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Vidya Jyothi Gemunu Silva: The Ancient and Modern man



By Capt G.A.Fernando,

(RCyAF, Air Ceylon, Air Lanka, Singapore Airlines, and SriLankan Airlines)

In April, 1971, not long after the JVP Insurgency started, I was amongst a large crowd of young men, gathered at the Government Services Grounds, on Parsons Road, Colombo, jostling with each other, as we waited to volunteer our services to the Royal Ceylon Air Force (RCyAF).

While waiting for our names to be called, we heard an officer yell out, “Stand back all of you, except for this boy [he said pointing at me], or I am going to shoot!” The voice belonged to Squadron Leader Rex Fernando, Commanding Officer Designate of the Volunteer Air Force Reserve. Not surprisingly, his order and threat had the desired effect, and everyone promptly stood back to give him ‘breathing space’.

My name was the first to be called. The next was that of Gemunu Silva. As we were the first two, Gemunu and I had time to sit and get to know each other. His first question to me was, “Are you a pilot?” When I said yes, he said that he was a Mechanical Engineer at the State Engineering Corporation (SEC), and that he had a Student Pilot’s Licence, although it had been “destroyed” by his mother who didn’t want him to fly! Thus began a friendship between us which lasted over 50 years, until his untimely demise on 2nd July, 2021.

 After recruitment, we went our separate ways. Gemunu to Diyatalawa, and I was posted to China Bay for flight and ground training. A few months later, we met again at Diyatalawa for our passing-out parade, and were subsequently posted, together, at China Bay.

 Many interesting hours were then spent at the Officers’ Mess bar, ‘shooting the breeze’ into the ‘wee small hours’ (unless I was scheduled to fly early the next day). Gemunu’s repertoire of both classical Sinhala and English songs, including some he’d learned during his ‘Varsity days, was incredible. He had a good singing voice, and his mannerisms were unique, too. Often, if he had a memory lapse, he would hit his hand on his receding forehead and exclaim, “Bloody curse!”

Gemunu was also widely read and could speak and hold the floor on any subject. I remember him telling me to hold on to my mechanical lever-motion wrist-watch because the new-fangled electronic digital watches, then in great demand, would soon be “a dime a dozen”.

Although not a qualified pilot as such, Gemunu’s passion for aviation burned strongly, so he never missed a chance to go flying with us. Even if it was to check the brakes of an aircraft that never left the ground! The process of speaking with the Air Traffic Control tower, starting up and taxiing out, would make his day.

In those days, TV had yet to arrive in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka then was), so, as movie buffs, we used our Air Force IDs to get us concessions at local cinemas. While in Colombo, on short breaks from China Bay, we would go from cinema to cinema, watching one movie after another, starting at the Savoy Cinema, Wellawatte, at 10.30 am, Majestic, in Bambalapitiya, for the 3.30 pm show, then the Liberty Cinema, at 6.30 pm, and finally the Empire (Slave Island) or Regal Cinema (Fort) for the late 9.30 pm show.

After I was demobilised and joined Air Ceylon, Gemunu continued to serve the RCyAF (which became the Sri Lanka Air Force, in 1972) as a Volunteer. But he and I kept in contact and ‘touched base’ off and on. He married his cousin and childhood sweetheart Swineetha. Because he was still with the Air Force, they had planned a ‘service wedding’. But, by the afternoon, before his wedding day, he still hadn’t engaged a band to play at the event. So, at the eleventh hour, I turned for assistance to Gamini ‘Gabo’ Peiris, drummer and leader of the popular band ‘Gabo and The Breakaways’, who in his ‘other job’ as a flight steward with Air Ceylon was by then a colleague of mine.

But when Gemunu and I arrived at Gabo’s home we learned that he and the band were ‘on holiday’. Wondering what to do next (I think I was more worried than Gemunu), while our bus was passing the Liberty cinema, Gemunu suggested that we should go watch a movie (which happened to be On a Clear Day You Can See Forever). Of course, by the time the movie ended, at 5.30 pm, we still hadn’t found a band to play at the next day’s wedding.

That was when I suddenly remembered my former neighbour and friend and Scout master from school, Nihal ‘Sam the Man’ Samarasinghe, another famous musician and bandleader in those days. Fortunately, after he made a few calls, Sam was able to find another upcoming band to play at short notice and thus saved Gemunu’s day. This episode was typical of Gemunu who took everything ‘on the bump’.

A few months later, the SLAF selected Gemunu Silva to study for an M.Sc. in Toulouse, the home of Airbus Industrie (as the company was then known) in the South of France. There he helped work out the algorithms for ‘fly-by-wire’ (FBW) aircraft. From what I’ve heard, it was a military project to which he was assigned, with the use of what was then the only hybrid computer in France. The research material thus gained was subsequently used in French fighter aircraft and, later still, the state-of-the-art Airbus A320 passenger airliner.

When Air Lanka was founded in 1979, Gemunu, now back in Sri Lanka, signed as one of the guarantors for my Boeing 707 training bond. Subsequently, I introduced him to the airline’s ‘flying Chairman’, Capt. S Rakkitha Wikramanayake, who was looking for aircraft maintenance engineers, but felt that Gemunu was “over-qualified”. To Gemunu’s credit, however, while in the SLAF he modified a fuel pump for the MiG-15 and 17 aircraft which prevented deterioration and fire in the engine after an inflight failure. He held the patent for that modification.

After Gemunu was finally ‘demobbed’ from the SLAF, he returned to the SEC where he would become the General Manager and, later still, Chairman (a post once held by the legendary engineer Dr. Deshabandu A.N.S. Kulasinghe). One of Gemunu’s many engineering accomplishments was changing the camber of the New Kelaniya Bridge, while traffic was on the move.

A long association with the Archaeological Department began when Gemunu Silva facilitated the use of a SLAF helicopter to place the crystal on the pinnacle of the Mihintale stupa which was being renovated by Dr Roland Silva, the Director of Archaeology, and his team.

Then the Temple of the Tooth Relic (Dalada Maligawa), in Kandy, began experiencing a problem. Monkeys, from the nearby Udawattakele Forest Reserve, used to play on the existing old roof and caused tiles to be shifted. When it rained, numerous leaks began, putting the Tooth Relic at risk. The solution was to build a canopy with gold-plated tiles, imported from Japan, over the existing temple roof. President Ranasinghe Premadasa’s ‘Sevana’ Foundation had promised to foot the bill in exchange for the honour of officially opening the finished project.

Amid objections to the modification from the Archaeological Department, the task was assigned to the SEC and Gemunu got involved. After the new canopy was built and the opening day drew near, it was discovered that the new structure was not steady and subject to swaying. One day, while wondering what to do about it, Gemunu discovered that there were a couple of holes, used as nests by resident pigeons, at the same level in the building adjacent to the golden roof. On investigation, he observed that there were metal beams inside the holes. So the canopy was duly welded to the beams, for additional support, and that stopped the swaying.

Then, there was the Maligawila Buddha Statue, in the Moneragala District. Carved out of limestone, with the head alone weighing some 50 tons, it was the tallest free-standing statue of its kind in Sri Lanka, and discovered in pieces in 1951 (presumably destroyed by treasure hunters). The project to restore it was abandoned by then SEC Chairman, Dr. Kulasinghe, in the mid-1970s. The challenge was subsequently taken up by Gemunu Silva in 1991, much to the satisfaction of President Premadasa.

Gemunu later mentioned that it was Dr Kulasinghe’s mentoring and guidance that gave him the confidence to embark on the project. And speaking of President Premadasa, when a colleague once asked Gemunu how he managed to get so close to the President, he replied that he didn’t get close to the President but the President got close to him!

When writing, or speaking of the late Gemunu Silva, it should not be forgotten that when the SLAF wanted to base their jet aircraft at the Sigiriya airport, and the Government followed up by proposing to build the next international airport there, Gemunu was involved with Dr Roland Silva, then Director General of the Central Cultural Fund, trying to stabilise the Rock, which was already chipping away, to prevent further damage from vibrations. So they appealed to President Chandrika Kumaratunga saying that jet operations at Sigiriya were not conducive to the future stability of the Sigiriya archaeological ‘treasure’. One option offered was to find another suitable site, so an RCyAF helicopter was assigned to the pair for two weeks in order to complete their survey. They found an ideal alternative within the Cultural Triangle on ‘crown land’ with no complications of land acquisition. But when a report was submitted, it never saw the light of day again!

In 1993, Gemunu became the youngest Vidya Jyothi awardee (for outstanding scientific and technological achievements) among greats like Geoffrey Bawa, Prof. E.O.E. Pereira, Prof. A.W. Mailvaganam, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Dr. A.N.S. Kulasinghe and Dr. Ray Wijewardene. Gemunu remained the consultant engineer for the restoration of ancient stupas, such as the Jetavanarama, Abhayagiri, Mirisawetiya and Tissamaharama dagobas. Typical of the man’s ingenuity, all his mechanical restoration solutions were reversible.

After LTTE suicide bombers attacked the Dalada Maligawa, in 1998, Gemunu Silva participated in the repairs and renovation. He was also the Chairman of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) at one time. Gemunu worked at world heritage centres in Lumbini, Nepal and Bodh Gaya, India, and in 2013 he received the Engineering Heritage Award from the Institute of Engineers. This year Gemunu also became the first recipient of the Dr. Roland Silva Memorial Medal.

Gemunu always said that the best engineers were the ‘baases’ he worked with. As he (non-academically qualified but practically skilled senior workmen and artisans) told it, there was nothing a good chat and cup of plain tea and a cigarette couldn’t solve.

Of Gemunu, one could truly say he was “a man who walked with kings, and didn’t lose the common touch.”

To me, Gemunu was more a brother than a friend. I am glad that I was able to take him on a joy flight in a light aircraft about two years ago. Although his health was deteriorating, he was always in good spirits. The last time I spoke to him was to ask how the Ministry of Defence acquired the Akuregoda land on which the World War 2 Talangama transmitters were originally sited and then owned by the Department of Civil Aviation, only to be ‘handed over’ to the UDA.

Farewell my brother, may you achieve the supreme bliss of Nirvana!

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Prof. Anthony Joseph Weeramunda



An Appreciation

An online commemoration event was held last week, organised by the Sociology Alumni Association of the Colombo University, in association with the Department of Sociology there, to appreciate the contribution that Professor A.J. Weeramunda, who passed away three months ago, made to the Department, training of undergraduate and graduate students and sociological and anthropological research over three decades, since the early 1980s. The well attended event showed the wide ranging impact that his presence and work at the University of Colombo has had on his students and colleagues there, over several decades. What I attempt in this short narrative is to highlight a few significant contributions he made to promote critical social science research in Sri Lanka, based on my own observations, over three decades, when I had the opportunity of closely interacting with him as one of his colleagues in the Department.

Professor Weeramunda became a regular staff member in the Department of Sociology, in the early 1980s, and was already the Head of Department when I moved in there, in 1985 as a young lecturer. Though he was much senior to me, at the time, I immediately felt that he did not worry about his seniority in dealing with his colleagues. He began to address me affectionately as Siri, giving me the tacit understanding that I should reciprocate by addressing him by his first name, Joe. No doubt our graduate studies for several years, in two broadly similar western countries, made the above interpersonal adjustment that much easier. But, then it did not take long for me to realise that he was a kind, unassuming, friendly, informal, humorous and down to earth  person who did not worry about hierarchical values.

Joe Weeramunda was not just another academic. While his commitment to serious academic research and dissemination of knowledge was quite clear throughout, his personality has been multifaceted from his undergraduate days. Though his main area of study at Peradeniya was English, he also had an interest in the Sinhala language, performing arts, drama, and even religious activities in the area of his own faith. Exposed to the work of such well established, eminent academics, like Edmond Leach, S.J. Thambiah, Gananath Obeyesekere and Ralph Peiris, already as an undergraduate, his interest in Anthropology and Sociology no doubt grew rapidly. His decision to pursue his post graduate studies in Anthropology at Washington University, in the United States, was no doubt a reflection of the above interest. On the other hand, his subsequent research interests that he pursued after his post-graduate studies indicated an influence of even a wider spectrum of scholars.

Several years prior to joining the Colombo Sociology Department, as a permanent staff member, in 1985, I was a visiting lecturer there for several years. It was during this period, in 1984, Joe worked with several Sri Lankan and foreign academics, notably James Brow, Mick Moore and Gananath Obeyesekere, to organise a landmark conference at Anuradhapura on Symbolic and Material Dimensions of Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka. ‘This conference brought together many Sri Lankan and overseas scholars with diverse theoretical orientations. This was necessary given the longstanding theoretical controversy over symbolic versus materialist orientations among anthropologists and sociologists at the time. In the Colombo Department of Sociology itself, this division was evident. While Dr. Newton Gunasinghe, another well known academic there at the time represented the Materialist school, as was evident from his research and writings on agrarian relations in Sri Lanka, while Joe was more tilted towards the symbolic. When a good selection of papers presented at the above conference was published by Sage India in 1992 as a collection of essays edited by James Brow and Joe Weeramunda under the title: Agrarian Change in Sri Lanka, it immediately attracted the attention of many  scholars and students alike, in both Sri Lanka and overseas. I was fortunate enough as a younger academic to have had the opportunity of contributing to both the conference  and the publication.

As a well trained liberal arts scholar and an Anthropologist, Joe displayed a keen interest throughout in conducting field research on diverse themes over several decades. He was convinced that undergraduate students should not only be exposed to theoretical discourses within the subject but also undergo practical training in conducting ethnographic research in the field. This would have been been at least partly due to his own exposure to field  research conducted by senior scholars there with the involvement of undergraduate students at Peradeniya. So, he naturally tended to encourage students to spend time in the field, both in rural and urban areas. For instance, even the academic curriculum was modified to some extent to accommodate this aspect of undergraduate education in sociology in Colombo.

The Department of Sociology in Colombo was fortunate to establish an academic exchange programme with Leiden University in the Netherlands, in 1985, when Joe was still the Head of Department. This programme opened up many possibilities for promoting sociological and anthropological research on a range of themes, including the growing phenomenon of labour migration from Sri Lanka to the Middle East. Many academic visitors from the Netherlands actively took part in research activities for a number of years in collaboration with members of the academic staff and students in the Department. These research activities no doubt pleased Joe as he could see his students playing an active role in field research as part of their studies.

Joe Weeramunda served the University of Colombo for about three decades. He made a highly significant contribution to the development of the academic and research programmes in the University’s Department of Sociology. He took an active interest in the development of research and other skills of the students. His very friendly and informal ways of dealing with his students helped him to develop a good rapport with students. As many of his former students attested at the commemoration event, he was not just another university professor for them. It is no doubt his multifaceted personality that appealed to them, turning their experiences as undergraduate and postgraduate students into lifelong memories.

I, as one of his colleagues in the Department for three decades, would remember him not only as a brilliant scholar but also as a  good friend and a humble, down-to-earth person.

Siri Hettige,

Emeritus Professor of Sociology,

University of Colombo

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What to do with political ‘dishonourables’?



Everybody, it seems, is appalled by the attraction of politics as a haven for the Intellectually challenged. It is revealed that some 60 % or something, in Parliament (Our Head Office for Democracy), do not boast of six passes at the “O-Level”. The actual numbers are unimportant, because even one (in 225) is excess. (Please ask the peons who scuttle around the chamber, keeping the water bottles of MPs recharged. Their percentage will surely be higher). For their contributions to State performance, even tapeworms would probably be more generous in the returns to their hosts.

But give it to the Honourables and their ingenuity, they use a very fine method. This is to bestow, as many as possible, Doctorates – thereby raising the average – assuming that credits are transferable! Suits me, as my conscience does not permit the use of “honourable”, I feel more comfortable with Dr. – at least I would be right 50% of the time, and still rising!

It has often been stated that members of the Singapore Legislature are among the highest paid in the World, but as the Chinese itinerant cloth seller of yore would say to the bargaining housewife, “Yes, m’am, but good things no cheap, cheap things no good”. It has to be noted that in the Singapore comparison, the much-envied numbers are “absolutely all-inclusive”. No housing allowances, cars, petrol, attendance fees, subsidised meals, light bills, telephones, medicals or any other. I believe that the legendary Lee Kwan Yew, generously conceded that ‘any of his cabinet’ was at perfect liberty to dwell in the swankiest neighbourhood, or own the poshest vehicle – but at his cost.” The recently retired German Chancellor, Angela Merkel was asked, “Why are you always clad in the same overcoat? Do you not own another?” Retorted she, “I am a public servant and not a fashion model!” What modesty, what class!

It would be unrealistic to expect the electoral process to operate on the basis of an objective assessment of the merits of contending candidates. Equally, it cannot be denied that the performance and contributions of the successful are demonstrably unequal.

However uncomfortable it may be, some means of recognising and giving effect to the indisputable principle that “Performance must match emoluments” or “Service must match reward”. There is no simple method of achieving this manifestly fair goal. May one suggestion be useful as a working proposition? Every member should draw as emolument, their last drawn salary or fee, (supported by the latest Income Tax declaration), multiplied by a pre-agreed factor of five, 10 or even 20 (or whatever), as all-inclusive remuneration. Beyond that, no other payments or perks, hidden or otherwise whatsoever. It would be a great index of sincerity, if such a proposal were to be seriously considered (or voted upon, by a secret ballot if desired). This might help us to separate the grain from the chaff, and go some way in raising the public esteem of Parliament, from its unhealthily low present position.

One other compelling benefit will be that the indefensible crime of hawked vehicle permits would cease. We cannot afford to have criminals in our Hallowed (or Hollowed?) Parliament, can we? If this suggestion secures approval, a great improvement in quality of debate, behaviour, decorum and usefulness will soon manifest.

The vehicle permit issue deserves a further mention, because one justification is laughable and serious at the same time. One person close to the political centre and thus reliable, argued that contesting an election was very costly, and beyond the reach of the capable and the untainted. Only drug kingpins, smugglers, cheats, procurers and similar criminal types could afford such an outlay. All agree that an improved composition of Parliament membership is urgently needed. Therefore, the honest ones selected, deserve some means of recovering their costs. So, what could be wrong in their selling a privilege – vehicle permit, petrol coupons, fake medical claims, etc.? And if I may add, “Take-away packs” of the heavily subsidised restaurant grub?

But some problems arise with such a cozy attempt to justify this clearly improper practice. The major problem is, why did not this principle of “The end justifies the means” apply in the case of that poor woman who attempted to pinch two packets of milk powder to feed her starving kids, or that girl arraigned for picking a few fallen coconuts to help pay for her class books?

One may well be tempted to ask “Why should not those who make the Law (Legislators) be also permitted to break them?”. Or, in the case of politicised appointees, “Why should not the person who appoints, be denied the right to “disappoint”? Neat but not logical nor moral enough. Two wrongs do not make a right. Or, do they?


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In defence of teachers’ struggle



by Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva

I am a consultant physician, now retired after 35-years of government service. Both my parents were trained teachers and I made the most of what my teachers at Richmond College, Galle, and later those affiliated to the Colombo Medical School taught me. I am ever so indebted to them for all that I achieved in life. Hence, I fully understand the value of the service provided by my parents and teachers. I have been teaching medical students for 25-years and enjoyed teaching and training them to be good and honest doctors to serve the motherland. I value very much this aspect of my service, without any extra emoluments, even more than looking after the patients in the ward. Preparing the children and the youth to take over the future is the vital function performed by a teacher in whatever field.

I was a very active member of the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) in its heyday. It was a respected apolitical trade union concerned only with ensuring the basic rights of the doctors and maintaining a good service for our people. Unlike today, leaders of the Association, at that time did not harbour any political ambitions and were not deeply involved in issues beyond our field of knowledge, or service. I remember ignorant politicians were arguing then that as doctors were the recipients of free education, provided by the tax payer, they should be prepared to serve the people without taking trade union action for achieving their rights and better conditions of service. Our argument then was simple. Doctors and others who had a higher education are the ones who made the best use of what was offered free while the majority had wasted that opportunity. If we were to provide an honest service to the people the doctors should have peace of mind without any interference, political or otherwise. They also deserve an adequate remuneration not having to depend on private practice taking up a significant part of their day. We insisted that if what the doctors performed was considered a vital function, then the authorities should act to solve the problems that arose within the health service without delay as matters of urgency. During trade union action taken as a last resort after much deliberation, we did not hesitate to stop teaching medical students for a few days while providing an essential service in the hospitals. However, thinking back, I agree anyone seeking treatment should not have been denied relief. We were acutely conscious of the fact that less educated, unscrupulous politicians and their henchmen were making colossal amounts of money fleecing the public purse.

I mentioned the facts above as they are very relevant to the crisis in education services today. Teachers who are supposed to mould the life of the future generation of Sri Lankans are being shabbily treated. They are being humiliated by politicians. Some threaten to impale them; others are known to have made lady teachers kneel down as punishment. Many make very disparaging remarks about the teachers in various public forums and even in Parliament. Most of these petty-minded politicians appear to be worried that their very survival is being threatened. The situation is made worse by the poorly educated politicians shedding crocodile tears about the education of children and preaching how the teachers should function. Intimidating the teachers that way can only aggravate the situation.

The system of education in the country is in crisis. The COVID pandemic has kept all the schools closed down for over a year. A small percentage of the school children who could afford it receive so called on-line education. This has not been properly organised or regulated by the education authorities and is done mainly as a voluntary effort of the teachers at their own expense. The cost of essential equipment like computers and the cost of getting data are borne by the teachers themselves and by the parents. No effort has been made by the education ministry to provide affordable basic computers and other material for this purpose. Even after nearly a year with the total collapse of education, the Ministry of Education does not seem to have thought of planning to have a system in place to face any future problems of this nature. Throughout the years there has been a wide discrepancy in the facilities at schools in different parts of the country. Many underdeveloped areas suffer from lack of basic facilities in their schools. The ignorant politicians seem to believe that education will be complete when some uniform material is given free every year. Unregulated tuition industry is thriving thanks to this negligence.

I have seen how the education system functions in a few developed countries. The teachers are treated with much respect there. They are a happy lot, receiving salaries comparable to many other professions. Being content on how well the society respects them, naturally they take a personal interest to see that their pupils get the best out of the school. They have no fears of being ill-treated by the authorities or being threatened with transfers to difficult areas and the like. Peace of mind is essential if one is to provide a proper service, whether it is a school teacher or a doctor. I do not propose that the teachers and others in my country should receive a salary and other facilities comparable to those in developed countries. We have a long way to go to achieve that. The way authorities are bungling in every sphere of activity it is unlikely that we will get anywhere near those standards in the foreseeable future.

Teachers are poorly paid. A significant proportion of teachers get a monthly salary less than a police constable, a soldier or those in the clerical service. They have no special provisions even to get their own children admitted to a school of value, unlike many others who get concessions within their own fields of service. With the rapidly rising cost of living they are on a war path to get a salary rise that was promised 25-years ago, but never granted. The present rulers, returned to power with the promise of correcting all shortcomings of the past, cannot find refuge in blaming the past governments for this unfortunate situation. When money is being doled out in billions of rupees to petty politicians mainly to win the next round of elections as well as rampant corruption well known in the public domain, the government cannot claim that there are no funds to meet the basic demands of the teachers. I feel when their justifiable demands are falling on deaf ears the trade union action of the teachers is fully justified. While accepting that this would affect the children adversely, the prolongation of the dispute should be blamed fully on the authorities who refuse to give a patient hearing and believe in suppressing the teachers using bullying tactics with arrogance.

The argument that a substantial salary increase for the teachers will upset the entire salary structure in the state sector is not tenable. Many professionals including doctors, certain categories of engineers and some others have had their emoluments increased from time to time without any such considerations. The police and armed forces too have been given pay hikes on several occasions. Anomalies caused by such ad hoc actions by those responsible could not be an excuse to keep the teachers underpaid forever. Just appealing to the teachers to forget their own problems and keep on teaching the children as an honourable service is hardly the solution.

It is unfortunate that some other trade unions aligned with the government keep insulting the teachers’ unions and their leaders. Such actions probably promoted by those in power will only make matters worse. Grievances of teachers cannot be handled the same way as the unions of harbour workers and the like are dealt with. It is high time other unions openly supported this trade union action of the teachers. The parents of affected children too should be sympathetic to the plight of the teachers without looking for short term solutions. They should collectively apply pressure upon the politicians and others concerned to consider the demands of the teachers favourably. Attempts by various elements to instigate them to protest against teachers should be resisted.

All concerned should be interested in the welfare of the teachers to whom we have entrusted the future of our own children or grandchildren by receiving a proper education. It appears that social justice will not be achieved without a total overhaul of the present system of governance headed by corrupt politicians and their henchmen. I wonder what options are available to the people when democracy has failed a once prosperous nation.

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