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I wrote last week about the understandable irritation of the Minister of Education regarding media stress on mistakes in term test papers set by Zonal Offices of Education. He thought they should instead have been talking about much more important developments such as the introduction last month of a Technological Stream into schools. I agreed with him in principle, though I felt that mistakes in papers are not acceptable and he should reduce the possibility of this happening – and pressures on students – by allocating more responsibility to schools.

Last week I realized that, had the media really taken the new Technological stream seriously, as indeed they should, there would have been even more criticism of the Ministry. I found to my great disappointment that the manner in which this very worthy innovation has taken place means that areas that most need it have been left out. Up in the Gomarankadawala Education Zone, which covers four Divisions, Gomerankadawala and Kuchchaveli and Padaviya Sripura and Morawewa, there is not a single school which has started this stream.

I am not sure who decides how these benefits are conferred, but clearly the system is wrong if four of the most deprived areas in the country are left out. At the very least, the Ministry should have ensured that at least one school in every Division was assisted to get the programme going.

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I plan to conclude this series on March 25th, since by then I would have written over a hundred columns on the subject. Besides, I see March 25th as a special day, because it is the birthday of Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, one of the founders of the Civil Rights Movement in the seventies.

I will write about him for that date, but meanwhile I would like to spend the next couple of weeks reflecting on the achievements of those who have made some sort of a difference to the promotion of Rights in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately I don’t think people like me who engage in advocacy, such as through this column, have achieved very much. When they do so, it is by engaging the attention of those who have responsibilities for executive action and who take their responsibilities seriously.

That responsibility does not necessarily have to lie with government. There are several agencies that have formal responsibilities that can also take initiatives. Chief amongst them in Sri Lanka is the Human Rights Commission, which has certainly shown itself willing, but which at present does not have enough capacity to push through the reforms it understands are needed. Unfortunately it is not moving swiftly enough on proposing the reforms to its own powers and structures, as envisaged by the National Human Rights Action Plan, which the Cabinet has approved.

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Coincidentally, after I had written last week about the complications caused by Zonal Education Offices setting termly examination question papers for schools, the Minister of Education himself raised the question at the fortnightly Parliamentary Group Meeting. He was hurt, understandably so, at the harsh criticism of errors in a number of papers set by a number of Zones.

His point was that there were many important things to think about, including obviously, most recently, the introduction of a Technological Stream for major public examinations. This is indeed a laudable development, though I cannot understand why the Ministry does not go further and promote a free mixture of subjects, with greater breadth as is happening in examination systems round the world which are being emulated in more and more countries. But while such innovations are beyond the scope of the Ministry now, given that its officials are stuck – and allowed to stick – in mindsets long superseded elsewhere, we must be thankful for small mercies such as the long overdue recognition of the importance of technology.

I sympathized with the Minister’s irritation, especially when he pointed out that there were only three examinations that were important in a child’s life, namely the Year 5 Scholarship Examination, and the Ordinary and Advanced Level Examinations. This is true, though it is a pity that the education system puts so much pressure on children at the age of 10, when putting more energy into ensuring that rural schools provide better services at secondary level too would be more equitable for all children.

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Some weeks back I was sent, by a friend in England, a book entitled ‘The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media’. It was by someone called Lila Rajiva, but doubtless that was not the only reason to assume it would interest me.

I took some time to start on the book but, once I did so, it had to be finished. Published in 2005, it is a graphic and convincing account of the manner in which the Americans ignored all moral restraint in the war against terrorism they were engaged in.

That part was convincing, and simply fleshed out what one knows anyway, that countries in pursuing their own interests will stop at nothing. What was more startling was the suggestion that the wholesale prevalence of this absolutist mindset also represented a takeover of the ruling political dispensation by a culture of chicanery that strikes at the heart of supposedly predominant American values.

At the core of this transformation is the corporate supremacy represented most obviously by Rumsfeld and Cheney, and the takeover of much supposedly military activity by private contractors and special agents, who move with seamless dexterity from one world to another. Exemplifying this, and indicative of what C S Lewis would have described as a Hideous Strength which finds its own partisans dispensable, is the strange story of Nicholas Berg, the shadowy contractor whose beheading served to deflect the story of torture at Abu Ghraib, and in some minds excuse the institutionalized torture that was taking place there.

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The last couple of weeks have seen very positive measures by government with regard to accountability. While the decision to go ahead with Provincial Councils in the North was a clear mark of government’s adherents to commitments it had made, even more significant was the indictment of those who are suspected of responsibility for the killing of students in Trincomalee way back in 2006.

This was followed last week by indictments in connection with the killing of a British national in Tangalle in 2011. And soon afterwards the President ordered the establishment of a Commission to look into disappearances that had taken place during the conflict.

Unfortunately the general perception about these is that government had given in to pressures, and in particular that it feels obliged to cater to international sensibilities in the context of our hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Even more unfortunately, many actions taken by government give the impression that it does not really want to do what is right, but has to be forced into action.

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I make no apologies for returning yet again to the question of language rights. As I noted after my last visit to the North, for a series of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings, this remains one of the principal bones of contention in the Jaffna District. But it need not be, because the principles we should all be acting on are now clear, following the inclusion of Tamil as an official language in the constitutional reforms of 1987, and the fleshing out of those principles in the last couple of decades.

First, under President Kumaratunga, there were more inclusive language learning policies in schools in the nineties and then, most importantly, under this government, Minister D E W Gunasekara introduced language norms for public servants. I was not sure how well this was working so, at the previous meeting of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on National Languages, I asked for a report on pass rates. We got this at the February meeting – or rather I did, and I had to point out that questions I raised were asked for the general benefit, not my own, so information should be shared with all my colleagues on the Committee.

I can see this might seem a waste of paper, since almost never do more than a quarter of the 31 members meant to be on the Committee attend, and many of those who do are concerned only with individual problems; but the principle was affirmed, and the Minister will now ensure that information is shared with at least all those who do attend. This is important, for this is something we should all be concerned with, as legislators and contributors to national policy.

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Reconciliation and the role of India

Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP

At the Observatory Research Foundation

Delhi, December 13th 2013

 

I must admit to being deeply worried about the current state of relations between India and Sri Lanka. I contrast this with the excellent situation that obtained in 2009, when India was the chief component of the protective barrier against efforts to stop us eradicating terrorism from our shores. One might have thought that this was a goal the whole world would have supported, but sadly this is not an ideal world and countries will naturally put their own self interest first. Fortunately, not only did India’s interests coincide with our own at that stage, but given the terrible toll terrorism funded by external sources was taking on both our countries, I think it is also true to say that we worked in accordance with the highest moral perspectives.

But the aim we shared then, of eradicating terrorism on our shores, went hand in hand with another commitment, which was the promotion of pluralism in Sri Lanka. This again is a moral goal, but it also has a practical dimension, in that the full incorporation of the Tamil people in the body politic in Sri Lanka would have reduced the potential for future terrorism.

Sadly Sri Lanka has not pursued the Reconciliation process with the commitment it requires. Given its urgency I believe we should try to understand the reasons for this, and try to overcome them. In this process India has a significant role to play.

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The way in which government can be careless when there are no clear systems in place became clear to me last week, at a Reconciliation meeting at the Weli Oya Divisional Secretariat. This Division was allocated a year or two back to the Mullaitivu District. I gathered that some parts of it had been in that District previously, but had been transferred to the Anuradhapura District when Tiger attacks had left the Sinhala population there feeling defenceless.

I am glad therefore that the transfer was made, because the idea of provinces belonging to different communities is preposterous. It should be confined to racists such as the Tigers, as when they drove Muslim populations from the North. But in making the transfer government should also have thought of the services that should go along with such units.

Education for instance still seems to be run from the Kebetigollewa Zone. At a meeting next day with Northern Province Education Ministry officials, I was told that Weli Oya had in fact been transferred to a Zone in Mullaitivu, but the people of Weli Oya were not aware of this. They had sought question papers for term tests from Kebetigollewa, and been promised these, and then the offer had been withdrawn.

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I continue surprised, though I should not be, given our infinite capacity for self delusion, at the virulence of attacks on India with regard to the several crises we brought upon ourselves. It is claimed that India was gratuitously nasty in supporting terrorists, and that it acted outrageously in 1987 in imposing the Indo-Lankan Accord upon us.

I think India was wrong both in supporting terrorists and in the final form the settlement of 1987 took, but in both instances there was nothing gratuitous about what was done, given our own conduct. It is claimed that India cannot claim to be a friend because she supported terrorism, but that is to ignore that countries will naturally act in their own defence, and we as it were started the problem by abandoning our traditional friendship with India and pursuing Western gods.

The appendix to the Indo-Lankan Accord says it all, in noting the decisions we had made which seemed to threaten India, the shenanigans with regard to the Trincomalee oil tanks, the agreement to allow the Voice of America a virtual self-governing enclave at a time when such entities were a significant part of Cold War armoury, and indeed what seemed efforts to flog Trincomalee to the Americans. This last is particularly ironic since I suspect the Americans – though their capacity to insure themselves against all eventualities, real and imagined, is infinite – did not really want the place since the British had flogged Diego Garcia to them and obligingly got rid of its inhabitants.

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Speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

On the votes of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs

In the Committee Stage of the Budget, December 9th 2013

 

I am honoured to speak on the votes of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, which deals with perhaps the most important subject we need to consider. I say this because, while the development programme government has put in place with regard to infrastructure is vital, it will serve no purpose unless we also concentrate on human development. In this regard we need to ensure that our children are in full enjoyment of all their rights, and that we also empower them so that any violations are minimized.

It is equally important, Mr Speaker, to ensure that women are not only protected, but also empowered. For this purpose we must put in place coherent mechanisms that can identify shortcomings and address them promptly and systematically. Above all we must move from simply reacting to problems, but rather anticipate potential problems and avoid them – a strategy, I should add, that would hold us in good stead with regard also to international relations as well as domestic politics.

With regard to Women and Children, I am happy to say that we have an active Ministry that is able to conceptualize and initiate new measures. Chief amongst these is the establishment of Women and Children’s Units in every Divisional Secretariat. If I might say so, this Ministry has been the first to recognize the importance of the Division, which is the first active interface between government and people. Indeed this Ministry has also recognized the importance of the Grama Niladhari Division, which is the first actual interface, though it is for the raising of issues rather than solving them. I should add that it would make sense to set in place, even in GN Divisions, consultative mechanisms to resolve simple problems. However it the Division that is the first level at which more important decisions can be taken, and where the front line officers of various government institutions can meet to discuss problems and plan responses – and where they can discuss trends that will help them to anticipate problems and avoid them.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

December 2013
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