The future of this present

Wednesday, 4 August 2021 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The Kotelawala Defence University Bill is a key component of this project of transforming Sri Lanka into a suitable politico-psychological space for Rajapaksa rule – Pic by Shehan Gunasekara


“If mankind commits suicide, it will be because people will obey...the archaic passions of fear, hate, and greed...” 

– Erich Fromm 

(On Disobedience: Why Freedom Means Saying “No” to Power)

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

Sri Lanka is in transition into becoming the Pearl of the Silk Route politically. But America still haunts the imitation dreams of her rulers. 

President Gotabaya’s latest toy is a press briefing room that seems to be a replica of the one in the White House. But Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s press room will be American in form only; in content, it will be pure Chinese. The media would not be permitted to contradict spokespersons and argue with presidents as they do in the James Brady Press Briefing Room. Instead their role would be to accept official truths uncritically and amplify them to reach every corner of society. A fitting symbol of the country the Rajapaksas are trying to create – familial autocracy in a democratic shell.

The Kotelawala Defence University Bill is a key component of this project of transforming Sri Lanka into a suitable politico-psychological space for Rajapaksa rule. 

According to the Bill, the Kotelawala Defence University will have the power “to establish campuses, colleges, faculties, departments, centres, academic institutions, and other such specialised institutes, schools, and divisions as maybe required by the university”. This would create a parallel system of education and higher education in accordance with Rajapaksa needs and interests. 

The KDU’s Board of Governors will be appointed by the Defence Minister, and according to the Rajapaksa game plan, that post will always be held by the family. This is militarisation of education, but militarisation led and controlled by the Family and aimed at promoting the familial agenda of dynastic power for the next half century. The KDU bill seeks to make good the promise the royal astrologer made to President Mahinda in 2009, a Rajapaksa era lasting for 50 years.

During their previous incarnation, the Rajapaksas made Leadership Training in military camps mandatory for new university entrants and outfitted school principals in military uniforms. The new Act will enable the creation of cohorts of degree holders who obtain their entire education in institutions run on military lines, where even a glimmer of independent thinking is absent and obedience to higher authority is the greatest and only good. These degree holders (and school leavers) can then be used to stuff the bureaucracy. 

President Gotabaya infamously and peevishly demanded that State officials obey his verbal orders as if they are circulars. If the KDU Bill is passed, future members of civilian bureaucracy would be trained from lower or middle school on to honour and obey Rajapaksa orders as if they are divine truths. It will be ‘Yes, Sir, No, Sir, Three bags full, Sir,” rendered as education policy and academic practice. 

The possibilities contained within the Bill are endless. For example, new law faculties and colleges can be established, creating lawyers who give primacy not to the rule of law but to the law of the rulers. These lawyers can them be used to fill judicial vacancies, gradually transforming the Judiciary into a mindless instrument of Rajapaksa power. 

The Gotabaya-Mahinda regime appointed retired Major General Sumedha Perera as Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture. In late February, the Agricultural Minister announced that at his request the retired Major General had resigned from his post. The retired Major General denied the fact of his resignation. A few days later, the Minister appointed a civilian bureaucrat to the post of secretary. The retired Major General was out, whether he resigned or not.

This incident illustrates the true nature of current Lankan militarisation. Military figures are appointed to civilian positions to ensure unquestioning obedience to Rajapaksa orders. If they fail to please, they are booted out. The military officials are not autonomous actors but Rajapaksa automata. 

Once the KDU Bill is in place, the task of transforming the Lankan state into a Rajapaksa state can begin in earnest. The military style schools can catch the children young and train them into becoming perfect instruments of Rajapaksa rule, especially by inculcating in them the Rajapaksa version of history and religion. Generations of mostly Sinhala-Buddhist Eichmanns can be bred, men and women who see a potential traitor in every Tamil, Muslim and perhaps even a non-Buddhist Sinhalese and equate dissent with treachery and democracy with chaos, bureaucrats and teachers, lawyers and doctors, journalists and artists who follow orders sans mind, sans conscience, human tools of Rajapaksa Will.


‘Triumph of the will’ and the idiocy pandemic

The disasters of today were written in candidate Gotabaya’s performance at the only media conference he faced. Asked how he would deal with the debt crisis, he ducked. Asked how he was going to find money to fulfil his various promises, he ducked again. Asked about reconciliation, he went off at a tangent. The signs were of a man ignorant of objective realities and happily confident in and of that ignorance.

That performance tallied with his record with the UDA. Until it became part of Secretary Gotabaya’s fief, the UDA never made a loss. After it did, it never made a profit. According to the Auditor General’s report, the UDA’s accumulated losses for the period of 2006-2011 alone amounted to over Rs. 1,230 million (1.23 billion rupees). 

“I am not a politician. I am a dedicated government servant. I have done so much and I can tell without any fear or uncertainty, that no one will be able to replace me. I challenge anyone, try and replace my commitment, my hard work and my vision - no one can” (Daily Mirror – 12 February 2015). That was Gotabaya Rajapaksa according to Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The gap between that self-perception and the actual record is as great as the Mariana Trench, and is one of the reasons the country is going downhill faster than a snowball in an avalanche. 

So momentous decisions are made without proper forethought, research and planning. The tax base was denuded with no thought of how that would affect Government revenue.

 To fill the revenue gap, money was printed with no thought of its effect on the internal and external value of the rupee. All State workers are called back to work, in the midst of a raging delta variant. Even pregnant women, a high risk category, don’t seem to be exempted. 

Fifteen to 20 children are reportedly admitted to the Lady Ridgeway Hospital every day with COVID-19. The hospital is using another building in Rajagiriya to accommodate the influx and even that is filled up. Pictures of desperate people packed tightly in buses and trains warn of the possibility of multiple transport clusters. To add disaster to disaster, Russian tourists are being brought to Sri Lanka despite Russia’s extremely high levels of infections and deaths.

Doctors and health officials are warning of the risks of this precipitous opening. Not the Army Commander who is the head of the anti-COVID task force.

 That is precisely why he is the head of the task force, a man trained not to think or form opinions but to follow orders. Incidentally, by the time the next pandemic hits, a product of a KDU affiliated medical college might be ready to become the ‘civilian head’ of the anti-pandemic task force. 

Vaccination is necessary, but even the most effective of the vaccines – Pfizer and Moderna – cannot totally prevent the deadly reach of the delta variant. In any case, by August 1st, according Our World in Data figures, only 10.06% of Lankans have been fully vaccinated and only 36.38% partially vaccinated. (Incidentally, we are not the best vaccine-givers, even among developing nations, with countries such as Uruguay, Mongolia, Chile, and Ecuador doing much better than us – probably because they started early while we were toying with Kali and Ritigala concoctions and throwing magical pots into waterways). 

Cula-hattipadopama Sutta is believed to be the first sutta Arahat Mahinda preached in Lanka. Briefly (according to the translation on the sutta begins with an encounter between a wanderer named Pilotika and a Brahmin named Janussonin. Pilotika says he became a follower of the Buddha because he had witnessed great pundits accepting the Buddha’s word without arguments. He compares his conversion to a hunter seeing a large elephant footprint as soon as he enters an elephant forest and immediately knowing it to be the footprint of a big bull-elephant. Janussonin, impressed by this report, becomes a follower of the Buddha.

Later he meets the Buddha and explains his conversion. The Buddha responds by pointing out that the nature of an elephant cannot be known from a footprint alone. It is necessary to go deeper into the forest and witness other signs, scratch marks from tusks and broken branches at high levels. Even these signs, though helpful, are inadequate. A final conclusion is possible only after one sees the big bull elephant.

In a sermon on 25 June, Ven. Galkande Dhammananda Thero pointed out that this discourse describes the value of fact-based thinking as distinct from blind belief or hearsay. The Polotika model is having belief in something because influential people advocate it. 

The Janussonin model is believing in something on hearsay. The third model is what the country needs, the Buddha’s Model which advocates a fact-based search for truth.

The venerable monk has a point. Our independent history is so soaked in blood, so replete with avoidable errors and crimes (made by both leaders and people) because while worshipping the Buddha we practiced the Pilotika and Janussoni Models. Black July, which was raging this time 38 years ago, was an example. 

The Buddha’s Model, if followed, will create a people capable of thinking for themselves. Which politician would want that? 


Politicians and teachers – A tale of two professions

Sri Lanka’s Parliament is in fight to death – with the Right to Information Commission. The bone of contention is the educational qualifications of parliamentarians.

The reluctance of the august assembly to reveal the educational qualifications of its members is understandable. Education probably features the least in the qualifications of many – if not most – of its members. 

And yet, these members are the recipients of privileges unique even by global standards. Who else is entitled to a full pension after holding a job for five years? Who else is entitled to a duty free vehicle permit which can be hawked for personal profit in the very first year of employment? Incidentally, these outrageous benefits seem to attract not the best but the worst kinds to politics. 

According to the head of the Vehicle Importers Association, two of the vehicle types that were to be imported for our parliamentarians – in the midst of a pandemic and a revenue and forex crisis – would cost Rs. 45 million (Prado) and Rs. 60 million (V8) each. If this is not an obscenity, what is? Will those in the non-Rajapaksa space who are talking of alternatives be willing to support the abolition of at least these two outrages – duty free vehicle permits and pensions in five years?  

The fact that the Government prioritised the importation of vehicles for parliamentarians rather than phones or tablets for students or the setting up of a dedicated television channel is proof of the low value accorded to education outside of election promises and campaign speeches. 

Little wonder that in this country, the basic salary of a Grade 3(1) teacher is just Rs. 32,200.

Since our Lords of Misrule love their imitation dreams, perhaps they should consider imitating, a bit at least, the example of Finland, a country that was a Swedish colony and a Russian grand duchy until 1918. Even by the mid-20th century, it was a poor, backward and predominantly agrarian country. Lacking major natural resources, Finland opted to invest in people, mainly children as a way to economic take-off. Its world class education system is not an outcome of its astonishing development but one of the reasons for it. 

The heart of this education success is the teacher, a highly-trained, highly-paid professional with the independence to think and act. Only the best of the graduates are recruited to the profession. 

The same care is given to training teachers as to training doctors. The result is teachers who think for themselves and inculcate the same habit in their students. 

What if after the end of the Long Eelam War, instead of the Hambantota Port, the Mattala Airport and the Nelum Kuluna, the country invested in upgrading its educational system? What if the money and care spent on often unnecessary physical infrastructure projects were lavished on the next generation and those who train them – better pay and training for teachers, better facilities for schools, starting with the war torn north and the east, the historically-neglected plantation areas and districts such as Hambantota and Moneragala? What if a plan was formed to render district-level standardisation unnecessary by narrowing the resources and facility gap among schools, so that university entrance is based solely on academic excellence?

The problem of the KDU Bill is a Rajapaksa problem. But the problem in our education system predates the Rajapaksas and will survive their eventual demise. Until that problem is addressed adequately, mediocrity, social-envy, intolerance and closed minds would be our predominant characteristics. Development will remain the distant goal we never reach and ethno-religious or political strife the everyday reality we struggle to survive and often don’t.

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