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Amidst a number of meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees in the North last week, I also had a number of interactions with children, and with persons working with children. Two instances were serendipitous, but I was privileged to participate actively – and indeed exhaustingly – on one occasion. This was when I conducted, in a small school near Nedunkerni, one of the games that the former combatants had delighted in, during my first visit to the Rehabilitation Centre for girls in Vavuniya three and a half years ago.

The laughter of the girls on that occasion still illuminates in presentations of the Rehabilitation Bureau, as I saw last month at the Officer Career Development Centre Seminar at Buttala.  In Nedunkerni the children were younger, and even less inhibited.

I had come across well over 50 of them in the playground of the school at 5 pm, which was heartening. I have long argued that we need to ensure that schools are centres of community activity, but all too often schools are deserted after 2 pm. Here however, in addition to attractive new buildings, the school had quarters for the Principal and several staff. They too were in the playground, encouraging the activity and joining in.

The school had teachers even in subjects such as English and Maths and Science, as to which there had been complaints about shortages in almost all Divisions I had visited. Whilst obviously we need to increase supply, the situation here showed that one needs to provide decent facilities to ensure teachers will stay in remote areas to which transport is difficult. The youngsters I saw playing with the children were from Jaffna, but seemed quite content to stay in the school and participate in student life in the evenings. Almost no one had taken more than a day’s leave thus far in the year.
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After speaking at the Officer Career Development Centre on revolutionizing the Education System, I went on to my father’s home village, where his family had many years ago donated land for a school. Vijaya Maha Vidyalaya had developed over the years, with support sometimes from the family, most recently when one of my cousins arranged a health camp there, along with a cricket match between the Colombo Medical Team and the schoolboys, which I was privileged to watch.

Vijaya had been one of only two schools in the Hambantota District (the other was a Muslim school in the Tissamaharama area if I remember right) to being English medium when we started it way back in 2001. The first few years had been very successful, and I would enjoy dropping in on the classes and registering the enthusiasm of the Principal and the staff and the students.

But hard times hit the school with the retirement of the Principal, who had been a strict disciplinarian even while devoting himself to the welfare of the students. The Vice-Principal could not be promoted because he was not qualified, and someone was brought in from outside, and factionalism it seems broke out.
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I was asked last week to speak at the first national seminar arranged by the Officer Career Development Centre at Buttala. I have been familiar with the place for twenty years now, for it is situated in what used to be the Buttala Affiliated University College, in the days when I coordinated English programmes at all those Colleges. The site had been developed for the 1992 Gam Udawa, and my involvement with the place helped me to appreciate President Premadasa’s vision in having such events.

Though some elements in both national and international media mocked them as the world’s most expensive birthday parties, they provided a focus for development, with infrastructure that would be of lasting benefit to areas that had not had such concentrated attention before. The present Government is engaged in something similar through its Deyata Kirula celebrations, though this is only a supplement to the wider development in the regions which is its flagship.

I much welcome the establishment of the OCDC because its Mission and Objectives indicate a clearer understanding of our educational and training needs than I have seen in those formally responsible for education. It is true that glimpses of what is needed can be seen in the pronouncements and efforts at developing policy that the various agencies responsible for education have come out with, but given the chaos of our administrative structures and the difficulties of taking and implementing decisions, I am relieved that a more efficient and clearsighted body has also entered into the field.
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As I have noted before, the thoughtful new Secretary to the Ministry of Resettlement remarked, at a seminar at the Officer Career Development Centre in Buttala, that Nation Building needed much more attention, to complement the State Building that is proceeding relatively well. His Ministry, along with the Bureau of the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation and the Presidential Task Force for the North and the Ministry of Economic Development, have amply allayed the fears expressed in 2009, that were claimed to be the reason for the Resolution brought against us in Geneva.

The displaced who were at Manik Farm have been resettled, and the former combatants have been released after rehabilitation. This has been done under much better conditions and more swiftly than elsewhere in the world. Economic activity is at a higher level in the Wanni than ever before, helped along by remarkable infrastructural development. That extends to schools and hospitals and other basic requirements, which are available now at a higher standard than ever before in the area.

But there are still problems, and the mutual satisfaction and trust that Reconciliation requires are still inadequate. To remedy this there is need of concerted action, and the Secretary, who has obviously studied and understood the problem, noted that fulfilment of both the LLRC and the Human Rights Action Plans would go a long way towards Building a Nation.

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I was privileged last week to contribute to the first Seminar conducted by the Officer Career Development Centre at Buttala. The subject was Post-Conflict Nation Building and the role of the Security Forces, and we had two days of interesting presentations with much opportunity for discussion. The questions put by the officers who participated were stimulating, and the general approach made clear the impact of the training, in thinking as well as practical action, that the armed forces have developed over the last couple of decades.

Five of the twelve speakers were civilians, including one academic apart from myself. There were two presentations by members of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, indicating the importance the forces attach to that body, even if there is less attention than there should be elsewhere to implementation of its recommendations. The one person I did not know was one of the new Secretaries, of whom I had a favourable impression given the excellence of the two with whom I had previously interacted.

This one was in the same mould, and produced a well constructed speech on harmonizing the efforts of Government Machinery and the Security Forces in Nation Building. He made a convincingly argued distinction between State Building and Nation Building, and noted the great achievements thus far with regard to the former, including infrastructure development as well as resettlement and rehabilitation.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2019
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