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Compulsory training of university entrants by the military risks perpetuating the troubles of divided Sri Lanka

by Rohini Hensman, 14 June 2011

print version of this article print version, 14 June 2011

Sri Lankan universities are no place for the army

Compulsory ’leadership’ training of university entrants by the military risks perpetuating the troubles of divided Sri Lanka

Rohini Hensman

Students in Britain have protested vociferously against government cuts in education funding, and rightly so. But students in Sri Lanka, where state-funded higher education is also under attack, face an additional ordeal: compulsory "leadership and positive attitude development" of university entrants by the military. The scheme was introduced without warning by the ministry of higher education, and is being carried out by the ministry of defence.

It faced no fewer than five fundamental rights objections in the supreme court; students and teachers pleaded that the rights of students would be infringed if they were forced to undergo a residential training programme in army camps without regard to their beliefs and cultural sensitivities. But the petitions were dismissed, and the programme was initiated in May.

What makes this development especially grotesque is that it occurs at a time when allegations of war crimes have been levelled by the United Nations against the government and armed forces of Sri Lanka. The report of the UN secretary-general’s panel of experts on accountability in Sri Lanka, released in April, found credible allegations that both the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had committed serious violations of international humanitarian law and international human rights law in the final stages of the war that ended in May 2009.

The government shelled no-fire zones, where it had encouraged civilians to congregate, hospitals, food distribution lines, the UN hub, and near Red Cross ships that had come to evacuate the wounded. It also deprived civilians in the conflict zone of food and medical aid. Outside the war zone, it abducted and killed journalists and other critics. The LTTE, for its part, used civilians as hostages and human shields, shooting them if they tried to flee to safety, forcibly recruited adults and children to its armed forces, and used forced labour to build defences. Outside the war zone, it carried out suicide attacks on civilians. As a result of all these violations, tens of thousands of civilians lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of them in the carnage of the last few days.

Responsibility for the government violations goes right to the top: the buck stops with the commander-in-chief, president Mahinda Rajapaksa, and his brother, defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa. But this does not exonerate soldiers who carried out commands to slaughter civilians, nor those who abused and executed prisoners. An appendix to the report by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions to the human rights council in May documents technical assessments by forensic experts authenticating video footage, obtained by Channel 4, of Sri Lankan soldiers executing prisoners who have been subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, including women. Such behaviour may be atypical; indeed, survivors have testified that some soldiers treated them with compassion and kindness. But there is no guarantee that military personnel who are guilty of appalling crimes are not involved in providing leadership training to young students.

Jayantha Dhanapala and professor Savitri Goonesekere of the Friday Forum, a multi-ethnic group of concerned citizens, point out that military training, with its emphasis on regimentation and unquestioning obedience, is contrary to the core values of freedom of opinion and expression, and discussion with respect for opposing viewpoints, which should be encouraged by a university education.

Most disturbingly, they note that the content of the module on history and "national heritage" focuses exclusively on cultural symbols of the majority Sinhala community with none from other communities. In short, "the curriculum seems to discourage tolerance for viewpoint difference, and sensitivities for the pluralism and diversity of our country. Regimentation, military discipline and taking pride in a majoritarian version of national heritage and history are what seem to be envisaged as the ideal model of leadership".

The purpose of the programme seems to be to reproduce the authoritarian, militaristic, Sinhala nationalist vision of society that characterises the Rajapaksa regime. Even if this goal is not achieved, the "skills" imparted by an army that has perpetrated horrific war crimes could, in a country awash with weapons, spawn armed robbery and gang warfare as well as state and anti-state terrorism.

Fortunately, there seems to be widespread opposition to the programme from students, parents, teachers and other concerned citizens from all ethnic communities. Among the responses documented by the Young Researchers’ Collective was the lament of a student from Jaffna: "Militarism within the student sector will only lead to the destruction of the whole country." A senior lecturer observed: "This programme is to brainwash students to suit the needs of the government." Many respondents protested against the lack of consultation and bizarre setting for the programme. Such opposition should certainly be supported by anyone interested in democracy and peace in Sri Lanka.


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