, apart from the submission of ‘single piece’ intelligence reports to the Head of State, the Defence Secretary and possibly some other members of the National Security Council, also had to periodically compile periodic reports, based on the comprehensive records stored in respect of a particular target in the registry. Each such report will make a mature analysis of the activities and growth of the target, alert the government to their ramifications and sinister designs, and offer salutary proposals to nip or stall their activities. Such periodic reports are described as ‘special’ or ‘basic’ reports, and are invariably classified secret. This discipline too has been in vogue for a very long time. Such reports help the government to monitor, review and proact against terror threats periodically.

In view of the fact that omissions and lapses of the SIS leading to the massacre of innocents were under scrutiny by the presidential Commission the records in the Registry of the SIS could have been made available to the Commission to assist the probe. Terror groups like the National Thowheed Jamat (NTJ) are extremely clandestine when they plant their underground network in the silent, ‘preparatory’ phase. This is a phase where terrorists are extremely elusive because of their obsession with stealth and secrecy. The activities of this preparatory phase can be discerned only through agents and informers, so that the SIS alone will have records which police, the CID and TID would not possess. The latter are predominantly investigators’ of acts after their occurrence. It is the SIS which should have good intelligence about external and internal links of the NTJ, their financiers, safe houses, military or weapons training etc. This is the kind of intelligence which helps the SIS to submit comprehensive, periodic “special” reports to the government.

Perhaps, the Commission could have been authorised access to the periodic reports and files of the SIS in respect of the NTJ. Such classified material would have been valuable in the quest for the roots and ramifications of the NTJ. Most of the witnesses who appeared before the Commission for evidence may not have possessed the type knowledge of the NTJ and its ramifications which only SIS officers would have possessed.

The SIS usually seeks to protect the identity of their officers as well as their records, for risk of exposure. Such safeguards may be necessary in normal circumstances. However, the carnage and massacre on Easter Sunday in 2019 due mainly to inadequacies of those in Defence and Police echelons, had led to a high level probe by a Presidential Commission, and evoked considerable public concern and interest. The entire tragedy has been in the public domain. It may therefore have been unreasonable if the records of the SIS had been withheld from the probe.

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Steeped in realism, rich in poignant themes and metaphors

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By Sajitha Prematunge

Asexual relationships are getting considerable limelight in the Sri Lankan cinema, what with Gehan Cooray’s The Billionaire and the recently released film, Ayu portraying such relationships, albeit in the vantage of different sexual orientation. Ayu was screened to a limited audience in celebration of the 74th anniversary of Sri Lankan cinema at Savoy Cinema, Wellawatta, on January 22. It is the maiden movie production of General (retired) Daya Rathnayake and the second film directed by Chathra Weeraman after Aloko Udapadi.

Presented by Weeraman Brothers, based on a story by Saman Weeraman, Ayu stars Sandra Mack, Jagath Manuwarna, Malani Fonseka, Ashan Dias, Kenara Wiratunga, Samanalee Fonseka, Sampath Jayaweera, Priyantha Sirikumara, Thumindu Dodantenna, Nalin Lusena, Udara Abeysundara, Kasuni Kavindi Fernando, Akalanka Prabashwara, Dinushika Senevirathne, Thiwanka Ranasinghe, Prasanna Dekumpitiya and Dasun Pathirana in a guest appearance. The crew includes cinematographer Kalinga Deshapriya, Chamara Selara as Assistant Director, Bimal Dushmantha in production designing, Saman Alvitigala in film editing, Milinda Tennakone in music, Harsha Manjula and Haroon Shaideen in makeup department, Sasika Marasinghe in sound department, Dinindu Jagoda and Lahiru Madhushanka in editorial department, Kumara Karawdeniya in costume designing, Shehan Obeysekara in production photography, Iresh Karunarathne, Primal Ranasinghe and Sashika Ganegodage in Production Management and Anuradha Weeraman as the Associate Producer.

The psychoanalytical film wastes no time documenting stressful therapy sessions or treatment. It is a journey towards the healing of the mind. Nishmi, a female pediatrician, didn’t only lose her baby in the almost fatal car accident that required the blood transfusion that sealed her fate, she’s maimed for life, with no hope of ever having a family of her own. Ravi, her husband’s elated revelation, “It’s negative,” comes as a surprise not to only Nish, but also the audience who was thus far convinced that the sole cause of her predicament was Ravi’s promiscuity.

Much is insinuated and less said in the film. Hardly anywhere is the acronym AIDS mentioned and only in one instance is HIV mentioned. This in itself is symbolic of the stigma HIV AIDS entails. We are given a first hand account of the kind of stigmatization AIDS patients undergo when Nishmi’s coworkers shun her as if they could contract the disease by brushing against her. A mother pulls her child away from Nish with an uneasy smile, while nurses and attendants avoid her. The stigma is so ingrained that Nish cannot expect to be accepted by her family. For example, Nish’s mother, played by Malini Fonseka, profusely washes her hands after dressing Nish’s wound. This is the last straw for Nish, who contemplates suicide.

There is no doubt that excellent casting choices contributed to the success of the film. The anguish of a mother in Fonseka’s words “I am your mother, I am your mother…” uttered to assuage her HIV positive daughter after she slighted by washing her hands, does not fail to evoke empathy in the audience. The film also marks screen queen Malini Fonseka’s 150th performance in an acting career spanning four decades.

Weeraman has commendably captured the anguish of the characters. Specially noteworthy is the performance by Sandra Mack as Nishmi, whether it is to her own credit or Weeraman’s ability to get a novitiate to strike the right emotional chords is irrelevant, because the end product is realistic. The fresh face of Mack helps to heighten the realism. We have never previously seen her acting and this makes it that much easier to identify with her role. Although her dialogue seems a bit contrived at the onset, which could be attributed to a shortcoming in dubbing, she grows on you.

Manuwarna’s ruggedness contrasts sharply with the seeming fragility of Mack’s Nishmi and the repelling magnate-like chemistry between the lead actors adds a novel flavour to the film. Make no mistake, it’s not your typical rich woman falls for poor guy kind of soppy. The film is abound with underlying deep socio-political and economic themes presented in the dichotomy of the upper middle class represented by Nishi and lower class by beach boy Sachin. It is certainly a thought-provoking movie peppered with allusions to Buddhist teachings, from the metaphoric boat that is life, to allusions of rituals such Bodhi Pooja conducted in hopes of being impregnated. Though Nishmi contemplated suicide earlier in the film, at the end, she just wants to row the boat. True to the Buddhist doctrine Nishmi comes to realise that we are but mere cogs in the samsaric machinery and that there is no other way out but to ‘row your boat’.

Inspired by true events, from plot, dialogue, acting to cinematography, Ayu religiously sticks to realism. The fight scenes are commendably choreographed with excellent cinematography helping to enhance realism. Even the songs are well placed, sans the melodrama, typical of Sinhala films.

However the tempo of the 116 minute film is somewhat slow, unnecessarily stretched to create the movie-length feature. The audience does not know where in time a certain scene is set. It is somewhat akin to memento or arrival, in that fragmented scenes are scattered throughout the film going back and forth in time. For example, images of passing lights from the vantage of a trolley being pushed through a hospital corridor, at the beginning of the movie, foreshadows a catastrophe waiting to strike. Although the trope makes it difficult to establish a footing, it adds to the arthouse flavour of the film. Things eventually fall into place when the film comes full circle, reconciling the past and present.

The genre, and by extension the target audience of the movie is ill-defined. Whether it a commercial or art house movie would depend on audience interpretation. The character of ‘Ayu’ is a case in point. Does the kid really exist? After all nothing is revealed about her. Her grandmother is MIA, the audience is in the dark about where she lives and when she is uprooted from her life in the village, whisked away by two strangers no one bats an eyelid. Uncannily similar to the character of child psychologist Malcolm Crowe in ‘Sixth Sense’, who turns out to be a ghost oblivious to his own ghostly existence, Ayu, who’s name literally means ‘life’, has little interaction with the characters other than Nishmi and Sachin, who are both, ironically dying. This life/death juxtaposition forms the crux of the film. Ayu may very well be a figment of one’s imagination, a metaphor for ‘life’. Is she a mere symbol for life or ‘ayu’ in Sinhala? If so, what better symbol for life than a child. If not, then the script is fatally flawed, in that it failed to develop an essential character. It is unrealistic that as a doctor Nish would have no qualms about exposing the child to a life threatening illness.

All things considered, Ayu is welcome respite from the mundane Sinhala movie that only offers unrealistic love stories that involve a lot of running around bushes, obviously phony fight scenes and ill-timed sorry excuses for songs. It is to be released in theatres soon and is not to me missed.

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St. Antony feast Katchatheevu

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The Jaffna Divisional Secretary informed the public, well in advance, that St. Anthony’s Feast in the Kachchativu island had been cancelled this year due to the Covid- 19 pandemic. The decision was well understood by devotees of both Sri Lanka and India.

This annual feast on a tiny island closer to the India-Sri Lanka International boundary line (IMBL) was an annual meeting place, especially for fishermen of both countries. Last year (2020) the feast was attended by more than 10,000 devotees. For the first time, Sri Lankan devotees out-numbered the Indians. Anticipating such a situation, the Bishop of Jaffna, Rt. Rev. Justin Bernard Ganapragasam had invited Bishop of Diocese of Galle, Rt. Rev Raymond Wickramasinghe as well. The mass last year was conducted in all three languages – Sinhala, Tamil and English.

As a devotee of St. Anthony, the Saint who looks after seafarers, like me, even though I am a Buddhist, I was sad that I might miss this year’s feast.

However, some good news came from the Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Nishantha Ulugetenna a few days ago. He said Jaffna Bishop had requested to have a mass at Kachchativu island without the presence of the public and only with a few priests on 27 February 2021, and if I was keen, I could join them. I was delighted to go there.

Kachchativu is located half a nautical mile from the Indo-Sri Lanka IMBL which was ratified by UN Law of the Sea conference in 1976, when maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones of India, Sri Lanka and Maldives were demarcated and agreed to by all three countries and ratified at the United Nations.

It is mistakenly thought both in India and in Sri Lanka that Indian fishermen can come to this island to dry their nets. That was in the 1974 agreement, where even Sri Lanka fishermen had the right to fish in “Wedge bank”, in the Indian waters closer to Kanyakumari. When the 1976 agreement was ratified, those privileges were done away with and now Kachchativu is part of Sri Lanka’s territory and well within our waters. Please read the famous book on Kachchativu by late Mr WT Jayasinghe, who was our Defence and External Affairs Secretary in the 1970s (father of late Romesh Jayasinghe, our former Foreign Secretary in the 2000s) to learn more about how our beloved Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s diplomatic skills and close personal relationship with the then Indian PM Indira Gandhi won us the Kachchativu island back.

Those who championed in Tamilnadu and in the Indian Central government on taking back Kachchativu from Sri Lanka should refer to what Indian Attorney General Mukul Rohargi told a bench, headed by Chief Justice of India R M Lodha on 26th August 2014: “Kachchativu was gone to Sri Lanka by an agreement in 1974. It was ceded and now act as a boundary. How can it be taken back today? If you want Kachchativu back, you will have to go to war to get it back.”

I stayed at Fort Hammenniel, a beautiful fort built by the Dutch at the entrance of Karainagar channel, entrance to the old Jaffna port of Kayts, now part of our Naval Base, SLNS Karainagar. This tiny Dutch fort has its own history in our country, the place where the late JVP leader Rohana Wijeweera was kept in captivity in 1971 with more than one hundred other JVPers. I could not imagine how it would be with 100 prisoners in this small fort.

I was not accommodated in any of these cells; I stayed in one of the four super Luxury rooms on the top deck of the fort.

My dear friend, Rear Admiral Senarath Wijesooriya, the Commander Northern Naval Area, joined me to travel to Kachchativu on the 26th evening (February). We travelled in an indigenously built Inshore Patrol Craft (IPC), which can move at 38 knots (approx 50 mph). During the final stages of our conflict with the LTTE, under the guidance of then Commander of the Navy, today our Admiral of the Fleet, Wasantha Karannagoda, Navy Engineers built more than 100 IPCs which brought LTTE Sea Tigers to their knees on asymmetric naval warfare as per “Lanchester theory” and helped destroy all their “ultimate weapons at sea” – suicide boats. Visionary leader, Admiral of the Fleet Karannagoda, always told us, “You cannot buy a Navy – you have to build one” ! How true ! We built it for you, Sir. Bravo Zulu to our Engineers !

IPC moved at 38 knots in the mirror-calm sea, and took only one hour and 40 minutes to reach Kachchativu from Karainagar. I was so impressed with Petty Officer in-charge of the IPC, for his boat handling, and beaching the boat at Kachchativu and professional competence. With such junior leaders, our Navy’s future is bright.

With the full moon, calm seas and light breeze from the North East direction, it was a beautiful night. Few scores of sailors were preparing the church and surroundings for next morning.

One thing missing this year was the crowd. Camping in small groups and singing hymns praising St Anthony was not heard this year. The small “street” in Kachchativu, which was full of makeshift Indian shops with sarees, clothes and sweetmeats and Sri Lankan shops with soap, coconut oil and cinnamon were not there this time around.

The new church built by the Navy five years ago on the request from the Bishop of Jaffna was looking beautiful. This was a hundred percent donation by officers and sailors of the Navy. It cost us Rs. 7.7 million, total contribution by the Navy personnel, majority of them were Buddhists like yours truly. This church is a symbol of reconciliation.

The following day (27) by at 9.30 a.m. mass was, led by Very Rev Father Pathinathar Joshopthas Jebarathnam, the Vicar General of the Diocese of Jaffna. 

The Mass was attended by 50 officers and sailors following strict quarantine laws. Vicar General , Very Rev Father Jebarathnam blessed all those present and others who had not been able to get there due to the pandemic. I missed Sri Lankan and Indian fishers. Their request to St Anthony is always very simple; that is for them to have a good catch of fish next year so that they could look after their families and come back to St Anthony’s feast again.

I also kept my request simple. “Thank you St Anthony’s, for allowing me to come to Kachchativu this year and give me strength to come back next year as well !”

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