Need in New Year is to heal the divides
By Jehan Perera
One of the definitions of reconciliation is to move from a divided past to a shared future. The arrest of the Jaffna Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan came as a reminder that unhealed issues from the past continue to threaten peace in the present and the future. According to people I spoke to in Jaffna, this arrest has revived memories that were no longer in the people’s consciousness. Nearly 11 years after the end of the war, the people were no longer thinking of the LTTE police and the uniform they once wore. The bailing out of the mayor de-escalated the crisis that was brewing in Jaffna following his arrest. There were reports that a hartal, or shutdown of the city, had been planned to protest against the arrest.
Jaffna Mayor Manivannan was taken into custody by the Jaffna police for allegedly promoting uniforms and iconography of the LTTE, according to the police. They had found that the Mayor had recruited five individuals to perform traffic duties in Jaffna town in uniforms that resembled those worn by the LTTE’s police during the time when they ran a parallel administration in parts of the north and east. Photos published in the media show a similarity. Promoting symbols associated with the LTTE, including uniforms is an offence under provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
However, the position of the Municipality was that the five individuals had been recruited to a Jaffna Municipal Council task force on a temporary basis to enforce penalties against environmental violations such as littering the streets. According to Mayor Manivannan, the uniforms were, in fact, the same as those worn by a similar task force run by the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC). Media reported a striking resemblance between the task force uniform and the uniforms worn by the LTTE police but also that a parking meter initiative run by the Colombo Municipal Council has employed staffers who also wear a light blue shirt and pants of a darker shade, vaguely similar to the offending Jaffna outfit.
Ironically, a few days prior to this incident, I visited Jaffna to take part in the last rites for Fr Nicholapillai Maria Saveri who had headed the Centre for Performing Arts, in Jaffna, for over four decades. Under Fr Saveri’s leadership the centre produced an entire generation of artistes who reached out across all barriers of ethnicity and religion and touched the lives of people everywhere. Through his artistic and cultural productions, Fr Saveri tried to show the interdependence of those who live in the country and need to share it bringing to the fore their different talents, connections and capacities. He sought to turn the diversity and pluralism in the country away from being a source of conflict into one of strength and mutual enrichment.
The normalcy I saw in Jaffna, during the short period I was there, made me feel that the ethnic conflict was a thing of the past. At the hotel I stayed I saw young people come and enjoy a drink at the bar and talking with each other with animation and laughter as young people do. When I went to the District Secretariat, I was struck by the fact that they played the national anthem at sharp 8.30 am and all work stopped while the anthem played all three verses in the Tamil language and all stood to attention, even inside their rooms. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in 2011, had recommended that the national anthem be sung in both languages and I was happy to see that in Jaffna this was being implemented a decade later.
At the funeral service for Fr Saveri I met many people and none of them spoke of war and conflict but like people in other parts of the country they spoke of the economy and cost of living. An administrator from the University of Jaffna spoke about his satisfaction at the large number of Sinhala students at the University and the mixing that was taking place as a result, between the communities. He said that as the University did not have adequate hostel facilities many of the students from outside of Jaffna, including the Sinhala students, lived with local families. He said that during the recent graduation ceremony, hundreds of their family members came from the southern parts of the country and joined their children in their places of accommodation which contributed to the inter community mixing.
The situation in Jaffna was so normal to my eyes as a visitor that one of the questions I had and to which I sought answers from those I met, was whether there was a common theme that bound the people together. Despite my inquiries I could not discern such a common theme that was openly visible or explained to me as such. It was much like the rest of the country. At the last general election the people of the north voted for a multiplicity of parties including ones that are part of the present government. The candidate who got the largest number of votes was one who was affiliated with the government. At the same time nationalist parties got votes too that saw them enter Parliament and the more moderate parties emerged the largest.
The arrest of Mayor Visvalingam Manivannan has now supplied a common unifying theme to the politics of the north. There is distress that the popularly elected Mayor has been treated in such a manner. If the uniforms that the Municipal workers were wearing too closely resembled those of the LTTE, he could have been informed that this was not appropriate. It would have been possible to ensure that the uniforms were immediately removed and replaced with ones that were more appropriate while taking into consideration the sensitivities that three decades of war would bring. As the Mayor is most closely associated with government Minister Douglas Devananda such a request would most certainly have been complied with. As leader of the EPDP, Minister Devananda was at the forefront of militarily fighting against the LTTE.
The government’s determination to thwart any possible attempt to revive the LTTE can be understood. The war with the LTTE cost the country enormously in terms of human suffering and economic devastation. The government won the last election on the promise that it would give priority to national security and also develop the country on that basis. However, sections of the Tamil Diaspora continue to be openly pro-LTTE and espouse a separatist agenda. The loss of the vote at the UN Human Rights Council, in which the Tamil Diaspora played a role, would make the government more determined to suppress any attempt to revive the LTTE. Now that the immediate crisis has been defused due to the release of the Mayor on bail, it would be timely for the government to mitigate the political damage by a multiplicity of means, including by reaching out to the Jaffna Municipal Council about its Municipal law enforcement mechanism.
Daring siege of the Cultural Ministry
The University of Colombo, Sri Lanka was established in 1979 in accordance with the provisions of the Universities Act No. 18 of 1978. The university was given all the land from the road joining Bauddhaloka Mawatha and Reid Avenue (later named Prof. Stanley Wijesundera Mawatha) right up to the Thummulla junction.
There were the court premises set up to try the insurgents of 1971, the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC), the Queen’s Club, an unauthorized temple which had everything else like car wash, canteen, night life, etc, except what should be found in a temple.
Of these the university was able to get rid of the bogus temple. The request to get the CDC premises did not materialize as the then Secretary of Education turned it down. Later these buildings were taken over to house the Ministry of Cultural Affairs.
One day in the early 1990s just prior to closing time the Senior Assistant Registrar in charge of Student Affairs came into my office and told me that the Students Union is planning to take over the Buildings of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Their plan was to wait till dusk and get in surreptitiously two by two. I told the Senior Assistant Registrar not to divulge this to anybody else and to wait till the following morning to see the outcome.
When we reported for work the following morning, I asked the Senior Assistant Registrar as to what had happened. He said the mission had been successfully accomplished and now the students were occupying the buildings. It seemed that what the university had been trying to get for a long time, the students had successfully achieved in one night!
On the second day the students who were occupying the buildings were a little agitated, telephoned me and asked whether the Special Task Force (STF) was planning to surround the building with a view to oust them as the STF personnel were occupying vantage points on buildings in the vicinity . I telephoned and inquired from the OIC of Cinnamon Gardens Police station, and he told me that there was no such plan and that they were only watching the situation. I conveyed this to the students and allayed their fears.
A meeting was convened at the Ministry of Higher Education to see how the problem could be sorted out. At the meeting a student showed a copy of a Cabinet decision where agreement had been reached to hand over the CDC buildings to the University of Colombo. The Minister of Cultural Affairs at that time, Mr. Lakshman Jayakody, was surprised and asked the student as to how he got the copy of the decision as even he had not seen it. The student stated that he did not want to divulge the source.
The Minister stated that his immediate need was to get the pay sheet and cheque book as the employees had to be paid their salaries. The students were adamant not to surrender, and they stated that this was done as they needed hostels. Hence the decision to lay siege to the buildings. Mr. Jayakody agreed to vacate the buildings so that the university could make use of them.
That ended the saga of the famous siege of a Ministry building by a few daring undergraduates. The buildings were used to house the newly established Faculty of Management and Finance. The undergraduates were accommodated in other buildings in Muttiah Road and Thelawala, which were handed over to the university to be used as hostels.
HM NISSANKA WARAKAULLE
Professor Dayantha Wijeyesekera
Professor Dayantha Wijeyesekera who passed away a few days ago was a dynamic personality who headed not one but two national universities in Sri Lanka. It was as the Vice-Chancellor of the Open University of Sri Lanka (OUSL) that I first encountered him, an encounter that highlighted Professor Wijeyesekera’s powers of perseverance and persuasion. During the late 1980s, I was happily ensconced at the University of Colombo when I started receiving messages from Professor Wijeyesekera to ask me to consider moving over to the OUSL. The proposition did not seem very viable to me at the time and I ignored his calls But for almost two years, he persisted until I finally gave in and shifted my academic career to Nawala- a move never regretted.
OUSL at that time was in the throes of changes and innovation, most of which were spearheaded by Professor Wijeyesekera who had taken over the leadership of OUSL in 1985 at a most controversial time. Perceptions of the OUSL were negative and the authorities were even considering closing it down. With his characteristic vigour, Dayantha Wijeyesekera set about putting things right bringing in changes, some of which were most controversial and even considered detrimental to OUSL.
In spite of opposition, he stuck to his vision and it is testimony to his persistence that a number of changes have lasted to this day – Faculties headed by Deans instead of Boards of Study headed by Directors, Departments of Study and not Units, a two-tier administrative system akin to the conventional university system of Council and Senate. To help support students who needed to come to Nawala for workshops and laboratory classes, he established student hostels-another move deemed by his critics as undermining the concept of Distance Education. The hostels still stand and have even been expanded.
Other changes were welcomed such as his indefatigable pursuit of state –of the art technology for OUSL. The OUSL’s centre for Educational Technology was a gift from Japan due to Professor Wijeyesekera’s efforts. And it was in his period of stewardship at OUSL that the first ever language laboratory to be established in a Sri Lankan university was set up in the Department of Language Studies – a gift from KOICA, the South Korean aid agency.
During Professor Wijeyesekera’s tenure as Vice Chancellor, the OUSL experienced growth and expansion in academic sectors too. During the 1980s, the university had only a handful of centres but under Dayantha Wijeyesekera the number rapidly grew- there were Regional Centres in major cities such as Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna. Study centres were set up in towns throughout the island and he was more than supportive when requested permission to establish teaching centres for English in smaller urban conglomerations such as Akkaraipattu .
Academic programmes blossomed. The Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences for example had just one Bachelor’s degree, the LLB, during the 1980s. In Professor Wijeyesekera’s time this grew to include a Bachelor of Management Studies, a Bachelor’s degree in Social Sciences and the first ever Bachelor’s degree in English and English Language Teaching. The first degree programme for nurses in Sri Lanka, the BSc. In Nursing, was established at the Faculty of Science with support from Athabasca University in Canada. In addition there also sprang up a whole cohort of Certificate and Diploma programmes catering to the diverse needs of professionals all over the island.
The growth of the university was reflected in the expansion of facilities. New buildings sprang up on reclaimed land bordering the Narahenpita-Nawala Road – a new Senate House which offered space to all the administrative sections and had a spacious facility for Council and Senate meetings. A three-storey building was provided for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences and a new Library building took shape near the Media Centre.
In addition Professor Wijeyesekera reached out to international centres of Distance Education and Open Universities across the world. In the early 1990s, he hosted with aplomb the Conference of the Association of Asian Open Universities (AAOU) and OUSL became a respected member of the AAOU as well as of the Commonwealth of Learning.
Dayantha Wijeyesekera began his career at OUSL in 1985 when the fate of the OUSL hung in the balance. Under his stewardship, the university burgeoned into a national university, a leader in Distance Education which others sought to emulate.. When he joined the OU, the student enrolment stood at 8,000. When he left, nine years later, there 20,000 students registered at the university. It was his hard work, his dedication, his commitment to academic progress that helped transform the OUSL.
May his soul rest in peace.
Open University of Sri Lanka
X-Press Pearl disaster
It will be a crying shame if we fail to get the much wanted and much spoken about compensation due to us for the monumental maritime disaster caused in around our shores when the X-Press went down.
Our government and all those departments and ministries responsible had ample time to make a water tight claim to make the compensation 1claim to the right place. The best available brains and talent to deal with this complex problem involving a host of subjects including the ecology, marine biology, shipwrecks, the law of the sea, maritime laws and whatever else should have been organized to fight our case.
The moment the disaster occurred, all concerned should have acted with single minded dedication to make a strong claim for compensation. Much video and other evidence of the damage done is available. All of us are aware of the shoals of fish, turtles and other sea creatures that died and were washed ashore and the plastic and oil pollution of our beaches. Some of those creatures that died live for over 100 years.
What we saw on our shore post-disaster was a heartbreaking sight. I don’t think it’s possible to assess the ecological damage done in monetary terms. The plastic nurdles the ship has been washed as far as Matara and it is said the acid pollution caused will be with us for a century. Fishermen have suffered great hardship by the loss of catch.
The case filed is being heard in Singapore. I hope the verdict will temper justice with mercy. The damage and misery suffered through no fault of ours is untold.
Padmini Nanayakkara, Colombo-3.
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