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Playing politics with disappearances

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A recent protest in Jaffna demanding justice for those who had been reported missing during the conflict and after the successful conclusion of the war, in May 2009(pic posted by PEARL)

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Washington-based People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL) says it campaigns for justice and self-determination for the Tamil people, living in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. Identifying itself as a non-profit organization, PEARL says formation of the group took place in 2005 in the wake of volunteers visiting Sri Lanka – the year before the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched the fourth phase of the war.

Having reignited the war, in August 2006, with devastating initial success, the LTTE, however, lost the entire Eastern Province, by mid-2007. The armed forces brought the war to a successful conclusion in May 2009. Since then, various Tamil politicians, Diaspora organizations and suspicious bleeding hearts, in the West, have been alleging enforced disappearances on a mass scale.

“For too long, the plight of the families of the disappeared has been used as a talking point and a prop for politicians and the international community, but no concrete measures have been taken,” said PEARL’s Executive Director Tasha Manoranjan. “The international community contributed to the destruction of Tamil lives and Tamil aspirations in 2009 — it is now time for the same international community to meet the demands of the families of the disappeared,” she said, in a statement issued in solidarity with the Tamil families of victims of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, from the 1980s and during the entirety of the country’s armed conflict. PEARL estimated the number of disappearances at 60,000-100,000, during this period.

PEARL, too, alleges genocide and demands accountability on the part of Sri Lanka. The group admits that it twice revised its five-year strategic plan after wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa won the 2019 presidential election. The original plan, put out in 2018, has been revised in Dec 2019 and April-July 2020. Perhaps, PEARL will have to revise its strategic plan further in the wake of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s party securing an unprecedented near two-thirds majority at the Aug 5, 2020 general election. PEARL anticipates rapid deterioration of the situation in the Northern and Eastern Provinces as a result of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory. PEARL has conveniently forgotten Tamils living there overwhelmingly voted for General Sarath Fonseka at the 2005 presidential election. The group’s concerns over Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory obviously seemed baseless against the backdrop of Tamils’ backing for war-winning Army commander Fonseka’s candidature at the 2005 presidential election.

PEARL will also have to take into consideration the major setback suffered by one-time LTTE mouthpiece, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), at the recent general election. Having championed hybrid war crimes court in terms of Geneva Resolution 30/1 ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’, co-sponsored by the yahapalana government, the TNA felt comfortable though the general election results proved otherwise. The TNA ended up with just 10 seats, its worst performance since winning 22 seats at the April 2004 general election with overt and covert help from the LTTE.

In addition to the TNA, two other political outfits, namely the Ahila Illankai Tamil Congress (AITC) and Tamil Makkal Theshiya Kutani (TMTK), led by Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and C.V. Wigneswaran, respectively, have emerged at the expense of the TNA grouping, led by veteran Sampanthan. It was more a war of attrition, fought by the two, against the established TNA that resulted in the major electoral reversal by the latter.

It would be pertinent to remind how lawmaker Ponnambalam, on Aug 21, 2020 reiterated genocide allegations during the debate on President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policy statement, delivered on the previous day. While declaring their resolve for self-determination, Ponnambalam challenged President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s mandate, and that of the SLPP, received in Nov 2019 and August 2020. Many an eyebrow was raised when Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, in respect of C.V. Wigneswaran’s provocative speech, at the inauguration of the parliament, declared that lawmakers were free to say whatever they wanted to.

The writer felt the need to examine the contentious issue of missing persons, against the backdrop of PEARL’s latest statement, headlined “PEARL stands with Victims’ Families in Sri Lanka on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances”, with the strapline ‘Since the end of the war in 2009, thousands of Tamils have not been heard from, after surrendering to the government’

PEARL has estimated the number of disappearances at 60,000-100,000 during the conflict and after. If the number of disappearances has been estimated as much as 100,000, wouldn’t it be necessary to examine the number of killed? Did some of those, who had been listed among the disappeared were actually killed in the fighting, or perished after being caught in the crossfire. Before examining the missing persons issue, let me remind the reader what yahapalana Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said of those categorized as disappeared.

 

Ranil sets the record straight

The 2015 presidential election brought an end to war-winning President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rule. The Rajapaksa administration was repeatedly accused of running secret detention facilities, both in the Northern and Eastern provinces. A section of the Western powers, too, subscribed to these unsubstantiated allegations. In spite of the change of the government, in 2015, accusations persisted. In the run-up to the 2015 Geneva sessions, Sri Lanka was accused of still operating secret detention facilities.

In 2015, Sri Lanka agreed to set up (1) a judicial mechanism with a Special Counsel to investigate allegations of violations and abuses of human rights and violations of international human rights law (11) Commission truth, justice, reconciliation and non-recurrence (111) An Office on missing and (1V) An office for reparations.

In the run-up to the Geneva sessions, Premier Wickremesinghe chose to set the record straight, at a ceremony at Rukmale Sri Dharmaloka Vijayaloka Maha Viharaya, on March 01, 2015, to felicitate the newly appointed Maha Nayaka Thera Ven. Ittapane Dharmalankara. Among those present was Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo. Premier Wickremesinghe declared that as all those who had been taken into custody, during the war and the post-conflict period, were being held in legally run facilities, all detainees/prisoners could be accounted for. The UNP leader didn’t mince his words when he emphasized that those missing, but not listed among those in government custody, had either perished during the conflict or were living overseas ‘(Prime Minister denies existence of secret detention camps’. with strap line ‘Those not among prison population either perished during the war or living overseas, The Island March 04, 2015.’)

A couple of days later, Premier Wickremesinghe challenged the much-touted UN claim of over 40,000 civilians killed on the Vanni east front, in 2009. Wickremesinghe also stressed the urgent need to verify the UN claims, as well as various other accusations. Unfortunately, Wickremesinghe’s did nothing. Wickremesinghe handling of the post-war accountability issue, too, contributed to the humiliating defeat his party suffered at the recently concluded general election. Over seven decades old, the UNP ended up without an elected MP. Nearly a month after the general election, the UNP is yet to reach consensus on its solitary National List slot.

The UNP leader Wickremesinghe set the record straight in an exclusive interview with Indian Thanthi TV in which he insisted that figures, quoted by the UN or other organizations, couldn’t be accepted without being verified. The March 6, 2015, interview couldn’t have been conducted at a better time, though Wickremesinghe did nothing subsequently to examine the Vanni death toll. Instead, Wickremesinghe gave the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera the go ahead to co-sponsor the accountability resolution, in Geneva, on Oct 01, 2015. The rest is history.

When the interviewer, S.A. Hariharan, pointed out that the Tamil Diaspora had estimated the number of civilian deaths closer to 100,000, Wickremesinghe asserted that it wouldn’t even come up to 40,000. Wickremesinghe pointed out that, in addition to the PoE (Panel of Experts) report, there had been other official reports that dealt with accountability issues. The Premier emphasized the pivotal importance of verifying such accusations to establish the number of civilian deaths. The Premier said that some official reports placed the number of civilian deaths at 5,000. The UNP leader never called for the verification of the UN report until he was kicked out of parliament.

In spite of underlining the importance of verifying accusations, Wickremesinghe didn’t take any follow-up action. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government conveniently refrained from using heavy ammunition in our rightful defence, provided by Lord Naseby, in Oct 2017, to counter the PoE report. The incumbent government, too, is yet to formulate a cohesive strategy to use Lord Naseby’s disclosure.

 

PEARL owes an explanation

During the conflict, thousands of Sri Lankan Tamils fled the country. The war here gave them an opportunity to secure political asylum in Europe, the US, Australia and the Scandinavian region. The Tamil Diaspora provided a substantial amount of funding, required by the LTTE to continue its conventional military campaign. The LTTE, in turn, controlled the Diaspora groups. The LTTE maintained strict surveillance over them. The Diaspora groups lacked courage at least to request the LTTE not to use their own helpless people as human shields in 2009. Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what PEARL did during the last phase of the war in Sri Lanka? Did PEARL intervene on behalf of the Vanni Tamils after the LTTE abandoned Kilinochchi, in January 2009? Did PEARL request the LTTE, at least privately, to let go of those who were being held as human shields on the Vanni east front at the behest of a megalomaniac?

PEARL’s Executive Director, Tasha Manoranjan, and a member of its board of directors, having alleged in their latest media release that the international community contributed to the destruction of Tamil lives and Tamil aspirations in 2009, demanded the same international community should meet the demands of the disappeared. As a Diaspora group seeking to influence Western policy, through legal and political advocacy and direct research and reporting, PEARL should know how Western powers prolonged the conflict. In fact, the LTTE wouldn’t have survived nearly three decades without Western support, if not overt, but definitely covert. Western powers allowed the funding required to procure arms, ammunition and equipment needed to wage war though some countries proscribed the group. Neither did they unmask the international Tiger terrorist network, which was also resorting to drug running, extortion, etc., to fund the war here. However, the US facilitated the destruction of the floating arsenals in secret naval operations undertaken by the SLN. This was at the onset of the Vanni offensive.

If PEARL is genuinely interested in knowing what really happened to those who had been reported missing, it would seek the assistance of Western powers, as well as India. A substantial number of those who had been categorized as missing is today living in various countries, in many cases under assumed names. If not for them, there wouldn’t have been so many Diaspora organizations still raising funds on behalf of their people living in the Northern and Eastern Province.

PEARL tweeted on August 14, 2020: “Today marks 14 years since the #SLAF dropped 16 bombs over the #Sencholai children’s home, killing at least 51 #Tamil schoolgirls and 4 teachers. We remember them, acknowledge the gendered dimension of genocide, and continue to call for justice and accountability.”

Tasha Manoranjan, who had been in the Vanni at the onset of the Eelam War IV, tweeted on the following day; “I visited Sencholai hours after the bombing. The wailing of the mothers and families of these slaughtered schoolgirls haunt me to this day.”

Now that Tasha Manoranjan had claimed that she was hours away from Sencholai at the time of the SLAF attack on August 14, 2006, how could she become the founder of PEARL, established in 2005.

Manoranjan certainly owed an explanation.

Let me produce the description of the PEARL official on its official website: “Tasha Manoranjan is the founder and director of People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL). She spent over a year documenting human rights violations committed against Tamil civilians in northern Sri Lanka, and remains committed to pursuing accountability for violations of international law. Tasha was previously an associate in Sidley Austin LLP’s Litigation Practice. Tasha received her B.A., magna-cum-laude, in Justice and Peace Studies from Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. Tasha earned her law degree at Yale Law School, where she served as the Features Editor and Book Reviewer for the Yale Journal of International Law, Chair of the South Asian Law Students Association and Community Enrichment Chair of the Women of Color Collective. While at Yale, Tasha wrote a paper entitled “Beaten but not Broken: Tamil Women in Sri Lanka”, which was subsequently published in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs.”

According to the website, Manoranjan works as a Senior Policy Advisor at the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Is she a Canadian passport holder?

From Vanni to the US

How could Manoranjan, who had been in LTTE held Vanni, on August 14, 2006, ended up in the US? Or had she been a member of the PEARL at the time she entered the Vanni? In other words, what was her status at the time she entered Vanni? Did she ever serve the LTTE? When did she leave the Vanni? And, most importantly, how did she leave the country? Depending on the duration of Manoranjan’s stay in the Vanni, she can surely shed light on the circumstances leading to the entire Vanni population being herded into accompanying the retreating LTTE fighting units. What was Manoranjan’s status in the Vanni? Had she been a displaced person? Did anyone of her family serve the LTTE or any other terrorist group? In Manoranjan’s brief description there is no reference to her being in the Vanni during the conflict.

PEARL board of directors includes Dr. Vino Kanapathipillai, Gajan Raj and Sadena Thevarajah. In addition to the PEARL board of directors, its team comprised Tasha Manoranjan (Executive Director), Mario Arulthas (Strategic Advisor / Sr. Advocacy Officer, US), Anji Manivannan (Legal Director), Vivetha Thambinathan (Research Director), Avi Selvarajah (Sr. Legal Officer), Sivakami Rajamanoharan (Sr. Advocacy Officer, UK), Sagi Thilipkumar (Sr. Advocacy Officer, CH), Archana Ravichandradeva (Sr. Advocacy Officer, CA), Abarna Selvarajah (Advocacy Officer, CA), Thevya Balendran (Advocacy Officer, CA), Ernest Rajakone (Advocacy Officer, US), Luxsiga Ambigaibagan (Research Associate / Education Coordinator), Brannavy Jeyasundaram (Operations Officer) and Athavarn Srikantharajah (Interim Project Manager).

In addition to Manoranjan, did other members of the PEARL board of directors, as well as the PEARL team, live in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, during the conflict? Had their parents been refugees during the conflict? Had their parents served the LTTE, or any other terrorist organization? As PEARL had secured the services of a capable team, it can probe how 60,000-100,000 people disappeared during the conflict. Let me remind multiple causes for disappearances/ cases where bodies were not found.

* Disappearances resulted from fighting among /between Indian trained terrorist groups.

* Abductions of civilians carried out by Tamil terrorist groups

* Disappearances during Eelam War 1 (1983-July 1987) blamed on Sri Lankan military and police.

* Disappearances blamed on the Indian military during its deployment here (July 1987-March 1990).

PEARL should take into consideration the level of fighting between the Indian military and the LTTE as the former lost well over 1,300 officers and men and over 2,000 wounded.

* Those who disappeared /killed during weapons training in India

* Disappearances/deaths due to capsizing of boats taking youth to training facilities in India or while returning from India

* Those LTTE cadres killed by Indian security forces and police after the assassination of Congress leader Rajiv Gandhi on May 21, 1991 at Sriperumbudur, India.

* PLOTE cadres killed/disappeared during an abortive sea borne raid on the Maldives in early Nov 1988 and as a result of Indian military operations.

* Disappearances blamed on the Sri Lankan military during Eelam War II (June 1990 to 1994), Eelam War III ((April 1995 to Dec 2001) and Eelam War IV (Aug 2006 to May 2009)

* Those who perished while trying to reach Australia in boats.

* Clandestine movement of Sri Lankans facilitated by foreign missions in Colombo during the conflict and after.

* Issuance of new foreign passports to Sri Lankans under different names. One of the most glaring examples is Australia issuing a new passport to leader of the breakaway JVP faction Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) Kumar Gunaratnam bearing Noel Mudalige, a Sinhala Buddhist. Many countries continue to issue passports under different names, even to former members of terrorist groups.

*Those taken refuge in India and other countries to avoid forced conscription by the LTTE.

* Bodies disposed of by Sri Lankan and Indian militaries due to their failure to establish identities of the dead. Those killed during clandestine operations in the South. And finally,

* Political asylum in industrial countries for bogus refugees on the false grounds of persecution in Sri Lanka?

Let me end this piece with a story of an ex-LTTE cadre who ended up being an internationally renowned actor. Anthonythasan Jesuthasan, the lead actor of French film ‘Dheepan’ which won the top Palme d’Or prize for director Jacques Audiard at the 68th Cannes International Film Festival in 2015 had been an ex-LTTE cadre who fled the country in early 90s. Jesuthasan is on record as having said that he wanted to reach the UK but had to settle for France. Perhaps, members of the PEARL board of directors/team should watch ‘Dheepan’ if they hadn’t already done so.

Those who had been killed in combat though their bodies were not recovered and those who fled Sri Lanka for various reasons and are leading comfortable lives overseas while Sri Lanka is under pressure to account for the dead and the missing. The vast majority are those who had secured political asylum, on bogus grounds, taking advantage of hostility of some countries towards Sri Lanka.

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Midweek Review

The Uphill Trudge

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By Lynn Ockersz

You are on a painful trudge,

Collecting bric-a-brac,

To make your hearth’s flames rise,

But for the ‘nation-builders’ on high,

Eyeing the GDP growth track,

You count for nought,

But the warmth in your run-down hut,

Kindles joyousness all around,

In the margins of the land,

While walled citadels,

In the shimmery metropole,

Take the sun out of simple lives.

 

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Midweek Review

Research for people’s benefit

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Culture shift

By Prof Athula Sumathipala and Dr Buddhika Fernando

Peaceful elections, without posters, cut-outs or violence, came and went without too much of a fuss, unlike in the past. The new cabinet and state ministers have now been sworn in and the parliament is in session. Is it going to be ‘business as usual’ in the research community anymore? We think not.

In the very first hour after assuming duties in November 2019, His Excellency the President ordered the display of the state emblem in government offices, instead of personal photographs, earning the respect of even those who did not vote for him. Through that simple act, he displayed how norms can be challenged through setting an example at a personal level. The response to such change was reflected in the election that followed: floating votes ensured the two-thirds mandate the President requested, paving the way for a new political culture.

People sent a powerful message via a two-thirds mandate not only to politicians but also to government officials, and importantly, to intellectuals, academics and scientists – they want to see a culture shift in all these arenas. ‘Vistas of prosperity and splendour’ has now been transformed from a presidential candidate’s election manifesto into state policy and therefore any planned activities including research should be aligned with it for policy impact. For researchers, it is no longer merely ‘publish or perish’, it is not business as usual and the entire research ecosphere needs to see a culture shift towards research for people’s benefit.

Research and Development, Innovation and Technology Transfer

The post-industrial knowledge economy of today clearly displays the close correlation among economic growth, innovation and indigenous research capacity. University-based research has been the most effective driver of such economically-relevant innovation. Furthermore, there is a clear association between a country’s health and research and development (R&D) investment.

As a result, leveraging the public investment in universities to stimulate innovative R&D is now a critical need for a country to remain competitive in the global arena. Most high-ranking universities in the world are no longer just teaching universities but have transformed into to research universities. In the same vein, Sri Lanka needs a paradigm shift to make research and innovation core components of tertiary education. Research and innovation need to be incorporated not only into postgraduate education, but also into undergraduate education in order to produce individuals with both a creative vision for innovation as well as the sufficient intellectual breadth and depth to realise that vision.

What is a strategy?

We believe strategy is about capturing opportunities arising in a dynamic world, as scientific opportunities cannot always be foreseen. The flexibility to respond to novel ideas with solid potential is therefore crucial for success. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic has created an unprecedented window of opportunity for research in as-yet fully unexplored subject matters. Sri Lanka requires innovative R&D contributions to re-stabilise the economy, to ensure national security and for sustainable development in strategically important areas.

Culture shift – what does it entail?

Any culture shift demands change in the triad of thinking, feelings and behaviours. According to cognitive theory, thoughts are central to any feelings or behaviour. The way people think determine how they feel and behave. Therefore, ‘attitudes’ which are a significant component of thinking, need to change for any modification in thinking or behaviour to happen.

What is success?

At the end of the day what we all want, either as individuals or as a society is ‘success’; but how do you define success?

The definition of ‘success’ is determined by one’s attitude towards ‘success’. It could mean personal success or material gains for one’s own benefit or it could mean the public good arising from one’s efforts. The attitude towards success is the driving force for the vision, strategy and focus and a wrong attitude can lead to a ‘success’, which could even be destructive. The classic example for such a harmful attitude and focus is the LTTE separatist war, the war that brought destruction to every one irrespective of the language spoken. Similarly, where knowledge is power, that too can lead to a destructive end.

Success in research

For a researcher, the institution he is affiliated to may have a proud history, it may be a place of research excellence with a reputation for cutting edge research, an institution supporting future research leaders. However, what does it mean to an ordinary citizen? What could such an institution offer them? This is the standard ‘so what’ question, as it is applicable to the ordinary citizen.

For whose benefit is research carried out? It is high time to reflect on this question.

An academic or research institution can be a place that can offer a degree, a job, a better life, a promotion, a good marriage, a patent, the opportunity to see the world through academic travel, publications, a thesis to gather dust in a library. However, we need to question ourselves regarding the purpose of research – aiming for public good and benefit beyond personal gain.

Serious reflection on achieving something beyond personal gain is an urgent need; that is what the culture shift – research for people’s benefit demands. A paradigm shift is necessary in the way we look at the benefits and the impact of our research. In the simplest terms, impact means making a difference to people’s lives.

Why is such a change necessary? We are products of free public education, we use public funds for research, and even public knowledge; knowledge is also on most occasions something others have left behind and we are merely enhancing such past knowledge through our current research. We therefore have a moral and ethical obligation to think beyond personal gain. It is not only politicians who should be transparent and accountable. We academics too are answerable to the public. This is a salient feature not usually recognised by academics, and a part of the necessary culture shift.

In the journey towards such a ‘culture shift’, the ethos and attitudes are crucial. Bad attitude is like a flat tire, you cannot go anywhere without changing it. We also need to remember that change is generally resisted and challenging the ‘norm’ may be faced with significant animosity, especially from ego centric, self-centred, insecure personalities and power brokers.

Achieving an attitude change starts from within oneself. Such an internal change will ignite the change externally. It’s a synergistic process. That is why we started this article by noting the President’s attitude of not having his photograph at state institutions. It was a small step which had an impact and we saw a leap that will have an incremental journey. Who would have believed that an election could be run without posters at every wall and culvert? That is where agents of change are needed, as a prerequisite for a culture shift.

Agents of change for this culture shift to research for people’s benefit, should be scientists and researchers themselves. We need far sighted future research leaders to be role models, genuine and committed research leaders. Such leadership attributes will count much more than academic brilliance.

We need to realise that action without a vision is drudgery and vision without action is only dreaming. Never dream, because dreams are easily forgotten, have targets instead. A vision coupled with action can change the world.

 

 

We should remember that any change, especially a culture shift towards research for people’s benefit needs good teams and the ethos to ignite transferable and sustainable changes. In such teams we need visionaries, theoreticians, but also pragmatists and activists. All these attributes will be rare in one person, and that is why we need teams. A true leader in a team is different from a manager or a boss. Leaders manage the future and managers manage the day to day ‘mess’. However, a ‘boss’ is also different to a manager. A true leader is a coach, a mentor, relies on goodwill, generates enthusiasm among the team members, say ‘we’, develops people, gives credit to others and shares benefits while accepting the blame and defeat. They bind team members together. However a ‘Boss’, demands and relies on authority only, says I, uses people, takes credit for success but blames others for failures, and thinks only about ‘ my way’. Such ego centric and self-centred attributes could be the worst enemy within any professional and will hinder team work and progress. Therefore, self-reflection becomes an essential component of the culture shift we discuss.

The art of science is very different from science. Most scientists are generally good at science, but lack the art of science – the art of delivering scientific benefits by communicating the research findings to policy planners and converting the research findings into products and services. Ironically this conceptual framework is mostly non-existent in our part of the world.

That is why there is plenty of research describing the problem (descriptive research) but no intervention research to rectify the problem. For example, there is extensive descriptive research on CKDU (Chronic Kidney Disease of unknown origin) but people continue to suffer from kidney failure. Similarly, although there is a wide body of research on the human – elephant conflict, people continue to die from elephant attacks.

 

A culture shift towards research for people’s benefit is therefore critical. We need to next consider the process of achieving such a shift.

The new government has a State Ministry of Skills Development, Vocational Education, Research and Innovation which is led by a dynamic and able professional with the suitable background. However, is it only the duty of the Minister, the Ministry officials and the scientist and the far-sighted research leaders.

The public has an equal responsibility as they should not be expected to be passive recipients of the benefits. The criticism that the general public does not have any insight into the word research is a serious misperception that needs to change if one expects a tangible culture shift.

Patient and public involvement and engagement (PPIE) or community engagement in medical research is firmly established in the West. It is now extending as a fundamental element of health research in low and middle income countries (LMIC). It places public contributors at the centre of research and its outcomes, and helps ensure that its scope, processes, and evaluation are more relevant, appropriate and beneficial to the end users of research. There is overwhelming research evidence that the public frequently prioritise themes and topics for research that are different to those of academics and health professionals. Research evidence also demonstrates that the quality and appropriateness of research is enhanced and the likelihood of successful recruitment to studies increased, and implementation of the findings is improved when the public are involved and engaged in research.

It is a process of active partnership between researchers, professionals, and members of the public in prioritising, designing and delivering research. It is defined as “research being carried out ‘with’ or ‘by’ members of the public rather than ‘to’, ‘about’ or ‘for’ them”. This change is absolutely essential if one is serious about making this culture shift towards research for people’s benefit.

We have brilliant researchers who are world-leading in terms of the conventional indicators of ‘success’ and from an academic point of view. This is however fragmented and patchy. An overarching research culture is the necessity of the day, but even that will not deliver effective results if it is ‘business as usual’.

Finally, a culture shift also demands working within truly respectful and mutually beneficial partnerships rather than in separate silos. In such an ethos, plagiarism (taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own) should be thoroughly condemned as it is a moral violation of research ethics. Patents will never be the sole protection against plagiarism. The silent good majority researchers should also be educated and empowered to strictly adhere to broader research ethics principles. Such a collective effort with public engagement and involvement will pave the way for the culture shift towards research for people’s benefit which is the slogan of only a minority right now. But it can be made ‘infectious’.

We therefore once again reiterate that we need a culture shift towards research for people’s benefit.

Let’s work collectively not just to make Sri Lanka the granary of Asia, but also the intelligence warehouse/hub of Asia.

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Midweek Review

The purpose of education and educational reforms

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By Kirthi Tennakone

Education offers two categories of benefits to people — an avenue for acquiring necessary skills for occupation to earn material wealth and an intellectual enlightenment. These two virtues of education are interlinked, inseparable and equally important. Yet, most individuals and societies blindly overemphasise the former hoping to reap quick economic returns. Educational reforms planned to be introduced in Sri Lanka and generally elsewhere in the developing world seems to prioritise the first category of benefits, believing the second leads to unemployment and poverty. Nevertheless, the quality that paves way towards rational thinking, innovation and empathetic social cooperation is the second intension. In the long run its neglect curtails the material advancement as well.

The technological weakness in developing nations and misbeliefs detrimental to social progress prevalent in deprived as well as affluent regions of the world originate largely from deficiency in intellectual aspects of education. The both the components of education, occupational and intellectual are absolutely essential – cutting down the second to accommodate the first would be counterproductive and disastrous.

What is education?

The term ‘education’ evades precise definition. If definable there would be clear-cut methods of achieving it and assessing the level of competence. Exams, degrees and skills mastered are not real measures of education. The meaning of education goes beyond the common dictionary definition – gaining knowledge and acquisition of skills.

The quotes of persons of eminence reflects the essence and purpose of education. Socrates argued education amounts to drawing out the already existing potential of students. Rabindranath Tagore said the widest road leading to solution of all our problems is education. Nelson Mandela valued his education, declaring education as the most peaceful weapon which can change the world. According to a shloka in ‘Bhagavad Gita’, intelligence enables perceiving the essential and education instill this capacity. Albert Einstein was controversial in his remarks about education, saying “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learnt in school” and “The only thing that interfere with my learning is my education”. Obviously he was commenting about pitfalls of formal education-closing open-mindedness and fixing tradition irrevocably.

Education excessively biased towards vocational needs, lessening the intellectual aspect, tends to fix traditional orthodoxy against open mindedness in understanding issues and resolving problems. Contrarily all creative works in art, literature, science and technical innovations are products of out-of-the box-thinking. An open mind bends more flexibly towards unconventionality, reason, justice and ethical responsibility.

There are social influences that hinder open-mindedness, creativity, innovations, rationality and ideals of fair play. Educational reforms and social development strategies should take these factors into consideration.

 

Introduction and education

Indoctrination is imposition of beliefs and ideas without providing credible supportive evidence for their validity. Unlike in education, indoctrination discourages questioning and critical analysis. Often doctrines are justified as tradition or faith or something enunciated in scripture or enforcement by an ideology. In earliest days, education and indoctrination were largely indistinguishable. The literate men of antiquity adhered to established doctrines, subjecting them to repetitive discussion and interpretation.

In recent times authoritarian regimes had introduced political indoctrination revising textbooks and school curricula. Communist politics thereby indoctrinated masses promoting vocational education tinted with Marxist ideology.

Greeks were first to deviate from indoctrination and initiate questioning on basis of rational argument. According to recorded history, Thales of Mellitus (626-545 BCE) was the first philosopher who sought answers to natural phenomena by reasoning and evidence. The ideas of Thales were greatly expounded by Aristotle. However, his teachings were continued for nearly 2000 years unquestioned. Without resorting to experiment Aristotle said, if two unequal weights are dropped from a height, the heavier one hits ground first. Galileo, dropping two weights from the Leaning Tower of Pisa, proved Aristotle is wrong – both weights hit ground at the same time.

Breaking away from indoctrination had been an arduous task. The rational conclusions of the wise were opposed – sometimes threatened with imprisonment or death. Socrates died in Athens for free speech and disbelieving gods. The Italian astronomer and mathematician Giordano Bruno (1548-1600 CE) who hypothesized that stars are objects similar to the sun surrounded by planets was declared an impenitent by the Roman Catholic Church and punished by burning alive. Prosecutions for blasphemy continues to date.

The diffusion of the Greek philosophy of seeking rational explanations was the main cause of European scientific and technological advancement and realization of democratic values. The resistance to liberation from indoctrination is greater in the East – perhaps accounting for the comparative weakness. Indoctrination in different forms continue to exist everywhere to a greater or lesser extent. Freeing of society of such brain washings will vitalize human potential, promote innovations and help to eliminate dangerous fundamentalism and ideologies contrasting democracy.

Education in its true spirit begins in early childhood. Parental care and interaction with the environment induce inquisitiveness. Little later parents and elders introduce indoctrination voluntarily or involuntarily. If the child does something considered inappropriate, instead of explaining why what he or she did is bad, an elder would say such acts carry people to hell. They are also told that deeds of charity will reward them similarly in future – inculcating a selfish motive rather than a humanitarian concern.

Exposure to irrational beliefs happens in schools, public discussions and in casual conversation. An environment of such influences is not conducive to creativity, innovation and infusing truly ethical values to a society.

An indoctrinated mind fails to utilize knowledge he or she has gained in real situations, but inadvertently resort to the customary tradition. A teacher after discussing heat loss mechanisms in the class room returns home and boil potatoes in an open pan. An engineer ignores bad weather in laying the foundation for his house in favor of a so-called auspicious time. The teacher and the engineer uses scientific knowledge in their professions, but in domestic affairs it is the tradition or occultism! These two hypothetical examples point to a social psychosis adversely affecting progress. Recently, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien said, “we cannot afford to have people who are fearful and distrust science, or who are held captive by groundless anti-scientific beliefs.

 

Education to nuture creativity and innovation

Creativity is conceiving an entirely new concept often preceded by imagination. Innovation means implementation of a new idea. Education is a prerequisite for reaping of outputs from above qualities, but the process of education can either boost or kill them.

Children are born creative and innovative. Initially they interact with parents and animate or inanimate objects displaying the ability to create and innovate – dismantling a toy is an act of curiosity. They need to be persuaded to imagine, telling stories, inspiring words and allowed to play. Instructing the kid how to assemble the toy so that he or she could qualify as a robotic engineer is a mistake.

Today, most parents burden their children with instructions to prepare for a job of their choice which they aspire their sons and daughters to assume decades later – the preference is a profession that allows earning the most money in the shortest time. Private tutors avoid teaching fundamentals and historical development of a subject, coaching students to answer questions without uttering words of inspiration – as their aim is to enable students to pass exams with minimum intellectual effort in the shortest time. The above attitudes almost completely destroy the creative talent, producing persons without capacity to move beyond the routine.

 

Uninspiring and un-pedagogical ways of introducing ideas are also prevalent in schools and universities. In teaching mechanics, Newton’s laws are introduced as if they have come from a disciple in the heavens. These laws are clever abstractions by a mortal – the only validity being the agreement of the derivations from laws with observation. Most teachers fail to emphasize this point. The former approach scares students to attempt things of the caliber of Newton. Whereas the latter motivates students to realize that the subject falls within their reach.

 

Education reforms: Counterproductive approaches

Free education in Sri Lanka is a success – exemplary to the region. The benefits of the national education effort have gone beyond elimination of illiteracy. It has delivered a work force that can do all routine things and ones that require special skills. Citizens are well informed and accommodated in fair living standards cost effectively. Achievements in the health sector owes much to education. People following recommended safeguards against COVID is prime example. Despite all the above positives, the Sri Lankan education system is blamed for not rendering innovations to drive the economy. A proposed remedy has been to revise curricula to make them more relevant. A prevalent erroneous consensus floating around classifies art, literature, humanities and fundamental science as useless and advocate replacing them with vocationally oriented technical themes and business studies. In fact former are the disciplines that motivates students to imagine, think, fathom ideas and learn the art of writing, all students need to be exposed to these themes of learning at least in the school and preferably at the university and vocational training institutions.

The core areas of fundamental science are physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. The purpose of the faculties of science in universities should be to teach basics of these subjects rigorously and comprehensively. Diluting the curricula with so-called relevant applied themes would be counterproductive, not conducive to nurturing persons of outstanding creative talent.

In countries all over the world universities and few research institutions are mandated to engage in fundamentals studies, generally funded by the government, as such endeavors are an absolute necessity to foster intellectual advancement of the society. Furthermore all major innovation have resulted from such research. Again original findings in fundamental science greatly escalate the scientific standing of a nation. If these institutions indulge heavily in less challenging applied research themes, sometimes trivialities on the pretext of relevance, the consequence of the neglect of fundamental component will be a second class status for science technology. Countries that have attained major economic advances in recent times via technological innovations, have also invested in education and research in basic science and related activities to promote creativity.

The purpose of education is broad and diverse, a preparation for facing untold circumstances and exploring new avenues. One must keep in mind that narrow and rigid education reforms may turn out to be counterproductive. It is essential to keep a balance between disciplines, those expected to deliver short-term economic returns and ones that stimulate the intellect.

Kirthi Tennakone Adjunct Professor at the National Institute of Fundamental Studies can be reached via ktenna@yahoo.co.uk

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