Sri Lanka: Candour without caution dangerous naivety

My gut feeling as a senior retired educator and educationist is that the alleged problem and the solution suggested by the Public Security Minister (alleged youth indiscipline and suggested military training remedy, respectively), must be better conceptualized, more carefully thought out with the assistance of relevant non-self-seeking specialists whose expertise is not in question, and whose love of the young and of the country is even more assured. 

by Rohana R. Wasala

It was recently reported in the media that Public Security Minister Rear Admiral (Retd) Sarath Weerasekera had said that all young persons above the age of 18 years should be given military training in order to inculcate disciplinary values in them. He was speaking at the opening of a new police station at Hirana in Panadura last week. According to The Island/July 19, 2021, the Minister referred to the prevalent opinion about the young generation (i.e., children and young adults in education generally, I presume) that they have no respect for discipline, obedience to rules, or good behavioural values; he observed that the problem could be tackled with proper training. But he immediately qualified what he said with: “This does not mean we must turn them into military personnel, but if we are to train the youth above 18 properly, the most suitable places for that training are military camps. We must design a course aimed at personality development.” 

Rear Admiral (Retd) Sarath Weerasekera is very honest and trustworthy. I haven’t an iota of doubt about his sincerity and his commitment to the job he has been assigned with. But, anent this idea of his, I’d say in all humility: “Not so arbitrarily! Not so hastily!” However, as education is not his responsibility, the Public Security Minister may be making an implicit suggestion to his cabinet colleague who is in charge of that subject. Isn’t it more urgent for the well meaning minister to look after the discipline of  the minority of police officers who sometimes act in ways unbecoming of their profession, by getting the police hierarchy to enforce discipline on those few of their subordinates? He should not forget that there could still be blacklegs in the force linked with the yahapalanaya. 

By the way, the minister, quite sincerely and justly, showered the police with praise for rendering “yeoman service during the past few months in overcoming the threats posed by the underworld, and fighting the pandemic”, when, as The Island/July 26 reported, he called upon the Venerable Maha NayakeTheras of  Asgiriya and Malwatta Chapters, and the Getambe Hamuduruwo, who, unlike the Maha Nayake monks, is known and respected for his blunt speech. The news item is illustrated with four telling pictures of the minister meeting with the prelates and paying obeisance to them. To me it looks like The Island photographer has caught the minister’s meetings with the monks in a satirical light. 

The Buddhist Sangha has a key role to play (though it is always unobtrusive, based on the dhamma) in fostering discipline among the people, including the rulers and the civil functionaries of government. Isn’t the motto of the Sri Lankan police “Dhammo have rakkhati dhammacari” (The Dhamma protects the follower of the Dhamma)? But what is the heartbreaking reality the people encounter in this area today? Writer S.M. Sumanadasa’s opinion piece  “Whither the Sangha and the Buddha Sasana?” (The Island/July 26) has well elaborated this deficit on the part of the Sangha. My own opinion is, as I have repeatedly pointed out, that only a united Maha Sangha can save the Buddha Sasana and the Buddhists, acting exclusively as moral guides, without dabbling in politics, except when the survival of the Sasana and the people is in danger (but even in such a situation, they must, as they did in history, get the lay rulers to do the needful, or if that is not adequate, temporarily disrobe and indulge in a ruler’s duties as lay persons, as they did in history, something hardly possible today). The Mahanayake/s should be able to recall all the agitating young monks from the streets, ostracise those who don’t listen, put a stop to individualistic interpretations of Buddhism offered by  maverick monks that, though well intended, mislead the common laity (whose capacity to understand the dhamma is varied), and counter the conspiracies of anti-Buddhist proselytisers, etc, and put politicians in their place, who so unashamedly exploit the yellow robe to cheat in their immoral political games. This is a tall order, no doubt, but the Maha Sangha must do the task or let the Buddha Sasana perish. There’s nothing to worry about the Buddha Dhamma/Buddhist teaching. It is better understood, practiced, and protected among the enlightened civilized people of the world everywhere. Theravada Buddhism has been absorbed (without a label, characteristically) into the basically humane religious philosophies and forms of democratic rule in the whole world. But the continuing absence of such an undivided Sangha leadership in Sri Lanka is spelling disaster for the Buddha Sasana. It will have similar consequences for the Sinhala Buddhists,  because the preservation of a community’s cultural identity is as vital for its survival as for its flourishing.  

It is true that the country’s successful tackling of the Covid-19 pandemic through vaccination amidst untold difficulties and artificial snags owes much to the hard work and the discipline of the health and security personnel including the police. My opinion about the success of the Covid-19 containment operation is based on the following: by now (July 29), about eight million Sri Lankans have got at least one dose of an anti-Covid vaccine, and  two million of them have got both; in terms of a percentage of the population, it is well over 35%; and in some districts, nearly all vulnerable citizens have been vaccinated. This is in view of the fact that vaccination is the only remedy available against the deadly disease. While that is so, all  225 MPs and hundreds of local representatives must make themselves equally responsible for saving the people, who elected them to office, from the Corona virus. Their personal discipline must be exemplary, because they are also accountable if young people behave without discipline as alleged. However, I personally do not believe that the vast majority of our young people lack discipline.

But if it is perceived that there is such a problem, responsible politicians and educational authorities ought to do something about it in an apolitical, non-controversial, scientific manner (i.e.,through  ideological debate and discussion among experts, not leaving out willing and constructive youth interaction and involvement). They must take collective steps to democratically protect the young from falling into the hands of the negligibly few ignorant and immature political power seekers among them, who have ruined the lives of generations of youth over the past roughly fifty-five years. The people have convincingly rejected them, and the same people will wholeheartedly support any positive measures that responsible people’s representatives and civil authorities introduce in good faith by way of a remedy against their misleading quixotic adventures to ensnare the young into their schemes. But if they admit their past errors, and conceptualize a new approach to national politics, as a bulwark against minority communalism as well as the big parties that succumb to the trickeries of the few racists among minority politicians, Sri Lanka will be theirs to rule. My frank view is that, Uvindu Wijeweera, the well educated young son of the late Rohana Wijeweera, the founder ideologue and leader of the JVP, destroyed by the reactionary forces that his successors later befriended, has great potential in leading such a movement. Monks, please don’t wreck his chances. (Please bear with me! This is an anticipatory digression, but not entirely out of context, though.)

Back to my present subject. My gut feeling as a senior retired educator and educationist is that the alleged problem and the solution suggested by the Public Security Minister (alleged youth indiscipline and suggested military training remedy, respectively), must be better conceptualized, more carefully thought out with the assistance of relevant non-self-seeking specialists whose expertise is not in question, and whose love of the young and of the country is even more assured. (I don’t personally think that a problem of general youth indiscipline exists; if it does, adults must be held responsible, and  their (adults’) problems, if any, solved first. I have worked with adolescents and young adults of both sexes in secondary and tertiary education in Sri Lanka and abroad for over thirty-five years (the better part of that time in an alien culture abroad). The wisdom that I have gained in connection with the subject at hand is that normally young people everywhere are unspoilt and are moral idealists (within the cultures they have been born into and brought up). They are ready to act with self discipline and responsibility or are ready to subject themselves to formal discipline, when they are convinced that discipline, contrary to what the word basically implies - restraint, control -, makes them strangely free and strong enough to channel the physical and mental energies that they naturally possess to create happiness for themselves and for those around them. I experienced this more clearly when I taught abroad than when I was working in my own country Sri Lanka (where I worked for a shorter period in my less mature years). But, how disciplined our educated young people are in a conducive environment was demonstrated when they enthusiastically joined in a mass voluntary wall painting movement for town beautification across the country with the election of a new president in November 2019 that electrified them with new expectations and prospects of better times to come. 

Incidentally, the minister’s proposal reminds us of the leadership development programme that was introduced during the post-2009 government and implemented with army help for the benefit of fresh university entrants before the commencement of their academic studies. The army was co-opted to  the programme because it had all the human and physical resources required for such an undertaking. It was probably partly intended as a dampener on the chronic problem of initiation ragging which was historically inevitably associated with the rejected and depleted political minority mentioned above. The programme was no doubt a wholesome confidence building and personality development measure, being a more rational and more acceptable form of initiation (than the sadistic ragging administered by psychopathic criminals) into independent university life from secondary school. The program was well received both by the students and their parents, and by the general public. However, the well designed and well conducted initiative met with an adverse response, mostly for the wrong reasons, from foreign agenda promoting NGOs and blindly politicized oppositional groups. The proponents of the useful course of leadership training and personality development probably felt that, in the then prevailing context, this kind of reception was likely to later create public misunderstandings that could translate into electoral losses for the governing party. So it had to be abandoned almost as soon as it was started. A farcical personality development programme of the fake ‘Reconciliation’ brand was enacted under the yahapalanaya when it was on its last legs. 

The negative experience (i.e., being forced to abandon the first leadership programme for university entrants introduced during 2009-15) should have alerted the minister to the possible, nay probable, repetition of criticism from the same quarters. Those attacks on the previous leadership development programme were for the most part unfounded, but not totally so. Their politicized nature betrayed a severe deficit of sincerity on the part of the critics. Employees of foreign NGOs including even the (probably forcibly roped in) venerables of Friday Forum who disapproved of that military-like training cannot free themselves from suspected susceptibility to the attraction of the filthy lucre. Their opposition can be safely disregarded if the recipient students, their parents and the general public have no problem with the rudimentary military training that the public security minister proposes for all the young people of the country. But, in my opinion, the immediately existing political and social environment in Sri Lanka is not conducive for the success of such a personality development programme.

The Public Security Minister’s bona fides or genuineness of intention is beyond doubt. He pledged to stand by the police officers who carried out their duties in good faith. But he should know better than most if he has succeeded in emerging out of the lingering shadow of the yahapalana incubus. Candour without caution is likely to prove mere self-defeating naivety at the present critical juncture.