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Taliban returns after 20 years in Afghanistan, Government disappears after one year in Sri Lanka

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by Rajan Philips

For the Sunday Island family, the virus has taken one of their own. Chief News Editor Suresh Perera passed away last week after falling ill due to Covid-19. I have met Mr. Perera only through emails, but that was enough for me to picture him as a friendly and helpful person, and a disciplined and focused journalist. Qualities that I have since seen validated in the news tributes to his memory by his colleagues. What I did not know was that he was also a gentle giant of a journalist with a six-foot, 100 kilos stature. It did not come as a surprise, however, that he was a popular parliamentary affairs reporter during the 1980s and that he is known for his coverage of the 1988 presidential election. I have been a faithful reader of his frontpage bylines every Sunday, especially those exposing the innards of government ministries and departments. His exposés of the Ministry of Health – its internal bickering and external interferences during the pandemic, were timely and revelatory. Discerning readers would have noticed that Suresh Perera laid bare the threads of chaos that were emerging at the highest government levels in the handling of the pandemic. Now the chaos is everywhere in the government, just as the virus is everywhere in the country.

Return of the Taliban

As news stories go last week belonged to Afghanistan – to the return of the Taliban and the retreat of America after yet another superpower bungling. After 20 years, trillions of dollars, thousands of planes, copters and drones, and tens of thousands of military boots on the ground, the American enterprise in Afghanistan has come down like a house of cards. The returning Taliban forces took barely two weeks to establish their power all over the country. The Afghan armed forces, so called, walked away without resistance and their Commander in Chief, President Ashraf Ghani, fled the country with his family and now seems ready to return for talks.

The reports and images streaming out of Afghanistan show the panic among the supporters of the fallen government. Many of them are storming the airport in Kabul jostling for a seat in any one of the American military planes flying out of Afghanistan. On the other hand, there are also reports that large numbers of Afghans, perhaps the ‘silent majority’ – to borrow Nixon’s crafty phrase during the Vietnam war, seem relieved that power has been transferred without bloodshed and that life can return to a new normal without gun shots in the background.

Outside Afghanistan, there is hyped up speculation about what the Taliban will or will not do in the country now that they are its uncontested rulers. Will they act like grownups now compared to 20 years ago? Not that America was particularly mature 20 years ago. There is too much of manufactured outrage among American media pundits over their government’s botched up exit plan. Too little, on the other hand, is said about what their government has done to the people of Afghanistan over 20 years.

Other governments and leaders are watching the unfolding events in Afghanistan, and are not rushing to recognize or reject the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the official title of the Taliban administration in Afghanistan. The exceptions are of course the US and its G7 allies, on the one hand, and the troika of Russia, China and Pakistan, on the other. The former propped up the now fallen government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The latter group is working to globally normalize the new Taliban government. In the South Asian regional context, the biggest beneficiary of the change in Afghanistan is Pakistan. The biggest setback will be to the Modi government in India. But even Pakistan is not rushing to formally recognize the Taliban government even though it is only a matter of formality for the Imran Khan government.

So, it is somewhat bemusing to see Sri Lankan leaders, Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa, rushing to make statements on Afghanistan while other governments are watching and waiting. Ranil Wickremesinghe was the first to go, urging the Sri Lankan government not to recognize the Taliban administration, because under the Taliban, Afghanistan will again become a hub for terror groups, which may lead to terrorism raising its head again in Sri Lanka. This from the gentleman who claimed innocence over Sri Lankan security matters after the 2019 Easter bombings.

The very next day the former PM was contradicted by the current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who “re-affirmed Sri Lanka’s continued support to the people of Afghanistan following the Taliban takeover.” Mr. Rajapaksa also let it be known that he had spoken with, not anyone from the Taliban, but strangely with the former Afghan President Hamid Karzai “to inquire about the ongoing developments unfolding in the war-torn country and further re-affirm Sri Lanka’s support for the Afghans.” Neither statement is going to be noticed by anyone outside Sri Lanka. But we can be curious about who within Sri Lanka will be taking note of either statement. Specifically, which embassy or high commission could be the intended target? Or may have inspired either of the two statements?

In spite of the government

Even as global news was dominated by Afghanistan and the Taliban, there were developments in Sri Lanka for local news. Not surprisingly, almost all of them were about the relentless spread of Covid-19 and responses to it. And responses, not so much by the government, but directly by the people and their public actions – in spite of the government. This is a new and even unprecedented development in Sri Lanka.

Last week I commented on the then anticipated “crucial meeting” on Friday, August 13, between President Rajapaksa and his Task Force on COVID-19. The Friday meeting came and went, and the President was not ready to listen to the Doctors and their calls for lockdowns and other restrictive measures. The President directed his General only to tighten the inter-provincial travel restrictions. As if that will make the virus stay indoors in each province.

Remarkably, however, presidential inaction in spite of pleas by medical professionals, has provoked the people to act on their own behalf and in spite of the government. This development is not only unprecedented, but has also unnerved the government and spontaneously empowered the people. Among the first to go were businesses and retailers who announced the suspension of business and commercial activities in reportedly 31 cities/towns across the country to stem the spread of Covid-19. Lawyers’ Associations in a number of places have also decided to stop attending courts until the spread of Covid-19 is brought under control. Trade unions in the health sector, with support from the National Trade Union Centre, have notified that they will lockdown themselves if the government were to continue to rebuff lockdown calls.

Joining the chorus for lockdown calls, the leaders of ten political parties in the governing SLPP alliance have asked the President in writing to impose a three-week lockdown as a necessary measure to contain the spread of the virus. The leaders have written to the President that “people are living in fear when the country remains open and they are hesitant to move with economic activities.” They have also urged the establishment of “a committee of health and economic experts to provide advice” to the government. Not too subtle a statement on the presidential task forces.

Even the Sangha, the President’s most coveted and revered constituency, is calling upon the President to impose even a limited lockdown. The Maha Nayaka Theras of the Asgiriya and Malwatta Chapters have sent a letter to the President requesting him “to close the country for at least a week to control the rapid spread of COVID-19 virus.” The government’s responses have been haphazard and reactive and not at all bold and decisive. The Ministry of Health issued a new set of health guidelines, most of which the people were beginning to observe on their own anyway. If these guidelines were late and redundant, the President’s mini cabinet shuffle last Monday provided the occasion for some mirth in the middle of a misery.

The shuffle involved a select band of cabinet ministers. Some of them apparently did not know that they were being shuffled till they were summoned for the swearing in. No one lost anything, while a few, or only one, Namal Rajapaksa, gained something, which really was much ado about nothing. A kind of Pareto optimality (increasing the welfare of some without diminishing the welfare of any) in presidential cabinet making. No one could make head or tail of what the shuffle was all about, and editorial writers had a field day after the shuffle in pouring scorn over the whole thing.

Why President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is adamantly opposed to lockdowns has become a national mystery. An SLPP Minister has given a rather lame explanation that the President doesn’t like lockdowns because they will hurt the poor. The truth is timely lockdowns are needed to protect the poor from getting infected. A different explanation going viral on social media is about the President apparently heeding the advice of a lady astrologer named Gnanakka against imposing a lockdown during the Kandy Perahera season. It is extraordinary that in the middle of a global pandemic, anyone would expect that any one country, however blessed, could be exclusively protected by supernatural influences.

The Perahera is now almost over and just like last year, it has been going on without public attendance. Although about 5,600 artistes and 5,500 police officers are said to be involved but apparently contained within a perahera bubble. Why it would have been inauspicious to have lockdowns outside the perahera bubble is a matter for clairvoyants. It may be that after the Day Perahera is over tomorrow, the President may get the blessing to impose a national lockdown.

Whether a lockdown is going to be a week or two late is irrelevant now. At this critical stage no measure is too little, too early, or too late. Every measure counts, but every measure must be based on the considered recommendations of medical professionals. And not on the hocus pocus of a clairvoyant.

The grim reality is that Covid-19 infections and deaths in the country are soaring. The hospitals are overflowing. On Friday morning, Army Commander General Shavendra Silva announced that new Covid-19 patients will have to “register through an SMS system, detailing their ailments to 1904, where, depending on their symptoms they will be divided into either category A, B or C.”

Patients in Category A will be taken by ambulance to hospitals designated for critical patients; those in Category B will be directed to go to other hospitals; and others in Category C with milder symptoms will stay home and undergo home treatment with guidance from GMOA Doctors. What will happen if the number of patients in Category A and Category B starts exceeding the respective hospital capacities?

According to the Daily Mirror, in 24 over 3,000 SMS messages have been received on the 1904 hotline by the National Operations Center for COVID-19 (NOCPCO). The system is not currently open to all districts, and is expected to be opened to all districts early next week. The SMS texts will provide a new measure for Covid-19 infections in the country. Whether that will shed more light on, or add to the confusion over conflicting statistics is a different matter.

The country and the people have more than a sense of what they are in for with Covid-19, and what they can do in their own limited ways to cope with this pandemic. The question is whether the government will catch up with the people and do its mite, or disappear and leave it to the people to look after themselves? That may be what the government has been hoping for as well. What it may not have bargained for is that in looking after themselves the people will also start acting in spite of the government. And it is never too long a distance for any people to go from acting despite their government to acting in defiance of it.



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Features

Form-ation of Higher Education in Sri Lanka

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By Hasini Lecamwasam

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

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

The problem with form-ation

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

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

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

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

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

What alternative can we propose?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE LOGIC OF PRESIDENT’S PLEDGES IN NEW YORK

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by Jehan Perera

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

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

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

EU MONITORING

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

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

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

NEW DIRECTION

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

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

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

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Face shields, sans masks, on TV shows!

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Face shield ONLY does not provide protection from Covid-19

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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