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Educational reforms Sri Lanka demands today for a brighter tomorrow



As a Sri Lankan who benefitted from free education, I feel honoured and privileged to deliver this Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara Memorial Oration, the 32nd in the lecture series inaugurated in 1988 on the twentieth anniversary of his demise.

I am well aware of the gravity of this task, particularly when considering the impressive stature of previous orators, often beneficiaries of free education themselves. The current economic, political and social crisis adds a further layer of complexity to the context in which this oration is delivered today. Within that backdrop, and with a keen awareness of the responsibility placed on my shoulders, I shall humbly endeavour to do justice to this task.

I am a medical practitioner by profession; however, I have spent most of my life sharing knowledge with friends, colleagues and students, as a teacher. This student-teacher reincarnation has been the focus and foundation of my entire life. Taking on the task of teaching arithmetic to my elder sister at the age of fifteen was my first venture into teaching. While waiting for entrance to the Medical Faculty, during the five years of university and well after that, I spent a considerable proportion of my time as a teacher. I had supported a number of students to pass their examinations for free, and as word spread of my skill in getting students through examinations, so many requests came in that I ended up establishing and running a private education institute named ‘Vidya Nadi’. This was more because I could not avoid the responsibility than for economic reasons. Most of those students are very prominent members of society today. The life lessons I obtained from being a teacher were significant and serve me to this day. Since then, I spent most of my life teaching and carrying out research in local and foreign universities, so much so that I would like to note that I have spent more time as a teacher and a researcher than as a doctor.

Within the same time frame, as a socially sensitive and politically informed person, as well as a medical student, I was also an activist who fought to defend free education, which gave me a different perspective on education. The complex and challenging context of today forces me to revisit this past and to re-examine the path we took in our younger days.

Against this complex background, my approach to this lecture today is based on two contrasting viewpoints Sri Lankan society holds on free education and the Kannangara legacy. Professor Narada Warnasuriya, who is a dear and well-respected teacher to me, during his Kannangara Memorial Lecture delivered in 2008, explained these two viewpoints as follows:

One group sees the Kannangara legacy in a single dimension, as a valuable basis for further expanding access to education, which also helps preserve fairness and social justice. They see it as a keystone of a just and conflict-free sustainable society.

The second group acknowledges that the Kannangara reforms had a major impact on bringing about a positive societal, and social transformation, but considers such changes irrelevant in the present context of a globalized free market economy. Professor Warnasuriya states that this group sees the Kannangara reforms as ‘a sacred cow, an archaic barrier to development, which stands in the way of building a successful knowledge-based economy’.

As an individual examining the status of education with an analytical mind, I do not wish to align myself with either of these groups exclusively, and decided to deliver this lecture from a neutral position, considering the positive and negative aspects of both viewpoints. This oration is therefore entitled Educational reforms Sri Lanka demands today for a brighter tomorrow and I plan to expand the discussion on Kannangara Legacy

I should also like to clarify that I prefer to refer to this as ‘our lecture’ rather than ‘my lecture’, because this lecture necessarily contains the views of a large group of like-minded people who work together with me as a team, on educational reforms.

Most of the facts forming the basis of this lecture are extracted from the recently published thirty-ninth (one-hundred page) special issue of the trilingual journal ‘Gaveshana’, entitled: ‘Educational reforms the country demands to create a productive citizen adaptable to the modern world’. This edition of Gaveshana is particularly significant in that it was published in the form of a research publication based on original data, and secondly, since a cross-section of educationists and officials from the Education sector who are directly involved with Sri Lankan educational reforms contributed to this publication, as did external experts who brought in a broader, societal viewpoint.

As someone who strongly believes that ‘a person alone cannot win a battle against the deep seas’, I would like to note that we are in an era in which not one but thousands of Dr. C.W.W. Kannanagaras are needed. Furthermore, it is important to note that educational reforms should not take a top-down approach but aim to incorporate the requirements and viewpoints of the beneficiaries of such reforms as honoured stakeholders: the knowledgeable student community, teachers and the general public. Such reforms should be informed by a regular feed-back loop, follow-up and grass-roots research. Educational reforms must be a dynamic process, not a static one, and follow-up research should be used to change not only the direction, but also the content of the reforms, if and when necessary.

This is the responsibility history vests on our shoulders, and in order to do justice to this obligation, I am deeply grateful to the Director General of the National Institute of Education and the staff of its Research and Planning Department for giving me this opportunity.

I was influenced early in life to believe the Stalinist concept of It is not heroes that make history, but history that makes heroes. But today, I am of the firm opinion that there are individuals who make constructive (or destructive) contributions to history. Dr. C.W.W. Kannangara is undoubtedly such a person who has left a lasting and positive contribution a hero that did change history, and it is therefore necessary to study not only the history he bequeathed but the person himself.

Who is Dr C.W.W Kannangara?

Dr. Christopher William Wijekoon Kannangara was born on October 13, 1884, at Randombe village, Ambalangoda. The third child in his family, he lost his mother early in life when his mother died giving birth to a younger brother. His father had five children from his first marriage and four from his second marriage. Although he was well looked after by his stepmother, he had faced the sad fate of losing his mother early in life. His father was a Buddhist, but his mother was a devotee of the Church of England. Christopher William Wijekoon was therefore baptized as a Christian although he formally converted to Buddhism as an adult in 1917. It was, as many of his closest Christian friends said, an act of wisdom and not a political act. Moreover, he learned Sinhala and Pali languages ??as well as Buddhism from his locality and environment.

He was a bright student, initially at Ambalangoda Wesleyan College. At its triennial prize-giving ceremony, he received the attention of accomplished mathematics teacher and the then Headmaster of Richmond College, Galle, Father D.H. Darrell.

Father Darrell had graduated from the Cambridge University, England with a first-class degree in mathematics. It is documented that Father Darrell had said to young Kannangara you will have to bring a heavy cart to take home the prizes you have won’. Father Darrell had then asked the Principal of Wesleyan College to prepare young Kannangara for the open scholarship examination at Richmond College. It is evident that it was this meeting with Father Darrell, the Headmaster of Richmond College at the age of 14 years, that turned out to be the pivotal point of Dr. Kannangara’s life.

Young student Kannangara subsequently won this scholarship, enabling him to attend Richmond College with free tuition, room and board. My belief is that this full scholarship established the foundation for the gift of free education that he later bequeathed to the nation.

He had to face further adversity in his life when his father lost his job and his pension after thirty years of service, leading to significant financial difficulty for his family. I would like to emphasise on, particularly to the young generation of today, the importance of recognising how his life was not cushioned in comfort, but was one of achieving greatness despite hardship and difficulty.

He was a bright student who excelled not only in studies but also in sports. He passed the Cambridge Junior Examination with honours and came first in the country and in the British Empire in Arithmetic. He was the captain of the cricket team, played in the football team and was a member of the debating team. He was also the lead actor in the school’s production of The Merchant of Venice. He was not a ‘bookworm’, but also excelled in extracurricular activities. Sadly, it is necessary to note the significant difference between the life of Dr. Kannangara as a student and the lives of the majority of children today.

At the time, the only option available for studying abroad was a government scholarship. Twelve Richmondites sat this examination, but he was unable to secure a scholarship, thus losing the opportunity to study at a foreign university. He chose instead to study law at the Sri Lanka Law College. Father Darrell, his mentor, however, requested young Kannangara to stay on at the school as the mathematics teacher and senior housemaster of the student hostel. He accepted and fulfilled this responsibility until the untimely death of Father Darrell, after which he moved to Colombo and embarked on his legal education. During this period, he also worked as a part-time teacher at Prince of Wales College, Wesley College and Methodist College.

By 1910, he had qualified as a lawyer and returned to Galle to start his legal career. He focused on civil law, carried on social service activities simultaneously and entered formal politics in 1911, supporting Mr. Ponnambalam Ramanathan. He actively campaigned for Mr. Ramanathan when he successfully contested in the 1917 elections for the Legislative Assembly, and the two ended up establishing a close friendship thereafter. He was an eloquent speaker at the establishment of the Ceylon National Council in 1919, expounding on its objectives to direct the country and the people towards a life of political freedom with equal rights and independence.

The pivotal moment of his political life came about when he was elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1923, representing the Southern Province. He was then elected as the President of the Ceylon National Congress in 1930 and in 1931, he became Sri Lankas first Minister of Education, after being elected to the State Council of Ceylon from the Galle district. He was elected the first chairman of the Executive Committee for Education with an overwhelming majority. He was re-elected to the same position in 1936 and held that position for 16 years.

The extent of the struggles and sacrifices Dr. Kannangara underwent to achieve free education should also be evaluated in the context of the political environment of the time. He entered politics at the time of Sri Lanka achieving universal franchise. The State Council at the time had 46 members and seven ministerial portfolios were available for elected members, one of these was the education portfolio.

Prof Athula Sumathipala delivering the Kannangara memorial lecture

He was conferred an honorary doctorate in law at the first convocation of the University of Ceylon under the auspices of the Vice-Chancellor Sir Ivor Jennings in 1942. It was in 1945 that he managed to finally achieve the passage of parliamentary bill to establish free education in the country. And yet, Dr. Kannangara, who was venerated as the Father of Free Education, was defeated at the first national parliamentary elections held in 1947. It is time to question if this defeat was a personal one or if it was a defeat of the entire Sri Lankan nation. He lost the election to a Mr. Wilmot. A. Perera, who was backed by wealthy individuals in the United National Party and with the support of the socialist camp as well. Even the Communist Party of Sri Lanka worked against Dr. Kannangara’s election campaign.

Time does not permit an in-depth discussion of the factors leading to the election defeat of a person who achieved societal change at such a significant scale, however, I do consider this one of the greatest ironies in Sri Lankan political history.

He was re-elected as a member of parliament in 1952, and was offered the Local Government portfolio. He was however denied the education portfolio, likely due to the influence of powers that be who wished to prevent further educational reforms by Dr. Kannangara. He retired from politics in 1956 when he turned seventy-two, but served as a member of the National Education Commission, indicating his commitment towards the education of the nation, which was beyond politics.

At the time of his entry into politics, Dr. Kannangara was quite prosperous economically, having started his career as a lawyer in 1923. Twenty years of holding a ministerial role, and forty years of public service, which is indeed the basis of politics, had led to a loss of financial stability by the time he retired. He showed by example that politics should not be a money-making mechanism. The Sri Lankan government offered him a one-time stipend of Rs. Ten thousand in 1963, a substantial amount of money at the time. Considering his health needs, he was offered a monthly living allowance of Rs.500/- in 1965, and this was subsequently increased to Rs.1000/- per month.

This great son of Sri Lanka, considered the Father of Free Education, passed away on 29th September 1969 without receiving much attention from the nation.

I think it is important to highlight a factor pointed out by Senior Professor Sujeewa Amarasena when he delivered the 28th Kannangara Memorial Oration. Professor Amarasena is a proponent of the second viewpoint Professor Warnasuriya mentions, i.e., those who acknowledge that the Kannangara reforms had a major impact on bringing about a positive societal, and social transformation, but consider such changes irrelevant in the present context of a globalized free market economy.

Senior Professor Sujeewa Amarasena said, today every political party, every organization connected to education, every trade union in the government or private sector and every individual who has had some education would come forward to protect free education as a social welfare intervention. The entire country and political parties with allied student movements are in a vociferous dialogue always talking about free education without really giving the legend Dr. CWW Kannangara his due place in this dialogue. I have not seen or heard a single University or a student organization in this country commemorating Dr. CWW Kannangara on his birthday though all of them are vociferous fighters to protect free education. Hence today late Dr. CWW Kannangara is a forgotten person as stated by Mr. KHM Sumathipala in his book titled History of Education in Sri Lanka 1796 to 1965. I would like to add to that and say that not only he is a forgotten person today, but even his vision has been misinterpreted, misdirected, distorted and partly destroyed by some people who benefitted from free education.

The irony of history extends further: at a time when school education was unavailable to the entire generation of children in Sri Lanka during the Covid-19 pandemic, many teachers were committed to providing an education to children via distance / online education, as it was the only viable option, albeit flawed in some ways. Some union leaders, in the guise of so-called trade union action, worked to obstruct such teachers from providing online education. Given that all trade union leaders are beneficiaries of free education, it has to be questioned if it is not the worst mockery in the history of free education that teachers rights were considered a priority, over the right of students to obtain an education. This tragedy raises multiple questions: has the expectation that widening access to education would create selfless citizens who think beyond personal gain and fulfil their responsibilities to the nation not been realised? Did the generation who benefited from the Kannangara reforms shirk their responsibilities in the post-Kannangara era? Or is it simply that the agenda for national benefit has been rendered secondary to narrow political gains?

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Sri Lanka reaching critical level in terms of water stress



By Eng. Thushara Dissanayake

Water stress occurs when the water resources, in a region, or country, are insufficient for human and ecological demands. Although the planet has got 1.386 billion km³ of water, only 2.5% is available as fresh water. According to the United Nations, 2.3 billion people live in water-stressed countries, of which 733 million live in high and critically water-stressed countries.

The level of water stress is calculated by taking into account all the freshwater withdrawals by all major sectors. The important thing, in this regard, is that environmental water requirements are also considered. The main sectors include agriculture, fisheries, industries, and services. Total freshwater withdrawal is the volume of freshwater extracted from rivers, reservoirs, and groundwater sources for the aforementioned sectors. These sources are renewable water sources as they are replenished or recharged from rain. If water is used solely for power generation, that requirement is also used for the calculation. However, in our country that is not the case, as we use the water for agriculture, after power generation.

Sri Lanka is receiving about 2,500 mm average annual rainfall and is blessed with 103 rivers radially flowing to the sea from the central hills. Further, the country has a net surface water storage capacity of about 6 billion cubic meters, with the help of all the major dams and minor tanks of varying capacities. Despite all that, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Sri Lanka’s level of water stress is 90.8%, indicating a high level of water stress. In other words, the country is consuming 90.8% percentage of its total available renewable freshwater resources, at present, apart from environmental needs, which are estimated to be 52.8 billion cubic meters. Accordingly, the renewable water withdrawal is equivalent to 12.95 billion cubic meters for all sectors, except the environmental requirement. When the water stress level reaches 100% it would be a critical situation, as meeting further demands for water, from renewable sources, would not be possible. However, at the river basin level, there can be significant differences in water stress levels.

In contrast, water stress, in Kuwait, is 3,850% indicating that the country has got a very little amount of renewable freshwater, when compared to its requirement. Hence, the freshwater requirement of Kuwait is met with seawater desalination, treated wastewater, and brackish groundwater. In India, the figure is 66.5%, which is much better than in Sri Lanka. In the meantime, the average water stress in south Asia is 78%.

According to the level of water stress, we are gradually reaching a critical level, as far as our available freshwater resources are concerned. Given that only 90% of households have access to safe drinking water, and the population is increasing, more and more renewable water resources will be utilized in the near future. If water stress is reached a critical level, it would be a challenge for economic development as water is an essential requirement for many industries.

Like in many other countries, agriculture is the main user of water in Sri Lanka, which consumes nearly 85% of freshwater, while total consumption, for both industrial and domestic sectors ,is close to 12%. Notably, the contribution to the GDP, from the agriculture sector, is just 14.6%, while that of the service sector is 59.2%. However, climatic and field soil conditions affect water use in agriculture, significantly. Being a country, located in the tropics, crop evapotranspiration is comparatively high in Sri Lanka, especially in the dry zone. Still, behavioural changes, with regard to water use, and the availability of sound water infrastructure, can play an important role in water demand management. Therefore, we have to considerably improve our water productivity, especially in the agriculture sector, by increasing the water use efficiency being the main water user. However, a considerable investment is necessary for such infrastructure improvements, in the form of irrigation modernization, to increase water use efficiency.

Another challenge to fresh water is its pollution, due to human and natural phenomena. Water pollution, due to agrochemicals, sewage runoff, and waste disposal, is a high concern at the moment. Natural disasters, like floods, droughts, and landslides, also lead to water degradation. Floods contaminate freshwater sources with hazardous chemicals and debris. Droughts, on the other hand, increase the concentration of hazardous constituents in water as the amount of water available, in freshwater sources, is rapidly abated during droughts. On the other hand, the growing population, and economy, intensify these negative impacts on water quality.

The garment and textile industries account for 40% of Sri Lanka’s total exports. The industry is water-intensive, and therefore, it is important to guarantee that it meets the required water supply. Tourism is the third largest foreign exchange earning industry in the county, with a GDP share of 4.5%. The industry needs a considerable amount of water for hotel operations. Hence, future water policies should, among other things, focus on each sector’s contribution to the country’s GDP as well. This is more important than ever, given that we have to uplift the country again, at least to the previous GDP level that prevailed before the recent economic crisis.

Therefore, The sustainability of our freshwater use has become a challenge, and effective demand and supply management policies are essential. Unless we succeed in such endeavors, we will have to think of costly solutions such as water recycling, seawater desalinisation to meet the essential freshwater demands of the country. If we fail to do so, freshwater will be extracted at the expense of environmental water demand and it may end up in an ecological disaster.

(Eng. Thushara Dissanayake is a Chartered Engineer specializing in water resources engineering with over 20 years of experience)

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President picks up the gauntlet



by Jehan Perera

By proroguing parliament President Ranil Wickremesinghe has given the parliamentarians, and the country at large, a reminder of the power of the presidency. There was no evident reason for the president to suddenly decide to prorogue parliament. More than 40 parliamentary committees, including important ones concerning public finances, enterprises and accounts have ceased to function. The president’s office has said that when parliament reconvenes on February 8, after the celebration of the country’s 75th Independence Day on February 4, the president will announce new policies and laws, which will be implemented until the centenary celebrations of Sri Lanka’s independence in 2048. Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew transformed Singapore from a relatively underdeveloped and impoverished agrarian society into one of the world’s most developed countries in the same 25 years that the president has set for Sri Lanka.

President Wickremesinghe has been getting increasingly assertive regarding his position on issues. Recently he attended a large gathering of Muslim clerics, where he was firm in saying that society needs to modernise, and so do religious practices. He has also held fast to his positions on reviving the economy and resolving the economy. There have been widespread protests against the tax hikes being implemented which have eroded the purchasing power of taxpayers. First they had to absorb the impact of inflation that rose to a rate of 80 percent at the time the country reneged on its foreign debt repayments and declared bankruptcy. Now they find their much diminished real incomes being further reduced by a tax rate that reaches 36 percent.

But the government is not relenting. President Wickremesinghe, who holds the finance minister’s portfolio, is going against popular sentiment in being unyielding on the matter of taxes. He appears determined to force the country away from decades of government policies that took the easy route of offering subsidies rather than imposing taxes to use for government expenses and development purposes. In Sri Lanka, the government’s tax revenue is less than 8 percent, whereas in comparable countries the tax revenue is around 20 to 25 percent. The long term cost of living off foreign borrowings rather than generating resources domestically through taxation has been evident for a long while in the slow growth of the economy even prior to the economic collapse.


Another area in which the president appears to have taken the decision to stand firm is the issue of finding a solution to the ethnic conflict. This problem has proven to be unresolvable by governments and political leaders who give deference to ethnic nationalism. Being an ethnic nationalist in the context of Sri Lanka’s ethnic and religious divisions has been a sure way of gaining votes and securing election victories. No leader in Sri Lanka has to date been able to implement the compromise solutions that they periodically arrived at, the last being the 13th Amendment. Earlier ones included the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1957 and the Dudley Senanayake-Chelvanayakam Pact of 1965 which could not even be started to be implemented.

At the All Party meeting that he summoned to discuss the ethnic conflict and national reconciliation, President Wickremesinghe took the bull by the horns. He exchanged words with ethnic nationalist parliamentarians who sought to challenge his legitimacy to be making changes. He said, “It is my responsibility as the Executive to carry out the current law. For approximately 37 years, the 13th Amendment has been a part of the constitution. I must implement or someone has to abolish it by way of a 22nd amendment to the constitution by moving a private member’s bill. If the bill was voted against by the majority in the House, then the 13th amendment would have to be implemented. We can’t remain in a middle position saying that either we don’t implement the 13th amendment or abolish it.”

The 13th Amendment has not been fully implemented since it was passed by parliament with a 2/3 majority in 1987. Successive governments, including ones the president has been a member of variously as a minister or prime minister, have failed to implement it in a significant manner, especially as regards the devolution of police and land powers. When parliament reconvenes on February 8 after prorogation, President Wickremesinghe will be provided the opportunity to address both the parliament and the country on the way forward. Having demonstrated the power of the presidency to prorogue parliament at his discretion, he will be able to set forth his vision of the solution to the ethnic conflict and the roadmap that needs to be followed to get to national reconciliation.


It is significant that on February 20, the president will also acquire the power to dissolve parliament at his discretion. By proroguing parliament, the president has sent a message to both parliamentarians and the larger society that he will soon have the power to dissolve parliament with the same suddenness that he prorogued parliament. On February 20, the parliament would have been in existence for two and a half years. The 21st Amendment empowers the president to dissolve parliament after two and a half years. Most of the parliamentarians belonging to the ruling party are no longer in a position to go to their electorates let alone canvass for votes among the people. Under these fraught circumstances, they would not wish to challenge the president or his commitment to implementing the 13th Amendment in full.

On the other hand, the taming of parliament by the president does not guarantee the success of an accommodation on the ethnic conflict and a sustainable political solution. The ethnic conflict evokes the primordial sentiments of the different ethnic and religious communities. Political parties and politicians are often portrayed as the villains who led the country to decades of ethnic conflict and to war. However, the conflict in the country predates the political parties. In 1928, in response to demands from community leaders in Ceylon as it was then known, the British colonial rulers sent a commission to the country to ascertain whether it was ready for self-rule. The assessment was negative—the Donoughmore commission wrote that the representatives of the biggest community held to the position that their interest was the national interest. All the representatives of the smaller communities who were divided one against the other were united against the biggest.

An important role therefore devolves upon civil society not to fall prey to the divisions that come down the years. There is a need for enlightened leaders of civil society to work with commitment to explain to the people the need for a political solution and inter-ethnic power sharing that the 13th Amendment makes possible. There were signs of this during the height of the Aragalaya when the youth leading the protests called publicly for equal citizenship and non-discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, religion and caste. They pledged not to be divided by ethnic nationalist politicians for their narrow electoral purposes. It is ironic that the government led by President Wickremesinghe has made these enlightened youth leaders the target of a campaign of persecution instead of making them a part of the solution by constructively engaging with them and issuing a general amnesty.

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Privatisation of education and demonising of students of Lanka



Student union leader Wasantha Mudalige with prison guards

by Anushka Kahandagamage

Sri Lanka is trapped in debt due to decades of corruption and short-sighted economic policies. To come out of the trap or, I would say, escape the moment, the government is seeking loans from the IMF, or anybody else who is willing to lend, no matter the conditions. To this end, under the IMF’s tutelage, the government is seeking to privatise education, aware that it will face the wrath of the people. In this setting, to suppress the protests, the government has adopted a strategy of demonising students, in the public education system.

School children as “drug addicts”

A media empire, which has strong ties with the current Lankan regime, recently sent shockwaves through schools, and their communities, by reporting cases of school children hooked on harmful narcotics. Following these reports, there were many write ups, social media content and stories published on the menace of drug addiction, among Sri Lankan students. That media network even released a video, interviewing two schoolgirls who claimed to be addicted to harmful substances. In the midst of the media frenzy, the police carried out surprise checks in schools, searching students’ bags. The state humiliated and terrified school children by using the police to conduct surprise checks in the schools and peek into the students’ backpacks, instead of investigating the avenues through which dangerous drugs enter the country. After a week, the Minister of Education claimed he was unaware that the police were conducting surprise checks in schools, with sniffer dogs, adding that there was no need to deploy the police force for this purpose. If the Minister was not aware that the police raided schools, it is not surprising that the state would also turn a blind eye to how narcotics enter the country. While there is a risk of students addicting to dangerous drugs, the state cannot place all the blame on students. Instead of taking responsibility for the state of affairs, and acting to keep harmful substances off the island, the state places the burden on schoolchildren and simply refers to them as “drug addicts.”

Bhikku students as “alcoholics”

The next example is from the Buddhist and Pali University, in Homagama. Similar to the first story, the same media network reported some irregularities occurring in the University. Those irregularities included the student monks forcing incoming students, also monks, to consume weed, liquor and party. Following this news report, some investigations were conducted in the University and empty liquor bottles were found in an abandoned well. Then we witnessed several press conferences where University authorities questioned the student monk leaders. While one cannot and should not disregard students’ violence upon another student, it is interesting to note the way the government is taking up the particular incident, at this particular point of time. There was a massive social media campaign to show that the student-monks are immoral and unworthy of education. It cannot be a coincidence that the student monks, at this University, were actively involved in the Aragalaya. In other words, the government was trying to defame the University, and the students, by labelling them as oppressors and alcoholics.

The Rajapaksa regime continuously used Buddhist monks, in their political operations, especially to incite conflict and win elections. The state has frequently deployed Buddhist monks to further its nationalist agendas. When the state used monks for their agendas, including to instigate violence, the monks were not framed as ‘immoral.’ The higher Buddhist authorities did not take action against groups, like Bodu Bala Sena, or Ravana Balaya, or their violent activities. It is ironic that the Government seems to be concerned about the ‘morality’ or ‘discipline’ of Bhikkus at this moment when many student Bhikkus have joined hands with the people to protest against the state.

University students as “terrorists”

The last example is the most pressing at this moment. On 18th of August, 2022, the police arrested Wasantha Mudalige, the Convenor of the Inter-University Students Federation, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Along with him, the authorities detained Hashan Jeewantha and the convener of the Inter University Bhikku Federation (IUBF), Galwewa Siridhamma Thera. The state labelled the politically active university students as “terrorists”. Again, this cannot have happened by chance; we all know the Aragalaya against the Rajapaksa dictatorship was heavily influenced by the Inter-University Students Federation and the Inter University Bhikku Federation. The student unions were the muscle of the people’s protests against the oppressive and corrupt regime. The Ranil-Rajapaksa regime labelled the student leaders’ terrorists and started arresting them.

The state’s stamping of University students as terrorists is a folly. If the state labels its own youth as “terrorists,” it means that the state has failed miserably because it is its own actions that have pushed them toward what is labelled as “terrorism.” The state should take a step back and reconsider its decisions.

Privatization of Education

The government and the government-validating media demonize students, labelling them as drug addicts, alcoholics and terrorists. The government undermines and defames the country’s student body. By doing so, the government is strategically isolating the students from the larger society and eroding public faith in them. Ironically, drug addicts, alcoholics, and terrorists are all confined to the public school and state university system, not private educational institutions. The media propagates the idea that students enrolled in the state education system are ‘immoral’ and ‘disobedient’. Meanwhile, Ranil Wickremesinghe, the puppet President of the Rajapaksa allies, proposes a new economic system which he thinks will counter the current balance of payment crisis. The proposal includes establishing an educational hub in Sri Lanka, which promises to privatise higher education in the long-term.

The state agenda of privatizing education is not a recent one, but it has been reenergized by the Ranil-Rajapaksa government in the context of crisis. Well before demonising the students, in the public education system, in June 2022 the government, national education commission, came up with an education policy framework.

Biased towards Rajapaksa ideologies, the national education commission that developed the policy, proposed to expand the privatization of higher education. In their report, the committee presents a table demonstrating how Sri Lanka allocates less money on higher education compared with the other middle-income countries. The next section outlines the way Sri Lanka relies more on government grants for higher education than other middle-income countries, which is confusing and contradictory, perhaps reflecting the grossly inadequate overall investment in higher education in the country. Then the report goes on to analyse how the poor school education system creates an unskillful student who is unable to think critically. It finally recommends promoting private participation in higher education, not only through funding but also by matching the curricula to fit the market and increase the “employability” of students. While on the one hand government pushes for privatising higher education, on the other, it demonizes the students in the public educational system. The State has seized the problem by its tail. The government is unable to perceive its own flaws in short-sighted policymaking, law enforcement, and corruption, and instead accuses and defames students, to distract them from its concerted effort to privatise education.

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

(Anushka Kahandagamage is reading for her PhD in the School of Social Sciences, University of Otago)

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