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Overcoming adversity

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Watching the amazing performance of those with disabilities, at the opening ceremony in Tokyo on 24th August, I was humbled, to say the least. I have all faculties intact and wonder what I have achieved compared to these, who are overcoming adversity. The wonderful performance by a violinist, a young girl whose right arm that held the bow was just rods and wires from shoulder downwards, who played deftly will be remembered for decades to come.

By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana

The prolonged drought, which some thought may never end, is over at last! We have won a gold medal in the Olympics and all kudos to Dinesh Priyantha Herath who did it in style, by setting a new Paralympic world record in the men’s F46 javelin throw. It was a respite, though temporary, for the long-suffering Sri Lankans as eloquently stated in the editorial “A man worth his weight in gold” (The Island, 31 August). One would have thought, no one would disagree with the editor’s assessment but, unfortunately, there are unpatriotic idiots. The translation of a social media post, forwarded to a WhatsApp group, reads: “Sri Lanka is a funny country where those who should go before war crimes tribunals, instead go to Olympics to win medals”! No, it is not translated from Tamil. It would not have been surprising had a maniacal supporter of the Tigers uploaded it but this was posted , in Sinhala, by a former MP who represents another political party that metamorphosed from a terrorist group. I am not sure whether it is a new post or an old one; if new, it is in very poor taste. However, if it is old, this unprecedented achievement is a reminder to these unpatriotic politicians that our Ranaviruwo are good at not only winning wars but also gold!

Having had the luxury of time, thanks to retirement, I was able to watch the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012, 2016 and am watching the delayed 2020 events. Having observed closely and considering the additional burden imposed on them, having to overcome adversity in the form of various disabilities, I have no doubt that the true Olympians are the Paralympians.

In fact, moved by the amazing performances during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Paralympics, I started penning a piece but other events overtook distracting my attention. Everything happens for the best, they say, and the delay was worthwhile, as I am able to complete my task with a sense of pride. I was yearning for, at least a bronze medal for our team in the Olympics, but the only purpose served was for some VIP politicians to attend with dubious funding! Paralympics, though considered not important enough to be watched by these VIPs, produced something spectacular, as another former soldier Dulan Kodituwakku, joined Dinesh, with a bronze medal. Had it not been for the involvement of the Army, we would not have been able to carry out such a massive vaccination campaign, poor Sri Lanka having vaccinated a higher percentage of adults than the much-acclaimed New Zealand! Political traitors, in truck with interested foreigners, are doing their utmost to tarnish the image of our Army but, by its actions, during the war and after, it has won the plaudits of all patriots.

Paralympic Games started long after the modern Olympic Games, which started in Athens, Greece, in 1896 though Ancient Olympics have been held from 8th century BCE to 4th century CE. Disabled athletes have competed in Olympics, Lis Hartel, a Danish equestrian, affected by polio, winning a silver medal in dressage at the 1952 Olympics. But before the start of Paralympics, they had no choice, playing in an unequal field.

The first organised event for disabled athletes, which coincided with the opening day of the 1948 London Summer Olympic Games, was the brain-child of German-born Dr Ludwig Guttmann, who escaped Jewish persecution, and worked in Stoke Mandeville Hospital, a rehabilitation hospital for injured soldiers. This was a Game for British World War II veterans with spinal cord injuries and was called the 1948 International Wheelchair Games. Guttman’s aim was to create an elite sports competition for people with disabilities that would be equivalent to the Olympic Games and he succeeded. The second games were held in 1952, also at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, when Dutch and Israeli veterans joined the British, making it the first international competition of its own kind. These competitions, known as the Stoke Mandeville Games, were the precursors of the Paralympic Games, Stoke Mandeville holding a similar place in the lore of the Paralympic movement as Greece holds in the Olympic movement.

The first official Paralympic Games, coinciding with the ninth Stoke Mandeville Games, was held in Rome in 1960. It was no longer limited to war veterans, 400 athletes from 23 countries competing. Since then, the Paralympic Games have taken place in the same year as the Olympic Games and although the Games were initially open only to athletes in wheelchairs, at the 1976 Summer Games athletes with different disabilities were included in the Games for the first time. This resulted in 1,600 athletes from 40 countries taking part. The 1988 Summer Paralympics in Seoul was another milestone for the Paralympic movement as it was in Seoul that the tradition of holding Paralympic Summer Games directly after the Summer Olympics, in the same host city, using the same facilities, started.

Watching the amazing performance of those with disabilities, at the opening ceremony in Tokyo on 24th August, I was humbled, to say the least. I have all faculties intact and wonder what I have achieved compared to these, who are overcoming adversity. The wonderful performance by a violinist, a young girl whose right arm that held the bow was just rods and wires from shoulder downwards, who played deftly will be remembered for decades to come. This is just one of many remarkable performances.

The theme of the evening was “Moving Forward: We Have Wings” and everything was around airports and aircraft. To highlight disability, 13-year-old Yui Wago performed the role of the ‘Little One-Winged Plane’, her wheelchair having only the right wing and a propeller at the back. Though she uses an electric wheelchair because of weakness in her left hand, she chose to use a manual one in the opening ceremony to make the performance more natural. She practiced three times a week, eight hours a day, and at one point suffered from an aching back. She gave a superb performance of an airplane that had once given up on flying, but realised its own potential after meeting other planes. I was waiting for her to be lifted up but, instead, clever technology made her appear to take off, which became blurred as, by that time, my eyes welled with tears!

Japan, one of our closest friends, gave us the opportunity to ‘take off’ in Tokyo and Dinesh’s achievement would be recorded in gold letters. I am in total agreement with the editor that he is worth his weight in gold and do hope many others would tread the golden path he laid.



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Form-ation of Higher Education in Sri Lanka

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By Hasini Lecamwasam

Improving higher education in Sri Lanka is not only important, but essential and long overdue. However, seeking to achieve higher ‘quality’ by ‘form-ising’ the performance of teachers (or the practice of forcing the entire teaching-learning exercise into forms designed to communicate exactly what and what transpires in a classroom) may not be able to bring about the desired change. A new set of four forms introduced recently to this end requires, among other things, drawing up a minutely detailed plan of each and every lesson to be delivered in class, aligned with the Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs), in turn, to be aligned with the Programme Learning Outcomes (PLOs), which should all then be tied to the graduate profile, or the kind of graduate we seek to ‘produce’ at the end of it all. This may, on the surface of it, sound reasonable enough and not encourage serious debate or resistance because, after all, it is only some forms that need to be filled.

Form by tedious form, however, the teaching-learning process at state universities is becoming increasingly constricted, fragmented, monitored, controlled. In this piece, I wish to briefly ponder on the implications of these requirements and the larger trends they signal, while also attempting to reflect on what instead we may do to ensure ‘quality’ in the delivery of higher education.

The problem with form-ation

The larger ‘Quality Assurance’ (QA) landscape in which these developments take place was discussed in detail in an earlier Kuppi Talk by Kaushalya Perera. In a nutshell, QA seeks to standardise education such that study programmes can be assessed against each other, assigned numbers, and ranked accordingly. The deployment of overarching yardsticks for programmes with hugely varying mandates, methods, and content has been the subject of much critique lately the world over, not the least due to its rather warped understanding of ‘quality’ as something that can be objectively established through metrics and audits.

While I do not question the bona fide motives behind the initiative taken with the aforementioned forms, I do think serious reflection on where these developments push us in the longer term is needed. My primary reservation here has to do with the impact of this lesson-wise breakdown on the creative and democratic exercise that the teaching-learning process is supposed to entail. When each topic is broken down into such fine detail prior to the actual occurrence of the ‘lesson’ (for want of a better word), outcomes are foreclosed rather than collectively and organically evolving in the course of the ‘lesson’, which is particularly important to many of the subjects offered in the Arts Faculties. Exactly how many of us are actually quite so democratic in our classrooms is a valid question in this regard, and one I will return to. The point for me here, however, is that for those who do have a sincere commitment to such a democratic classroom environment, such forms and the limiting of the teaching-learning experience they constitute, may be tantamount to strangulation.

Even if the majority of us admit to being very controlling in our classrooms anyway, does that justify going one step further with these forms and institutionalising such control? Should not our commitment be to the emancipatory ideal, rather than simply what most are on board with? There should be meaningful space for creative, organic, and democratic teaching-learning processes to unfold for teachers who wish to make that choice, and for students to explore and think beyond the teacher’s frame of thinking. Micromanaging beyond the general content of a course (laid down in enough detail in the course syllabus) is inimical to even a possibility of democracy existing in the classroom and within the larger university space.

This complete subservience of the teaching-learning process to red tape signals a larger and troubling trend of corporatisation. Corporatisation may be defined as the restructuring of a publicly owned institution to be managed as a business place would be, with a view to privatising in the long term. In state universities, this shift is couched in the supposedly ‘progressive’ language of student-centered approaches and interactive classrooms, hijacked from the democratic pedagogy of the likes of Paulo Freire, but bereft of any of the emancipatory politics within which these methods assume meaning. Despite the use of these catch-phrases, however, such minutely detailed forms signal a return to an extremely teacher-centered model due to the absence of the possibility for students to meaningfully influence the outcome of a lesson, as it is predetermined for them.

The result, as the Kannangara report worried with remarkable foresight some 80 years ago, is students “with much knowledge and little understanding. They have not read books; they have “studied” texts. They cannot write, they produce essays after a set style. They can answer questions but not question answers … Their imagination has been stunted, their originality suppressed, their capacity for thought undeveloped, their emotions inhibited.”

What alternative can we propose?

A valid question countering what little resistance there is to form-ation asks how we can ensure the education we currently deliver is of an acceptable standard, and that everybody observes such. There seems to prevail tacit and widespread agreement that the ‘democratic nonsense’ within universities is what has allowed many to hide behind debates, deliberations, appeals to creative freedom, and so on, without actually doing their work.

In my view, this is an arbitrary causation to draw. Blaming internal democracy for negligence of duties fails to take into account the highly anti-democratic practices at universities that may better explain such behaviour.

Specifically, I think it is the rigidly entrenched hierarchy within universities that blocks the possibility of even dialogue, let alone debate, particularly when it comes to holding those higher-up in the ladder accountable for their actions (or the lack thereof, as the case may be). Hierarchy is why, among many other things, students cannot question the content or the methods chosen by their teachers. As previous Kuppi Talks have endeavoured to show, hierarchy is silently, and therefore very effectively, observed at every level, ensuring the trumping of students by teachers, juniors by seniors, women by men, minorities by the majority, and originality by tradition. It impedes questioning, stifles dissent, and smothers alternative thinking altogether. The problem, therefore, is not that we have too much democracy in universities, but too little of it.

We must make a sincere and sustained effort to radically democratise the university space by relaxing the classroom to allow open and honest exchange between students and teachers; changing the relations of power between seniors and juniors, starting with undoing the practice of deferential treatment; refusing to tolerate snide and not-so-subtle references to ways of dressing and similar gendered remarks; questioning the exclusive use of the majority language in official communications, as a starting point. In doing so, we would be subverting the crippling hierarchy that inhibits thought and practice within the university. Such a radical change geared towards improved quality through mutual accountability, for me, is the only acceptable way of introducing accountability to a space that, admittedly, sorely lacks it.

(Hasini Lecamwasam is attached to the Department of Political Science, University of Peradeniya)

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

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THE LOGIC OF PRESIDENT’S PLEDGES IN NEW YORK

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by Jehan Perera

The significance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech at the UN General Assembly, in New York, last week, was his use of the time allocated to him to provide an outline of the government’s policies towards the main challenges besetting the country. The President covered the main issues that confront the world with his focus on Sri Lanka. These included measures to contain the Covid pandemic, the economic crisis, environmental degradation and violence. In the final section of his well-crafted speech, the President went into some depth regarding the government’s approach to national reconciliation. However, the response within the country, has been muted and for good reason. Those who voted for the government, on an entirely different platform, which emphasised ethnic majority nationalism and anti-international sentiments, are quite probably at a loss.

It is only recently that the government has started to speak in terms of reconciliation and obtaining international support for it. At the two elections that brought this government to power, the Easter Sunday bombing and the consequent threat to national security, took centre stage. The majority, who voted for the government, did so to protect it from a variety of security threats they were told of, both within and outside the country. The wretched failure of the previous government to prevent the bombing, the first terrorist act of any magnitude since the war ended a decade earlier, was attributed to the personal weakness of the then government leaders. It was also attributed to the 19th Amendment which sought to give state institutions protection from use for partisan reasons by government politicians and to consequent disintegration of the system of command and control.

A second theme, at the two elections, was depiction of ethnic and religious minorities as potential security threats. This stemmed from the country’s experience of three decades of internal warfare with the armed Tamil separatist movements. This was followed by the Easter bombings by extremists from the Muslim community, who were feared to be having a vast support base both internally within the country and also externally. In these circumstances, the re-centralisation of power within the government hierarchy and greater role given to the security forces, received public acceptance as being part of the government’s democratic mandate. At the same time, by denying the equally legitimate concerns of the ethnic and religious minorities, the electoral results demonstrated the existence of an acute polarisation, and wound, in the body politic that continues to fester to the point of bringing in involuntary and imposed international interventions.

EU MONITORING

The challenge for the government is to represent the interests of all communities and not only the majority who voted it into power. The problem is that the government’s mandate comes, by and large, from the vote of the ethnic and religious majority in a country that has been polarised on ethnic and religious lines, for many decades. An ugly part of this reality is that in the prisons are several hundreds of Tamils and Muslims for the most part who are in custody for periods ranging from a few months to many years without trial. They are being held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, ostensibly until the security forces find adequate evidence to put them before the courts of law. This contradicts the rule of law and the presumption in our legal system that we are innocent until proven guilty can have negative consequences.

In June this year, the EU parliament passed a resolution that the GSP Plus tariff privileges, made available to Sri Lanka should be withdrawn unless the government fulfilled its obligations in regard to the upholding of human rights. The resolution, expressing “deep concern over Sri Lanka’s alarming path towards the recurrence of grave human rights violations”, and makes specific reference to the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The resolution notes the “continuing discrimination” against and violence towards religious and ethnic minorities, while voicing “serious concern” about the 20th Amendment passed in 2020, and the “resulting decline in judiciary independence, the reduction of parliamentary control, and the excessive accumulation of power with the presidency”. It also highlights “accelerating militarisation” of civilian government functions in Sri Lanka.

A delegation from the EU is currently in Sri Lanka to meet with members of the government, Opposition and civil society, to ascertain whether the country is fulfilling its obligations to be a beneficiary of EU trade benefits. It is likely that the delegation will be provided with evidence of human rights violations and acts of impunity. There are hundreds of persons languishing in prisons without being put on trial, many of whom are Tamils, suspected to be LTTE members, and more of them are Muslims, suspected of having links with the Easter bombings. When questioned in parliament about the latter, the minister in charge justified those detentions on the grounds that Muslim youth, including the Muslim parliamentarian who had questioned him, could contain Islamic State ideology in their heads and therefore be security threats.

NEW DIRECTION

At the last elections, the most potent theme was the failure of the then government to act effectively to protect the country from the Easter suicide bombings and the pressures from human rights actors in Geneva. Among the issues that loomed large at the last election was also the charge that the previous government was giving in too much to the Muslim community within the country. The fact that the Easter attacks were by Muslim suicide bombers added force to this charge. The prioritisation of national security in the election campaign had popular support. The influential religious clergy, associations of professionals and mass media also joined the battle in earnest and their messages reinforced one another. The recent debate in Parliament suggests the government’s thinking continues to be in sync with the mandate it received at those elections.

However, in his speech in New York, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shown signs of diverging from the politics of the past. The President said “Fostering greater accountability, restorative justice, and meaningful reconciliation through domestic institutions is essential to achieve lasting peace. So too is ensuring more equitable participation in the fruits of economic development. It is my Government’s firm intention to build a prosperous, stable and secure future for all Sri Lankans, regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender. We are ready to engage with all domestic stakeholders, and to obtain the support of our international partners and the United Nations, in this process.” However, the President’s speech continues to be at variance with the ground realities at the present time and the general manner of governance since the President took office in November 2019.

So far the pledge of a new direction is articulated in words. The time for the government to make the President’s words real and act accordingly is now. This will help to overcome the deep and dark cynicism that has enveloped the country regarding promises made by politicians. The first step would be to apply the logic of the Justice Minister in Parliament. Replying to an Opposition Parliamentarian who called for the arrest of Minister Lohan Ratwatte who stands accused of entering a prison and threatening prisoners with his gun, the justice minister said that everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. This also applies to the hundreds of Tamils and Muslims in jail without evidence to charge them in a court of law. The better way to deal with the threats to national security is to win the confidence of all the communities in the Sri Lanka by treating them without discrimination, as children of one mother, as our national anthem proclaims.

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Face shields, sans masks, on TV shows!

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Face shield ONLY does not provide protection from Covid-19

Covid-19 has claimed many lives, in our part of the world. Quite a few musicians, too, have had to face the music, where this deadly virus is concerned.

However, one is perturbed with the setup seen on some of our TV shows, especially where musicians are concerned.

The Covid-19 guidelines are never adhered to – no masks, no social distancing, etc.

There were reality shows held, post pandemic, where judges were seen even hugging their favourite contestants – with no masks.

With the virus turning deadly, some of the judges took to only wearing face shields. And, we now know the results of their stupidity.

By their irresponsible behaviour (wearing only face shields), they seem to be setting a trend for others to follow.

The question being asked is what are the health authorities doing? Why haven’t such folks been taken to task!

If the man on the street is arrested for not wearing a mask, how come these law-breakers go scot-free!

If wearing a mask is a hassle in an air conditioned setup, then such shows should be put on hold, or held virtual…live stream, zoom, from home, etc., and not with the participation of several artistes, in a studio.

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