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Midweek Review

Situating Panduka Karunanayake’s ‘Politics’ of Education

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by Sasanka Perera
South Asian University New Delhi

Panduka Karunanayake, Ruptures in Sri Lanka’s Education: Genesis, Present Status and Reflections. Nugegoda: Sarasavi Publishers, 2021 Pages; 280; ISBN 789553117793. Price: LKR 600.00 (with soft cover).

(This essay was initially written as the ‘Foreword’ for, Panduka Karunanayake’s book, Ruptures in Sri Lanka’s Education: Genesis, Present Status and Reflections)

As an educationist, once based in Sri Lanka, I had already read many of Karunanayake’s essays that have now been collected in this volume in their previous incarnation in the national press. This is not merely because we used to be teachers in the same university, but because we were both interested in the same issues, challenges and anxieties Sri Lanka’s education system had generated. I was also intrigued then and am also now that Karunanayake had opted to wade a considerable distance out of his speciality in Medicine into the messy and often thankless domain of public debate with his ideas that focused more broadly on education as opposed to his medical speciality. This is unusual for people with his kind of training, particularly in the local academic belief system where the popular assumption is that doctors should look after the sick and social commentaries should be left for social scientists and journalists. Thankfully, as the trajectory of these essays would indicate, Karunanayake began to transgress this kind of regressive thinking, at least 15 years ago, when he self-consciously decided to make the public sphere a forum for his ideas. In this context, my attempt in this Foreword is to situate these essays in the broader politics to which Karunanayake has consistently asked us to enter, though many have not.

 

Twenty-three essays

The 23 essays in this collection, about half of which have not been previously published, is a clear cartography of Karunanayake’s thinking on education. But, more importantly, they also broadly sketch the landscape of Sri Lankan education with a focus on three main issues. These are the present status of the educational reforms initially implemented under the visionary leadership of C.W.W. Kannangara in the 1940s and after; the role private capital can play in Sri Lanka’s higher education sector; and the status and role of the university as an institution in Sri Lanka, not only as a space for advanced learning, but also as a place for reflection.

Kannangara is best known for the introduction of what is known in Sri Lanka as ‘free education’, a system that assured citizens an education from kindergarten to university at the expense of the state. An important vehicle in institutionalizing this system was the establishment of central schools (Madhya Maha Vidyala) in urban and semi-urban locations in different parts of the country as conduits through which the vastly rural populations in the country could be directed towards an advanced secondary education at school level, and prepare them for university and professional education. The issue today is not that ‘free’ education does not exist along with the institutional structures set up to achieve this. Instead, the issue is whether the broader ideas of citizenship that Kananangara visualized are being met? It seems to me that Panduka Karunanayake’s anxiety is whether the value of this system of education has diminished as a result of the country’s present-day educational authorities losing touch with the finer points in the ideals of Kannangara’s reforms even though all of them would have reaped the benefits of that system.

 

Kannangara thinking

Today’s schools in Sri Lanka – in my view – are not about building a sense of citizenship and public consciousness that goes beyond the basic utilitarian expectations of education such as literacy and basic disciplinary competencies. In this sense, such a system can be better described in the words of Ivan Illich than what was anticipated by Kannangara’s thinking. That is, in general, schools everywhere today are “designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends upon knowing that secret; that secrets can only be known in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.” What this regimented and linear scheme of learning refers to is the basic requirement of discipline that young people are expected to follow that would allow them to become an integral and unobtrusive part of the employment market. In this systemic setup in which both Karunanayake and I are also a part, it would be difficult to think in terms of humanity with a self-conscious sense of empathy. That is, in systemic and structural terms, this is not what is anticipated even though individuals still have considerable leeway to nudge their students – both in schools and universities – think out of the box, be reflective and conscious of one’s circumstances as they go about fulfilling the formal requirements of learning. In Sri Lanka’s context, it is precisely this reductionist system of learning that creates divisive, competitive and exclusivist notions of ethno-cultural and religious identities that have by now considerably subverted the more inclusive kind of Sri Lankan citizenship that statesmen like Kannangara envisaged at the time of Independence.

As his writings suggest however, Karunanayake does not absolve himself from this overall scheme of things. But by critiquing what needs to be critiqued and being reflective of what could be changed, he is attempting to offer specific avenues of hope by entering the public domain with his ideas rather than becoming a voiceless prisoner within the prevailing system. Decision-makers in Sri Lanka’s educational system today seem to have conveniently forgotten the basic implications of education to young people that Jiddu Krishnamurti outlined in Education and the Significance of Life. As he noted, “while one is young is the time to investigate, to experiment with everything. The school should help its young people to discover their vocations and responsibilities, and not merely cram their minds with facts and technical knowledge; it should be the soil in which they can grow without fear, happily and integrally.” This was also the kind of broader education the Kannangara reforms anticipated beyond its hoped-for impact on people’s social mobility.

 

Second Theme

The second theme that runs across some of Karunanayake’s essays focuses on the possibilities of opening Sri Lanka’s higher education to private investment. His general position is that private capital does have a role to play in the country’s university education system, which is not a popular position to hold in Sri Lanka’s public and often noisy debates on education. Most educationists in the country argue that the burden of university education in terms of both planning and costs of delivery should be the responsibility of the state. I am sympathetic to this idea as long as the state also takes the responsibility to guarantee the quality of education at all levels, the competence of teachers, equity of access and finally that the education offered by universities also creates a broader sense of citizenship as opposed to parochial-minded individuals. But we know from experience at both school and university levels in Sri Lanka that the state has not been able to fulfill these ideals. In such a situation, to chant the mantra of an exclusively state-led higher education makes little sense. What Karunanayake proposes for Sri Lanka is a private university sector based on what he calls an ‘indigenous model.’ But even in this call, he does not envisage the abolishment of the state system. What he visualizes instead is a parallel system.

Karunanayake’s arguments in support of private education is not leaning towards unmitigated privatization. Instead, what he favours is what might be called an ‘enlightened infusion of private capital into higher education’ which might expand the country’s higher education opportunities as well as areas for social justice. The post-1977 liberalization of Sri Lanka’s markets has ensured capital influx into many areas of the national economy. The healthcare sector is one of them. Education at the school level and college level training for universities overseas have also seen an expansion in the private sector. One cannot simply assume if a country’s economic policies embrace capitalism and its people seem to prefer it, only selected areas – like higher education – might not be impacted by these schemes. Such a position is simply not sensible. Privatization of university education does not necessarily have to mean inequitable access. Its potential ill-effects can be controlled to some extent by appropriate state policies that guarantee access through scholarships and financial aid schemes. After all, it is not that such schemes have not been successfully experimented with in other parts of the world. But this area has merely remained an area of anxiety and virulent argumentation in Sri Lanka’s public sphere where nuanced reflection has generally been absent. It is to this contentious debate that Karunanayake’s essays that deal with privatization of university education beckons us. One does not need to agree with him. But what he writes in this matter is worth reflecting upon.

 

Status of universities

Karunanayake also reflects on the status and role of the university as an institution in the Sri Lankan context. But his reflections are not only about how universities must function as competent forums for advanced technical training in different disciplines. This is certainly one of the most important roles universities can and should play in contemporary times. More importantly, he also wonders how universities might also be spaces for reflection. It is about the university’s role in the first sense referred to above that states, including the Sri Lankan state, have paid considerable attention to. Technical education offered by universities has traditionally focused on this aspect in any case. But its over-emphasis in contemporary times, its popular acceptance by most people today and state support to this hegemonic understanding of the university has degraded its once-cherished ideal as a place of reflection and responsible social and political commentary. While Karunanayake is in agreement that universities must offer technical competencies as he himself does as a medical academic, he does not believe it must necessarily be offered at the cost of reflection. To put it more simply, his opinion differs considerably from many of his and my colleagues in the Sri Lankan higher education sector whose only focus is on training individuals for the needs of the market, an attitude shared by most students as well. It is truly unfortunate the present moment in the 21st century, many of us have lost sight of the fundamental difference between a university and a technical college.

 

‘University and society’

It is in this spirit that Karunanayake, in the chapter titled, ‘University and Society: To Tango or Not’ refers to Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan’s ideas on the ideal university as a place for the “promotion of liberty of mind or freedom of thought” which “has little to do with the protection of privilege or call for conformity.” It is the same idea that Rabindranath Tagore also promoted in the early twentieth century in his essay, . ‘Ideals of Education’ when he noted, “universities should never be made into mechanical organizations for collecting and distributing knowledge. Through them the people should offer their intellectual hospitality, their wealth of mind to others, earn their proud right in return to receive gifts from the rest of the world.” It is possible to dismiss these ideas as old-fashioned, and to argue the university’s role today is to merely fulfill the requirements of a technical education. Support for this reductionist idea comes from within the university as well as from within the country’s governance structure. It is precisely the poverty of such thinking that has diminished the overall intellectual value of Sri Lanka’s higher education even though in selected fields, the technical training offered might be on par with what is provided in other parts of the world. It is heartening to note that Karunanayake has brought this important cluster of thinking to forums of pubic debate through his writing.

Karunanayake’s collection of essays enters public circulation as a body of reflections linked to his training, social background and ideological positions at a time Sri Lankan society in general and the country’s broader education system in particular are experiencing profound and multiple crises. In this difficult context as a university teacher, what come to my mind are the following words of Rabindranath Tagore outlined in his essay, ‘Ideals of Education’: “I try to assert in my words and works that education has its only meaning and object in freedom – freedom from ignorance about the laws of the universe, and freedom from passion and prejudice in our communications with the human world.” By bringing his ideas, concerns and ideological positions as a specific form of politics into public discourse away from his twin comfort zones in academia and medical practice, it seems to me that Karunanayake as a fellow university teacher is striving to live closer to the words of Tagore than to the disruptive hegemonic politics of our times.



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Midweek Review

Westminster event declares support for Canadian action against Rajapaksa brothers

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Foreign Secretary, Aruni Wijewardane, with UK’s Permanent Under Secretary of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), Sir Philip Barton, at the Foreign Ministry, in Colombo, on January 17 (pic courtesy Foreign Ministry)

As a result of sheer negligence, Sri Lanka has ended up being categorized as a perpetrator of war crimes, and those who had fought for the country are mercilessly targeted. There cannot be a better example than Air Marshal Sumangala Dias who suffered due to Sri Lanka’s failure. Canada refused to accept Dias as Sri Lanka’s High Commissioner though the former Sri Lanka Air Force Commander has never been under human rights scrutiny. Subsequently, the government proposed Dias as Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Italy. That move, too, failed. Italy, as a member state of the EU, pursuing war crimes accusations against Sri Lanka, declined to accept the retired SLAF Chief. The Foreign Ministry should accept responsibility for its failure to brief the inept political leadership of the stand taken by Canada and Italy on this issue. In spite of knowing what would be the outcome, the Foreign Ministry allowed the normal process to go ahead. At the end, both Canada and Italy declined to accept the retired Air Chief.

In fact, the Darusman report could have been used to counter lies. If acknowledged the discrepancy in the number of deaths caused during the final phase of the conflict. Darusman on the basis of unnamed sources alleged 40,000 deaths during Jan-May 2009 whereas the UN mission in Colombo on the basis of records made available by ICRC, hospitals et al reported between 7,000 and 8,000 deaths between August 2008 and May 2009.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

Liberal Democrats leader and MP for Surbiton, Edward Jonathan Davey, recently urged British Premier Rishi Sunak’s government to follow Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau on the Sri Lanka war crimes issue. Obviously Davey was referring to the unprecedented unilateral Canadian sanctions, recently imposed on former Presidents, Mahinda Rajapaksa (Nov. 2005-Jan. 2015) and Gotabaya Rajapaksa (2019 – Nov.-2022 July).

The occasion was what the Tamil Guardian called a night of festive celebration, musical performances and classical dance, in Central Hall, in Westminster, to celebrate Thai Pongal and Tamil heritage month. The event was described as a joint effort by the British Tamil community.

The Tamil Guardian quoted Ed Davey as having declared that the Canadian decision to impose sanctions on the Rajapaksa brothers was ‘absolutely right’ and that ‘the time for fine words has gone.’

The World Tamil Historic Society, Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam, Tamils for Labour, Tamil Coordinating Committee, British Tamil Chamber of Commerce, and British Tamil Conservatives, contributed to the event.

There shouldn’t be any issue over the celebration of Thai Pongal, Tamil heritage month, as well as the contribution the Tamil community made to British society, with the participation of British politicians.

British politicians, at such events, reflected the importance of the British Tamils, of Sri Lankan origin, as a significant vote bank.

The Westminster event was attended by several senior representatives of political parties, including Chairman of the Conservative Party, Nadhim Zahawi. The event reiterated commitment of all stakeholders, for justice and accountability.

Labour MP for Eastham, Stephen Timms, too, urged the British government to impose sanctions on individuals who, the British knew, were responsible for war crimes. The MP underscored the need for an ‘independent, international investigation’ in the absence of a domestic reconciliation process in Sri Lanka.

Rishi Sunak and Labour Party leader, Keir Starmer, sent video messages, appreciating the contribution made by the British Tamil community.

In the wake of the UK MPs’ demand for sanctions on Sri Lanka, Foreign Secretary, Aruni Wijewardane, received UK’s Permanent Under Secretary of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), Sir Philip Barton, at the Foreign Ministry, in Colombo, on January 17. A lengthy statement, issued by the Foreign Ministry, described the discussion as a constructive bilateral engagement in the 75th year of UK-SL diplomatic relations. The visiting official was accompanied by British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, Sarah Hulton.

The media release didn’t indicate whether Sri Lanka will take up the contentious accountability issue, as the UK spearheads the high profile campaign against Sri Lanka. Therefore, the writer rationally ascertained that no other matter had been taken up at the discussion.

With the Canadian declaration that the Rajapaksa brothers, during Eelam War IV (2006-2009), perpetrated ‘gross and systematic violations of human rights,’ the campaign against Sri Lanka has entered a new phase.

The international media quoted Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister, Mélanie Joly, as having said that they took decisive action to end international impunity against violators of international law. The Canadian measures, include travel bans and asset freezes.

The latest action should be examined against the backdrop of the Canadian Parliament recognizing Tamil genocide in Sri Lanka.

Over 14 years, after the successful conclusion of the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), Sri Lanka is yet to counter lies. The failure on the part of successive governments to defend wartime political and military leaderships has facilitated the Western agenda. Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy has accelerated their despicable agenda.

Successive inept and treacherous Sri Lankan governments, and its often much compromised diplomatic service, never made a genuine attempt to set the record straight in Geneva, New York or Washington. In fact, they cooperated with those who propagated lies by conveniently failing to properly address issues at hand. Sri Lanka seemed determined not to defend its war against the LTTE, one of the half a dozen terrorist groups, formed by India.

Canada and the UK are not interested in inquiring into the origins of terrorism here. They do not care about the Tamils, who died in the hands of the Indian Army, during its deployment in the then temporarily merged Northern and Eastern Provinces. The loss of 1,300 officers, and men, and injuries suffered by more than double that figure in combat, during the period, 1987-1990, revealed the ferocity of fighting between one-time guardians of Sri Lankan terrorists and their ‘students.’

There had been numerous excesses and reprisals but such strategies were definitely not Indian policy at that time, but what happens in most wars. These Western paragons of virtue, what did their forces do, across the world, during the colonial past, and how do their law enforcers behave to this day, especially against blacks, natives in Canada, Australia and America.

Post-war national reconciliation

hindered

During the war, there had been many excesses. The Sri Lankan military cannot, under any circumstances deny that fact. However, that hadn’t been the government policy. Unfortunately, in the absence of a cohesive strategy, Sri Lanka remains accused of genocide, and the recent Canadian actions meant that the two Presidents were now categorized as war criminals.

But the billion dollar question is where is the justice for far greater war crimes, committed by the West, in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, etc. Easily, more than a million innocent civilians would have perished by now, in these countries, because of those endless wars, fermented by the West on trumped up, or purely frivolous excuses, like Saddam Hussein is having weapons of mass destruction, or Gaddafi is butchering his own people, while everyone knew that a man like Saddam should be given a prize for keeping a divided nation, like Iraq, in one piece, or that Gaddafi was one of the most benevolent leaders in the entire world.

Foreign Minister, Ali Sabry, PC, in response to a query raised by the writer, at a Foreign Ministry media briefing, last year, said that sanctions had been imposed on entire fighting divisions. That was months before the categorization of the two Presidents as war criminals.

It would be a grave mistake, on the part of the Western community, to believe humiliation of the military would help post-war national reconciliation. On one hand, the Western community wants the Prevention of Terrorism (PTA) abolished, the remaining terror suspects released, and a one-time political arm of the vanquished LTTE, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) political demands met. On the other hand, the grouping wants the military punished on unsubstantiated war crimes allegations. Canadian measures are in line with that despicable strategy.

The Sri Lanka Parliament, as the supreme institution, should be ashamed of its pathetic response to the Western war crimes campaign. Sri Lanka has conveniently failed, at least to remind the Western community how R. Sampanthan’s TNA served the LTTE interests by declaring terrorist leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, the sole representative of the Tamil speaking people.

The TNA bestowed that honour, on the LTTE, in 2001. The Sri Lankan military restored the TNA as the principal political group in the Northern and Eastern provinces, after the elimination of the LTTE, militarily, in May 2009.

Instead of recognizing Sri Lanka’s achievement, the Western community has targeted Sri Lanka, basically for two reasons, namely (1) Colombo’s relationship with China and (11) the Diaspora factor.

Actually, Sri Lanka never had a strategy to counter lies. That is the undeniable truth. Incumbent UN Chief Antonio Guterres’s predecessor, Ban Ki-moon, once compared the Vanni offensive with that of Ruwanda and Serbia genocides in the 1990s. Former UN Secretary General, South Korean Ki-moon played his part to facilitate the Western agenda, in spite of his own mission, in Colombo, contradicting unsubstantiated accusations.

How SL facilitated Western strategy

Sri Lanka never made use of a golden opportunity, given by British Lord Naseby, in Oct. 2017, to prepare a solid defence of the armed forces. His stunning revelation, in the House of Lords, two years after Sri Lanka, under the shameful Yahapalana regime, co-sponsored accountability resolution against our own country, at the Geneva Human Rights Council, exposed the British duplicity.

On the basis of hitherto confidential dispatches from the British High Commission, in Colombo, during the last phase of the war – January-May 2009, the Conservative politician contradicted the very basis of the three-member UN Darusman report. This report, released on March 31, 2011, had been the primary reason for the 2015 accountability resolution that faulted the Sri Lanka Army.

The World War 11 fighter pilot fought a near three-year battle with the British administration to secure the confidential dispatches and was finally able to obtain a highly redacted version, to contradict the lies, in the second week of Oct. 2017. Although the then Foreign Minister Tilak Marapana, PC, in his address to the UNHRC, made a reference to Lord Naseby’s revelations, Sri Lanka never requested Geneva to examine the British dispatches.

The author of British dispatches, Lt. Col. Anthony Gash, has never challenged the authenticity of heavily censored dispatches, disclosed by Lord Naseby.

Sri Lanka, in June 2011, squandered a similar opportunity to make a strong case for a revisit of the one-sided Darusman report. The then US Defence Advisor, in Colombo, Lt. Col. Lawrence Smith, quite convincingly defended the Sri Lanka Army, at the 2011 Colombo Defence Seminar. The American contradicted unsubstantiated allegations, raised by a retired Indian Major General Ashok K. Metha, formerly of the infamous IPKF. Lt. Col. Smith must have made that declaration, based on information available to the US Embassy, in Colombo, as well as other dispatches from the war zone. And, most importantly, the American officer made the declaration within three months after the releasing of the Darusman report. Sri Lanka never used British and American dispatches in her defence.

Western powers continue to harass Sri Lanka on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes

accusations

Geneva moves to further investigate Sri Lanka should be challenged as the previous accusations, that led to the 2015 Geneva resolution, remained uninvestigated.

According to the Darusman report (paragraph 23: Confidentiality of the Panel’s records), the accusations cannot be examined till 2031. This strange stipulation has a further clause stating that the time bar could be extended for a further period. We must be the only country not allowed to examine specific accusations, directed at its armed forces. Successive governments never took the entire gamut of issues, into consideration, before making representations, on behalf of the country.

The incumbent Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa administration is no exception. In spite of repeated vows to defend the armed forces, the previous Gotabaya Rajapaksa-led government pathetically failed in its duty and responsibility.

Sri Lanka’s handling of accusations, relating to the Mannar mass graves, during the Yahapalana administration, revealed how the Foreign and Defence Ministry neglected their responsibilities. But even after the change of government, in the wake of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s victory at the 2019 presidential poll, Sri Lanka did nothing to change the strategy.

The Mannar mass grave lie was contradicted by a reputed Miami-based laboratory. It cleared the war-winning Sri Lanka Army of any responsibility for extra-judicial killings there. The independent carbon testing report, from the internationally recognized US laboratory, concluded that the victims likely died up to 615 years ago — predating even the first European colonization of the country by the Portuguese.

Sri Lanka’s Office on Missing Persons (OMP) funded the tests on the remains to determine whether the victims were killed, during the conflict.

But, by then, Geneva has directly blamed Sri Lanka for the Mannar Sathosa ground mass graves. The then Human Rights Commissioner, Michelle Bachelet, audaciously went to the extent of referring to the Mannar mass grave site, in her annual report (section 23), submitted to the UNHRC. The following is the relevant section: “On May 29, 2018, human skeletal remains were discovered at a construction site in Mannar (Northern Province), Excavations conducted in support of the Office on Missing Persons, revealed a mass grave from which more than 300 skeletons were discovered. It was the second mass grave found in Mannar, following the discovery of a site, in 2014. Given that other mass graves might be expected to be found in the future, systematic access to grave sites by the Office, as an observer, is crucial for it to fully discharge its mandate, particularly with regard to the investigation and identification of remains, it is imperative that the proposed reforms on the law relating to inquests, and relevant protocols to operationalize the law be adopted. The capacity of the forensic sector must also be strengthened, including in areas of forensic anthropology, forensic archaeology and genetics, and its coordination with the Office of Missing Persons must be ensured.”

Geneva never expected the US report on Mannar mass graves to go against its strategy. The TNA, too, reacted as expected. The one-time LTTE ally never expected the US report to contradict high profile allegations. Colombo based diplomats, and foreign officials, visited the scene ,as interested parties propagated lies.

On behalf of the TNA, a lawmaker, representing the Vanni region, has called for a fresh testing in another lab in some other country. Our Vavuniya correspondent, Dinasena Ratugamage, quoted Mullaitivu District MP Nirmalanathan Sivamohan as having said: “This is not to say that we do not accept the reports sent by a lab in Florida, US, but given the importance of the Mannar grave site we need to get a second opinion.”

There were many other developments ranging from a spate of WikiLeaks revelations to political decisions that exposed the Western strategy. But, perhaps the irreversible defence of the military was provided by the Tamil community, living in the Northern and Eastern electoral districts, at the 2010 presidential election. The war-winning General Sarath Fonseka, in spite of suffering massive defeat in the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa, comfortably won all predominately The Tamil speaking electoral districts, in those provinces, despite the TNA and the Tamil Diaspora, having accused him and his Army of committing war crimes. The Tamil community overwhelmingly responded to the TNA’s call to vote for Fonseka, who contested as the common candidate, fielded by the UNP-led alliance that included the JVP.

Unfortunately, Sri Lanka never bothered to officially take up this development to counter propaganda. Even if the TNA asked for the Tamil community to vote for Fonseka, the electorate wouldn’t have overwhelmingly done so unless it was convinced the eradication of the LTTE was a necessity.

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Midweek Review

Emergence of the ‘Singlish’ Gent

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By Lynn Ockersz

Seventy five years into ‘Freedom’,

The smug power elites of the Isle,

Proudly speak a species of language,

Which is neither English nor Sinhalese,

But a bizarre hotchpotch of these,

Which is best called ‘Singlish’,

And it is resorted to freely,

By many of those at the helm of affairs,

Of the hapless Isle now sunk in penury,

But pity we must a country,

Which has lost its language identity,

But is foisting on its people,

Who are heirs to the best of Sinhala and Tamil,

An obscure dialect of the English Language.

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Midweek Review

Downsizing Army

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Colonel Nalin Herath shaking hands with Gen. Shavendra Silva after handing a over copy of ‘STORY OF THE WORLD: Geopolitical Alliances and Rivalries Set in Stone’

in response to economic crisis

At the time Sri Lanka brought the war to a successful conclusion, in May 2009, the war-winning Army had some 5000 more men under arms than its approved cadre. The Army paid strength, in May 2009, had been 205,128 whereas the approved cadre was 200,783. Following the end of the war, the Rajapaksa government quietly began decreasing the troop strength, though the approved cadre remained the same. By the time, State Defence Minister Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon made the announcement on downsizing the Army, the strength was down to 168,000. In other words, the Army strength has been already down by approximately 38,000.

By Shamindra Ferdinando

State Minister Pramitha Bandara Tennakoon could have disclosed a decisive decision taken by the Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa government to reduce the approved cadre of Sri Lanka Army (SLA) at the launch of ‘STORY OF THE WORLD: Geopolitical Alliances and Rivalries Set in Stone’ authored by Col. Nalin Herath, at Rock House Army camp (Regimental Headquarters of the Armoured Corps), on January 12.

State Minister Tennakoon was the Chief Guest at the event, attended by Defence Secretary Gen. Kamal Gunaratne, Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen. Shavendra Silva, both of the Gajaba Regiment, and several other senior serving, and retired officers.

The author, as an armoured corps officer, has served the 681 Brigade of the 53 Division. He has been the Brigade Major. The 681 Brigade, assigned to the 53 Division, commanded by the then Maj. Gen. Gunaratne, has been credited with the killing of LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran on the banks of the Nanthikadal lagoon, on the morning of May 19, 2009.

The first such book, launched by a serving officer, would have been the ideal setting for the official declaration on the reduction of SLA’s approved cadre.

A press release, pertaining to the proposed reduction of the approved cadre of the SLA, was released by Col. Nalin Herath, on the following day (January 13). Interestingly, the statement was attributed to State Defence Minister Tennakoon, who received the elevated position, on Sept. 08, 2022. The Matale District MP was among 37 government parliamentary group members appointed as State Ministers, as per the understanding between President Wickremesinghe and his principal sponsor, the ruling Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP). Pramitha Bandara is the son of Janaka Banadara Tennakoon, MP, one of the SLFP seniors who had even served the party during the tenure of the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike as the SLFP leader. Incidentally Pramitha’s paternal grandfather, Tikiri Banda Tennakoon, was a founder member of the SLFP, along with its creator, SWRD Bandaranaike. T.B., having swept into Parliament, in 1956, like so many other first timers, with an essentially Sinhala ethos, he continuously retained his Dambulla electorate for five consecutive terms, thanks to his dedication to serve his people.

Perhaps, that high profile decision to trim the armed forces, that were deliberately expanded in the last phase of the then long-running war, from 2006, should have been announced by President Wickremesinghe, who is also the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, and the Defence Minister, as well. The government owed an explanation whether the Cabinet-of-Ministers approved the far reaching move and when that decision was taken.

Following the perusal of statements, issued in Sinhala and English, there couldn’t be ambiguity regarding what really prompted the decision. Lawmaker Pramitha Tennakoon declared that the decision to reduce the current approved SLA cadre of 200,783 to 135,000, by end of next year, and further reduce that figure to 100,000, by 2030, has been taken after taking into consideration the current state of affairs. Obviously, the State Defence Minister was referring to Sri Lanka’s bankrupt status.

President Wickremesinghe’s decision to review the approved cadre of the SLA should be appreciated, as it was a long felt necessity, as maintaining an army of more than 200.000, under current circumstances, is no small burden for a country of the size of Sri Lanka, especially as it no longer faced any formidable enemy, militarily from within. This assertion shouldn’t be misconstrued as our wholehearted backing for the government decision. Let us hope some sections in the Opposition do not seek political advantage, thereby causing unnecessary friction amidst the continuing economic-political-social turmoil.

President Wickremesinghe indicated his desire to bring down the SLA’s strength, on Nov. 14, 2022. when he presented the 2023 Budget. Wickremesinghe proposed to allow armed forces personnel, other than special categories, to retire after 18 years of service. Wickremesinghe assured that tangible measures would be taken to provide them training, required to engage in productive economic activities.

On behalf of the government, State Minister Tennakoon asserted that a 100,000 strength as the right size for the SLA.

Change of SLA command

Army Chief, Lt. Gen. Vikum Liyanage, in his New Year message to his officers, and men, revealed the intended decrease in SLA’s approved cadre. Gajaba Regiment veteran Liyanage, who succeeded Gen. Shavendra Silva, on July 01, 2022, declared that preliminary measures had been taken in this regard. Army headquarters, in a statement issued on January 02, quoted Lt. Gen. Liyanage has having said the process was meant to streamline the organizational structure, operational deployment and concept of operations. The Army Chief emphasized the responsibility on the part of the SLA to be prepared to face any eventuality this year. Lt. Gen. Liyanage didn’t mince his words when he declared the need to keep their plans on track, regardless of the current crisis, which he described as a turbulent period.

If not for the massive public protest campaign that turned violent, after Temple Trees unleashed SLPP goons on the Galle Face ‘Go Gota Home’ protesters on May 09, morning, Liyanage probably wouldn’t have received an opportunity to command the war-winning SLA. The then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, himself a Gajaba founder veteran, brought in Liyanage to succeed celebrated ground combat commander Gen. Shavendra Silva. Liyanage received the appointment on June 01. Protesters overran President Rajapaksa’s official residence, in Fort, six weeks later. Wickremesinghe, having been picked as President, by a majority vote in Parliament, has chosen Liyanage to oversee the transformation by granting him a one-year extension.

Otherwise, Liyanage would have retired on Dec. 31, 2022. He received a one-year extension, amidst intense controversy over his successor.

Over a dozen officers would retire by Dec. 31, 2023.

Gen. Shavendra Silva continues to serve as the CDS, a position he held earlier in an Acting Capacity beginning January 01, 2020, while also being the then Army Commander. The celebrated General Officer, Commanding (GoC) the 58 Division (previously Task Force 1) received the SLA command, on August 19, 2019, during the tail end of Maithripala Sirisena’s presidency. Unfortunately, many top officers, who contributed much to that most unlikely victory, over terrorism, were overlooked during the Yahapalana regime that came to power in 2015, thanks to the political betrayal by Maithripala Sirisena.

Proposed gradual but significant reduction of approved SLA cadre, by half, within the next seven years, should be examined, taking into consideration two domestic factors, namely (1) Ranil Wickremesinghe’s election as President to complete the remainder of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s five-year term, and (2) the worst ever post-independence economic crisis that has compelled utterly disorganized and reckless political party system ways and means to cut down both capital and recurrent expenditure.

Cash-strapped Sri Lanka can save a considerable amount of public funds by halving the SLA size. Retired Maj. Gen. Udaya Perera, Director of Operations, during the crucial period of the Eelam War (2006-2009) asserted: “It is not the numbers that matter, but the deterrence….” The one-time Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to Malaysia, emphasized the responsibility, on the part of the decision-makers, to adopt, what he called, a pragmatic approach.

Contrary to numerous warnings, regarding the possibility of the LTTE launching a hit-and run-campaign, after the combined security forces decimated its conventional fighting capacity, by February-May 2009, the group was no longer in its previous suicide mode, due to the overbearing presence of the SLA. There had been one attempt to regroup and that was mercilessly and swiftly dealt with. Since then, ex-members of the group remained peaceful, though some expressed fears those who had been released after rehabilitation could take up arms again. Wartime Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, having played a pivotal role in the eradication of terrorism. by May 2009, allowed the release of as many as 12,000 ex-LTTE cadres and the gradual decrease of the SLA presence, in the Jaffna peninsula. Accordingly, the SLA gave up both state and private land in the Jaffna peninsula, and other parts of the Vanni and the East, held over the years, to fight the war, to facilitate the return of civilians, in peace time.

Rapid SLA expansion

At the time Eelam War IV erupted, in the second week of August, 2006, with coordinated attacks in the East and across the Muhamalai front line, extending from Kilali, across Eluththumaduwal to Nagarkovil on the Vadamarachchy east coast,

The SLA had approximately 60 regular and volunteer infantry battalions. It, however, lacked the wherewithal to simultaneously conduct offensive operations, defend areas under control and deploy troops to hold newly recaptured areas.

The then President Mahinda Rajapaksa took an unprecedented political decision to rapidly expand the SLA to finish off the LTTE, once and for all. The then Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka got what he asked for. Fonseka never hesitated to push the political leadership on the urgent need to expand the SLA. The Army Chief had the backing of the Defence Secretary and the whole process was expedited, overnight.

A recruitment drive got underway, in the last quarter of 2006, as the SLA, at a great cost, thwarted the LTTE offensive on the Northern front, stabilized the situation there, and went on the offensive. A relentless SLA campaign brought the entire Eastern Province, under government control, with the recapture of the last Tiger stronghold, at Toppigala, in July 2007. As the name denotes, it was a rock outcrop, with a clear viewing advantage of the surroundings. But, that wouldn’t have been possible without operations, conducted by the Navy and the Air Force, both in support of ground forces, as well as to weaken the overall conventional capacity of the enemy. But, ironically, that fact was lost on our warwinning military genius, Sarath Fonseka, and, no doubt, a man with a sixth sense, but who ironically felt that all war trophies should go to the Army and him.

We will cite just one example as to why we say he had a sixth sense that helped to win the war. For a long time, we had heard from lower ranking officers that they were often reluctant to call in artillery support as often they themselves got whacked by such ‘friendly’ fire. But after the all-out war broke out, in 2006, and the Army was advancing on several fronts, we suddenly found that Fonseka had taken a rather unusual step of putting a stop to the discretionary power of our artillery and he had placed Special Forces operatives with all field artillery units and they couldn’t fire their big guns till those minders, clearly wearing T-shirts, emblazoned ‘Special Forces’, double checked their ranges. And, miraculously, that ended many a friendly artillery killing our own soldiers. This was something all previous commanders failed to do.

As many as 120,000 men were mobilized as the the SLA raised almost 100 infantry battalions. It would be pertinent to mention that new recruits were required for new fighting formations and also to replenish depleted battalions. The high intensity Vanni battles took a heavy toll on fighting formations. The incumbent Army Commander had served as the Commanding Officer of the 8th battalion of the Gajaba Regiment (Jan. 1, 2006 to June 06, 2006) attached to 56 and 57 Divisions during the Vanni campaign. The 56 Division played a defensive role whereas 57 Division played a critically important offensive role, though it ceased offensive operations, after capturing Kurivilkulam, in the second week of Feb. 2009.

The rapid recruitment, training and deployment of fresh recruits swamped the Vanni with infantry formations. During the last phase of the war, the SLA troop strength doubled, thereby allowing successive commanders after Fonseka, who relinquished command in mid-July 2009, amidst controversy of his decision to enter active politics. Fonseka contested the 2010 January presidential election but suffered a humiliating defeat in the hands of Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Having made an abortive bid to spearhead a party of his own, the war hero, who holds the rank of Field Marshal, has now ended up as an MP, representing the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB).

Since the end of the war, there has been a gradual decrease in the security forces’ strength, though the approved cadre remained unchanged.

Unprecedented challenge

In spite of President Wickremesinghe’s declaration Sri Lanka’s commitment to friendly ties with all countries, at regional and global level, his government is ensnared in a deadly US-China conflict against the backdrop of an equally lethal debt trap.

Having declared bankruptcy, in April last year, Sri Lanka is struggling to reach consensus with China and India, two major bilateral creditors whose backing is nothing but a pre-requisite for the finalization of the IMF USD 2.9 bn credit facility, spread over a period of four years. No less a person than President Wickremesinghe, during an informal chat with a group of journalists, representing Upali Newspapers Ltd., on January 06, acknowledged the difficult situation his government is in.

There is still no clear indication when China and India will reach final consensus on this matter, although Sri Lanka and the IMF reached a staff-level agreement, relating to it, on Sept. 01, 2022.

The response of some sections of the international community, to the developing economic crisis here, cannot be discussed without taking into consideration their alignment with the US-led grouping meant to counter, what they perceive, as a growing Chinese threat.

Once Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakse, PC, declared that Sri Lanka faced a major security threat as long as the Hambantota Port remained in Chinese hands. The warning was given in the wake of the 2019 Easter Sunday carnage that claimed the lives of 269 men, women and children, including about 40 foreigners, and wounded about double that number. The then UNP lawmaker Wijeyedasa Rajapakse proposed the intervention of Parliament to take back the Hambantota Port, given to China, on a 99-year lease. Ranil Wickremesinghe, the Premier of the Yahapalana government that finalized the Hambantota Port deal, in 2017, is the President now.

Sri Lanka needs to carefully review the situation. Sri Lanka cannot afford to ignore geopolitical interests of individual countries, as well as various groupings, in addition to the Tamil Diaspora factor. The ‘Quad’ (Indo-Pacific Quadrilateral Dialogue) comprising the US, Australia, Japan and India. The grouping wants Sri Lanka, within its orbit, whereas China pursues its own strategy.

There cannot be any other reason than the Tamil Diaspora vote for Canada to recognize Tamil genocide, in May last year, and then imposed sanctions against former Presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently.

Canada’s treatment of indigenous people has exposed their human rights façade, while Ottawa pursue Sri Lanka over unsubstantiated war crimes allegations.

Unfortunately, successive Sri Lankan governments, including the incumbent Wickremesinghe-Rajapaksa administration, continues to fail the war-winning military.

Sanctions imposed on the Rajapaksa brothers must be examined, keeping in mind Sri Lanka’s pathetic failure to use Lord Naseby’s disclosure, in the House of Lords, in Oct. 2017. to clear the military. Following a lengthy legal battle, Lord Naseby forced the UK to release a section of highly censored confidential wartime dispatches (January 01, 2009- May 2009) from its High Commission in Colombo.

In conversations with this writer, in Colombo, last year, Lord Naseby expressed disappointment over Sri Lanka’s continuous failure to use available evidence, coupled with a very supportive assessment made by wartime US Defence Advisor Colonel Lawrence Smith, in Colombo, over two years, after the war ended, at the inaugural defence seminar, in Colombo. Sri Lanka simply ignored the US Colonel’s declaration that must have been made quite confidently in the presence of senior military representatives of about 40 countries.

Sri Lanka never recognized the growing threat until the US imposed a travel ban on Gen. Shavendra Silva, on Feb. 13, 2020. That was five years after Australia refused a visa to Maj. Gen. Chagie Gallage, also over unsubstantiated war crimes allegations.

Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, too, has been denied a US visa after Washington quite conveniently forgot backing Fonseka at the 2010 presidential poll and the war-winning Army Chief receiving the backing of the Tamil National Alliance that ensured the General sweeping predominately Tamil speaking districts in the Northern and Eastern Province, at the 2010 presidential poll. But, Canadian sanctions on former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, MP, are the first on a politician, whereas Gotabaya Rajapaksa was targeted over his role as the wartime Defence Secretary.

Parliament needs to ascertain the situation seriously, and take appropriate measures, at least now, to have accountability issues examined properly to pave the way for restoring public faith in the political party system.

Parliament, entrusted with financial responsibility, has achieved what the LTTE, one of the groups established by India, in the ’80s, to terrorize Sri Lanka, failed to do.

Parliament has overseen the ruination of the war-winning country. The declaration of bankruptcy is nothing but an indictment of successive governments. The debt servicing crisis should be studied, keeping in mind Sri Lanka obtained IMF’s bailout packages on 16 previous occasions. The next one depends on the response of Sri Lanka’s creditors, China and India.

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