I am pleased to have been asked to speak at this event, because over the last few years I have grown increasingly conscious of the strength of our friendship with Australia. Perhaps the most intelligent new friend I made in the last couple of decades was one of the Australian High Commissioners to Sri Lanka. I also found enormous sympathy and support from the last two High Commissioners. The first of them, Kathy Klugman, who had been Deputy to my great friend in the nineties, was the first foreign envoy to categorically condemn the Tigers, when the rest of the Western oriented world was being mealy mouthed about them. I still recall her telling me, soon after she came here, early in 2008, that she thought the Sri Lankan government would have cause for satisfaction in the first press release she was going to issue. She was quite correct.
Her successor brought the relationship to the two countries to a new height, at a time of increasing international difficulty. Indeed she suffered for this, in the onslaught on Australia that took place earlier this year by the new government. But, as she put it in a mild but anguished defence (unlike the more forthright criticism of her Deputy), she and her government had not compromised on issues of Rights and Reconciliation. I had recognized this when, at the time of the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo in 2013, which Tony Abbott attended, I wrote – ‘We should also make clear our appreciation of countries such as India and Australia, which others were trying to dragoon into opposition to us, but which, without compromising on suggestions as to how we could do more to promote Reconciliation, maintained and asserted their confidence in our capacity to improve things for all our people.’
Grateful though we should be to Tony Abbott for coming to Sri Lanka in 2013, I have to admit that I have no regrets about him being toppled, inasmuch as he was replaced by someone I shared a house with nearly 40 years ago in Oxford. Malcolm Turnbull was indeed kind enough to spare a lot of time for me when I was last in Australia. At the time – having been replaced by Abbott as leader of the Liberal Party in yet another of the interminable internal coups that seem to characterize Australian politics in recent years – there seemed no chance of him getting into power. But I was delighted to find him as iconoclastic as ever. He regaled me with tales of the Spycatcher Trial in which he had taken on the British establishment in the interests of Freedom of Information, a value we should – as pledged in the President’s manifesto – be doing much more to uphold.
Australians, I should note, like to call a spade a spade. It was their High Commissioner way back in 2001 who told me that he had never seen a country slide backward as ours had done in the three years he had been here. I had never thought of that before, given the complacence we Sri Lankans have about our own situation. But he pointed out for instance the burgeoning power crisis, given the failure to move on Kotmale and Norochcholai, and the congestion on the roads, given that there had been no progress on the Southern Highway.
That conversation was one of the factors that prompted me to vote for the UNP in 2001. But as it happened, they proved equally inefficient, and also seemed to give in to the LTTE when they permitted wholesale violation of the CeaseFire Agreement I had welcomed at the time. I should note then that, though I have no regrets about the change of government that took place a year ago, we should all register our appreciation of the rapid infrastructural development that took place in this country in the preceding decade under a very different sort of government, that could certainly not be faulted for lethargy.
But regrettably that development, though fantastic in terms of roads and power and construction, failed with regard to Human Resources Development. Little had been done about this in the preceding period either, and I fear nothing seems to be moving now at the pace we need. It is in such a context that I think we need to take full advantage of what Australia has to offer, and the apparent willingness to support us with training at appropriate levels. Robyn Mudie, who has just finished her tout as Australian High Commissioner, was the first to arrange a meeting for me after I took over as Chairman of the Tertiary and Vocational Education Commission, and I found her and those responsible for aid immensely aware of our needs and anxious to help.
And yet, as a damper but realistically, I have to note that we had been there before. During my visit to Australia way back in 2011, our very capable Acting High Commissioner in Canberra had arranged a series of meetings which, had there been appropriate follow up, would have helped with some of the problems we fell into. I remember in particular a session with I think Macquarie University, where they indicated how they were willing to support the training of English teachers, as well as help with developing the nursing profession. I was full of optimism at the time, for the Ministry of Higher Education I knew was putting together a new Act, which would have loosened the sector up and permitted such collaboration.
Nothing came of the Act. It was killed by delays in the Legal Draughtsman’s Department, whilst continuing lethargy at the Ministry of Education killed the proposed new Education Act. I found that a new Tertiary and Vocational Education Act had been languishing in my Commission when I got there, and I have now put it both to the Commission and the National Education Commission for finalization. But my hope that the other two education sectors would follow suit was dashed since their representatives did not even attend the last meeting of the NEC. Doubtless there was good reason for this, but I fear that the urgency with which reform should be treated is not recognized.
Fortunately I have a dynamic Minister, who also understands about the partnerships that are essential with the sectors we serve. He has insisted on the Skills Councils, that will bring together representatives of industry along with training institutions, being set up this month, and we hope to have new syllabuses in place in the next few weeks to overcome the shortcomings in our present systems. In particular, as a recent World Bank report has noted, we need to work coherently on English programmes and the other soft skills that will enhance the capabilities of recruits to industry. In this regard I should pay tribute to the swiftness with which Australia has moved, its equivalent of VSO having already advertised positions in Sri Lanka. I hope that the Canadians, who have expressed enthusiasm only second to the Australians, will also move swiftly, and that we might even be able to persuade the American Peace Corps to return to these shores, once they see the Australians in place.
But there is another dimension as to which Australia could prove particularly helpful, and indeed provide a lead in an area which we have woefully neglected. I refer to involvement of the diaspora in the reconciliation process, a strategy which was recommended by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. Unfortunately that dimension was not entrusted to the Task Force set up under the Secretary to the President, which was headed by very able Public Servants. Instead it was handed over to the Ministry of External Affairs, which did nothing whatsoever, in that area as in others. It seems to have done its best instead to alienate the diaspora, by imposing a ban on all and sundry, which even the friendly Australians thought was a mistake.
I can understand there being some worries about some elements in the diaspora, as I granted to the Head of Intelligence who saw me after I had criticized the blanket condemnation of so many diaspora individuals and groups. But he granted that there were in fact very few still pursuing a separatist agenda, and it made no sense not to try to work with the others. After some Socratic questioning he acknowledged that his boss should have tried to change the approach of the Ministry of External Affairs rather than send him to remonstrate with me. But I suspect he was not able to put that point to those who had got into the habit or reacting to what they saw as criticism instead of moving pro-actively to forestall such criticism.
In this regard Australia was the obvious place to start. Unfortunately Sri Lanka has no think tanks which could have advised the government, and in particular the Foreign Ministry, on planning in the context of the realities with which this country has to deal. A thoughtful approach would have made clear why Australia was exceptional in having a large diaspora which nevertheless did not exercise the same sort of malign influence on politicians as occurred in, obviously the United Kingdom as David Miliband granted according to Wikileaks, but also in the United States as well as several countries in Europe.
The fact is, large scale emigration to Australia occurred well before the appalling treatment of Tamils in the eighties that led so many of them to flee Sri Lanka. It included professionals of all communities, so that what one might term the influential elements in the diaspora are much more balanced than is the case elsewhere. In other countries those who fled because of obvious persecution have retained a bitterness that is understandable, and which we have made no effort to assuage. I must grant that working on that will not be easy, given too the large mass in many countries which never had positive interactions with other communities, as a consequence of the divisive education system we have had for the last half century and more. But Australia has a different segment of the Sri Lankan population that those who have a one dimensional attitude to their country of origin. This is also because it did not permit mass immigration of the sort that has made it so easy for the extremists in Britain and elsewhere to rent a crowd as it were when they want to denigrate the Sri Lankan government.
And since the professionals who form the more influential proportion of the Sri Lankan community in Australia were never straitjacketed in monolingualism, and were able to exchange ideas with each other, there is far more social interaction between the communities in Australia. I found this during the visit I paid Australia in 2011, and also a healthy concern with rebuilding the country together. I wrote then to the authorities suggesting we deploy Australian support for teacher training, and also for bringing first language English speakers over as volunteers. I had tried to do the same with regard to the diaspora in Britain, and there had been some interest in a scheme we tried to set up through International Alert. But that fell prey to the bitterness caused by one of the Channel 4 programmes. And there was no official attempt by the Education Ministry or government in general to encourage such activities in Australia, where the better relations between the communities might have led to better results.
But the situation has now changed. We no longer have to deal with the deep suspicions that, for instance, characterized the Ministry of Education when I tried to get visas for an organization called Volunteers for English in Sri Lanka. We did get a few, but more and more difficulties were raised about visas, with one Secretary of Education conveying the impression that he thought all volunteers must be secret service agents. So in the end the group decided to drop Sri Lanka and work in India and Thailand instead.
This has not precluded groups of volunteers, and indeed I found that in some centres under the purview of the TVEC it is only a few British students who provide any English at all to students even though they are supposed to acquire language skills as part of their training. Such informal arrangements are not enough, and I hope very much that the Alumni Association will help with setting up formal structures to encourage Australia to send volunteers. I have suggested that we ask different countries to adopt as it were a couple or so Districts, spanning at least two Provinces. The countries I have approached thus far understand the point, since that would also help with the integration we so desperately need, through joint projects and other mechanisms. But we need concerted efforts by government in this regard, and a more proactive approach by the Ministry of External Affairs, as was recommended in the LLRC Action Plan.
I have dwelt at length on volunteers because I believe they have a tremendous impact, not only in terms of the work they do, but also because of the interest they raise in their areas of concern. As an example of the sort of work that can be accomplished, let me share with you the work of a group that I first knew as Diaspora Sri Lanka, set up by a group of Sri Lankans in Australia when the war ended. They, like many others, initially spread their energies over a wide area, but I suggested they concentrate in one District. I was glad they decided on Mannar, because that is a comparatively neglected area, and it also has different ethnic groups whom I hoped DSL would help to bring together.
Work for them has not been easy, not least because the underlings at the Presidential Task Force thought it was their duty to stop anyone doing anything. I should note that the Secretary to the Task Force, Mr Divaratne, an experienced and able Civil Servant, was both gracious and helpful. But his assistants were more suspicious than confident, and Jeremy Liyanage, the livewire behind DSL, had much to overcome. With the help of excellent Government Agents in Mannar, a positive thinking military leadership, and good relations with the Chamber of Commerce there, he has accomplished much. I will take the liberty therefore of showing you their last newsletter – though I should note that they no longer call themselves Diaspora Sri Lanka because it seems the name roused suspicion amongst administrators carried away by the blocking mentality I referred to earlier. The organization is called Bridging Lanka, which I suppose also makes clear its commitment to bring people together.
I hope you will admire the pictures, which illustrate graphically the positive impact of Diaspora involvement, when energetic and sensitive. I know you cannot read the text so I will note for you some highlights on each page,
The first page has a picture of a group of tourists who visited on what was termed a Donkey Tour, part of Bridging Lanka’s concern about that unique feature of Mannar. The next two pages describe the establishment of a Donkey Clinic, but also illustrate the commitment of local communities to this fascinating enterprise. The newsletter notes both the enthusiasm of women community leaders, and the good advice and support of the Government Agent, whom I should note I too found remarkably positive in the days when I had Reconciliation Committee meetings in the North.
Pages four and five are about environmental protection, and indicates the organization’s understanding of Mannar’s particular feature of kulams. However the article notes that they have now been stopped from active involvement in this work, a sad example of the dog in the manger attitude some Sri Lankan officials have towards productive involvement of outsiders. I am particularly sad about this because I had helped Diaspora Lanka develop contacts with the UDA, and it is sad that our failure to ensure continuity for programmes when administrations change leads to so much wasted effort. Meanwhile great ideas such as a children’s park fade away, and the decision makers in Colombo who have few such ideas care not a jt.
The next few pages deal with promotion of small enterprises, with special attention to the empowerment of women. It is a tribute to the administrators in place in the District that they should have allowed a local women’s group to take over the running of a Divisional Secretariat canteen. It is also heartening that Bridging Lanka notes how such businesses lead to personal development, as illustrated by a motorbike and a new home. But again here there is a cautionary note in the schedule of approvals needed.
After a brief account of another enterprise, a grinding mill, and a call for volunteers, on page 9, we return to the donkeys, with pictures not just of the tourists, but of their involvement in Donkey Assisted Therapy involving support to differently abled children. It is incredibly heartening, though a reflection on our own lack of imagination, that it should have taken a Diaspora group to think of such a helpful initiative for those who get so little from society.
Page 12 has short notes about another business development programme and also work in encouraging sports on an organized basis, something which should also be done by our Youth Ministry. The next page deals with two different efforts at developing youth groups through reflection and social service. This is followed by an account of the bonding Bridging Lanka develops, through a staff retreat in another area that needs much support, Batticaloa.
Page 15 is about possible initiatives with the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, and I can only hope that that institution proves more effective than the Reconciliation Office I set up which found little response to its efforts on the part of government. In particular I hope government responds to the heartening account of volunteers who seem to have contributed much during short stints here, as laid our on page 16.
I have spent some time on this because I think Bridging Lanka is an organization which exemplifies the best aspects of international cooperation, in its concentration of community based initiatives. It is also imaginative, with many out of the box ideas, but it is also firmly rooted in reality, with its efforts to work through government institutions and officials. The failure to respond positively is a blot on our government, both past and present, but at the same time the active cooperation of the local officials, the District and Divisional Secretaries, indicates how much can be achieved if this country abandons micro-management, lays down clear policies and simple guidelines, and allows people to get on with their lives.
Let me end then with urging this association to develop a system of supporting such initatives, of working together with both the Australian and the Sri Lankan government to develop people to people contacts and small scale projects – and above all to remember the importance of bringing people together, productively.