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Turbulent four decades: War, peace and corruption



By Shamindra Ferdinando

A bald-headed person, seated in a corner chair, in the deserted The Island editorial, looked at the writer as he entered the office. In spite of the spacious office being air-conditioned, he was smoking a cigarette. “Why are you wearing a tie? Remove it, call me Anton. Roll-up your sleeves, sit over there. Bala should be here soon.” That was the response, the writer received from the late Anton Weerasinghe when he addressed the first individual he encountered as “Sir” on the first day at The Island Editorial on the morning of June 1, 1987.

At the time, the writer joined The Island as a novice, Anton Weerasinghe, a veteran in the field, served as the Chief Sub Editor, and Bala was actually the late Peter Balasuriya, the then News Editor. A smiling Weerasinghe advised that journalists should always be on first name basis with their colleagues and the only exception was that the novices addressed the Editor-in-Chief Gamini Weerakoon “Sir.” Weerasinghe called him “Gamma.”

Over the next couple of weeks, the writer had the opportunity to meet seniors, the late Ajith Samaranayake, Rohan Abeywardena, Lalith Alahakoon, M. Ismeth, the late Vijitha Amarasinghe, the late Clarence Anandappa, Norman Palihawadana, Lakshman Gunasekera, his brother Rohan Gunasekera, now Canada-based D.B.S. Jeyaraj, Ranjiva Seneviratne, the late Lasantha Wickrematunga, the late Gregory Wickremesinghe, the late Eriq Devanarayana, Zanita Careem, Chitra Weeraratne, the late Zacky Jabbar, the late M. S. M. Mansoor, the late Wilfred Lasz, the late Therese Moorthy, Malkanthi Leitan, the late R. Sathyapalan, Minoli de Soysa, Sisira Wijesinghe, the late Suresh P. Perera, Jehan Haniff, Winston de Vallier, Charnika Munesinghe, Faheema Fariz, Shirley de Silva, the late Chandragupta Weerawardena, Rozaine Koelmayer and the late Aloy Perera.

Vijitha Amarasinghe, the then Sports Editor, inquired whether the writer would like to join the Sports Desk. But, the Indian ‘parrippu drop’ on June 4, 1987, which brought an end to the first Brigade-level military onslaught ‘Operation Liberation’, conducted against the LTTE, in the Jaffna peninsula, made me quite interested in covering the conflict though at that time the writer was only 19 and fresh from school, didn’t have any idea at least as to how to work on a story. India’s forced intervention plunged the country into unprecedented turmoil.

Indo-Lanka accord triggers violence

Violence, instigated by the JVP, erupted in the wake of the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord of July 29, 1987, which was literally shoved down our throat. Shocking assault on the then Indian Premier Rajiv Gandhi, with a rifle butt, at a guard-of-honour in Colombo, by an enraged naval rating, killing of UNP MP for Tangalle Jinadasa Weerasinghe, grenade attacks on the UNP parliamentary group, in Parliament, which claimed the life of Matara District MP Keerthi Abeywickrema (the writer covered Abeywickrema’s funeral at Matara. It was the first coverage in a series of funerals of assassinated politicians and officials), security forces, police and pro-government sponsored death squads, unleashing counterterror against the JVP, and a censorship on the media, made print journalism quite a challenge and exciting. At the time there were no private TV channels.

The incident involving Susantha Punchinilame, at the Ratnapura by-election in July 1988, underscored the situation at that time. A gun-toting Punchinilame, a UNP lawmaker, caused havoc in Ratnapura, on that day, with the late Gamini Dissanayake in charge of the overall operation. The writer and staff photographer Saranapala Pamunuwa had to take to his heels when armed men, accompanying Punchinilame spotted Pamunuwa taking pictures.

Amidst repression by the government as well as the JVP, the print media struggled. Censorship made the task even more difficult. Typed and hand written copy had to be taken to the Government Information Department where the government appointed Competent Authority deleted articles or sections of them. There had even been times earlier when the Competent Authority operated from the Upali Group complex.

As Norman Palihawadana, Rohan Gunasekera, Jehan Haniff as well as Suresh Perera covered the security/’police round’, the writer found it extremely difficult to get sufficient space but subsequently received the opportunity to engage in quite a bit of security coverage. In fact, the eruption of the second JVP insurgency gave the writer an opening to work with experienced Divaina journalists. Seniors Peter Balasuriya, Abeywardena and Wickremathunga were always helpful.

Weligama blasts

The visit to Kapparathota, in the Weligama electorate, in late July 1988, with staff photographer Jude Denzil Pathiraja, in a vehicle driven by now retired driver Premalal, was fraught with danger. Having covered the first landmine blast there, we ended up at Hambantota where Lt. Colonel Vipul Botheju of the Gemunu Watch had succeeded the then Air Commodore A.B. Soza, in charge of overall security there. Violence gripped the South, where the armed forces and UNP para-military groups waged war against the JVP aka DJV (Deshapremi Janatha Viyaparaya). On and off visits to the deep South, the Central as well as the North Central Provinces over the next few years, drove home the uncertainty and despair as never before. A visit to Kudawella, in Tangalle, with Divaina veteran Dharmaratne Wijesundera, took a nasty turn when the JVPer, whom we met, was killed by the Army. The JVP accused us of passing information to the Army. However, we managed to convince them by pointing out we were taken there blind-folded and couldn’t pass information about a location we didn’t know. In another incident, a drunken soldier almost shot dead UNL driver Podimahattaya opposite the Ja-Ela police station. The soldier found fault with him for wearing a pair of shorts and accused him of carrying JVP posters.

At a time, the media here lacked access to information regarding the developments on the Indo-Lanka front and the JRJ government did everything possible to hinder media, Aloy Perera provided the latest news based on All India Radio (AIR) broadcasts. The Island, at the time, depended so much on foreign radio broadcasts. On the advice of editor Gamini Weerakoon, the UNL brought Aloy Perera a top of the line Sony radio available at the time. Aloy considered the radio his private property. During a certain period (1987-1990), the media had to obtain information pertaining to incidents in the Northern and Eastern Provinces from the Indian HC in Colombo.

Reportage of northern conflict

The Island can be certainly proud of its coverage of the northern and southern terrorism and developments in other fields, including political as well economic and waste, corruption and irregularities over the past decade. There cannot be any dispute over The Island stand against terrorism, even during the times various governments succumbed to international pressure. During the 2002-2004 UNP administration, The Island came under tremendous pressure over its reportage of the ground situation. The UNP relentlessly brought pressure on the UNL as it did during the 1987-1990 period when India battled the LTTE in the North and the East and the UNP fought the JVP in the South. The UNP believed it could suppress the truth by intimidating the media. Ranil Wickremesinghe-led UNP went to the extent of closing down the SLBC’s “Vanni Sevaya’ to appease the LTTE and restricting the Army from issuing daily security situation reports.

During the troubled times, too, The Island continuously published the music page that had been a key attraction, at a period social media was unheard of. The young and the old liked Ivan Alvis’s ‘Music page’ and the writer used to take down lyrics of popular songs at that time. Perhaps, Ivan’s music page is the longest such page in Sri Lanka. At the inception of The Island, it was Ivan’s father, the late Ben Alvis, who started a column, called “The Heart of the Matter”. Then it was Ivan’s late younger brother David, who did a music page till he migrated to the United States. It was Ivan who directed me years later to Abdullah Luthufi, the Maldivian mastermind of the sea-borne attack on Male.

Prabath Sahabandu, who joined The Island editorial soon after Ranasinghe Premadasa’s government brought the JVP-inspired terror campaign (1987-1990) to an end, succeeded the Editor-in-Chief Gamini Weerakoon.

The Island, too, like other print and electronic media, experienced trials and tribulations throughout its existence. In spite of the eradication of the JVP terror by early 1990 and the LTTE in 2009, the country had succumbed to corruption and the situation deteriorated to such an extent, the Parliament, in spite of being the custodian of public money, seemed to be simply overseeing waste, corruption and irregularities. Before discussing the pathetic state of the national economy, let me remind two persons whose lives were snuffed out.

Media targeted

During the rush hour on July 24, 1996 evening, the LTTE triggered multiple explosions in a train at Dehiwala killing 64 persons. Over 400 suffered injuries. Among the dead was Sudeepa Purnajith, an artist, stamp designer and cartoonist who had been on The Island editorial before joining the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Limited (ANCL)/Lake House.

Lasantha Wickremetunga was assassinated near Attidiya Model Primary School in the morning rush hour on January 8, 2009. Wickrematunga, one-time Private Secretary to the then Opposition Leader the late Sirimavo Bandaranaike, defeated SLFP candidate at the 1989 general election and the Editor-in- Chief of the now defunct The Sunday leader was on his way to work when he was killed. The first Rajapaksa administration never cleared accusations directed at it over Wickremetunga’s killing as well as abduction and assault on Keith Noyahr, Deputy Editor of now defunct Nation on the night of May 2008 and attack on one-time Divaina editor Upali Tennakoon on the morning of January 23, 2009, at Imbulgoda. Tennakoon, the founding Editor of Rivira published by the Rivira Media Corporation, was on his way to office with his wife Dhammika.

Just over a year later, the UNP-led Opposition and Western countries that accused the war-winning Army Commander General Fonseka of those attacks backed him at the 2010 presidential election. The TNA on the advice received from the US threw its weight behind Fonseka, who lost badly by a huge margin of over 1.8 mn votes though the Tamil electorate, including LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s home town Valvettithurai voted for him overwhelmingly. Having lost the presidential bid, Fonseka successfully contested the 2010 general election, under the JVP-led alliance, only to be deprived of the seat under controversial circumstances, served a prison term and got released, thanks to US intervention, formed his own party for the 2015 general election, only to be totally rejected. With the help of UNP leader Wickremesinghe, Fonseka re-entered Parliament in 2016 on the UNP National List. In 2020 Fonseka switched allegiance to the newly formed Samagi Jana Balavegaya. Now, Field Marshal Fonseka represents the Gampaha district.

Quite a number of journalists perished during this period. Dharmeratnam Sivaram aka ‘Taraki’, one-time The Sunday Island defence columnist, was abducted and killed on April 28, 2005. Taraki, who had been with Dharmalingam Siddarthan’s PLOTE, which made an abortive bid to assassinate Maldivian President Mohammed Abdul Gayoom, in Male, in early Nov 1988, propagated the line that the LTTE could never be defeated, militarily. During many discussions on the issue, Taraki quiet confidently asserted that the Army lacked the strength to sustain a major offensive in the Jaffna peninsula. Sivaram cleverly used the print media to convince those in authority of the LTTE’s ‘invincibility’. In early 1996, Taraki was proved wrong when combined security forces brought the Jaffna peninsula under their control. Four years after Sivaram’s killing, the combined armed forces eradicated the LTTE once and for all. Over 12 years after Sri Lanka’s triumph over terrorism, the country seemed to be in a far worse situation than experienced at the height of the war in the North.

Sri Lanka has certainly lost the ‘war’ against corruption. The print and electronic media, including social media reportage of corruption, paint an extremely bleak picture. A section of politicians and officials seemed to have caused irreparable damage to the national economy. Their actions seemed even worse than the devastating LTTE suicide attack on the Central Bank on the morning of January 31, 1996. In spite of eradication of terrorism, the country failed to achieve its true potential due to corruption. That is the undeniable truth. The proceedings of parliamentary watchdog committees prove that the House had failed and the country is in the grip of an utterly corrupt system. The media (social media included) regardless of some sections succumbing to perks and privileges, remain the real Opposition.



The Global Tamil Forum (GTF), spokesperson Suren Surendiran recently declared that The Island is the only Sri Lankan media to provide them coverage at a time no other print, or electronic media, here, had the guts to do so. The UK-based Surendiran was referring to the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s second term (2010-2015). Following the 2004 April general election, the EU election monitoring mission declared that The Island reporting of the poll as the most balanced.

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by Jehan Perera

A year after the protest movement took off into a mammoth public display of the popular desire for change, it appears to be no more. What appears on the streets on and off is a pale imitation of the mighty force of people rich and poor, from north and south, who occupied the main roads of downtown Colombo for more than three months. The government under President Ranil Wickremesinghe is leaving no room for the people to get on the streets again. This has been through a combination of both efficient and repressive policies that exceed those of the predecessor government.

The government has addressed the immediate causes that brought the people out on to the streets. The crippling shortages of vehicle fuel and cooking gas that caused long lines stretching for kilometers are not to be seen. There is enough to go around now as the demand for these basic commodities has dropped considerably following the tripling of their prices. There is an outward appearance of normalcy that belies the economic difficulties that the masses of people are facing. The three-wheel driver lamented that his monthly electricity bill of Rs 700 was now Rs 3200 which made keeping his refrigerator unaffordable. Government officers on fixed incomes are struggling to survive having pawned their jewellery and mortgaged their lands for survival. Those who can leave the country seem to be leaving.

The government has also shown it is prepared to use the security system to its maximum. This has won some supporters especially among the upper social classes and ethnic minorities who are always worried whether mobs of the under classes will invade their neighborhoods and subject them to looting and violence. After becoming president, President Wickremesinghe showed his resolve in bringing the protest movement to heel by sending the police to break it up and arrest the leaders. Protestors have been warned that their protests should not inconvenience the general public.

Those who do not heed the police guidelines have found themselves being tear-gassed, baton-charged and arrested. In contrast to the heyday of the protest movement a year ago, any voice of public dissent is liable to be quickly suppressed. A case in point would be that of the unfortunate hooter. As reported extensively in the media, a government minister who was laying a foundation stone for a religious shrine was hooted by a businessman who was travelling in his vehicle. The media reported that “the police acted swiftly, pursuing and apprehending the suspect. He will now be produced before the court for obstructing a religious ceremony.”


The contrast with what happened a year ago could not be more stark. The main slogans of the Aragalaya protests was to arrest the rogues who had bankrupted the country and compel them to bring back to the country their ill-gotten gains. The draft Anti-Terrorist law that has been approved by the Cabinet to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act is, in many ways, a more repressive law that will encompass a much wider swathe of social and political life. Clause 105 in it defines a “person” who can be taken into custody under this law to mean an individual, an association, organisation or body of persons.” Readers of George Orwell’s classic novel of authoritarian government, “1984” would feel a chill if that new law is passed when they think of protesting against the government.

A key demand of the protest movement last year was the demand for “system change.” At its core this was a desperate call for a change of government that had bankrupted the country and accountability and punishment for those who had impoverished the people by their mis-governance, corruption and indifference to the people’s plight. Another terminology for “systems change” would be to say that the people called for a new “social contract.” The notion of a social contract between rulers and ruled was developed over four centuries ago in Europe by Enlightenment era thinkers such as by John Locke in England and by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in France who gave the name “The Social Contract” to his 1762 book.

The social contract theorists argued that people left the state of nature where without government life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (as described by their predecessor Thomas Hobbes). People entered into a social contract with those who would govern them. In terms of the social contract, the people would give up some of their rights and freedoms in exchange for protection and order by the government. In modern democracies, people elect their representatives who form the government of the day and look after the best interests of the people. But in March 2022, the people of Sri Lanka felt hat their government had not lived up to the social contract and demanded they leave office and return their ill-gotten gains.


Those who continue to come out on the streets in protest demand elections and also demand to know why the government has not made efforts to bring back the money that was stolen. What is visible at the present time is that most of the government members who were responsible leaders of the previous government continue to remain in positions of power, either frontally or behind the scenes. There continue to be allegations of corruption and abuse of power. In one appalling instance, two government ministers resigned from a watchdog committee they were appointed to. They complained that they were not getting the information they required to play their assigned roles.

Sri Lanka has yet to address the monumental failure of government that took place in the early part of 2022 that plunged the country from a middle income level to a low income level. When the people went out on to the streets to protest and call for a “systems change” they were demanding that the government should step down and go. But it did not go and instead re-arranged itself and continues to be in power. Much to the chagrin of the protest movement, the government they wanted to go has grown stronger under the leadership of President Ranil Wickremesinghe and is ignoring the demand for “system change” and those who call for local government elections which are overdue.

Speaking to students at Harvard University last week through the internet, President Wickremesinghe made it known that the government would abide by the Supreme Court’s decision with regard to the elections. A confrontation involving the three branches of government would signify a “systems breakdown” in place of the “systems change” that people fought for a year ago. The president has also taken pride in announcing that the government will soon be passing into law the best anti-corruption legislation in South Asia in parliament soon. If the president’s vision of sustainable political stability and economic recovery is not to be a re-enactment of the Orwellian dystopia of 1984, there needs to indeed be a “systems change”, a plan for the future prepared in consultation with the opposition and civil society and a new “social contract” in which elections would be the first step.

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Free Education, Social Welfare and the IMF Programme



by Ahilan Kadirgamar

Sri Lanka’s seventeenth IMF agreement sealed last week may well prove to be the most devastating one of them all. The reason is that the agreement comes along with Sri Lanka having defaulted on its external debt for the first time in its history. The IMF amounts to being the arbiter of the debt restructuring process with Sri Lanka’s external creditors, which will provide considerable leverage for Sri Lanka to be held accountable to IMF conditionalities.

The fallout of the IMF package will be wide and deep, greater than the Structural Adjustment Programm e with the IMF in the late 1970s, when our cherished social welfare system came under attack. In this Kuppi column, I address some of the dangers facing our education system. Education is inextricably linked to welfare and democracy, and in the years ahead the nexus of the IMF and the current avatar of the neoliberal state are likely to impose an authoritarian regime of dispossession. The future of Free Education in our country now depends on tremendous resistance by our students and teachers along with solidarity from all quarters of the working people.

Welfare and democracy

Social welfare in Sri Lanka reaches back to the 1940s. It included food subsides, free education and free healthcare, which were all universal schemes. The IMF packages and the World Bank programmes since the neoliberal turn in the late 1970s have consistently attempted to weaken such universal social welfare programs in the interest of creating a market economy, including through the commercialisation of education and healthcare. Neoliberal ideology privileges the individual, and by the same token places the entire burden of wellbeing on the individual. As the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher—who, along with US President Ronald Reagan, initiated the neoliberal age on a global scale—famously said, “there is no such thing as society”.

This rejection of society is at the heart of the attack on social welfare, as the IMF and World Bank are now in the process of changing the very idea of social welfare itself into a narrow concept of targeted cash transfer programmes. This attack on the social aspect of welfare entails both granting enormous discretionary power to those in power to determine which individuals can obtain minimal support, in addition to the monetisation of such entitlements, which over time would likely be reduced or inflated away.

Historically, universal social welfare came after the policy of universal adult franchise in 1931. Furthermore, universal free education policies, as they emerged in the mid-1940s, were framed in terms of strengthening the ability of Sri Lanka’s citizens to exercise power through their democracy. In this context, today’s attack on universal social welfare is a key part of the agenda of an illegitimate and undemocratic regime in power. Moreover, the regime’s vision of the education system derives from the IMF’s technocratic assumption that the goal should be to create subservient employees for a market economy, rather than democratic-minded people who can become agents of social, economic and political change.

Austerity, dispossession, and resistance

The attack on education is not only ideological, in terms of the neoliberal emphasis on individualism. The austerity measures that are inherent to the current IMF programme are also material. They are bound to reduce the allocations for education. The Government is being forced to find avenues to create a primary budget surplus by next year. This will further lead to initiatives for the commercialisation of education; for example, the expansion of fee-levying programs in the state university system, loan schemes for education, and the initiation of private educational institutions, including private universities.

The logic of the IMF programme and the unfolding developments will dispossess people of one of their most important social welfare entitlements: education. There is already evidence of rising school dropouts, of children not being sent regularly to school, children fainting at school due to the lack of food, and children having to labour for their existence. University students are finding transport costs unaffordable and even lunch packets are becoming out of their reach. These are the consequences of a contracting economy due to the austerity measures that have been imposed. Indeed, our economy has contracted by as much as a fifth over the last few years. The critical gains of social welfare made after the Great Depression of the 1930s in our country are now in danger of being completely rolled back because of the ongoing economic depression along with the IMF programme making it worse.

The dismal prospects for our country can only be addressed by solidarity and resistance. We need to regain our sense of social belonging, which was undone through the very attack by neoliberalism on the idea of society, while taking forward the struggle for democracy. The great struggles last year that dislodged an authoritarian populist president provide hope that despite decades of neoliberal policies, working people’s capacity to envision society, solidarity, and resistance are very much alive.

We are going through the most painful period of our postcolonial history. It is a moment in which, even as our economy is collapsing, our elite are working in cahoots with the IMF and global finance capital, which have achieved a stranglehold on us by leveraging the default and the bankrupt state of our country. In the context of this existential danger, for those of us concerned about safeguarding free education and, for that matter, any meaningful system of education, this time around that struggle must begin from a broader defence of social welfare and democracy.

The author is attached to the Department of Sociology at the University of Jaffna

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 Box of Delights – II



Seeing through testing times and future

Text of the keynote address by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
at the 8th International Research Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences,

University of Sri Jayewardenepura on 16 March, 2023.

Sadly, too, the GELT materials we produced are now forgotten, though in the end they were taken up by Cambridge University Press in India and prescribed too at some Indian universities. But in this country producing materials is a way of making money and so, though three years ago the UGC asked about using our materials again, they were prevented from making use of these, and individual universities demanded autonomy and nothing went forward as swiftly as our poor youngsters needed.

Delay also affected the curriculum reform I initiated when I chaired the NIE AAB [Academic Affairs Board]. I had told the then Education Secretary Tara de Mel that we should move immediately, but for once that normally efficient lady was diffident, and said we should wait. Six months later she told me to go ahead, and we did, swiftly, but then Chandrika Kumaratunga lost a year of her Presidency through carelessness and the new President and his Minister simply did not understand the need for continuity, and the vital changes we had embarked on were forgotten.

But Mahinda Rajapaksa and Susil Premjayanth did continue with perhaps the most important initiative begun under Tara—the English medium in secondary schools in the government system. That had begun in 2001, but was sabotaged by Ranil Wickremesinghe, who became Prime Minister at the end of that year. But his Minister of Education, Karunasena Kodituwakku, a former Vice-Chancellor of this University, was more enlightened, and ignored Ranil’s instructions that he halt the programme, and it continued. He was lucky not to be tear-gassed, but, in those days, there were some restraints on unbridled authority with the forces then more supportive of alternatives.

But the teacher training programme I had started with support from Paru and Oranee, had to stop. The NIE then took that over and completely destroyed the learner friendly approach we had initiated, with its hierarchy promoting formulas, such as three Ts and then five Es and seven Ks, gloriously asserted in lengthy sentences such as ‘Also the teacher should closely observe the children learning, identifying students’ activities, disabilities, providing feedback, developing the learning capacities of the students and making implements to extend the learning and teaching outside the classroom are some other tasks expected from the teacher.

As I commented on this in English and Education: In Search of Equity and Excellence?, ‘It might seem churlish to cavil about the two main verbs in this sentence, were this not an instructional guide to English teachers, with three language editors who have doubtless been well paid for their pains, or the lack of them.

Training then was in the hands of the NIE, and the programme began to flounder. But, fortunately, the contract to produce books had been for two years, and Nirmali continued in charge of this, so at least a good foundation was laid, though after that the Ministry and the NIE took over and the usual tedious stuff was reintroduced. Our efforts to introduce wider knowledge, and creative thinking, were abandoned totally, unsurprising given the ignorance I had found in those entrusted with producing textbooks at the NIE (which managed once to produce a history syllabus which left out the French and the Industrial Revolutions in the whole secondary school curriculum). Let me, to prove my point, give you an extract from what the NIE managed to produce

‘Red the story …

Hello! We are going to the zoo. “Do you like to join us” asked Sylvia. “Sorry, I can’t I’m going to the library now. Anyway have a nice time” bye.

So Syliva went to the zoo with her parents. At the entrance her father bought tickets. First, they went to see the monkeys

She looked at a monkey. It made a funny face and started swinging Sylvia shouted.

“He is swinging look now it is hanging from its tail it’s marvellous”

“Monkey usually do that’

And, so it seems does the NIE, was my comment. Unfortunately, I cannot in a speech make clear the carelessness with regard to punctuation and spelling, but a printed version will show just how appalling the NIE usage of English is and the callousness of inflicting half-baked stuff on our children.

Despite all this English medium has survived, but that it could have done so much better is obvious from the continuing proliferation of private English medium schools. Interestingly, the former Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Education, Dharmasiri Peiris, whom I met after many years, reminded me that in the early nineties he had wanted me to work at the Ministry to remedy the situation, but he had abandoned the effort when officials at the Ministry opposed this, understandably so given that I do not tolerate nonsense. And though Tara was made of sterner stuff, and did make use of my services, two changes of regime before things could be consolidated meant that our children still get short shrift as far as English Language Learning is concerned.

I have spoken thus far of English at university level and in schools. I have also worked on English for vocational training, first thirty years ago when the World University Service of Canada commissioned a basic textbook for those starting on vocational training, then more comprehensively when I chaired the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission.

Having discovered that what were termed NVQ Levels 1 and 2, supposed to prepare youngsters for vocational training, hardly existed, I started Career Skills courses at those levels, to develop other soft skills and in particular English capacity, and these rapidly became the most popular courses in the system. After all, I had done a trawl and found that parents wanted something for their children to do in the fallow period after the Ordinary Level examination. Uniquely, Sri Lanka wastes the time of its youngsters by delaying the resumption of school, a boon to the tuition industry which embarks on recruitment and hooks youngsters for the next few years.

Needless to say, when I was sacked, the English courses were abolished, and successive Ministers of Education, who now have charge also of vocational education, bleat about the need for more English but do nothing to promote this. Least of all do they think of learning from the past, and far from reinventing the wheel, they simply talk about movement while allowing all means of transport to be dismantled, with parents and children who have been left in the lurch turning if they can to private education, tuition in particular.

As your former Vice-Chancellor perceptively put it, when I was last here, the education system is abandoned by those who have the means to pursue alternatives, and it is only the most deprived who cling to it. And whereas any country with a conscience would do its best by the deprived, decision makers in Sri Lanka do not care about them – like the Mr Lokubandara, who ranted against English in the state system and sent his son to an international school, and then when I reprimanded him told me sanctimoniously that it was his wife who had insisted on that.

Is there then no hope? I fear not, and now I can understand the despair of Mabel Layton in Paul Scott’s brilliant analysis of the failure of the British in imperialism, and her lament that “I thought there might be some changes, but there aren’t. It’s all exactly as it was when I first saw it more than forty years ago. I can’t even be angry. But someone ought to be.”’ I rather fear then that your Vice-Chancellor’s observation will prove even more apposite in the years to come. There was a brief moment three years ago, when covid first hit us, when I thought the system would bestir itself to provide alternatives, but I fear nothing of the sort happened.

But let me end now with what should have happened. Given that the onset of covid saw closure of schools and institutions, there should have been efforts to develop curricula appropriate for a time when face to face contact would not be easy. And this required, as I started by saying, thinking as learners do, and tailoring the content of curricula, as well as systems to convey it, to the abilities of learners, not teachers.

This was particularly important in the context of 2020 in which learners had limited access to teachers. But our decision makers could not think on these lines, nor understand that the key to this was simple materials, that are not just user friendly but that will allow learners to gain not only knowledge but also relevant thinking skills on their own. Provision could and should have been made for guidance, but this had to be minimal, and also provided through small group clusters, where students could learn from each other, in addition to getting guidance at a higher level as available. I recall vividly the brilliant initiative of Oranee Jansz, in insisting that all GELT students not only did a project, but that they dramatized this. This proved a wonderful motivating factor, and students in the remotest of areas worked hard together, and the synergy they developed, to use one of Oranee’s favourite words, led to rapid learning by even those who had been initially very weak.

Such a system was especially important for youngsters in rural communities, and could have been activated in 2020, at a time when communication was difficult, and where the panacea authorities developed, of online contact, was not easy, and in many instances not even possible. But as I have noted, those rural communities are of no concern to our decision makers, whose main motivation is to have their children advance through educational systems different from those the majority of our children have to undergo. They are not at all like Oranee, or one of the academics I remember most fondly from my time at this university, Prof Wickremaarachchi, who started an accountancy course in English medium only, and noted that one had failed as a teacher if one’s students did not end up better than oneself.

To continue, in the midst of a country in a desperate plight, with the positives this university could develop, I will revert to the last time I was here, in December, and highlight again the initiative I mentioned when I began, to work through the national library system to promote English through entertainment for early learners. The project which has been developed suggests at last, after two decades, an effective approach to extending opportunities and means of learning.

This can easily be taken further, at all levels – and work on this has begun – to fill gaps that the state has sedulously ignored for several decades. Costs would be minimal, if only innovators such as the personnel here responsible for the initiative were given a free hand. I can only hope that, with the support of the hierarchy here, and the other players who have combined to take this forward, from the Governor of the Northern Province to the Chairman of the National Library Services Board, that this initiative will lead to the proliferation of user friendly materials and personnel able to use them productively.

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