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Tuesday 29 May 2001




Food for thought from the North
A press conference addressed by the battle-hardened and seasoned leader of the EPDP and Minister for Northern Development, Rehabilitation and Reconstruction of the North and North-East Tamil Affairs, Douglas Devananda, had many a thought-provoking point. To begin with, he virtually endorsed the widely held view that the Government's proscription of the LTTE shouldn't be considered a barrier to entering negotiations, by the Tigers. "The ban imposed by the Government is not an impediment for the LTTE, to enter the negotiations, if they genuinely care for the majority of the Tamil population in the North, as they proclaim from the roof tops," Devananda was quoted saying. 

These are the observations of a political leader who has been immersed in the stormy politics of the North over the past twenty years or more. He is also no stranger to the Northern people and reads the LTTE mind with considerable penetration. As Devananda rightly points out, it is left to the Tamil people to decide who their representatives are. This could be determined only at an election for there is no better test of the public pulse than the democratic process. 

This being the case, the LTTE insistence on the de-proscription seems to be a delaying tactic. This wouldn't come as a surprise for the experienced Tiger watcher. Unless and until supremacy of status is attributed to the LTTE, they would shun all political processes, which would relegate them to an insignificant position. Hence their insistence on being considered the sole representatives of the Tamil people. 

However in the world of democracy, only those elected at the polls could be considered popular representatives of the people. Only those elected by the people at a free and fair election could be considered the legitimate representatives of the people. Needless to say, the Tigers fail to meet these vital democratic criteria. 

We suggest that careful thought to Devananda's observation that at the last election more people cast their votes in Jaffna than at any previous election. This showed an eagerness on the part of the people to enter the democratic process. 

This is one reason why the Tigers prefer to stall the process of negotiations. They rightly judge that they wouldn't be accepted by the people in a democratic culture. However, it is gladdening to note that the Government is providing the North with the necessary development assistance to build a stable socio-economic foundation. 

The steady assistance by the Government is enabling the people of the North to get back on their feet. The development ventures and welfare schemes established by Minister Devananda are proof of this. A continuation of this process could ensure the marginalisation of the extremists. 





Playing politics with education
The decision of the cabinet of ministers not to have private universities in Sri Lanka will take the wind off the sails of university student activists who have in recent weeks been attempting to make capital of the issue and agitating on campuses and in public.

Establishment of private institutes of higher education has much of the time been looked upon suspiciously by the advocates of free education as well beneficiaries of the free education system. Undergraduates who after long years of hard work have gained entry to campuses - most of them having undergone much deprivation - fear that those private universities will be a threat to their future prospects of employment. All these fears as well as prejudices were expressed when the Private Medical College was functioning and it provided a rallying point for JVP activists during their second insurrection. The hasty announcement of the government, denying the intention to go ahead with these private education institutions, is indicative of the politically explosive potential of the issue.

But rational analysis will reveal that although there have been no private universities, the more privileged students have always had access to foreign universities and this system is still prevailing.

Even during the times of austere Sri Lankan socialism when even sitting for examinations of British schools of music was banned - in order to conserve ‘valuable foreign exchange’ - socialist leaders found ways to educate their children in foreign universities. For example, the three children of the Bandaranaikes and even the present minister of higher education, Mr. Indika Gunawardena, are graduates of foreign universities. The less fortunate of that time either had to enter the sole University of Ceylon or seek employment.

Today, there is a vast difference. There are private ‘international schools’ that are catering to foreign university entrance examinations, which the affluent brood finds, refuge in. The super rich can even send their children to prestigious private secondary schools abroad. After graduation or even on doing their post-graduate degrees, they return home and find lucrative jobs in the private sector. And that’s where the highly paid jobs are. Others from Ivy League universities of America or from Oxbridge find places even in the top-most rungs of government administration.

Perhaps, some of these students may have qualified to enter Sri Lankan universities. Others not. But most of them would not have dared enter the torture chambers that universities are today. It is argued that those who seek education abroad lessen the pressure on state universities and enable more of the less affluent students to gain entry to state universities. 

Thus, whether student activists are ensuring a better chance in life for themselves by preventing opening of private universities needs deep introspection.

The sudden announcement by the government that it will not permit opening of private universities appears to be a measure taken to ward off another looming political crisis with the government having its plate full of crises of a varied assortment. But should it be so?

Our front page today carries a report, which quotes the body representative of university lecturers, saying that at present the campuses are short of 600 lecturers. The shortage exists particularly in the faculties of medicine and engineering in the Ruhuna and Peradeniya universities, it is said.

This shortage of university teachers is by itself indicative of the lack of high quality graduates. While there are plenty of graduates with third class liberal arts degrees, there is a shortage of graduates with first or second-class degrees, particularly, in medicine and engineering, who are qualified to apply for these posts.

It need hardly be stressed that the government is resorting to ad hoc measures to stave off political crises developing in campuses. What should be done is to consider the interests of the nation by projecting the required number of qualified specialists in various fields. If the state universities are unable to meet that demand, then private institutions should be set up that could meet the challenge at no extra expense to the state.

It is well known that Sri Lankans who graduate abroad are reluctant to come home because of the comparative poor salaries paid here. Thus, it may be in the interests of the nation to open up private universities that could meet these demands.

If the state cannot afford to provide higher education to all those who demand it, then the obvious solution is to let the private sector come in. To prevent that is to deny the right of a student to higher education.

A nation that plays politics with its educational system is obviously courting disaster.





Playing politics with education
It was only last Thursday that Higher Education Minister Indika Gunawardena had the courage to say something in public for some time, (for according to many a scribe it is most difficult to get a comment from him) when he declared that government would not privatise national universities or allow the setting up of private universities.

At a meeting with student leaders in Parliament, the Minister assured that government would not go ahead with the proposed Private Universities Bill. But his courage seems to be wrongly placed. Are we a nation of unthinking people to say no to more places of higher learning? Especially in a situation where government can ill afford to set up new universities, we should welcome with open arms initiatives taken by the private sector in such endeavours. Saboteurs should not be allowed in universities, who despite their learning are small minded, as was clearly exposed in the not too distant past, to hold the country to ransom.

Minister Indika Gunawardena, may have been dictated to on this matter by his Cabinet colleagues. But then there are ministers of the calibre of A. H. M. Fowzie and Mangala Samaraweera who have stood up to their convictions against all odds. In the case of the latter he has stood firm in his endeavour to make urban areas free of unauthorised structures, even when ranged against powerful forces. So the Higher Education Minister should have courage to tell the students where to get off.

At the same time we are not asking the government to be a Uncle Tom serving the dictates of the twin sisters in Washington. Let not reforms proposed by lending institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund harm the non-fee levying national universities or any section of the free education system. The free education system, along with free health care, despite major shortcomings, have done wonders to raise the country to a respectable status in human development, almost on par with affluent countries.

Such achievements, which are now internationally recognised and praised, were made possible due to the high priority accorded to both sectors by successive governments since independence. This has also led to Sri Lanka being held as a model for other developing countries by world bodies.

Let our undergraduates benefit to the maximum form their hard earned places in our free varsities, as many of them hailing from the backwoods, have really sweated to gain entry to universities amidst many disadvantages. Let them have their say without goon squads trying to teach them lessons, while the rest of the country has its way.

It is a well-known fact that hundreds of Sri Lankan students go abroad for higher education each year, as opportunities are limited here. Due to such large numbers leaving our shores we not only lose huge sums in foreign exchange, but many top brains among them are lost to the nation as they are quickly snapped up by countries who readily recognise their worth.

It was reported than in the computer field alone the country is in need of 25,000 Information Technology Specialists at present, but only about 2300 are available. So let us not go by narrow thinking.

It was also reported that the Higher Education Ministry had appointed a committee to look into possibilities of establishing private universities or institutions, which grant foreign degrees to train specialists in Information Technology. Let us hope the authorities will have the courage to go ahead with it, without surrendering to time servers in the universities who compromise their so called ideals no sooner they get their qualifications and get top jobs.

We like to ask where are the firebrands of yesteryear who painted gloom and doom. Most often they are now in the mainstream.

Finally we appeal to those students from behind the scene not to play politics with our future generations, as acrimonious politics has been the root cause of many an evil plaguing the country today.

If we are to forge ahead in the field of education competing with other South Asian countries it’s essential that we broaden our horizon by keeping all options open.

By restricting the rights of the citizens we would only produce a frustrated lot which could cause enormous problems to the country in the long run.





Should kalmunai be a separate district?
People's protests are being widely expressed against the SLMC proposal to carve out a separate administrative district for Kalmunai.  Nearly 2,000 strong farmers from Digamadulla area staged a strong protest last Sunday.  All shops and business establishments put up their shutters on this day in support of this protest.  Black flags and banners were also displayed in its support. This demand of the SLMC on an obvious ethnic basis is most detrimental to all communities in the country.

The SLMC has no monopoly on the Muslims in this country.  They belong to various other political parties as well.  Such an extremely selfish and unwarranted demand will lead to further ethnic dissension and add fuel to the current fires of disunity already burning all round.





Indian poachers
Northern Navy Commander has said that Indian fishermen poaching in Sri Lankan waters have become a grave security threat in the North.  This is done to these fishermen, transporting supplies to Tigers in the guise of fishing.  The country's island situation has always been exposed to threats from Indian illegal immigrants and smugglers.

Such immigrants occupied coastal areas and they became permanent residents. The concept of a traditional homeland was begun in this manner.  When a war is being fought against Tigers it is most dangerous to permit Indian fishermen into our territorial waters.  Therefore, the Sri Lankan Navy should receive the close co-operation of Indian coast guards to tackle this grave problem.  This will ensure the safety of Indian fishermen fishing in their areas and also help to immunize Tiger threats to Sri Lankan Navy.





Tiger conditions & elephant no confidence
The LTTE wants the government to remove the ban imposed on it as a pre-condition for peace talks.  The government says it is an unfair condition since Tigers earlier proposed to hold peace talks unconditionally.  Diverse opinions are being expressed on this.  Some are vehemently against de-proscribing of Tigers but not against peace talks.  They maintain that talks should begin while the ban is in force.  Some are against de-proscribing as well as holding peace talks.

Disputes are seen in all political parties on this issue.  Even within the government.  Minister Richard Pathirana has said the ban should be temporarily lifted to begin peace talks.  Meanwhile, some are attempting to have the Tiger ban lifted and get the no confidence motion the UNP is to bring against the government passed.  Tamil parties sympathetic towards Tigers think they will support the no confidence motion, if the ban is not lifted.

The LTTE is trying to show that the government is not sincere on peace talks and is also trying to topple the government on this issue.





Dengue comes back
Several cases of Dengue fever were reported from the Matara area.  We recall the tall claims made by public health authorities about the successful campaign they launched against the last outbreak of Dengue.  If that campaign had more effective action than rhetoric and publicity stunts, the present situation would not have recurred so soon.

We also remember distinctly what a widespread threat the last outbreak of Dengue was.  Any preventive action should deserve the unstinted support of the public.  However, it is seen that the main responsibility lies with public health authorities.  They should not slacken their preventive action and they should maintain pressure on the public to co-operate and help in the continued efforts to rid the country of this health hazard which is re-emerging frequently.




Severe punishment for sexual offences
Sexual offences and child prostitution are on the increase daily.  There is also talk of severely punishing such offenders and even death penalty was advocated. UNP MP, A.H.M. Azwar recently tabled a private member's motion in Parliament, calling for death penalty for sexual offences.

The Minister of Justice  has agreed that this offence deserves deterrent punishment.  Not willing to go upto the death sentence, the Minister proposes to amend the Bail Act to prevent the bailing of suspected offenders.  If this has to be done, the support of the Opposition, too, would be needed.  We hope, the Opposition will give its support for this proposal.





Arrests of fishermen
The friendly ties between Sri Lanka and India, which date back to olden times, have been slightly strained of late due to the issue of Indian fishermen being arrested by Sri Lankan authorities.  These fishermen venture into Sri Lankan waters, which are shunned by local fishermen due to the war and security measures, though it abounds in fish.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan fishermen have also been accused of poaching in Indian waters.  50 of them are now in detention in India, suspected of entering Indian waters illegally.  The Sri Lankan Navy arrested 39 Indian fishermen for entering Sri Lankan waters.  In this context, the arrangements made for Sri Lankan and Indian officials to meet to discuss this common problems are welcome.





Peace - a dangerous trial
Squabbling amongst political parties has made it well nigh impossible to find a political solution to the ethnic issue.  The Norwegian Peace Initiative has run into several snags, with both the government and the LTTE adopting hard-line approaches. Both parties are engaged in finding excuses to justify their respective stands with regard to starting peace talks.    The government is influenced by majoritarian chauvinism. Norway is unable to make any headway under these circumstances.

There are even voices in the South which lament about the government allowing to idle high value ammunition imported to fight the enemy.  With the branding of peace lovers as peace brokers and the urging for increased war activities, the future of not only the Tamils but also the whole country is at stake.  Peace has been derailed and the roots of the peace tree have withered.  Only snags and impediments are gaining ground.



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