The inner harbour at Trincomalee

Trincomalee is associated in my mind with two individuals, whose life and work continue to provide guidelines for effort. The first was Denzil Kobbekaduwa, who was in charge of the area when I visited in 1988, to check on the schools furniture project. That was the time of the IPKF, and one could sense some tensions, even though in general officers on both sides behaved with perfect conviviality at army headquarters.

We had stayed with the navy, and were treated right royally since the British High Commissioner headed the delegation. This was David Gladstone, and he was even taken whale watching – though we saw none – and for an early morning swim in China Bay. The British Defence Attache was also with us, and I was impressed then by the concern of the High Commission for their war graves. We have nothing of the sort, because our men did not die in a foreign land, and can therefore be honoured individually in their homes. But I was glad in the course of my several visits in the last few weeks to note the monuments that have been erected to commemorate their sterling achievement.

At the same time I hope we do not take as long as the British did to recognize that the vast majority of those on the other side deserve our sympathy rather than hatred. I was touched recently by the sympathy for the Germans expressed by the last British veteran of the First World War. In our case the leaders of our opponents were more like the German leadership in the Second War, and deserve excoriation. But as we can see from the relative innocence of the many youngsters now awaiting rehabilitation, the vast majority of those who were conscripted cannot be held responsible for the cruelty, and the oppressiveness, of their leaders.

Denzil Kobbekaduwa had, with regard to stress on reconciliation as well as much else, been exemplary. During my visit in 1988 I found soldiers working busily in the schools, restoring buildings and constructing toilets and wells. And not only was this being done, but the men understood the value of what they were doing. In a context in which the Indian army was being presented as the saviours of the region, it was vital that the Sri Lankans should make it clear that they were even more committed to the welfare of the people of the North and East.

Included amongst these were the Sinhalese, and what Denzil Kobbekaduwa had told the principal of the Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya still remains with me. I had found the school extremely well organized, and told the principal as much. He said that this had not always been the case, and the change was due to Denzil. He had seen the inadequacies earlier, and asked the principal where his own children were schooling. In Wellawatte, he had said, whereupon Denzil had told him that he should instead imagine that they were schooling in Trincomalee, and administer the school accordingly.

The profundity behind that exhortation still requires activation in general. We are not going to get the level of rural education we need unless those in charge have a personal stake in the responsibilities they exercise. Ensuring this will not be easy, but a system that develops a sense of personal commitment to individual schools seems as much an urgency now as it did when Denzil made his contribution to education over twenty years ago.

Fortunately the Sinhala Maha Vidyalaya seems to have kept up the standards he set. Going back there after all these years, I was impressed by the cleanliness of the place. This was in the afternoon, so I could not check on the students of the school, but those who were present for the CBSM English classes were a lively and varied bunch. They belonged to all three communities, and it was emblematic of what we were trying to achieve that a Muslim teacher was working in a Sinhala school in a programme coordinated by a Tamil NGO official.

This was the type of initiative that Siron Rajaratnam had promoted when she was in charge of the Affiliated University College at Trincomalee. In addition to a maternal interest in her students, she was indefatigable in promoting projects for the benefit of students throughout the District – including dragooning me to go twice to Mutur, to spend a couple of nights there while gunfire reverberated around us, and conduct workshops for the incredibly deprived English teachers of the area.

In a sense her understanding of the situation, springing from her background in school education, made her an ideal person to head an AUC designed to serve the community rather than function as a detached academic institution on the lines of traditional universities. Sadly she was superseded when the AUC became part of the regular university system, and it took some time before the Eastern University dropped its ivory tower approach. That, I should note, seems to have happened now, with a range of initiatives ranging from English exams for school students to active cooperation with our Disaster Management Centre in mitigatory agricultural innovations. 

Fortunately the new Education Ministry officer in charge of English seemed also capable of initiative and innovation, bothering enough to see me late in the evening after a tour of inspection in Kinniya. I had asked for a meeting after the Government Agent had complained that our project did not do enough for areas outside town, a point that my own CBSM staff, a healthily innovative multi-ethnic group, had reiterated.

I had to note that, though the complaint was understandable, we could do little given that this was not our area of work. However the initiative we had undertaken for Employment Skills could provide guidelines for the Ministry if it wished to experiment. Obviously senior officials would have to be consulted, but the response of the English Assistant Director was positive. He noted too that, with the full support of senior policy makers, he had a healthy budget for training, but had not been able to find sufficient resource personnel.

I can only hope that such officers are given the freedom to move swiftly. The government is working extremely quickly on developing the infrastructure the area needs, it is also essential to concentrate on human resources to exploit the opportunities that the East has in such abundance.

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