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Midweek Review

Myopia in Arts Stream Education in State Universities in Sri Lanka

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By Samanthi Senaratne and Sunil Dahanayake

 

The Auditor-General (AG)’s Department of Sri Lanka issued an audit report titled “Propensity to Tend Education under the Arts Stream and the Unemployment of Arts Graduates” on 18 November, 2020. Subsequently, a series of articles by a group of academics, known as ‘Kuppi Talk,’ from Faculties of Arts of the University of Colombo, University of Peradeniya, University of Jaffna and Open University of Sri Lanka appeared in The Island newspaper. These academics have highlighted that they are working in an environment in which arts education is under attack and there is no adequate funding from the government to improve the arts education in universities as well as in schools. They have also mentioned that the role of the arts education has been narrowly focused on employability, which is negatively impacting on the role of university education. In general, these articles discuss the meaning of arts education, funding restrictions, gender issues, neo-liberalism, feminism related aspects and suggest that there should be an extensive discussion on this matter. Further, they mention that the professionals,like auditors, have no capacity to analyse the role of arts education in the schools and the universities in Sri Lanka. They argue that their role is to produce liberal arts graduates, who are compatible with the society’s norms and values.

We found that this group of academics feel that the AG’s report has unfairly targeted the arts education in Sri Lanka. However, our view is that it is important to look into the positive side of this audit report and see how the arts education in Sri Lankan schools and universities can be improved. Hence, we provide a different perspective and suggestions to the issues noted above to reframe our school and university education systems to suit the changing social, political and economic environment. We argue that the main factors, which are contributing to the unemployment of arts graduates are, the lack of English language skills and the inflexible subject enrolment system in state universities in Sri Lanka.

We write this article based on how we have achieved our educational and professional goals because of the skills in the English language and the subject stream we opted for. The two authors have obtained their undergraduate education from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Sri Lanka and serve as academics, in Australia. The second author, Sunil Dahanayake, an academic in Accounting and a Chartered Accountant, suffered a lot in the early 1980s, after completing a Business Administration degree in Sinhala medium at the Faculty of Management Studies and Commerce of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura (USJ). He attended Kapuduwa Kanishta Vidyalaya and Thihagoda Maha Vidyalaya in Matara. He did not offer English as a subject at the GCE O/L and A/L examinations in Sri Lanka. The first author, Samanthi Senaratne, has a somewhat different background. She completed her first degree in Accounting in the English medium, at the USJ in 1996. She attended Visakha Vidyalaya in Colombo and passed English Language and Literature at the GCE. A/L examination as the fourth subject in the commerce stream.

Importance of AG’s report

The AG’s audit report recognises the importance of arts education in a country and makes recommendations to reduce the imbalance between the education and the employment needs. Accordingly, this report discusses two main issues associated with arts education in Sri Lanka: (a) why more school students select arts stream subjects for the GCE. A/L examination and (b) why the university graduates in the Arts stream face difficulties in finding employment opportunities.

We do not concentrate on the technical jargon in the audit report as such, but we have to discuss the category of audit, rationale for this audit and its findings. The AG carries out two main categories of audits as Financial Audits and Performance Audits (also known as Value for Money (VFM) audits or Operational Audits). This audit report on Arts Education in Sri Lanka is a performance audit report, whose basic objective is to evaluate the government programmes to determine whether a particular programme, project or an organisation has carried out its activities with effectiveness, efficiency and economy. The performance audits are similar to qualitative programme evaluations but do not have specific measurements as in a financial audit, and the subjects audited can be very broad. There is ample evidence to indicate that the AG has done substantial work in terms of audit methods and procedures to collect the evidence to articulate the conclusions and recommendations of this report. The recommendations in this audit report are useful to the higher education authorities such as the Ministry of Education, University Grants Commission (UGC), State Universities in Sri Lanka and National Institute of Education (NIE) to improve the national educational policies and programs.

The major findings in this audit report are that the poor infrastructure and staff facilities in rural areas are pushing students to select arts stream subjects instead of the subjects in other streams such as biological science, mathematics, commerce and technology. The audit report indicates that arts and fine arts graduates have an unemployment rate of 54.4% and 62.8% respectively as per the UGC survey data on unemployment for the period from 2016-2017. The AG recommends that all the regional schools in Sri Lanka should be provided with infrastructure facilities and qualified teaching staff to rectify these deficiencies.

In relation to arts education in universities, the AG recommends that the degree programmes should be reviewed and revised to suit the needs of the employers and society, and equipped with English communication, Information Technology (IT) and other soft skills to reduce the level of unemployment of arts graduates. One of the main highlights of this audit report is that the majority of the graduates have indicated that the English language competency is the most vital element in finding an employment opportunity. Accordingly, we discuss the current status of English education in schools and universities in the following sections as it is considered as one of the main inhibitors in pursuing higher studies and securing employment opportunities for arts stream students and graduates.

Present status of English education

English is taught in schools in Sri Lanka from Grade 1 and students offer it at the GCE O/L and A/L examinations. This audit report highlights the number of candidates who sat and passed the GCE O/L and A/L examinations along with their pass rates in Sri Lanka from 2015 to 2018. The average pass rate of English at G.C.E. O/L is 50%, which indicates that 50% of the students fail English subject every year. We also noted that an extremely low number of students are taking English as a subject at A/L Examination when compared with the Sinhala and Tamil languages as indicated below. We have used the G.C.E. A/L examination performance reports produced by the Department of Examinations to verify the accuracy and compare the number of candidates sitting and passing English as a subject along with Sinhala and Tamil languages as shown in the table.

These numbers speak for themselves about the English, Sinhala and Tamil language education at the G.C.E. A/L in schools in Sri Lanka. We noted that a fairly lower number of students select English as a subject at G.C.E. A/L, which is approximately 2% of the candidates, sit for A/L in Arts stream. Further, it can be seen that 40-50% of these students who take English as a subject at A/L, fail this subject. Apparently, there are two reasons for the low number of candidates who sit for the English subject at G.C.E. A/L, which we indicate as follows:

1. Students do not want to take the risk of not being able to enter a state university when considering the possibility of obtaining good grades for the G.C.E. A/L English subject.

2. The lack of qualified teachers to teach the G.C.E. A/L English subject particularly in rural areas.

The numbers given above as to the students who opt for English as a subject at G.C.E. A/L and the AG’s audit report are an eye opener for the government policy makers, teacher training colleges and academics of the English Departments of state universities in Sri Lanka. These numbers show that the number of students who gain the admission to the universities to pursue higher education in English language is very low and as a result, a limited number of graduates will specialise in English and graduate every year from universities. This will result in a scarcity of qualified people in the society, who could provide quality education in English language teaching and learning at both school and university levels.

We also did a random check on Google, searching ‘English classes in Sri Lanka’ and ‘Spoken English classes in Sri Lanka’ which displayed 39,300,000 and 1,640,000 results respectively. These numbers show the high demand for English education in Sri Lanka. The spoken English classes are a good business to deceive the innocent folks who are trying to improve English communication skills. We have personally come across many such incidents.

The above mentioned facts and figures show that there are many interrelated issues when considering the demand to learn English and the availability of qualified people to serve this need in the country. Hence, it is our opinion that the academics of English departments who have expressed concerns as to the findings of the AG’s report, need to focus on this fact. They should question themselves to understand whether they do the justice to the government funding that is currently being allocated to their departments. As per the AG’s report, the largest amount of government funds had been incurred during 2016 to 2018 on the Arts stream, which amounts to 22-23% of the total amount allocated to all faculties of state universities. When analysing the government funding allocation per student, per annum on different subject streams, that number reflects a fairly high allocation for arts faculties. Accordingly, the funding allocation per student on the selected subject stream for 2018 was: Medicine – Rs. 645,372; Science – Rs. 379,835; Arts – Rs. 175,550; Commerce and Management – Rs. 137,111. These numbers indicate that the claim of funding restrictions for arts faculties cannot be justified.

English Language Skills of University Students and Graduates

English is an essential skill in Sri Lanka in finding jobs and for the knowledge enhancement of undergraduates. Further, in Sri Lanka, English language skills are a symbol of social status and also a weapon to discriminate and mentally harass university graduates in interviews and various other forums. That is why English is often referred to as “Kaduwa” (kʌdʊwə) in the university community as narrated by Rohana R. Wasala in his article titled ‘Professor Ashley Halpe, the great humanitarian I knew’ in The Island newspaper on the19th of June 2021. This article points out that this term is used by the students “mostly who come from the non-English speaking (or exclusively swabhasha speaking) rural peasant and generally subaltern sections of the society with negligible English, recognized the alien language (English) for what it had been in the past: a symbol of colonial power and privilege and an instrument of oppression and exploitation; a perception that they expressed by calling it ‘kaduwa’ (sword)”. In a nutshell, our university students have a good mastery of the subject knowledge but they find it difficult to search jobs on-line, to write an application or curriculum vitae, to address the selection criteria and to express their knowledge and skills at the interviews, due to the lack of competency in English language skills.

This situation changes with the improvement in English language skills through a formal learning and teaching process. Thus, university students and graduates tend to search for knowledge through books and other media, if they are fluent in English. When the English knowledge of the students is low, they tend to become classroom note readers, idle in the universities and prone to engage in the activities of destructive political organisations.

The second author, Sunil could not communicate in English at the basic level when he graduated in 1980. Then he got an opportunity to serve as an articled clerk in Accounting at one of the leading international accounting firms in Colombo. Sunil was humiliated by his fellow trainees and office workers as well as client staff due to the lack of English communication skills. This gave impetus for Sunil to learn English at the British Council from 1983 to 1985 and to complete the Cambridge University English Language Examinations, despite the financial hardships. Subsequently, Sunil became a chartered accountant and completed postgraduate education in leading universities in USA and Australia, and worked in Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, Australia, USA and United Arab Emirates (UAE) as an auditor and academic. All these academic and professional achievements became a reality because he improved his English language competency.

We also provide an institutional success story in management education in Sri Lanka from the Department of Accounting of USJ, where Samanthi read for her undergraduate degree. The management graduates of state universities in Sri Lanka were treated the same as the graduates of arts faculties until the 1990s.

The corporate sector was reluctant to recruit the university graduates in Commerce, Business Administration and Management because of several reasons. Among them a critical consideration was their lack of competency in English language. A group of academics at the USJ realised this issue and commenced a degree program in Accounting at the newly formed Department of Accounting of USJ in 1992 with English as the medium of instruction. The students were given an extensive training in English language. Every week, 10 hours were dedicated for English language learning of the first year students and 8 hours per week for the second year students of this degree program. Therefore, the students got the opportunity to improve their English language skills despite the fact that all students have studied up to A/L in either Sinhala or Tamil medium. The students admitted to this degree programme are very much heterogeneous in terms of English language competence representing all 25 districts of Sri Lanka.

Further, the degree programme integrated IT into accounting courses from the inception and introduced a two-year compulsory internship programme as an integral component of the degree programme, under which the students undergo training in the third and fourth years exposing themselves to the corporate world. These changes made a huge difference in the lives of students who passed out with the accounting degree as they were able to secure employment opportunities even before they completed the degree programme. These graduates are employed in both Sri Lanka and overseas holding positions such as Chief Executive Officers (CEOs) and Chief Financial Officers (CFOs) of corporate entities and partners and directors in accounting firms. The employers, representing the corporate sector entities and accounting firms, now come to the university to recruit these students as trainees in their firms under the internship programme. This degree programme has acted as a catalyst for change of other degree programs of all management faculties of the USJ, University of Colombo and University of Kelaniya. (To be continued)



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Midweek Review

GR’s exit and developing crisis: Different interpretations

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

President’s Counsel Manohara de Silva recently questioned the failure on the part of the cash-strapped Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to provide electricity, without interruption, at least during the GCE Advanced Level examination.

The outspoken lawyer raised the issue with the writer, on January 23, the day the delayed examination began at 2,200 centres, with 331,709 students sitting the examination, countrywide. It was, originally, to commence on Dec. 05, 2022.

The constitutional expert pointed out how even in the implementation of daily power cuts, the CEB, obviously, discriminated against the population, at the behest of the political leadership, by excluding selected areas from, what he called, the daily scourge of living without electricity. Pointing out the responsibility of the media to take a strong stand on this issue, the President’s Counsel said that certain areas, categorized as ‘VIP,’ received a 24-hour, uninterrupted, power supply.

The CEB resorted to daily power cuts, last year, after a long time, during President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s time, as the economic crisis gripped the country, with the government unable to pay for the import of even basic needs, like gas, fuel, medicines, etc. At one time, there were 10- to 12-hour power cuts. The then Power and Energy Minister, Udaya Gammanpila, is on record as having said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa ignored his plea for immediate small power cuts, to conserve what we had, at the beginning of the total breakdown, in January 2022, to lessen the full impact of the developing crisis hitting us at once down the road. Attorney-at-law Gammanpila pointed out that the President’s failure finally led to 12-13 hour power cuts, leading to the explosion of public anger, in the last week of March, 2022.

The continuing power crisis reflected the overall waste, corruption, irregularities, mismanagement, at every level, not only at the CEB, but the entire public sector, as well, over the past several decades.

The intervention made by the Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) last Wednesday (25) to compel the CEB to ensure uninterrupted power supply, failed.

In spite of Commissioner, Dr. M.H. Nimal Karunasiri, of the HRCSL, on its behalf, proudly claiming that it had secured a consensus with all stakeholders to suspend power cuts, ignoring all that, the CEB went ahead with the routine electricity supply interruptions.

The power crisis, coupled with an explosive cocktail of issues caused by Sri Lanka’s failure to meet its international loan commitments, contributed to the further deterioration of the country’s economy. The crisis affected Sri Lanka in the first quarter of 2021, with the Easter Sunday carnage, and the pandemic, already having done much damage, especially to the vital tourism sector, among others, but President Rajapaksa’s government ignored the threat.

Appearing in a live programme, telecast simultaneously, both on stateowned and private television networks, the Governor of the Central Bank, Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe, recently alleged the then government hid Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy status before its inability to service foreign debt was officially acknowledged in early April last year. Having accepted the hot seat, in early April, last year, Dr. Weerasinghe announced suspension of repayment of loans, temporarily. In spite of progress made, the IMF USD 2.9 bn extended loan facility remained yet to be implemented.

What really caused the economic meltdown? Could President Gotabaya Rajapaksa averted public humiliation if he sought IMF’s intervention in early 2020? Who prevented Gotabaya Rajapaksa from doing so, as Sri Lanka had knelt before the IMF on 16 previous occasions? His elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who held the Finance portfolio, could have advised the President. Didn’t Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa advise his brother in this regard? And what was the role played by former Treasury Secretary, Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, not just another run-of-the-mill economist. Having been seconded to the Treasury, from the Central Bank, from the time Ronnie de Mel was the Finance Minister, his exceptional talents were tapped by the Finance Ministry, even under President Premadasa, when R. Paskaralingam, of the Pandora Papers’ notoriety, was the Treasury Secretary. And he continued to serve the Treasury, under successive Presidents, thereafter, especially in the hot seat, as the Finance Ministry Secretary, in one of the most difficult periods in the country’s history, during the final phase of the conflict, when it was a fight to a finish with the LTTE, especially after President Mahinda Rajapaksa telling the then British Foreign Secretary, David Milliband, and his French counterpart, Bernard Couchner, to get lost when they went all the way down to Embilipitiya to tell Mahinda to stop the war to enable them to rescue Velupillai Prabhakaran, and what was left of his terrorist movement, by a flotilla of vessels they were ready to dispatch to the coast of Mullaitivu. PBJ, no doubt, ensured that no expense was spared when waging the most costly war of attrition, while keeping the economy humming with massive infrastructure projects, like building expressways, Hambantota Port, Mattala International Airport, etc. So it is quite puzzling why PBJ failed to guide President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on the path of correct economic decisions. Surely it can’t be due to him past the retirement age.

After being Secretary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, during this turbulent period, Dr. PBJ was asked to go in Dec. 2021, when the former’s presidency had suffered irrevocable damage.

Leaving all the above aside, it must be stated here that whatever disagreements, or misunderstandings we may have had in the past, with New Delhi and Beijing, we should be eternally grateful to both India and China for being unwaveringly behind us in that most difficult final phase of the war.

Ex-CP Chief D.E.W. Gunasekera recently discussed the downfall of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, after having polled a staggering 6.9 mn votes at the last presidential election, in Nov 2019. President Rajapaksa resigned on July 14, 2022, in the wake of snowballing violent protests that began on March 31, outside his private residence, at Pangiriwatta, Mirihana.

In a brief but fiery speech, the former Marxist minister explained how the wartime Defence Secretary caused the rapid deterioration of his government for want of a sound economic strategy. The retired public servant, who served as a lawmaker (2004-2015), found fault with President Rajapaksa for the ongoing political-economic-social crisis.

The veteran politician recalled how he suggested to the then Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa to advice brother Gotabaya to seek Chinese assistance to overcome the impending financial crisis. The outspoken politician blamed it all on the economic reasons.

Gunasekera said so at the opening of Eastern School of Political Studies, at the newly renovated CP party office, at Dr. N.M. Perera Mawatha, Borella, with the participation of Chinese International Department Vice Minister, Chen Zhou, and Acting Chinese Ambassador, Hu Wei.

Declaring that he himself warned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa of the impending crisis and provided a recovery plan in the run up to the last presidential election, held on Nov. 16, 2019, Gunasekera accused the fallen President of turning a blind eye.

The ex-minister placed the blame squarely on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

A different interpretation

Derana Chief, Dilith Jayaweera, at one time, one of the closest associates of ousted President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in a YouTube interview with Eraj Weeraratne, discussed political developments, since 2018, leading to a violent public protest movement that forced Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of office. Jayaweera, who is also the Chairperson of the George Steuart Group, as well as George Steuart Finance Limited, squarely blamed the Rajapaksa family, including Gotabaya, for the turbulent end to his rule.

Responding to a Weeraratne’s query, Jayaweera, declared lawmaker Namal Rajapaksa had no political future. The outspoken entrepreneur was unhesitant. Asserting twice President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, Namal, currently a member of Parliament, representing one-time Rajapaksa bastion, the Hambantota district, has lost his bearings, Jayaweera questioned the young politician’s sincerity.

Jayaweera didn’t mince his words when he declared that having failed to deprive Gotabaya Rajapaksa of an opportunity to contest the 2019 Presidential Election, the one-time first family worked overtime to undermine his authority at every level. The first family went to the extent of supporting the ‘GotaGoHome’ campaign that compelled the President to give up power, without a fight.

Jayaweera attributed to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second son, Yoshitha (formerly of the Navy) with #GotaGoHome# hashtag that became the clarion call of the high profile protest campaign to oust the previous President.

That tagline doesn’t belong to Aragalaya, Jayaweera declared, alleging that it grew out of the former first family’s inability to stomach Gotabaya Rajapaksa exercising executive power.

The controversial political strategist revealed the ex-first family’s angry reaction to his close relationship with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. “They believed I was trying to move the President out of the family’s orbit. But, the people wanted a Rajapaksa who didn’t represent the interests of the family.” Jayaweera said.

The intrepid local entrepreneur is convinced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa couldn’t overcome the combined challenge posed by the Rajapaksa family.

Responding to another rapid-fire question, Jayaweera explained how the Rajapkasa family thwarted President Rajapaksa’s move to appoint senior public servant, Anura Dissanayake, as his Secretary. But, the Rajapaksa family forced their loyalist Gamini Senarath, who had been Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Secretary, on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, following the exit of PBJ, Jayaweera claimed. According to him, that was definitely the worst example of the Rajapaksa’s family’s interference that rapidly weakened Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s presidency.

The appointment of Dr. Jayasundera, as President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Secretary, should be examined against the backdrop of Jayaweera’s disclosure that Gotabaya Rajapaksa hadn’t been so critical of any other individual during private conversations he had with him.

Cardinal sin

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s cardinal sin was nothing but the enactment of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, Jayaweera declared. That controversial piece of legislature created an extremely hostile political environment and gradually weakened President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s authority, Jayaweera said, recalling how Basil Rajapaksa forced his way into Parliament, on the SLPP National List, regardless of political consequences.

Jayaweera said that he received an assurance from President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in the presence of SLPP National List MP, Gevindu Cumaratunga, that enactment of the 20th Amendment at the expense of the 19th A was not meant for Basil Rajapaksa’s re-entry into Parliament. “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa didn’t keep his promise. Therefore, he should be accountable for the subsequent developments which preceded the demise of his political authority.”

Jayaweera explained how the Rajapaksas interpreted Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the 2019 presidential poll for their advantage. “The family asserted that Gotabaya Rajapaksa received a staggering 6.9 mn votes due to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity. So, the family asserted that the new President should pursue their agenda. The family appointed Dr. Jayasundera as the Presidential Secretary.

Basil Rajapaksa believed he should be able to control Parliament. Basil Rajapaksa justified his overall political authority on the basis his SLPP secured a near 2/3 majority in Parliament, in addition to Opposition support that underlined their supremacy.”

Jayaweera described how President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decision to take up residence at Pangiriwatte, Mirihana, do away with gaudy practice of hanging pictures of the President in government buildings, excessive use of vehicles and, most significantly, approval of unsolicited bids, angered the former first family. Those who immensely benefited from such ‘unsolicited bids’ reacted angrily, he said.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s actions jolted racketeers, Jayaweera alleged, pointing out that the new leader quickly lost support within the Cabinet-of-Ministers, by denying those corrupt elements an opportunity to make money, through the promotion of unsolicited bids. They couldn’t bear the shock of Cabinet papers submitted through the family or the intervention of the family being rejected, Jayaweera said, alleging that those who lived off such racketeering spearheaded the campaign against President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

The ‘Aragalaya’ entered the scene much later and exploited the situation to the hilt as the government parliamentary group quite conveniently abandoned President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Those present in Parliament didn’t challenge SJB MP Harin Fernando when he ridiculed the President repeating the ‘Sir fail’ mantra, Jayaweera said.

The parliamentary group, particularly those corrupt in the Cabinet, felt there was no point in defending a President who didn’t allow them to make money.

Jayaweera also ridiculed the inclusion of four persons who wore kurahan satakaya (maroon shawl) among President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Cabinet. Jayaweera questioned the justification of bestowing five Cabinet portfolios on Namal Rajapaksa.

Relationship with JVP

The Derana Chief discussed a range of other issues, including his long standing relationship with the JVP, subsequent disputes with the Marxist party, and differences with the current leadership.

Dilith Jayaweera seems to be on a collision course with JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, especially over allegations directed at him as regards corruption in the procurement of antigen kits and hotel quarantine process during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Denying any wrongdoing on his part in spite of his close relationship with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Jayaweera declared his readiness to battle it out on a public platform. While acknowledging that his enterprises handled procurement of antigen kits and hotel quarantine process, Jayaweera challenged the JVP leader Dissanayake to prove publicly how he engaged in corrupt practices.

Jayaweera gave an open undertaking to personally lead JVP’s Local Government polls campaign if the record could be set straight by such a debate.

Recalling his close contacts with the JVP in the past and him having participated in their well-known five classes’ indoctrination programme to all new comers, Jayaweera disclosed how he spearheaded Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 presidential election campaign in which the Marxist party played a significant role. Slain Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar’s residence had been their meeting point where they discussed political strategy. Wimal Weerawansa had been the JVP representative at such meetings on some occasions, Jayaweera said.

Reference was made to the JVP split in the wake of the then Somawansa Amarasinghe led party declaring its intention to vote against the 2008 budget. Had that happened, the military campaign would have been derailed, Jayaweera said, comparing the JVP’s political strategy with that of the UNP.

“At a time, the vast majority of Sri Lankans desired the eradication of the LTTE, the JVP adopted a strategy that clearly aligned with the UNP’s treacherous approach,” Jayaweera said. Reference was made to the then Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and his MPs, Ravi Karunanayake, Lakshman Kiriella and the late Mangala Samaraweera questioning the military strategy and even the competence of the then Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka.

Jayaweera commented on a possible deal the JVP had with some party while referring to the availability of large scale NGO funding for those who undermined the war effort.

Recalling the success of his high profile ‘Api Wenuwen Api’ campaign in support of the war effort, particularly meant to attract the youth to join the armed forces, Jayaweera also criticized the JVP strategy towards the end of its second rebellion 1987-1990 when it targeted those in the socialist camp as it was being decimated by the then government death squads.

Answering questions regarding Derana coverage as well as editorial policy of his daily and weekly newspapers, Jayaweera emphasized that he never interfered with them under any circumstances. The media mogul pointed out how Derana TV and newspapers followed different policies while reminding of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s angry reaction to their reportage of developments taking place. “Our reportage reflected the reality. We couldn’t save the government,” he said.

Jayaweera discussed how his strategy differed from that of late Raja Mahendran of the Capital Maharaja Group. Although TNL was launched before Sirasa, the latter received the attention, Jayaweera said, emphasizing Raja Mahendran’s steadfast policy that the owner of the private channel controlled the news content.

Pressed for further explanation, Jayaweera acknowledged that he always exploited situations and created an environment necessary to influence the media. “That strategy is meant to inspire all media, not only Derana,” Jayaweera said.

Jayaweera and Weeraratne also discussed the simmering controversy over the JVP having as much as Rs 8 bn in funds as alleged by Jayaweera, with Derana Chief stressing that whatever the counter arguments the fact remains the JVP had substantial amount of funding. Questioning the credibility of lawmaker Anura Kumara Dissanayake against the backdrop of a section of the media highlighting lies propagated by the JVP leader, Jayaweera declared his readiness to help the party. But, that would depend on the JVPers willingness to appear with him in a live debate to clear the whole gamut of issues at hand.

Jayaweera also recalled the allegations pertaining to the procurement of antigen test kits directed at him by lawmaker Rajapaksa. Dismissing Namal Rajapaksa’s allegations as irrelevant, Jayaweera stressed that MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake should be given an opportunity to rectify his mistakes.

Jayaweera recalled his close association with Dissanayake at the time the latter served as the Agriculture Minister of then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga led UPFA-JVP ‘Parivasa’ government. A smiling Jayaweera said though the JVP wanted to build 1,000 new tanks, it couldn’t complete at least one properly. Declaring he accompanied Dissanayake to various parts of the country,

Jayaweera acknowledged that he managed that media campaign, too.

At the conclusion of perhaps the most important interview that dealt with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s unceremonious exit from politics, Jayaweera commented on an often asked query whether Aragalaya was a conspiracy?

External intervention

Declaring that Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to give up political power not because of him, Jayaweera recalled how he warned in 2008 of the impending economic crisis and Dr. Jayasundera’s role in it. That warning was issued at the launch of Sinhala translation of John Perkins’s ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman,’ Jayaweera said, declaring that the former first family initiated the conspiracy that was subsequently exploited to the hilt by various interested parties, including Western powers.

There cannot be any dispute over how Gotabaya Rajapaksa was derailed and who contributed to that despicable strategy. Perhaps, social media influencer, who interviewed him should have asked Jayaweera about a few other issues that ruined the once much respected Defence Secretary.

The crisis created cannot be discussed leaving out the ill-fated fertilizer ban (2021), catastrophic cancellation of the Light Train Transit (LRT) project funded by Japan(2020), allegations directed at Presidential Secretary P.B. Jayasundera and Prime Minister’s Secretary Gamini Senarath (both denied these accusations) pertaining to procurement of fertiliser from India and China, respectively and the failure on the government’s part to implement recommendations made by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into 2019 Easter Sunday carnage.

The writer remembers how he ran into Jayaweera and Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Bishop’s House in the run up to 2019 presidential election when the latter visited Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith to assure that justice would be done.

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Midweek Review

Notes towards a politics and aesthetics of film:

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‘Face Cover’ by Ashfaque Mohamed

“Black cat, at the tip of my fingers pulsates poetry,

Desiring hands, yours, nudgingly pluck those roses of mine

In the soft light of the moon

The dreams we picked from the foaming edges of waves of the sea.”

Jusla/Salani (in Face Cover)

by Laleen Jayamanne

Asifa, a young girl, and her elderly mother, living in Kattankudy, Baticaloa, are two fictional characters at the centre of Ashfaque Mohamed’s quietly powerful first feature film, titled Face Cover, which just premiered at the 2023 Jaffna International Film Festival (JIFF). As the President of the international jury judging the films in this year’s debut film competition at the JIFF (but on zoom from Australia), I have seen some highly sophisticated films from Bangladesh and India (the winners), immensely enjoyable and informative, but have chosen, for the purposes of this article, to write on Ashfaque’s thought provoking film that didn’t make it into the debut film competition. My decision to do so is part of my own politics as a film scholar who has, over the decades, often highlighted and laboured over films that may not necessarily be popular, or current, or even easily understood, for that matter. Eye-catching films often are popular, and many critics spend a lot of energy writing about them as is their prerogative. I, too, do that when moved, as I have been by Baz Luhrmann’s hugely popular ELVIS. But, it’s important to me, as a Lankan-Australian film critic/scholar, to focus also on work that at first may appear opaque, may not fit into my own limited viewing habits and preferences, first and foremost. This way, I learn to learn from film even as I grow old. Face Cover has uncovered for me micro-histories of ethnic relations in Lanka in astonishing and moving ways. It’s certainly a film for our times, and in my opinion, Ashfaque is a young Lankan filmmaker of great promise. It is also heartening to note that he is cine-literate and (as he says), is self-taught as a filmmaker.

While the opening and closing screenings of the festival were at the Cinemas Movie Theatre, the rest of the festival films were shown at the University of Jaffna, largely due to the ongoing grave financial crisis affecting the country as a whole. I gather it’s the only film festival held in Sri Lanka, continuously, since the civil war ended, after 30 years, and is an admirable institution, powered by its Director, and curator of film, Anoma Rajakaruna’s unceasing energy and vision, which builds bridges among the various ethnic groups and cinephiles from across the entire country and crucially South Asia and further afield, in that once war-ravaged city. The following is the film’s blurb.

“Taking the cataclysmic Easter Sunday Bombings of Churches and Hotels in April 2019, by ISIS inspired Islamists in Sri Lanka as the point of departure, the film follows the life of Asifa in Kattankdy, in Eastern Sri Lanka, as she navigates the complex social forces shaping her and other women’s stories. The film tells the story of the town, as a woman’s tale. The film is experimental in form and mixes genres and conventions.”

*****

The main fictional story line of the mother and daughter is interwoven with (what appears at first to be), documentary interviews and testimonies given by ‘real’ people, not fictional characters. However, towards the end of the film one realises that the demarcating lines between documentary and fiction have indeed been blurred. There are hints of this earlier, in the four scenes forming the large sequence ‘performed’ on a proscenium stage, as well. This blurring appears to be the result of an unusual aesthetic and political decision, which I wish to explore here. Perhaps the politics of the film are linked to this bleeding of the actual into the fictional and the reverse also. How does this device enable Face Cover to uncover subtle operations of power in a predominantly Muslim area of Lanka, in the post-war era, soon after the Easter Sunday bombings as well? The feminist slogan, ‘the personal is political,’ certainly gets elaborated quietly but quite decisively in exploring the agency of the young Muslim girl, Asifa, on the cusp of womanhood, as well. I am assuming here (as I think the film itself does), that a politics of cinema has to work on two fronts simultaneously, not only on the choice of subject/story, but also on HOW it is told, elaborated. For what’s at stake are, our powers of perception and understanding, through images and sounds, that touch us in unexpected ways. Film, I believe, can be our mentor, we can learn from film in the most enjoyable and unexpected of ways, to undo our prejudiced ways of seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking. Face Cover continues to be a revelation to me in this regard, even after multiple viewings, especially so.

Face Cover

Ashfaque Mohamed

, the title of Ashafque’s film, is in itself fascinating. Why didn’t he use the globalised Arabic word Niqab for instance? The words ‘Face Cover’ (I learn), are the same in Tamil, the English words simply transliterated and incorporated into the vernacular. It is commonly used by Muslims to refer to the practice of partially covering a woman’s face, as required by some Muslim norms. A Tamil friend suggested that it connotes both the intimacy of a piece of cloth and a sense of distance of appropriated foreign words. Perhaps this sense of ambivalence is a unique Lankan invention not perceptible in the pure Arabic official word for the practice, which is Niqab. What’s fascinating to me is that, before I saw the film and learnt about the connotations of the title Face Cover, I thought it would be a ‘hot’, topical film on a subject that has caused a great deal of debate in the West (France for example), and protests, most recently in Iran which turned violent and then garnered supporters in some Western countries especially among some feminists. It’s a topic that the Western white media finds especially irresistible. But I was mistaken to take the title Face Cover at face value, as a sign of a polemical film. And what was most surprising to me about the film was that I wrote a long email to a friend, soon after I saw the film for the first time and realised the next day that I had said absolutely nothing about the ‘problem’ of the face cover, despite having discussed the film at some length.

When I realised what I had done, I resaw the film which brought up a lot of questions but no answers, so I saw the film yet again for the third time. This time round the film began to slowly open up to my attention. It is a film, I realised, that requires a quiet focus, an attentiveness, as when one enters an unfamiliar social milieu, like when one takes one’s shoes off to go into certain places of worship in Lanka, or as it happens to some houses in Australia. Similarly, while music is used, it does so very sparingly, so that when we do hear it, it speaks in a way that wall to wall music does not, cannot. In these ways our quality of attention is tuned like a musical instrument. In fact, the only time the face cover became a ‘hot topic’ in the film was when a Sinhala trader, in a shop, makes it so by shouting at a young woman wearing a face cover. He aggressively asks her why she has her face covered and the young girl responds forcefully, asking why he wants to see her face, etc. Apart from this verbal stoush, (the only time Sinhala is heard in the film), and one re-enactment on a stage, of an Army check-point scene, from the civil-war era, the face cover itself is not conceived as a ‘problem’ to be addressed by the film. In the staged check-point scene, a soldier, carrying a gun, orders a young woman, in Tamil, to unmask at the point of his gun and she simply obeys the command. The soldier is meant to be Sinhala speaking an accented Tamil. So apart from these two ‘dramatic’ incidents, instigated by hostile people with authority and power, the face cover is not a focus of the film, it’s simply a given. Though there is a strong criticism of the Muslim male undergraduate practice of erasing the faces of female office bearers on student council photographs, at several Universities. A young Muslim woman astutely refers to this gender discrimination as a ‘digital veiling,’ images of which are displayed. This kind of internal criticism is very forceful and one hopes that Muslim male undergraduates will reflect on it and mend their ways. The check-point scene does function as a parable. More on the use of dramatic parables later, in a film where there is very little ‘drama’ in this sense of confrontations. Instead, momentous events transpire on Television News of the Easter Sunday bombings which frames the film and dates it to be set in 2019. But previous violent histories are folded into every-day-life and narrated as recollections, and an inventive mix of techniques of staged interviews and testimonies and ‘real’ interviews, replace drama, understood as actions and reactions reaching a crescendo.

Sumathy Sivamohan as Asifa’s mother

Often the interviews are played as voice-over while the person concerned goes about her every-day business, mute. This technique makes the film’s narration flexible, allowing room to play with our attention, an eye here and the ear there. I think that Ashfaque’s ethico-aesthetic sensibility evident here is a part of his film politics. I find myself listening attentively to the voice-over which rhetorically oscillates between answers to questions (which are themselves unheard), and an interior monologue. I found the texture, timbre, inflections and rhythms of the voices, especially those of the mother and daughter, very engaging, moving. Lankan cinema has not developed the autonomous potentialities of the sound track as much as it could, I think.

Face Cover

as a Lure

I was a bit slow to realise that the title, Face Cover, is a lure. It lures us into the film as a certain idea of the veil might. The veil is an alluring metaphysical idea in Kumar Shahani’s film Khyal Gatha for instance, which explores both Hindu Bhakti and Sufi Islamic traditions of spirituality as expressed in music, song and art in India which bypass both the priest and the religious institutions they control. ‘Khayal’ is an Urdu word derived from Persian which means ‘imagination,’ and is the name of a classical musical form. The idea of the ‘veil’ in Persian Sufi traditions is a complex idea, put very simply, it suggests that, reality itself is veiled (filtered, subtilised), and its perception depends on certain spiritual aesthetic practices, which reveal the imperceptible and the intangible, within the hum-drum of every-day existence. The veil as a spiritual idea, on the one hand, and the mask or ‘face cover’ socially mandated by certain Islamic patriarchal assumptions, on the other, are of course worlds apart in their conception and function and the feelings they evoke. As devout Roman Catholic girls, taught religion by Irish Catholic nuns at school, we always had to cover our heads modestly with veils when going to church.

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Midweek Review

Burnt Morsels and Barbed Wire

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on

By Lynn Ockersz

The war tanks are battle-ready,

Menacingly lurking, raring to roll in,

At the first call to arms,

By a strong arm gentry,

Eyeing its spoils of power and office,

Secured sans a Freedom Struggle,

But those whom it sees as subjects,

Are now hitting their mats at night,

On a diet of tepid water and burnt rice,

Left very much on their own to die,

Proving that ‘Freedom’ is a stillborn babe.

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