Universities and Post-War reconciliation in Sri Lanka

by Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva

(February 16, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) With the end of nearly three decades of war some opportunities and challenges for promoting social cohesion among the affected communities have arisen. However fragile and uncertain it may be at present, peace has been finally restored in the country and a large-scale rebuilding of physical infrastructure in the conflict affected regions is currently under way. In the meantime a "Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission" (LLRC) has commenced its work towards identifying lessons and possible strategies for reconciliation among people affected. Yet as one commentator recently stated "the end of the conflict has left us with many loose ends, -- people to resettle, wounds to heal, reconciliation and rehabilitation to be facilitated and the need for tangible means of redress that have suffered as a result of the war." (Beling 2010: 12). To this can be added the need for reintegration of internally displaced people (IDPs), war-widows, ex-combatants, those disabled or orphaned by the war including disabled soldiers (ranaviru), home guards, inhabitants of so-called "border villages" and many other categories of war-affected people.

What should be the role of universities in post-war reconstruction and reconciliation in Sri Lanka? Should they be merely bystanders witnessing what happens in the country without contributing to or without reflecting on the ongoing processes that has so much relevance for the future of our country? Should they simply leave these processes to politicians, military and the business community and concentrate on education of young people as they have always been doing in the past? In my view the post-war rebuilding in Sri Lanka should serve two related purposes. One is to rebuild infrastructure including houses, hospitals, roads, railways, public buildings and livelihoods, community organizations, mutual trust among communities destroyed during nearly three decades of armed conflict. Second identify, analyze, explain and respond to root causes of the ethnic problem so that a recurrence of similar events in future may be avoided and the all too familiar cycle and pattern of communal violence dating back to 1958 language riots is not repeated all over again. In my view the universities and other educational and research institutions in the country have a critically important role to play on both these accounts, and the social and political marginalization of universities from the ongoing processes of post-war reconstruction and reconciliation will be counter-productive and harmful to widespread aspirations in the country towards rapid economic growth on the one hand and long-term and sustainable peace and stability on the other.

Ghettoization of Universities

Universities are a microcosm of society. Ethnic tension and polarization in society did not spare the university system. A number of factors including the JVP uprisings in the 1970s and 1980s and the Northeast War in the subsequent era and related economic downturn and insecurity served to accelerate the processes of brain drain affecting quality of teaching and research in the universities and at the same time aggravate student indiscipline in university campuses across the country. The universities themselves became ethnically polarized to some extent at least with the pre-existing ethnic mix of staff and students in universities in the South declining over the years and the emergence of Universities of Jaffna and East as predominantly ethnic Tamil universities, the South Eastern University of Sri Lanka located in Oluvil as a predominantly Muslim university and the University of Ruhuna in the South as a predominantly Sinhala university in spite of UGC efforts in recent years to diversify student intake in each of the universities. Some observers have referred to a process of ethnic ghettoization of universities in Sri Lanka and described it as something harmful to the very objective of universality of university education. This process, however, is not limited to Sri Lanka and the universities becoming centres of cultural renaissance is perhaps unavoidable in this era of identity politics and group rights.

What is worse is a kind of insular thinking that has invaded our university system side by side with the above institutional developments. This insular thinking has many signs and symptoms. Lack of open discussion about contemporary issues affecting the country is one manifestation of this insular thinking. Academics and students forming themselves into narrow factions that seek to eliminate each other is another aspect of this syndrome. Terror and violence, including symbolic violence of the type described by Pierre Bordieu, are used not only by one group of students against another but also by certain academics in order to attack, demotivate and deprive others of access to limited resources in the university system. Even in the universities where there is considerable ethnic diversity among students as indeed is the case with University of Peradeniya where I come from, interaction among Sinhala, Jaffna Tamil, Indian Tamil and Muslim students is hampered due to language barriers, ethnic prejudices and mutual mistrust. The "class war" among the students between so-called raggers (who resort to ragging of new entrants as a necessary means of bringing them to a common platform where there is no room for dissent) and anti-raggers who resist their forcible induction into a herd mentality in some universities add to insular thinking and conflict dynamics so much so that there is avoidance behavior and segregated spatial utilization on the campuses. Politicization of decision making and recruitment already well entrenched in the public sector has begun to make inroads into the university system as well. This indicates that the universities themselves have been deeply and perhaps irreversibly affected by the social pathologies that engulfed the country over the past several decades. In this context it is perhaps understandable why a high ranking university administrator once identified universities as "the remaining uncleared areas" that implicitly require sustained military intervention following the completion of the war in the North. Narrow ethnonationalisms of various forms and shapes that drive much of the political process and policy dialogue in the country at large is simply insular thinking writ large preventing adoption of successful reconciliation efforts following a successful war effort.

This perhaps indicates that the universities themselves need to go through a process of healing as a part and parcel of the post-war reconciliation in Sri Lanka. While this is indeed needed, it is essential to tap intellectual resources in the universities and other research organizations in order to identify policies, programmes and interventions needed to overcome challenges and maximize opportunities offered by the end of war and address remaining loose ends in the former battle fields. National security concerns are of utmost importance in an environment where global terror networks appear to be intact for the most part. However, winning hearts and minds of people traumatized by war and who have literally become "frogs in their wells" (kupamandika) protected, sheltered and captivated by competing brands of ethnonationalisms may be equally if not more difficult than winning the war itself. A much more enlightened humanitarian approach is necessary to rebuild mutual trust among communities affected by the war along with multiple forms of violence and intense ethnonationalist indoctrinations fueling the war. It is here that insights from humanities and social sciences, including policy dialogues informed by such insights, should be explored to their full potential in order to avoid the reemergence of crisis and social and political explosions of the type we experienced throughout the past four decades. On the other hand, the universities too need to become awakened to their mandate and indeed national responsibility to contribute towards knowledge production and policy formulation at various levels, particularly within the areas of equity and social justice, respect for and tolerance of diversity, participatory decision making and peaceful resolution of inevitable conflicts.

Educational processes themselves have multiple challenges from the angles of bringing ex-combatants into the ambit of educational and training programmes including those offered at the university levels. It must be noted here that in the aftermath of the JVP uprisings in the South in 1970s and 1980s, many JVP suspects successfully moved from detention camps to universities and other institutions of higher education and from there to the employment market facilitating their re-integration to the social and political mainstream. A similar approach will be necessary for re-integration of LTTE suspects into processes of higher education in the country. In order to address the prevailing patterns of ethnic segregation among schools and to some extent among universities, it will not be feasible to pursue a policy of desegregation, a buzz word in contemporary US educational policy, at least in the near future due to real difficulties in bringing together Sinhala and Tamil medium students into the same class rooms due to language barriers.

Encouraging and enabling the students to switch to the English medium as a link language as is indeed happening in science based courses at the university level should be pursued as a long-term goal in higher education in general. However, how far this is realistic and even desirable in relation to humanities and social sciences where the bulk of students come from Sinhala or Tamil speaking homes in rural areas is another matter given the fact that there is a possible cross fertilization between higher education in the relevant languages and the enrichment of the relevant cultures. Whatever the merits and demerits of these arguments it is important to aim towards fostering bilingual or even trilingual capacities of the young generations in order to enable them to break away from the prevailing monolingual limitation which in turns unfortunately feeds into the tyranny of insular thinking referred to earlier. It appears that some innovative initiatives in this direction are already being introduced under the leadership of Mr. Sunimal Fernando at the school level. The universities too need to take on this challenge for fostering multilingual skills among their students.

There is a need to create academic and research collaborations between universities in North, East, Centre and South, which in turn can become effective interethnic bridges facilitating the flow of information and the cross fertilization of knowledge and ideas across the ethnic divide. This can include staff and student exchanges, collaborative joint research, cultural exchanges in the fields of art, literature, drama and folklore and thematic conferences on subjects related to post-war reconstruction and reconciliation. A useful model for such collaborations in humanities and social sciences exist in an ongoing project linking University of East, South Eastern University of Sri Lanka and University of Peradeniya where there is joint research focusing on Eastern Sri Lanka, PhD training of selected staff in the three universities and development of post-graduate teaching and research in development oriented fields. This project also points to the difficulties in developing such inter university collaborations in the absence of suitable institutional mechanisms and resource and funding limitations within the university system as a whole.

As regards student exchanges, a semester of study for a student from a Southern University in a university in North or East and vice versa along with favorable experiences in a host family on the other side of the ethnic divide can certainly serve to broaden their perspectives, help overcome insular thinking and serve as ambassadors for promoting mutual trust and goodwill between the North and the South. The higher educational authorities in the country as well as potential donors for post-war reconciliation and educational reforms in Sri Lanka must seriously consider sponsoring such programmes for interuniversity and interschool collaborations linking North and South. Students from the North and the South can also be involved in ongoing infrastructural and community development projects in the conflict-affected areas and elsewhere in practical training, volunteer work and vacation employment.

Finally the Open University of Sri Lanka with its vast outreach of provincial centres spreading all over the country including North and East and high tech capacities in distant and online education can play a pivotal role in post-war reconstruction and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. It has an advantage over the conventional universities in being able to design tailor-made courses catering to specific target groups outside the limited number of university entrants selected to conventional universities through annual GCE Advanced Level Examinations. Its emphasis on life-long education, representation of all nine provinces in the country within the student population, including large numbers of Tamil and Muslim students from all parts of the country in specific courses such as the Post-graduate diploma in education, adds to its strengths in catering to a programme of social integration and healing which is the need of the hour.

With its strong links with colleges of education and the school system the Faculty of Education in the Open University already has a significant institutional base for serving the affected communities and contributing to the capacity building in regions severely disadvantaged due to the out migration of professionals during the war. Post-war reconciliation would call for enhanced capacities in counseling, conflict prevention, multicultural education, history writing, political awareness and Sinhala and Tamil as second languages for people in the North and South respectively. Different Faculties in the Open University and indeed other educational institutions in the country can identify and develop specific ways and specific study programmes through which they can contribute towards the vital task of rebuilding the country. This I see as an important challenge as well as an opportunity for the university system in the country in the era of post-war reconstruction and reconciliation. Hopefully this will also broaden the parameters of post-war reconstruction beyond the physical infrastructure development accompanied by consolidation of military power pursued at present.

(This is the script of a speech delivered as the Chief Guest of the Annual Research Sessions of the Faculty of Education, Open University of Sri Lanka on February 3, 2010)

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