More Than Words: A Few Thoughts On The Challenges Facing The President

By Lionel Guruge
President Maithripala Sirisena is quoted as having made a few statements at the events he attended in the past few weeks. Spanning three broad themes, these are all equally important for the citizens of Sri Lanka.
  • The first statement, made at St. Johns College, Nugegoda in commemoration of their century centennial, was the need to conduct a large colloquium on the topic of education in Sri Lanka.
  • The second statement, made during the opening ceremony of the Magampura museum, was that what Sri Lanka needs is political harmony. This comment was made focusing on the appearance of both Sajith Premadasa and Mahinda Amaraweera on the same political stage.
  • Last but certainly not least, whilst addressing students at Law College President Sirisena proclaimed that for the purpose of protecting the environment, he is even willing to utilize his executive powers. For the sake of the development of this nation and its people, let us scrutinise the issues surrounding these three topics.

Colloquium on education

schoolchildrenThis author received his primary and secondary education at Bogoda Vidyalaya in Badulla in 1971. During this tenure, both Sinhala and Tamil mediums were administered in the same school, and the results of such a merger gave rise to many pleasant and fond memories of that time. As a young child, this author remembers male teachers from Jaffna robed in customary vetti’s and teaching our fellow Tamil brothers in the classrooms next to ours. Memories of erecting decorations made from banana leaves and coconut leaves (Gok kola) forSarasvathi poojas are embedded in this authors psyche, and reminiscing brings with it a most extraordinary happiness. These memories are not reserved just for this person; but all who belonged to this time may have enjoyed the same pleasures. However, with the segregation of schools into Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim schools, society lost the unity that was the cornerstone in the past. This decision was one of the more ill-conceived political decisions of that time. This author has further had the privilege of participating in a Sinhala Tamil exchange program that took place in Karanaskada Vidyalaya in Kandy. Most adults in attendance at this event mentioned that this was the first time in years all ethnicities of the institution had come together; for at that time, the Karagaskada school administration had divided the schools into Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim schools. This is not an unusual occurrence around Sri Lanka anymore, and with this divide Sri Lankans lost the most opportune moment to conciliate. Therefore, to conduct a colloquium with these factors in mind is of vital importance, and a few important points should be included to the debate such as,

  • · Analysis and re-publishing of material in school textbooks so as to promote a culture of unity and conciliation among school children.
  • To make an effort to translate Tamil literature to Sinhala and vice versa. The value of such an endeavor is grossly understated, for it is well known that art and literature transcends any border. By making Tamil literature available to Sinhala students and vice versa , these children will be exposed to the others’ rich culture and perhaps this might waken their interests and curiosity to learn further,
  • All name boards in school starting from time tables to boards denoting buildings or even the names of plants to be printed in all three languages so that children will be inculcated with values of language equality and the importance of all three languages at a young age,
  • To dedicate a portion of the syllabus on language studies that span until O Level standard to educating the children on language rights in Sri Lanka and the Official Languages Policy, so that the children will acclimatize at a young age,
  • To mandate an event every year that fosters associations between diverse ethnicities and races such as an exchange program, or inter-cultural event,
  • To set in place a system by which universities will begin to administer Undergraduate degrees for Translation studies in both Sinhala and English. The Agalawaththa Language Training centers are capable of leading this change.
  • To strictly administer physical and human resources without discrimination to both provincial and national level government schools,
  • To take politics out of the severely politicised education system, mainly the teaching community. For example, teaching positions are now given to those that are not very capable of being good educators. To resolve this, even the principals of schools must be proactive in igniting this change by setting in place a strict system of administration whereby teachers are annually subjected to competency tests, as well as educate the teachers on new and developing technologies used in education. Also, when providing private tuition there must be some method of testing quality of content and administration. There has been evidence of teachers teaching their subject in private tuition capacity so that they may charge more money, but correcting question papers and homework within school.

 

Political unity

Why is political harmony important in Sri Lanka? The answer to this must be sought from a bottom up approach. Since Sri Lanka gained independence, unity and ethnic harmony are factors that have continued to provide an impediment for uninterrupted development in the country. With the limited resources available to us, we as citizens as well as politicians have a duty to take Sri Lanka to unprecedented heights of development, both humanitarian and material. In order to do this, the concept of national identity must be integrated into discussions about reformed political culture. Political unity is not characterised merely by political opponents appearing on the same stage together; true unity encompasses factors that go beyond that. The Presidents greatest challenge in this regard then is to establish a national government truly worth its title; that would mean a government that is totally inclusive of all minority representation, as well as have the ability to extrapolate common goals that underpin all political philosophies of each party instead of letting them engage in petty arguments and most of all, revenge politics.

On the topic of revengeful politics, the Supreme Court’s decision to suspend the arrest of former Defense minister Gotabaya Rajapaksa was an important one. This is not to say that justice must not be served, however the law also states that any suspect is innocent until proven guilty. By further holding suspects in remand and postponing their dates in court, the suspicion of ones guilt is only perpetuated, which is further compounded by the media’s portrayal of these suspects. Therefore what must be done is to give prominence to sensitive cases such as these. If leaders of influence give into the need to sustain their satisfaction by dabbling in revenge politics, such satisfaction would fast lead the development of a nation to ruin. The prime focus of investigating corruption charges must be to establish justice, but also to provide precedent for future governments and to cause its members to think twice before allowing their greed surpass their duty to the nation.

 

The environment

Perhaps one of the most important statements the President made was regards to the environment. The impetus for this statement was Minister Rishard Badurdeen’s inconsideration towards deforestation occurring in Wilpattu and Madu areas which came under his constituency. Unfortunately, the former President did little to resolve this issue, leading to a large community of citizens galvanizing on social media and the internet, coupled with pressure applied from political parties predominantly the JVP that ultimately led to his decision to criminalise the deforestation activities in those areas. This has now opened up a discussion regarding the laws pertaining to the environment in Sri Lanka. If deforestation is an illegal activity, putting a stop to it by merely reinforcing the law will not be sufficient; the perpetrators must also be brought to justice. When questioned about this issue, the Minister provided answers reinforced by political ambition instead of taking accountability for his actions. Perhaps the current plight of those that have not claimed responsibility for their actions in the past may provide some motivation for such individuals now. Also, according to latest media statements, an influential cabinet minister in the South is said to be destroying the ocean shore in the hopes of making a swimming pool for a hotel. It is hoped that the President will not turn a blind eye to this attempt and instead intervene immediately.

In terms of the environment, a startling and rather urgent reality that faces the President currently is the dearth of drinking water in much of the North and Eastern Provinces, which has ultimately led to severe kidney problems for a majority of people residing in those areas. It is a fervent hope that the present government places this issue on the top of their priority list.

Likewise, similar environmental hazards such as deforestation, forest fires, landslides, misuse of coral in the marine areas etc. should also be treated with urgency, and in this framework it is entirely justifiable for the President to wield his executive powers to remedy any wrongdoing. To add to this, in the districts of Mahiyangana, Bibile, and Monaragala, the administration of banana plantation by large corporate entities have resulted in vast stretches of land, ripe for fertilisation, being destroyed by chemicals and preservatives. Again, the President has complete jurisdiction to use his powers to put an end to such harmful practices and advocate for more natural alternatives for the preservation of banana plantations. Clearly, the President and his government have much to do in this area.

As far as keeping election promises goes, President Sirisena seems to have kept his word on a few occasions. One hopes that he will be able to attend to these matters as he promised and with the same principles in mind, for it will be cause for much satisfaction among the people of Sri Lanka.