by Dr L M K Tillekeratne
Former Director of the RRI and UNIDO consultant in Rubber Processing
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent address to the nation made an emphatic reference to the establishment of a Plantation University by amalgamating all major crop research institutes, such as Tea Research Institute (TRI), the Rubber Research Institute (RRI), Coconut Research Institute (CRI), Sugarcane Research Institute (SRI). Of these four research institutes, two were established by British rulers over a century ago. The core mandate of the research institutes was to develop the respective agricultural crops, as the plantation crops generated the highest amount of foreign exchange for almost four decades.
With the advent of the free market economy in late 1970s, though the remittances from migrant workers and revenue from the garment industry surpassed the foreign exchange earnings of the plantation sector, the plantation industry continues to play a dominant role in terms of foreign exchange and employment.
Hence, the President’s thinking that the creation of a national university exclusive for the plantation sector is a far-reaching vision that could transform the plantation sector by increasing land productivity and by developing the value-added products manufacture particularly in the case of rubber that the country desperately needed at this juncture. In this context, that the article written by J. A. A. S. Ranasinghe, Productivity Specialist and Management Consultant in a leading English newspaper was a comprehensive analysis of the justification of the creation of a national university for the plantation sector. Such an incisive analysis should have come from a scientist initially.
Dearth of Scientists in the Research Institutes
I whole-heartedly agree with Mr. Ranasinghe on his assertion that research institutes are functioning today in isolation without trained staff to carry out research projects. As he has very correctly identified the dearth of scientists of all the research institutes has hampered the research programmes, and that in turn has led to the deterioration of the productivity of all the sectors during the last two decades. Thus, bringing all the scientists and resources under one umbrella is the need of the hour and that could be accomplished relatively at a short time by establishing an exclusive university for the plantation sector.
The President’s far-reaching vision will be a turning point in producing scientists to run the plantation industry. At a time when most of the other countries in Asia and Africa are increasing their productivity levels of the plantation crops, it is unfortunate that Sri Lanka is far behind in terms of research during last two decades, though its Tea and Rubber research institutes are internationally known.
Downfall of the Rubber Industry
It is sad that in Sri Lanka, the first country in the world to have a rubber plantation established outside Brazil and distributed planting material to other countries mainly in Asia to grow rubber, rubber production has plummeted significantly for the last 25 years. The countries that learnt rubber planting technology from the scientists of Rubber Research Institute of Sri Lanka, such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam, have already been able to overtake us both in terms of production and land productivity over the past two decades pushing Sri Lanka down to the 12th place as a NR producer at present. I strongly believe that the situation regarding tea is either the same or even worse.
As Ranasinghe has correctly pointed out in his article, our productivity has fallen to 50% of what we produced a decade ago while countries like Myanmar and Cambodia have been able to double their annual production during this period.
Dearth of Plantation Technologists
It is true that we have agricultural universities producing agriculture graduates. But they do not specifically focus on crops like Tea and Rubber, and cannot undertake the task of increasing productivity by means of applying new technology introduced regularly to overcome issues related to agronomy and tapping. Fresh Agriculture and Science graduates who joined the plantation sector lack the skills and knowledge the plantation industry demands and this mismatch has resulted in a shortage of plantation technologists with required competency levels.
Distinctive Advantages of Plantation University
The agricultural graduates of Sri Lankan universities, however, would be in a very authoritative position in that they can cover a wide variety of other crops better than the graduates getting their agricultural degrees overseas. Agriculture and science graduates should necessarily possess the required field exposure and experience to find gainful employment in plantation sector. Hence, fresh graduates who join the plantation sector will have to work for at least 10 years to be an expert who can identify problems and sort them out on them individually. The industry can ill-afford to wait for such a long period to produce talented plantation expert or qualified scientists, given the dearth of scientists in the country. As Ranasinghe has correctly mentioned, there is a severe shortage of scientists virtually in all departments of research institutes to tackle problems in the industry, which will badly affect the research institutes, if the present system is allowed to continue. More than 50% of the raw rubber and latex end products industry is imported at competitive prices. The coconut production is sufficient for the local consumption and there is no surplus for export in the form of oil or DC.
Exodus of Research Scientists to join Universities
Most of the scientists trained for special mandates in the research institutes have already joined the national universities purely due to better salaries and perks. However, according to the situation existed in early 1960s, those who joined research institutes for developing the agriculture sector were paid higher salaries than those who joined universities, considering their contribution to the development of the economy and the difficult conditions under which they work in remote areas.
Hence, the science graduates’ first choice was research institutions. Today, it is the other way around, and only those who cannot find employment in universities and with low merits join research institutes to get post graduate training utilising the limited number of foreign training scholarships offered to research institutes and get qualified to join universities. Empirical studies have shown that trained researchers with special skills to tackle problems in the plantations have become misfits as academics.
Ad hoc recruitment criteria
The situation that existed prior to the late 1980s was totally different even with regard to recruitment criteria. It is due to the shortage of graduates produced by local universities due to closure of the university education for almost three years, due to the insurrection. There was a severe shortage of special degree holders and hence a decision was taken by the government to allow general degree holders in places where previously only special degree graduates with a class were recruited as research assistants in research institutes. Since then the quality of research produced by the research institutes has suffered.
The distinctive benefit in the President’s proposal is that in the future we might be able to produce graduates capable of tackling problems in the plantation sector with their adequate field exposure and hands on experience during their undergraduate studies.
In addition, there will be a good opportunity for institutions like TRI and RRI with international reputation to attract foreign students for training in Sri lanka thereby earning additional revenue to the country as the UK, India and Malaysia do even without having such recognition. If the proposed national plantation university is properly run, it will be quite possible for them to sustain adequate revenue from foreign students without depending purely on annual Treasury grant. Even now trainees from countries like Myanmar, China, Cambodia, Ethiopia and even from Malaysia have got their research assistants trained at these two crop institutes under international grants.
Contribution to the national economy by way of enhanced production
On a hypothetical basis, if the production of rubber in the country is increased to 135,000 Mt, which was the amount produced years ago, purely by increasing the land productivity, without even increasing the planted area, the country can reap maximum benefits from the fast-increasing rubber prices in the world market. Rubber was selling at around Rs 100 to 150 per kg during the last half a decade. Surprisingly, it has gone up to almost Rs 450 per kg now and the situation is expected to increase further with time to come owing to the demand for NR on account of the Covid-19 pandemic.
If the production is increased to 135,000 Mt, additional revenue the country can enjoy would be (Rs 450 x 50000 x1000) Rs 22.5 billion annually.
We should not lose sight of the fact that due to the shortfall in the supply of rubber, a considerable amount of NR and latex is imported by our rubber products manufacturers for value added products manufacture at a cost of over Rs 30 billion.
If this extra production is used to produce goods such as surgical/examination gloves for which the demand is fast increasing due to Covid-19 spread, the additional revenue country can gain is over 200%. It will be possible to create more employment opportunities as well.
Arduous task for the new Minister
The task before Economic Development Minister is to consider how best to improve the economy in bad state. This objective can be achieved in less than a year by getting the neglected rubber farms into tapping and by using techniques like lightly stimulated low frequency tapping and by utilising proven new techniques like rain guards to minimise crop losses due to rain. The additional cost involvement for these developments is insignificant and the time taken is less than a year.
New planting and replanting are two other ways of increasing the crop; they are costly and take nearly a decade to give a reasonable crop increase. Further, there is no guarantee that the improved rubber prices will remain high until then. However, replanting, and new planting should be continued according to the RDD targets.
Another factor that caused a drop in the rubber production was the removal of the extension services from the research wing and its attachment to the subsidiary function of the Rubber Development Department owing to an illogical decision taken by the then government almost 25 years ago. Today, the RDD is functioning in isolation ignoring the recommendations of the RRI. This has been the main cause for the drop in productivity of rubber farms in Sri Lanka. For example, the population of low yielding clones like PB 86 are still distributed and the clone population in the country is an utter mess.
Undoubtedly, everyone looks forward to the establishment of the plantation university.
Seeing Red on Bread
By Lynn Ockersz
The ‘People’s Rep‘, suave and poker faced,
Said to citizens bent under multiple weights:
‘You‘ll have to do with two meals and not three,
Since times are lean, and we are all seeing red‘;
But such alerts, citizens know, are all over history writ,
With France and Russia of long ago standing out,
As cases where Bread stormed centre stage,
And brought to society topsy-turvy change,
Marking an end to privileges earned in unjust ways,
While sending out the message to those in charge,
That the patience of the hungry wears thin fast.
Puravara Visvavidyala (Pura Sarasavi)
‘Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assault of thoughts on the unthinking.’ – John Maynard Keynes
In the beginning, all universities were City Universities (puravara visvavidyala): Bologna, Montpellier, Paris, Oxford, Heidelberg, Upsala and Utrecht and that for two reasons: first, in medieval Europe, where universities began as universitas generale, the city was the only polity available. Countries as political entities and national governments, were at least 600 years into the future. Universities needed law and order to work, in quiet. And these cities were ports on the Mediterranean: Venice, Genova and in other places, on river banks: Bologna (connected to the Po with canals), Utrecht on the Rhine, Paris on the Seine, Oxford on the Thames (Isis), Harvard (and, much later) MIT on either bank of the Charles river. There was good reason for that. In medieval Europe and in 17th century Massachusetts, travel by water was the fastest. Students and teachers walked to schools, rode on horseback or rowed a boat. Scientists from Cambridge, after rowing on the Cam and the Muse, rode a horse to Gresham College to attend the Royal Society meetings. Trains, motor cars, steamships and airplanes were at least 700 years away in the future. Let us remember that did not prevent scholars from coming from afar either to learn or to teach. In each universitas generale, there had to be students from beyond its neighbourhood and the student body was divided into ‘nations’. In 13th century Oxford there were two: Australes (Southerners) and Borrealase ( Northeners). (Recall that well into the 17th century, education in Europe was in Latin). As for teachers, there were
Constantinus Africanus from Tunis who wrote on medicine, Avicenna from present Iran who taught medicine and peripatetic Bartholomeus Anglicus, who taught philosophy in many places, including Paris. Books written by Constantinus and Avicenna were taught in universities well into the 16th century. Universities were city organisations but they were places where students and teachers from all sorts of places learnt and taught. We will jump to modern city universities in a minute.
Before that, a quibble about the name: why puravara ? There are also maravara (thugs). Why not pura sarasavi? Pura has a good genealogy:
vana vana pathi turehi
pura pura pathin medurehi (gira sandesa)
(in forests, on king-of-the-forest treetops and in cities (pura), in city chief’s mansions).
Word of Kumaratunga Munidasa’s coinage
Sarasavi was a term coined by Kumaratunga Munidasa to signify a university and has much merit to commend it over visva vidyalaya. In non-European societies, universities are often identified by other names. In China, it is daxue (e.g.Bejing daxue); in Thailand it is maha vithyalai (Tammasat Maha vithyalai). Vishvavidyalaya has its origin here and in India. It arose, perhaps, from a misreading that university has something to do with the universe (vishvaya) of knowledge. It is understandable as the word traces its origins to the same Latin usage meaning ‘combined into one (uni+versus)’. However, the popes who issued Bulls to charter early 13th and 14th used ‘universitas vestra’ to address a group, which form was not limited to universitas generale. He would address a guild of goldsmiths with the same term. And a universitas generale was a group, sometimes, of students (Bologna) and sometimes, of masters (Paris). The usage survived and morphed into university in English and say universite in French and universidad in Spanish. The term has no connotation that the universe of knowledge is taught in a university. It was not true in medieval times (Bologna taught law, Salerno medicine and Paris theology and arts); it is not true now (Remember the adage that Harvard men do not know to count and of MIT men how to read.) In Hindu culture sarasvati or sarasavi has association with knowledge and has been so used widely in Sinhala writings. I cited earlier Sinhala use of pura to mean a city. Pura sarasavi reads dandy, doesn’t it?
President drawing inspiration
The President perhaps draws his inspiration for city universities from his knowledge of his adopted nation, the United States of America. In the US, education is a matter for States and not the Federation. There are state universities, the President’s own state has the magnificent California State University System extending from Berkeley, San Diego to Santa Cruz. I am more familiar with the east coast and New York state, in particular. The New York State University (SUNY) system extends from Buffalo in the north to Stony Brook in Long Island. In addition to SUNY, there are City universities, the best known being the New York City University (CUNY) with two celebrated colleges: Hunters in mid-Manhattan and Queens in Fresh Meadows. The City University is owned and operated by the City of New York, with taxpayers’ money and students’ fees. In addition to these city universities, there are Community Colleges, owned and operated by counties. The entire primary and secondary school system is owned and operated by locally elected Schools Boards with revenue from property taxes.
Pinnawala, where a City University is to be located, is no city but an elephantine village. It does not have the resources of many kinds to run a university. Pinnawala cannot raise tax revenue sufficient for the purpose. As it stands, there are no residential facilities for students and staff in the neighbourhood. In the 13th century, a university that was started by students in Florence (Firenze) was abandoned because house rent was too high for students to afford. In a report on the University of Calcutta in 1918 (Sarkar?), it was observed, that students were in poor health partly because of wholly inadequate housing they lived in. There will have to be large scale construction to provide lecture rooms, well equipped labs and engineering labs quite apart from residential facilities for students and staff; perhaps like in Peradeniya. Finding that many competent teachers will be most challenging. These facilities will have to be repeated in all 10 districts for the time being, no small enterprise in matters personnel and financial.
At the inauguration ceremony of the Pinnawala project, both the President and the Minister emphasised that city universities will be there to supply graduates who can walk into workplaces. Did they ever ask themselves or their advisers, ‘Where are the workplaces that these young men and women would walk into?’. Anyone who expects that puravara visvavidyala themselves will generate job opportunities for their graduates, is presenting a new paradigm of development. We need to sit down and think hard. It is one of the common and convenient myths that this country has not developed for lack of trained personnel. In 1964, while a student, I read a paper before a group of eminent economists overseas and pointed out that Ceylon then had higher levels of education than most developing countries but was poorer in economic performance, contrary to the then growing tendency among economists to find a close relationship between investment in education and economic growth. I was almost politely shouted down. However, unhappily for us, subsequent developments have borne me out. I also wrote a paper in Education in Ceylon, A Centenary Volume, published in 1969 by The Ministry of Education and Cultural Affairs, in which I generalised on this phenomenon. The slogan about ‘the gap between skills and job opportunities’ (coined perhaps by Ronald Dore of Sussex) came from the ILO employment missions that were launched in 1971 or so.
Those missions went to Ceylon, the Philippines, Iran, Kenya, Colombia, Venezuela and a few others. Those mission reports had no impact on the development of those economies. We decided to carry the burden for the missions. However, graduates from Moratuva find employment, mostly overseas, before their final GPA is known. A professor in architecture in Moratuva told me, a few years ago, that of the 11 students in his final years class, 10 had left for employment overseas, within a few months of graduation. A young man who stayed with us and graduated in physics 2019 in Colombo was offered employment in Siemens in Germany before he graduated. Graduates in Commerce from Jayawardenapura find employment overseas, often easily.
Seeking more jobs in Saudi Arabia
Our Foreign Minister ‘urged Saudi Arabia to provide more jobs to Sri Lankans to work in skilled and professions there’ (The Island 14th August). Surely, this country has an exportable surplus of skilled personnel (including terrorists) and professionals. These young men and women go overseas for employment at reasonable wages mainly because there are none such here. A young university graduate who becomes a teacher is paid some Rs. 33,000 and an allowance of Rs.!0,000, I learn from an old friend. They love their country but working in a congenial environment and the prospect of a good living much more. Our graduates walk into professions overseas. Those with lower levels of education walk into homes abroad to clean them, sometimes to offices for clerical jobs. But for this latter exodus, our unemployment rates today would exceed 10 percent of the labour force.
If students did not go to university, they would have gone to either West Asia for employment or added to the locally unemployed school dropouts. I will turn the premise of the President and his Minister on its head and say, ‘Our graduates are unemployed because there are no jobs into which that they can walk into’. If enterprises do not grow, I am afraid graduates from Puravara Visvavidyala will walk not into jobs but on to street protests.
Look around you. Taiwan has a population that is 0.2 of the total world population. Taiwan produces 80 percent of the world output of semiconductors. Is every Taiwanese employed in semiconductor production a Ph.D. in quantum mechanics? When South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore started to industrialise and then to take on electronic industries, did they have massive increases in university output in engineering and in electronics? Why does Singapore import so much labour and we export so much? Did China undertake massive programmes in science and engineering education to become the factory to the world? It is in the current Five Year Plan ending 2025 that China ‘will vigorously cultivate talents with technical skills’ (The Economist). For that matter, go back in history, and Britain, when it was the factory of the world, did not have more than 2% of its population (1902) as university graduates, almost all of them in arts. That was true of the US when it overtook Britain as the world’s richest country about 1900, although there had been a professor of science at Harvard College from 1756. About arts graduates’ inability to fit into jobs, remember that the British empire was built and run when the two pre-eminent universities in Britain did not have a faculty of engineering.
What changed in Korea, Taiwan, China, Malaysia and Singapore was that enterprises grew to employ young people. Changes in policy that Deng Xiao Ping brought about in China in 1978 saw a magnificent growth of enterprises, both state owned and privately owned. We saw the birth of a new economic formation: state capitalism. In India, massive and widespread unemployment of university graduates was whittled away after 1992, with Manmohan Singh reforms that ended the permit raj and new enterprises grew ending the ‘Hindu rate of growth’. IITs, now powerhouses sending out manpower competent in engineering to the world, were first established in 1951 (Kharagpur), 1958 (Bombay), 1961 (Delhi) and others later. Yet it was after 1995 or so that the Indian economy began to grow fast and cut down graduate unemployment in India.
Central to all these changes was the growth of enterprises, no matter who owned them. Historically, the sequence in development has been for enterprises to emerge before skilled workers find employment. So far it has not been a chicken and egg question. There were no changes in educational policy before those enterprises flourished. Trained workers followed.
Every established truth deserves fresh examination, when new evidence emerges. And new evidence will meet the eye of those that seek.
UN going the whole hog
By Shamindra Ferdinando
The newly formed Civil Society Platform (CSP) on Monday (13) dealt with entire range of accountability issues and the re-imposition of a state of emergency on the pretext of addressing food distribution. The media received the comprehensive statement endorsed by 30 organisations, and 36 individuals, soon after the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) declared its intention to go ahead with fresh investigation, as mandated at the 46th session.
The hard-hitting CSP statement should be examined against the backdrop of a dialogue between a new collective of civil society activists, grouped as Sri Lankan Collective for Consensus (SLCC). The civil society appears to be divided over their strategy in respect of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s government. However, UN Rights Chief, Michelle Bachelet, one-time Chilean President, in her hard-hitting statement, at the onset of the 48th session, made reference to the meeting President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had with SLCC on August 3. That is a quite a development. But, nothing has changed in Geneva and the war-winning country is on the UN agenda.
A recent statement, issued by the Executive Director of the National Peace Council (NPC), Dr. Jehan Perera, on behalf of SLCC, dealt with several contentious issues.
The statement issued, subsequent to a meeting the group had with newly appointed Foreign Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris, raised the following issues: the declaration of State of Emergency, Cabinet of Ministers giving the go ahead for the Legal Draftsman to prepare ‘NGO legislation,’ continuing harassment of NGOs, abolition/amendments to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (reference was made to those who had served the LTTE and the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage suspects), implementation of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, and holding of long-delayed Provincial Council polls, land issues in the Northern and Eastern Provinces, language issue, hate speech and misuse of the ICCPR Act, step-motherly treatment of Tamil-speaking people, by denying them participation at national events, and targeting of the Muslim community.
The above litany, however, sounds only too familiar and the chorus is the same. They have packaged themselves under the new name SLCC, but being backed by the West, have been pushing the same agenda for decades. The CSP is no different. No one ever bothered to ask for an explanation from the TNA for recognising the LTTE as the sole representative of the Tamil-speaking people, in 2001, thereby paving the way for the Eelam War IV a couple of years later. Similarly, no one ever inquired into the clandestine relationship between UN Colombo and the LTTE. Geneva is also silent about the origins of Sri Lanka terrorism (Indian intervention).
As happened in Afghanistan, with the now infamous independent media of the West, which unquestioningly only pushed the narrative of the military industrial complex of mainly the US and the UK, for decades, have now suddenly metamorphosed into finally questioning what went wrong, only after all their lies about Afghanistan and elsewhere began to crumble overnight. Interestingly, they are pointing fingers at everyone else, except at themselves, for not having done the job as an objective media. Theirs has been, for quite some time, an embedded media that cheered on the military industrial complex and the Wall Street. May be there, too, it was all due to filthy lucre.
Prof. Peiris, who had served as the Foreign Minister during the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term (2010-2015), received the same ministry on Aug 16. The academic, who once headed the government delegation for Oslo-arranged talks with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), has assured the SLCC of the government’s readiness to work with the civil society.
The SLCC statement, headlined ‘Promise of a fresh approach for resolving national issues’, at the onset, insisted that the discussions the group so far had with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the then Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Justice Minister Ali Sabry, Youth and Sports Minister Namal Rajapaksa, Regional Cooperation State Minister Tharaka Balasuriya and Foreign Secretary Admiral Jayanath Colombage failed to yield the desired results. So they still want the pound of flesh paid for by the West and nothing less?
Prof. Peiris seems confident that the government’s interaction with the civil society can be utilised in their dialogue with the international community, whereas the SLCC assured the new administration of its support to address concerns among the international community. However, their support would depend on the government’s readiness to address the issues raised by them.
In addition to Dr. Perera, who had represented Sri Lanka at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), in March 2018, on the invitation of the late Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera, several other prominent civil society activists joined the discussion with the government. It would be pertinent to mention that the SLCC has quite justly accepted that it did not represent, what it called, the larger civil society and recognised themselves as a group of individuals, drawn from multiple sectors of society, religion, academia and non-governmental organisations, dedicated to a country established on the high sounding ‘ideals of pluralistic coexistence, human rights and justice’, but found nowhere in the world, especially not among the self-appointed good guys of the West. Just look at how they still treat their Blacks, especially by their famed law enforcers.
The SLCC comprises (1)Ven. Kalupahana Piyaratana Thera – Inter religious Alliance National Unity, Chairman, Human Development Edification Centre working for peace Reconciliation and Ecology for more than 25 years. Peace activist for more than two decades (2) Bishop Asiri Perera – Retired Bishop/President of Methodist Church (3) Rev. Fr. C.G. Jeyakumar – Parish Priest Ilavalai and Lecturer at the Jaffna Major Seminary, Human Rights Activist (4) Dr. Joe William – Founder member and Chairman of National Peace Council, Director, Centre for Communication Training and Convenor, Alliance for Justice (5) Prof. T. Jayasingam – Director NPC, former Vice Chancellor of Eastern University and former member, Public Service Commission of the Eastern Provincial Council (6) Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva – Professor Emeritus Dept of Sociology, University of Peradeniya (7) Dr. Dayani Panagoda – Social Activist, former director of Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process and Lecturer, former member of the Official Languages Commission (8) Ms. Visaka Dharmadasa – Peace Activist, Chair of Association of War Affected Women (9) Dr. Jehan Perera – Executive Director of NPC (10) Dr. P. Saravanamuttu – Founder and Executive Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives (11) Hilmy Ahamed – Vice President, Muslim Council of Sri Lanka, Civil activist with 35 years of communicating on issues of Peace and Justice, Chairman of Young Asia Television (12) Sanjeewa Wimalagunarathna – Former Director of Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (13) Rohana Hettiarachchi – Executive Director PAFFREL (14) Javid Yusuf – Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, former Principal, Zahira College and Founder member and Governing Council member, National Peace Council NPC (15) Varnakulasingham Kamaladas – President, STA Solidarity Foundation, Vice President Batticaloa-Ampara Hindu Temples Federation, former President of Inland Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (INAYAM) Batticaloa, and (16) Ms. Sarah Arumugam – Human Rights Lawyer.
Dr. Perera emphasized that they were prepared to work with any party to achieve genuine post-war national reconciliation.
The livewire behind the NPC Dr. Perera responded swiftly to several questions posed to him regarding the latest civil society initiative.
(1) The Island: Did the SLCC reach consensus with what it called ‘wider Sri Lanka civil society’ regarding the dialogue you are having with the SLPP administration?
No, we did not. SLCC is a loose collection of individuals drawn from civil society organisations that have reconciliation and peace building aims in their work. We have no one leader or office-bearers. Each of us is part of other networks where we have discussed the stands we take. But we do not speak as their representatives. Our common position is commitment to a united Sri Lanka that is founded on ideals of pluralistic coexistence, human rights and justice.
(2) The Island: When did you set up the SLCC?
We could say it was on June 23, 2021. That was the day we decided on our name. This followed two earlier consultations, organised by the Association of War Affected Women (AWAW), which were held in Kandy, to have an in depth discussion on the lessons learnt through our reconciliation process. We felt there was a need for a group, such as ours.
(3) The Island: Did you have discussions with the TNA (Tamil National Alliance) or other Tamil parties, represented in Parliament, regarding the current initiative?
We have not met with the TNA as yet, though we plan to meet them, and other parties, too. Earlier on we met with Charitha Herath of the SLPP, leader of the DPF Mano Ganesan, General Secretary of the SJB, Ranjith Madduma Bandara. More recently we met with Leader of the Opposition Sajith Premadasa. We had arranged for a meeting with the Chairman of the National Movement for Social Justice, Karu Jayasuriya, but this was postponed and we hope to have it soon.
(4) The Island: Who decides the agenda?
Agendas of the meetings are decided by consensus, prior to the meeting, based on the need and the responsibilities of those whom we meet. Usually, following a self-introduction, we present the issues highlighted in the memorandums we have submitted.
(5) The Island: You represent the NPC, Dr. Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu represents the CPA and all others in the SLCC are members of various civil society groups. Do the SLCC members represent those organisations in the ongoing dialogue?
Those in the SLCC are mostly heads of organisations, who will naturally be in line with the positions of their organisations in any discussions on principle or decisions arrived at. But they are here as members in their personal capacities.
(6) The Island: Did the SLCC ever discuss these issues with the late Mangala Samaraweera?
No, we did not.
(7) The Island:
On the basis of BHC cables (Jan-May 2009), Lord Naseby, in Oct 2017, challenged the massacre claim of 40,000 on the Vanni east front as mentioned in the Darusman report. In June 2011, US Embassy staffer, Lt Col Smith, at the 2011 Defence Seminar, in Colombo, denied war crimes accusations (weeks after the release of Darusman report).
(8) The Island: Did government representatives or the SLCC referred to/discussed/raised the need to examine the BHC cables during discussions?
We limited our discussion to issues that we presented in our memorandums to them with a view to be forward looking. This included the Office of Missing Persons and its work. We did not discuss the death toll, at the end of the war, or issues of war crimes.
Some of them had been involved in previous peace initiatives, including the Oslo project, finalised in Feb 2002. The SLCC has essentially pursued issues that had been taken up by a section of the international community (those who voted for Geneva resolutions or conveniently abstained) both during the conflict and after. Let me reproduce the SLCC’s stand on three key issues verbatim as mentioned in a memorandum handed over to Prof. Peiris.
Prevention of Terrorism Act:
Until the promised amendment of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, to cease using this law to detain people and to expedite the release of those taken into custody, under its draconian provisions, either on bail or totally where there is no legally valid evidence to justify their continued detention, especially when they have not even been charged. This applies to both long term LTTE prisoners and more recent Muslim prisoners with only a peripheral relation to the Easter Sunday bombings.
Improve the implementation of the 13th Amendment and expedite the holding of provincial council elections so that the ethnic minorities may enjoy a measure of self-governance in the areas where they predominate.
Targeting of Minorities:
The issue of Muslims being targeted continues to fester in proposed legislation regarding personal law, the continuing refusal to permit burial of Covid victims, except in a single designated location and the imprisonment, without trial, of a large number of Muslim persons, following the Easter bombings. All communities need to feel that they have been fairly consulted and treated without discrimination for national reconciliation to become a reality.
The 13th Amendment is quite a contentious issue, especially against the backdrop of India stepping up pressure over its implementation. The government is in a quandary as regards the much delayed Provincial Council polls. Today, the government, the Opposition, the civil society and the international community had conveniently forgotten the origins of the Sri Lankan imbroglio. Clandestine Indian intervention long before the July 1983 riots, most probably precipitated by the then 20th Century Fox JRJ openly flirting with the idea of giving the Trincomalee deep harbour to the US. The subsequent building up of terrorist power, leading to the forcible deployment of the Indian Army in Northern and Eastern regions, in July 87, paved the way for the 13th Amendment. Sri Lanka almost disintegrated.
Unfortunately, successive governments quite clearly failed to examine the current situation in a proper perspective. There had never been a genuine attempt to set the record straight. The incumbent government, too, pathetically failed to address accountability issues properly. Dr. Perera’s response to The Island query, based on Lord Naseby’s challenge and Lt. Colonel Smith’s denial of war crimes accusations six years before, revealed the failure on the government’s part to recognise the threat facing the country’s unitary status. Prof. Peiris and the SLCC owed the public an explanation how they discussed matters, including Office of Missing Persons, or OMP, leaving the primary accusation that the military killed 40,000 Tamil civilians on the Vanni east front. That is the charge Sri Lanka continues to face in Geneva, though Prof. Peiris’s predecessor, Dinesh Gunawardena, declared, in the Feb-March 2020, sessions, the government’s decision to quit the 2015 resolution. In fact, Sri Lanka is now facing a new investigation and actions so far taken by the incumbent government seems insufficient. As long as HRC turns a Nelsonia eye to all the grave crimes the West has committed and continuing to commit, from Palestine to Libya, Iraq, Syria, etc., how can we expect any fairplay from it. Maybe Minister Gunawardena played the only card there, we could have played, considering the ground realities.
The rationale in seeking the support of the civil society should be studied, taking into consideration the government’s failure to revisit accountability issues. Instead, having repeatedly promised the electorate in the run-up to the 2019 presidential and 2020 parliamentary polls, a robust defence at Geneva, the government appeared to have accepted the agenda, pursued by Ranil Wickremesinghe and the late Mangala Samaraweera.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government established the OMP, in August 2016, less than a year after the signing of the Geneva resolution. The OMP came into being under controversial circumstances with the then Joint Opposition (now SLPP) accusing the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government of jeopardising national security. Today, the incumbent government has accepted responsibility for taking forward the much maligned and controversial Geneva process, much to the disappointment of those who genuinely believed an attempt would be made to reverse the project.
Key architects of the yahapalana project are in the current Parliament. Ranil Wickremesinghe is the solitary UNP MP. The former PM entered Parliament on the National List whereas Maithripala Sirisena returned from his home base Polonnaruwa after having contested the last general election on the SLPP ticket. Sirisena’s SLFP is the second largest constituent with 14 lawmakers, including one National List MP. As regards the accountability issue, the government seems to be moving in a direction contrary to the much publicised promises made.
In the absence of cohesive Sri Lanka response to Geneva threat, interested parties, such as the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Amnesty International, have been freely bashing Sri Lanka. Massive foreign funding to the civil society lobby here and various other outfits are meant to ensure they follow the dictates of their sponsors. Often repeated claims that they refrained from taking government funding should be examined taking into consideration how these groups pursued Western interests and those of various other parties.
Pawns of Peace: Evaluation of Norwegian peace efforts in Sri Lanka (1997-2009)
, released in 2011, two years after the eradication of the LTTE, provided an insight into foreign funding for a particular purpose. The Norwegian study dealt with funding provided to various peace merchants assigned the task of propagating the inevitability of a negotiated settlement in the absence of military muscle to bring the war to a successful conclusion. For Norwegians funding for such initiatives had never been a problem. Sri Lanka is a case in point. They lavishly spent on the dicey Sri Lanka project on the basis that the LTTE cannot be defeated militarily, the then government has no option but to accept a deal even at the expense of the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty.
The Norwegian report revealed the funding of Sri Lankan outfits to the tune of USD 28 (NOK 210 mn) mn during the conflict. The recipients included Dr. Kumar Rupesinghe’s Foundation for Coexistence (largest single beneficiary with USD 6 mn during 2004-2008 period), the then Minister Milinda Moragoda’s MMIPE for humanitarian demining, Sarvodaya, Sewalanka (its former head Harsha Kumara Navaratne, an original extremely talented breakaway from Sarvodaya and now a member of the Human Rights Commission will soon relinquish office to take over Lanka mission in Canada as HC), Sareeram Sri Lanka National Foundation, Hambantota District Chamber of Commerce, One-Text Initiative, the National Anti-War Front also led by Dr. Kumar Rupasinghe, the National Peace Council, the Center for Policy Alternatives, the Forum of Federations and the People’s Peace Front.
The Norwegians also provided funding to the TRO (Tamil Rehabilitation Organization) an LTTE front organisation. The Norwegians went to the extent of providing funding to the then LTTE Peace Secretariat though it knew the group was rapidly preparing to resume hostilities. When Norwegian funding of LTTE front organisations drew strong condemnation, they funded the setting up of a Buddhist academy in Kandy in addition to reconstruction of Buddhist temples on the southern coast destroyed by Dec 2004 tsunami.
However, Prof. Peiris in a note recently submitted to diplomatic missions, based in Colombo, ahead of the 48 Geneva sessions, emphasised that the March 2021 resolution adopted by a divided vote hadn’t been accepted by Sri Lanka, rejected establishment of an external evidence gathering mechanism targeting Sri Lanka and questioned the rationale in spending meager financial resources on such a politically motivated Geneva initiative. The FM’s note dealt with progress made as regards port-war reconciliation with the focus on OMP operations, Office of Reparations, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Sustainable Development Goals, National Human Rights Commission, Presidential Commission of Inquiry, Accountability, PTA, Pardon to ex-LTTE cadres, Resettlement of IDPs, Releasing of Lands, engagement with the civil society (Prof. Peiris referred to the discussion President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had with SLCC on Aug 3, 2021) and International Human Rights and other Treaty Obligations and Engagement with the UN Special Procedures Mandate Holders.
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