Category Archives: Human Rights

Fr Tissa Balasuriya: Memories and Challenges for today

Edited English text of Fr. Tissa Balasuriya 5th death anniversary Memorial Oration, delivered in Sinhalese, on 17th January 2018, at the Centre for Society & Religion (CSR), Colombo) 

By Ruki Fernando

Thank you for inviting me to speak today. Even though I had not known or worked closely with Fr Tissa as some others here. I constantly think of and miss two of my mentors in activism. One is Fr. Tissa. And it’s humbling to speak about such a visionary, committed and simple man. Who I called a  Loving and Gentle Rebel.

I had first met him when I was in the Young Christian Students (YCS) Movement. We used to come to CSR, to borrow materials and equipment. Amongst the videos that Fr Tissa lent us, and left a lasting impression, was the video about Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvadore, who was assassinated for his uncompromising positions and harsh criticisms of an authoritarian regime.

Fr. Tissa had been the 1st Asia Pacific Chaplain of the International Movement of Catholic Students (IMCS). Mentored by visionary and committed chaplains like him, many Catholic student leaders in Asia have gone on to become activists. It’s sad that we don’t have many chaplains like him today. I’m not sure whether anyone from Sri Lanka’s Catholic Students movement is interested in Fr Tissa’s life, work and thoughts and whether anyone is here today to reflect about these.

I continued my association with Fr. Tissa after my YCS life. Going with him to slums in Colombo shocked me. Discussions about liberation theology and social analysis was difficult to follow, but exiting. Few years before he died, he cautioned me to be careful knowing imminent threats I was facing. Later he invited me to stay with him with an assurance he will protect me.

There are many more memories, and it’s easy to get carried away and talk about these. But I will try restrain myself from that temptation. And try to approach the much more difficult, and overwhelming task of reflecting about his life, work and about carrying forward his vision in a way that’s relevant today. I will share my reflections under 3 areas.

1. Fr. Tissa in society, with a vision of a church that was part of society

Fr. Tissa was a Catholic Priest. But in context where many Priests and Catholic leaders were and are distant from society and day to day issues faced by people, Fr Tissa remained firmly rooted in society. His Christian faith and Priesthood appeared to have motivated and pushed him to be a man of and man in society. He had become intimately involved in struggles for social justice and human rights. He initiated, supported and joined social movements. His interests and writings have covered an amazing variety of issues – feminism, women’s rights, worker’s rights, urban poverty, Malaiyaha Tamils (especially those working and living in estates), ethnic conflict and reconciliation, global warming etc. Connecting such issues to Spirituality and Christian faith had come naturally to him and was non-negotiable. He consistently and passionately condemned capitalism and didn’t shy away from asserting that ideals of socialism can identify with Christian faith and his left leanings.

He emphasized the use of social analysis for theology and insisted that “In the absence of a systemic analysis persons of goodwill can be unwittingly used by the powers that be for their benefit. Thus they are persuaded to consider their task as to take care of the victims of the exploitative system, to ensure continuity of the power system, to legitimize the prevailing exploitative order and to prevent or contain dissent leading to revolt. Social workers promoting these causes will be given an honourable place in society, and respected when they do not contest the greed and injustice of the dominant”.

He didn’t fail to identify how religious institutions and traditions, especially the Church, which he remained part of till death, had been part of and promoted oppressive practices and traditions, within Church life and in society.

“Liberation” was a word that he had used often. Three of his well-known books were “Jesus and Human Liberation”, “Mary and Human Liberation” and “Eucharist and Human Liberation”. A series of publications by CSR under Fr. Tissa was named “Vimukthi Prakashana” or “Liberation Publications”. Women’s rights, women’s liberation, feminism and the ethnic conflict related topics were covered regularly by this series of booklets. One was provocatively titled “A political solution or military solution?” The series also dealt with host of other issues, such as multinational corporations and liberation, rural socialist liberation, fisherfolk in Negombo, farmers, white paper on education, free trade zone, tourism, Colombo Municipal Council and housing problem, transport service and Ceylon Transport Board (CTB), Mahaweli development project, challenges in cinema, censorship board and the 1971 constitution.

Contextual Theology – or Theology that was relevant to social – economic – political context at a particular time in a particular place – was key element of liberation theology that Fr. Tissa lived and promoted. One of his lesser known work is on Theology concerning ethnicity. As far back as 1986, he wrote, “A theology related Sri Lanka must relate to life here. Since ethnic relations are dominant factor in Sri Lankan life today, contemporary theology in Sri Lanka must have ethnicity as one of it’s most significant dimensions”.

2. From Contextual Theology to Planetary Theology and Globalization of Solidarity

Fr. Tissa appeared to have tried to go beyond contextual theology in writing about “Planetary Theology” – title of one of his most famous and oldest books published in 1984, the Sinhala translation of which is being launched today. Globalization of Solidarity was one of his latter books, published in 2000.

Although Fr Tissa had grappled with day to day problems facing different communities in Sri Lanka, from slums in Colombo, to free trade zone and ethnic conflict, he also grappled with world problems. His writings regularly and harshly condemned colonization and advocated for recognition and restitution, acknowledging that “even in recent times (2010) it is difficult to even discuss the question of compensation and restitution for long term colonial exploitation of peoples by persons, companies and countries”. To him, world trade was about transferring resources from the poor to the rich. “World Apartheid” was a word that he used regularly to talk about past and ongoing global injustices by western countries towards other parts of the world.

According to him, “in the history of the world the colonial adventure of the European (Christian) peoples constitutes one of the greatest robberies, genocides and abuse of power by a set of human beings and nations. The Church and Christians have been not only involved in this genocide, but have encouraged it and benefited from it”. He had also stated that “the reform of international institutions such as the IMF, World Bank and WTO, the democratization of the UNO and its security Council and the strengthening of the powers of the UN General Assembly are also needed for dealing with these problems. The whole unjust world order, built up by 500 years of Western colonization, must be reformed to have world justice”.

According to Fr. Tissa, local action is not a remedy for global problems and “given the global nature of the present challenges to life, contextual theologies alone, however well developed and essential for the context, are not adequate to inspire liberative action that has also to be global”.

For him, “human solidarity in the context of present day globalization necessitates a radical transformation of the world order and relationships among peoples in the direction of sharing of resources and caring for all. In addition to changes at the national and regional levels, there has to be transformations at the world”.

He argued that “The genuinely universal dimensions of Christian theology may be said to be those elements of theology that have a bearing on all reality, or at least on the whole planet earth and all humanity of all time and space”. He went on to elaborate that such universal dimensions would include:

·         Humanity, the human condition in its universal characteristics

·         Male and female, though different, equal in rights and dignity

·         The cosmos, especially the planet earth available, with its limited resources, for all humanity & the planet’s ecology as common essential source of life and hence of concern for all humans, present and future

·         Recognition that each group of humans has a history and a religio-cultural background of its own, which is a universal factor that makes for particularity and different contexts for theology

3. Reflecting on taking forward Fr. Tissa’s life and work – especially for CSR & Oblates

I realize now that Fr. Tissa was one of first Oblates I had met. He probably didn’t realize how far that relationship will go. We have organized and attended seminars, exhibitions, visited war ravaged areas during and after war, been together at the UN in New York and Geneva, at street protests in Colombo, Kilinochchi and elsewhere.

CSR, founded by Fr. Tissa in 1971, has been an important part of my life and that of many activists. CSR had offered it’s meeting spaces when other centers refused to host us. We faced rampaging monks together in this very hall at CSR. When I couldn’t find anyone else to offer shelter for those in fear of their lives, I turned to CSR. After Fr. Praveen (another Oblate) and I were detained by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID), some activists and friends, including priests, didn’t want to welcome the two of us, so we turned to CSR.

So I hope CSR can play a bigger role in human rights and social justice activism. This will be possible only if it’s backed fully by Oblates, especially it’s leadership. It is heartening that Oblates have taken on themselves to continue the work at CSR. I must also mention Oblates taking forward the work at Suba Seth Gedera in Buttala, initiated by another Oblate, Fr Michel Rodrigo. These two centres, have the potential to become central places for social justice and rights struggles.

I want to highlight three broad areas, which Fr Tissa had dealt with, for consideration by Oblates and CSR, to have deeper involvement:

i.                    Ethnic conflict and post war issues

Though the war is over, we are still not at peace, and remain polarized along ethnic lines. A political solution to the ethnic conflict, truth and justice in relation to disappeared, political prisoners, land and right to remember war dead are just some of major challenges confronting us. I believe CSR has a fairly strong Sinhalese constituency, and thus well placed to play such a role, but I feel it will have to do more outreach to Tamils and Muslims.

ii.                  Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Today in Sri Lanka, civil society is polarized whether economic, social and cultural rights should be given equal status to civil and political rights and whether they should be recognized as justiciable rights in the constitution. Fr. Tissa’s repeated and ominous warnings about evils of capitalism and neo-liberal economic and development agendas are visible before our eyes and ears today, affecting economic, social and cultural rights. Across the country, there are struggles being waged by workers, fisherfolk, farmers, and students. For land, for free and quality health care and education and against mega development projects such as Port City and Uma Oya. Fr. Tissa’s friend and colleague, Fr. Michale Rodrigo, was killed 30 years ago while he was fighting for rights and dignity of peasant’s in Buttala, and these challenges remain. Fr. Tissa had insisted that “rights of people cannot be ensured and fostered today without a struggle against the evil aspects of capitalistic globalization. A critical analysis of globalization, (within such global apartheid) and a reflection based on the religious and spiritual values of humanity would lead to an option for the genuine development and liberation of the people, especially the poor”.

iii.                Feminism, Women’s rights, Gender and Sexuality

The Catholic Church, along with other religious institutions, dominated by male clerics, has often been on the wrong side of rights and dignity of women and people with different gender identities and sexual orientations. Fr. Tissa was one who appeared to be an exception. I’m highlighting this, even though I’m not confident Oblates will want to take up this challenge. According to Fr Tissa, mother of Jesus, Mary, “was not seen as one who was deeply concerned with the rights of others and opposed to exploitation of all types. Marian spirituality had an effect of de-radicalizing the revolutionary message of the gospel.” Today in Sri Lanka, there are debates about abortion and right to life, by some Catholic laity. Debates about legally and socially recognizing equal rights and dignity of Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Bisexual people. Young Muslim women are battling against Muslim clerics and politicians to get rid of entrenched discriminatory laws against girls and women. And brave women from different parts of the country campaigning for local government election, which has potential to increase women’s political participation. So perhaps it’s time, CSR considers supporting such struggles, or at least facilitate reflections and debates.

 

Fr. Tissa, if he was here today, would have been in the thick of these battles and debates. On the side of those who had been marginalized, discriminated. Uncompromising, supporting and promoting unpopular positions, within Church, government and society. A meaningful way of paying homage to him would be to reflect deeply how we will get involved in these issues.

I also want to highlight five approaches for CSR and Oblates to consider:

i.                    Diversify leadership:

Within your own institutions and initiatives, give leadership opportunities for lay persons, young persons, women and persons from different ethnic and religious backgrounds, persons with different gender identities and sexual orientations, persons from different parts of the country. Beyond the rhetoric, symbolism and tokenism. This is probably an area Fr. Tissa was not able to make much progress. It will take a long time. But it’s possible to start today.

ii.                  Use of modern technology:

Fr. Tissa had noted that “communications revolution can be a resource and an ally” and that “extraordinary development of the means of communication, including T.V., E-mail and Internet can be a means of contact among the peoples of the world”. He had stressed the “need and significance of economics, literacy, computer literacy, use of media so as not to be brainwashed by the systemic forces, and dominant orthodoxies”.

iii.                Intensive research and publications:

During time of Fr. Tissa, CSR was known for it’s research and publications. Such as “Logos”, “Quest” and “Liberation Publications (Vimukthi Prakashana)”. The “Sadaranaya (Justice)” has been revived some years back and I was happy to hear the English version “Social Justice” will also be revived soon. But more effort will have to be made to revive the research culture at CSR. Help from competent personnel will have to be sought. Fr. Tissa himself has said that “relevant action requires good information, data, knowledge and analysis These must be made available to action groups” and that “Since we are bombarded daily by the mass media with news and views on the economy and economic policies, it is necessary to be trained to demythologize the claimed orthodoxies of economists, academics, policy makers and media programmes, as it is necessary to be able to demythologize the stories of the scriptures”.

iv.                Principled and uncompromising engagement with policy makers:

In order to bring about long term structural, institutional and policy changes, it’s important to dialogue with politicians, bureaucrats and other influential personalities. But challenge is not to be cop-opted, and engage in principled dialogue. Without compromising our fundamental convictions and struggles in favor of money, recognition, safety and other privileges and favors.

v.                  Stronger involvement in local, national and international social movements:

CSR still is a gathering place for various social movements, NGOs, trade unions, student unions, survivors, victim’s families come to CSR. But the challenge is go beyond offering or renting space, and for CSR itself to become involved in these debates and struggles. I also hope the publishing of Planetary Theology in Sinhalese will contribute towards stronger international networking and “globalization of solidarity”. 

Conclusion

Fr. Tissa had often highlighted the lifestyle of early Christians. “They believed in sharing their resources and caring for one another so that there was no one in need (Acts 4:34)”. He had also said that “former options made decades or centuries earlier may be inadequate to meet present challenges. Some of them may even be counter-productive”. So as much as it’s tempting to remember the dead Fr. Tissa, a real challenge is to make him come alive today, locally and globally. A tough task indeed. But a worthy one.

The Impact of the ASEAN Economic Integration on Agriculture, food security

SOUTHEAST ASIAN CONFERENCE Food Sovereignty and Climate Change

On the 13th November 2017 siding the ASEAN People Forum (APF) in Diliman, Philippine, Asia Pacific Network for Food Sovereignty with the collaborative effort of International Movement of Catholic Students Asia Pacific held a regional conference on the Impact of the ASEAN Economic Integration on Agriculture, Food Security, Food Sovereignty and Climate Change. People from different walks of life has participated in the conference, introducing themselves as farmers, fisherfolks, women, student and minority community youth groups. The opening remarks were given by Dean Rene Ofreneo, President Integrated Rural Development Foundation.

The formal conference was started by the key message from “ASEAN Economic integration and agriculture on the “Impacts and measures to promote and protect smallholder agriculture in the region”. He discussed briefly about the Neo-liberal policy in regards to ASEAN Police, Investment, trade and people. More over given the statistics Dr Rene discuss about the flow of the services, Investment capital and labor. Moreover, he highlighted the issue of over population, scarcity of food and climate change using facts and figures from his research.

Ms. Jelan Paclarin discussed about the issues faced by the farmers. As the community at Regional Steering committee chair and representor of farmers at ACF/APF. she brought out some highlights from the budgets, of how there is no relaxation for the farmers in the form of subsidy, providing seeds and fertilizers ect. Moreover, she stated that it is more on making profits rather than feed our people. In the end she addresses the issue by suggesting that” it is very important that the private departments come together and work for the farmers, that is the only way where I think the farmers can overcome this challenge”.

The ASEAN free trade Agreement fully integrating the region to the Neo-liberal economic order was discussed by Megawati Indonesia for global Justice. Using facts and figures she discussed in detail that ASEAN is a magnet for the global market. It’s a big market which attracts the attention of foreign investors. She also highlighted the issue of migration of skillful workers to abroad. Moreover, she highlighted how the workers are being exploited by contractual jobs provided by the multinational companies. While answering the questions she said: that these are all foreign investors coming to the ASEAN looking for cheap labor” adding inequality and social injustice in society.

Mr. Ravi Tissera Asia Pacific Coordinator for International Movement of Catholic Students drawn the attention towards “the ASEAN climate change” He elaborated saying: that ASEAN in along with the coastal area and we are naturally prone to disasters. At the same time ASEAN is rich in natural resource though, but because of mining and deforesting there is a fast rise in sea level. Therefore, we are facing more droughts, excessive rainfalls and other climate related issues.

The panel discussion was headed by Parid Riwanuddin, Soy Sophorn, Mr. Bong Incong, Mr. Romeo Oyandoyan from KIARA, Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community, president, United Broilers Association (UBRA) and PCAF (tbc). Briefed about the fisher folks, farmers livestock and rice sector respectively. They mainly focused on the consumption of food. We ASEAN’s having alternative food but we just use four kinds of crops. They added that a great emission of methane gas is affecting green house because of the rice production, but if we use organic farming we can control this emission i.e. up to 50%.  Similarly, Mr. Bong elaborated that if we reduce the consumption of meat it will have great impact on our climate and health as well.

The Second Panel discussion was headed by: Mr. Adrian Pereira, NSI, Malaysia, Trinidad Domingo, NMFS Philippines, Tanseem Pahoh MSFT Thailand, Prof Mendoza Philippines. They discussed about small scale food producers, Rural women Irrigation, Rural Youth and Academe respectively. He also mentioned about the exchange farming programs where farmers can exchange their skills and techniques. Mr. Adrian highlighted the farming that there are some farmers in organic farming but they don’t want to share the skill with other farmers. Mr. Adrian also brought the unhygienic condition of the migrant workers working in the farms and not taking good safety measures after using pesticides in the farms. After that Ms. Taseen Pahoh come up with some Pattani issues. She discussed about the globalization policies effecting this group in Thailand for the personal interests of the investors. Similarly, Mr. Ted Mendoza discussed about the reduction of electricity bills using organic production of rice. He counted other benefit of organic farming as well. While stating the example of south Korea he suggested that we should work like them, where the farmer get the profit up to 60% and it makes them more empowered therefore the continue with their profession.

Key messages from the conference were on how the neoliberalism creeped into the economic, political social cultural of the country, and how ASEAN been a fundamental neoliberal approach to consolidate the economics of the region and integrated it in the local economy order. It’s a myth that the markets, state, and society are separated entities and the market through the neoliberal framework in its own workings can lead our countries into economic growth and then the economic growth need to development which will trickle down as benefits to our people. In the case of experiences in our countries here is opposite and the benefits they say which we receive is actually the benefits to the cooperation. The impact of ASEAN Economic Integration (AEC) are in facts where the cooperation’s are taking over our land, water forest and seas, it’s the cooperate power which is strengthening and expanding in which the food system is corporatize. With that it’s the farmers and fisherfolk will remain the poorest and who their rights are impacted and undermined and violated and the food system is undermined. We also see increasing rural to urban migration where young people are going out of rural areas abandoning farming because farming is no more profitable and we see aging farmers. Most the farmers are old and we see no sustainability in future of farming without strong support from the national governments the country. In term of economics integrations, we see our agriculture is made towards meeting to demands of the export marker rather than meeting the food need of the people. As we also can see the change in the mindset of our people who do not want to support the local food but more the imported food.

And with this context, the rights people in term of economic, social and political rights especially the rural sectors are violated and we clearly see the importance to resist the ASEAN economic integration project.

Our recommendation we presented here

  1. We want to resist the neoliberal system in all forms and in all front meaning at the local, national, international level, even in the different context, like in Philippine, we have democracy where participation of civil society who are resisting but however the policies in some sense is still neoliberal needs to privatization, deduction and more increased cooperation in the system even though we have active civil society but the policy reflects their interest. More it’s in authoritarian regime even in our democracies. all works towards the agenda consolidation of international capitalist system.

At national level – building movement to transform the state to build political power of farmers, workers and fisherfolks to transform policy towards policy which protect the interest of these sectors that are marginalized

Fisherfolk to transform policies that protect their interest that protects the rights the sector marginalized.

At the local only resisting oppression for example are companies are grabbing the land, like in the case of Indonesia working the local authorities to defend the land to prevent the grabbing of the land and the costal resources.

International level building solidarity people to people solidarity and define it further. Recent movement in the international civil societies to push for UN resolution to initiated a binding treaty on transnational cooperation activities which regulate the transnational companies where it can criminalize some action of the transnational cooperation especially those pertaining to land grabbing and resource grabbing.

There is growing movement in the light of impact of climate change, social movement and civil society all over global for system change which we can also take advantage or maximize to building our solidarity.

South South solidarity where this one even more in compulsive as in they ask for system change where it not only talk about production but also in consumption pattern and shift from fossil fuel to renewable energy and even some are campaign for zero emission. Actually this a shifting of capitalize system.

  1. The need of movement building for engaging , reclaiming the policy space public space, as this public space is been dominated by the TNC and their agenda to further consolidate the export orientated and import dependent countries as of our countries and to which they benefit from the stagnation of  manufacturing and industries which benefit more from import and export and they actually influence the policies, so there is need to engage and claiming the public policy space which we means able to be strong to reclaim that and there many ways to do it, we need to be our voices increasing heard and we have shift from mere consultation to actual policy making.

Malaysia no policy for farmers, so need different way of reclaiming base on their own circumstances and that why there is need for greater solidarity, like exchange experience of each other.

How do we mainstream all these practices and making it really sustainable and the needs of our communities and people.  We have organic farming which shown as very viable, earn income for the income for the farmer while protecting the resource space, water and protecting the health of our farmers and our consumers. There is need for funding as subsid that’s why the state should support the transformation of our food system. And transformation of food system is not only production, it should be towards balancing development that mean our farmers and consumers are both taken into account and the farmers and the fisherfolk earns in the process. They should earn income and not become mere supplier and that where need to build cooperative. Cooperative which are of the self-empowerment type and cooperative that from the traders. Cooperative that generate values and earn income for farmers and linked to SMEs.

SME is an area of which we need to look into where the ASEAN economic integration will open up the free flow of investment which will also target SMEs and it is in own respective countries should protect in favor of the lively hood especially SME in which provide employment for the informal sector -worker who are in the informal economy.

  1. In context of climate change, the organic farming how to be really scale up in term of change and adaptation of climate change. Lastly others sectors which are really important in this transformation and our resistant are the young people and women movement, especially our young people who are very vocal and big in number and need to organize them. And the women have a special not only as giver of life but are both into production and reproduction and excellent breeders of seeds. We aim a food system that are sustainable, ecological food system that will resist neoliberal system.

The day was a success the organizer of the conference thanked all the participants for their active participation throughout the day, hoping that this day will be fruitful to them in certain ways.  For the remembrance, group photo was taken at the end of the day.

Insights for Asia Pacific Network for Food Sovereignty Regional Conference: 2017

As a participant of “The Asia Pacific Network for Food Sovereignty” conference on November 13th 2017, listening to the great experienced scholars and professors on global phenomena like Neo-Liberalism, Globalization and Climate Change. It was a chance to sharpen my knowledge and thought to think deep and critical on these issues. It directs my mind to re-think and reflect on: How the poor and the less fortunate people are being abused by the land lords. Mainly, how industrialization is effecting the society as a whole and the individuals at the same time? In addition, how all these so called global phenomenon like globalization, industrialization and privatization penetrating into our lives that as a common people we cannot even realize that we are already part of it, contributing social injustice to society.

The sharing about the foreign investment gives new dimensions to the discussion. We have a large market in Association of South Sea Asia Nations (ASEAN) and the labor market is cheap. Therefore, investors like to invest and keep the profit with them leaving a lot of tangible and intangible impurities like drainage of industrial waste to our oceans, harmful gases for our environment, physical and mental illness and most of all economic depression. Moreover, there is a lack of skilled workers in ASEAN, as they like to migrate to develop countries. Same imply to the farmers as their generation do not want to continue with their profession. They prefer to work in a factory 8hrs/day and have monthly payment. The greediness of industrialization here is that factories offers contractual jobs providing no other benefits for their workers, hence the poor common people left with no choice rather just living her/his life from hand to mouth.

Since times, Power really matters, everyone wants to hold power in his hands therefore, there is no sharing of power, consequently imbalanced society both economically and socially. Hence we violate rights of others that directly leads to different forms of terrorism. Unfortunately, Government is also part of it.

As the civil society leaders we must come up with awareness, for their rights and empowerment. It’s actually the hard work of the farmer who wake up early in the morning to grow food for us. Just to remind we cannot eat money, human being still dependent on crops to eat. We need to empower our farmers pushing our government and civil leaders to provide facilities and opportunities to the farmers. Therefore, their work will be recognized.

by Sana Mariam

Education is a right. Not a commodity!

Written by Sheril Nimeshika Fernando – Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo (Sri Lanka University Catholic Students Movement – SLUCSM)

education

“The Great Roman Emperor Augustus once blew his own trumpet stating that he turned the brick laid Rome, in to marble laid Rome. On this occasion, please allow me to say this. I humbly tell you, I am responsible in giving Free Education to all. Remember all this time you got Education for a big price. You paid a very big sum. I opened a book, which was closed all this time. I opened the door of Education to the poor, which was once meant only for the so called Elite class of this country. It was once a right of HAVES only. I opened it to HAVE NOTS.”

Christopher William Wijekoon Kannangara, the great personality known as the “Father of Free Education in Sri Lanka” uttered these words of pride & accomplishment on 4th June 1944. It was on this day that he, as the first Minister of Education of Ceylon presented the Free Education Bill in the State Council marking a golden day in the annals of Education in Sri Lanka.Then began the social revolution of opening the doors of education to all children in Sri Lanka from primary level to the university.

Education is a right. Not a commodity!

The oxford dictionary defines education as the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university. That is education defined in its more restricted sense. In a much broader context education can be defined as a process, beginning at birth of developing intellectual capacity, manual skills and social awareness, especially by instruction. Education is an investment in a person’s future. It is the most powerful weapon one can use to change the world. Wisdom is the weapon to ward-off destruction. It is an inner fortress which enemies cannot destroy. In the words of Francis Bacon, “Knowledge is Power”. Power to live a decent life.Power to earn a decent income.Power that brings one respect and dignity. When knowledge can bestow the power for so many things, why should it be restricted to a few who have the advantage of wealth? Knowledge needs to be free for all those who deserve it, and what a person deserves should be decided by an individual’s capability and intelligence and not by wealth. The best and simplest way to disseminate knowledge to all those who deserve it, is through free education.

Concept of Central Colleges

Having realized the pivotal role of free education through the challenges that he himself faced in developing his capacities, C.W.W. Kannangaratried to make it possible for the young sons and daughters of Sri Lanka, to achieve their higher potential and to serve their motherland to the best of their ability.

When analyzing the Sessional paper 24 of 1943, the Report of the Special Committee of Education of which Kannagara was the chairperson, it can be noted that it covered two important aspects. Firstly, every individual must have equal opportunity, so that, provided he has the necessary innate ability, he can lift himself from the humblest to the highest position in the social, economic and political ladder. Secondly, Education in a democratic society should be free at all stages. Thereby, children were provided free education from kindergarten to university level in Sri Lanka.

The concept of Central Colleges, originated from his idea of equity that could cover all children, irrespective of the circumstances in to which they were born. Remarkably these Central Colleges he started produced some of the most brilliant Academics, Administrators and Professionals. The characteristic of this group was that they gave their best for the welfare and advancement of the motherland. The system initiated by Kannangara, produced, fortunately for Sri Lanka, a set of Leaders, who always put country beforeself.

Kannangara’s Central School concept was a great boon to the rural children. By 1941, there were 3 Central Schools. In 1945, it was increased to 35. By 1950, there were 50 Central Schools in the Island. Today, there are 57 Central Schools. During the Kannangara Era, every electorate had one Central School. This helped the rural children further their Education and enter Universities.

Present education system of Sri Lanka

Today, there are 10,390 government schools. The curriculum offered is approved by the Ministry of Education. Schooling is compulsory for children from 6 to 13 years of age. Education is state funded and offered free of charge at all levels, including the university level. The government also provides free textbooks to schoolchildren. Literacy rates and educational attainment levels rose steadily after Sri Lanka became an independent nation in 1948 and today the youth literacy rate stands at 97%. The medium of language could be Sinhala, Tamil or English. English is taught as a second language. Students sit the G.C.E. O/L (General Certificate of Education, Ordinary Level) at the end of 11 years of formal education and G.C.E. A/L (Advanced Level) examination at the end of 13 years.

The education structure is divided into five parts: primary (grade 1-5), junior secondary (grade 6-9), senior secondary (grade 10-11), collegiate (grade 12-13) and tertiary(university).

State funded tertiary education

As of 2017, Sri Lanka has 15 universities, all of which are public institutions. These state universities recruit students, 60% by district quota& rest of the 40% by merit basis. The achievement of each student at G.C.E. A/L is assessed by a Z-Score which considers the difficulty level of each subject and gives a cumulative mark. Passing G.C.E. A/L examination with 3Ss (simple passes) is considered as the minimum eligibility criteria to enter a state university. Due to the poor expansion of state university system over the years & restricted facilities, admissions have become extremely competitive. So, only 18% of students who fulfill the aforementioned minimum criteria at GCE A/L get the opportunity to enter a state university to follow an undergraduate course in a specific field based on their Z-score.

Depending on the course a student chooses to follow a Certificate, a Diploma, or a Bachelor’s Degree is awarded at the end of the undergraduate programme. Certificates and diplomas are conferred after one or two years. A Bachelor’s Degree is earned after three years as a General Degree or after 4 years as a Special Degree.  A degree in Medicine is awarded after 5 years of study with an additional year of internship, which is compulsory.

District quota system

As the years went by Academics realized the original idea of “equal opportunity” is not properly implemented through Central Colleges alone as there were significant differences in resource division& educational facilities available. This was more evident in the process of recruiting students to universities for their tertiary education by G.C.E.A/LExamination. Thus district quota system was introduced in 1970s. This system provided means to both the unequal circumstances children would face at the level of secondary education & a practical solution to overcome it in the long term.

Firstly all the central colleges were not receiving the same amount of facilities & opportunities. So the childrenisland wide attending those schools were at a huge disadvantage when it came to national level examinations, specially the G.C.E. A/L examination which was the sole deciding factor to become eligible to get enrolled into a state university. Therefore a quota was allocated to each of the 25 districts depending on its population & its contribution to the gross domestic product (GDP) of the country. Even though this was not a foolproof system it chose students who performed their level best at the entry examination under a given amount of facilities. Originally it was planned to gradually increase the GDP allocated for education & to abolish district quota system & recruit students purely on merit basis once all central colleges reach a baseline standard. Unfortunately over the years there has been no increment but a severe decline in allocating funds for education. The percentage of GDP allocated for education (primary, secondary & tertiary) used to be 3.5% in 1970s& has steadily declined to a mere1.8% by 2016.

Secondly district quota system was established as a solution to the unequal resource division itself. The idea wasto produce qualified personnel from peripheries of Sri Lanka by providing them with a quality, state funded university education and to send them back to their hometowns as professionals instead of pooling them in & around well-developed cities which already had access to professional services. Thereby minimize the discriminations children & people as a whole would face by being born in a rural area of the country. Although the district quota system has not addressed the unequal resource division in all sectors with regard to differences in access to professional services, it has produced some excellent results in certain sectors like health care. Being categorized as a developing country Sri Lanka has best primary health care indices (maternal mortality rate, infant mortality rate, vaccine coverage etc) in South East Asia which could even compete with that of developed countries. World Health Organization recommends Sri Lanka’s maternal & child health care model for developing countries since it is cost effective &works well at grass route level. This is due to availability of professional health care even at peripheries. (The credit of this achievement should go not only to the district quota system but also to the free health care system)

Private education

At primary & secondary level in addition to the Government Schools there are 33 non-fee-levying assisted private schools and 33 fee-levying autonomous private schools. These schools offer the local syllabus as well as the British system. There is another category of English medium International Schools approved and registered by the Board of Investment, Sri Lanka. Some international schools offer the curriculum for the IB Diploma while others coach students for the EdexcelG.C.E. Ordinary Level (O/L) Advanced Subsidiary (A/S) and Advanced Level (A2) examinations. A few schools offer the curriculum for the Cambridge Examinations as well.

Combined with the facts that securing a place at a state university is extremely competitive & those who take the British examinations are not permitted to apply for admission for state universities, private sector has seen the opportunity & stepped in to provide fee levying tertiary education since 1980s. At present Sri Lanka has 16 private universities registered under University Grants Commission as undergraduate degree awarding institutions. Although private higher education institutes have been there for nearly 30 years, over time they have given rise to many issues notably with private medical colleges.

Private medical education, NCMC& SAITM

The first well established private medical college of Sri Lanka was the North Colombo Medical College (NCMC) which was started as a non-profit institute by the College of General Practitioners of Sri Lanka. At the beginning NCMC maintained proper standards & Sri Lanka Medical Council recognized this medical degree. Yet within 4-5 years since its inception its transparency in student admission process & the standards deteriorated & it also threatened standards of state medical colleges by attracting teaching staff for better wages & better facilities. All these gave rise to a university student up rise demanding the government to nationalize NCMC so that university entrance would be purely based on merit &not one’s buying ability. Due to continuous pressure by the student body, doctors & other professionals government was forced to nationalize NCMC but at the expense of thousands of young lives. Their sacrifice to safeguard free education was not in vain as today Faculty of Medicine, Ragama (formerly known as NCMC) which is state funded & enrolls around 150 students each year purely on merit basis.

Today we see history repeating itself with the present crisis situation in Sri Lanka’s higher education & health sectors arisen due to an ill-conceived, self-proclaimed private medical college named SAITM (South Asian Institute of Technology & Medicine). Since its inception in 2009 this institution has acted fraudulently both academically & financially. Due to its substandard training, to this date it has not obtained Sri Lanka Medical Council recognition. Although a medical college cannot exist without that country’s medical council recognition, SAITM has prevailed for 8 years with the backing of corrupt politicians & misusing the loopholes in legal provisions while authorities have taken no legal action against this illegal institution. SAITM started “selling” a degree in medicine at LKR 6 million (USD 40,000) & within 8 years the price has shot up to LKR 12 million (USD 80,000). So basically, medical education being a field of highest demand, SAITM is targeting the “customers” who have a dream of becoming doctors but couldn’t fulfill their dream following the established system. The fact that a country’s medical education is designed to uplift the health status of the country & not to fulfill anyone’s dream of becoming a doctor has become irrelevant. Also the fact that 42% of Sri Lankans have a daily income of less than USD 2 (According to Central Bank Reports of 2016) & they would never be able to enter a private medical college like SAITM, has been purposefully forgotten.

This issue has given rise to a discussion about pros & cons of private higher education among university students, academics & citizens of Sri Lanka as a whole. Being a nation which benefited immensely by the products of free education, it is of paramount importance to analyze this issue intelligently.

Arguments for private university education 

The most popular argument is that private tertiary education, gives an opportunity to everyone to make themselves educated in a particular field, be employed, spend a decent life& be a part of the work force of the country. When this fact is taken into account in isolation, it appears rational. But when it is considered in the present context of the country, it is not so. In the recent past Sri Lankans citizens had to witness a child who hanged himself to death because he didn’t have shoes to wear to school, a child who had to steal from neighbourhood houses to collect money to pay for colour washing his class room, a girl who sold her body to strangers to find tuition fees, a mother who committed suicide because she couldn’t afford the cost of books of her school going child etc. Apart from these tragic incidents government has officially stated that there are more than fifty thousand school dropouts in the recent past. So when primary, secondary & college education are facing this many issues even when these are provided free of charge, will privatizing university education solve any of these or will it worsen the problems further? Will any of the above mentioned children be able to afford high costs of private tertiary education?

Then one can argue that at least the proportion of citizens who can afford the private education will benefit from it & therefore private & free education can co-exist giving the citizen the right to choose either of the two. But once something is privatized & opened into the market it cannot stagnate in one place. Rather it has to spread further & further which would at one point consume the non-profit oriented government institutions. In simple terms state funded universities would go for a natural death by promoting private universities & education will no longer be a right but a commodity.

It is also said that the government in a developing country is unable to fund the free education system to a level where all students are given the opportunity to study free of charge from kindergarten to university. Considering only 18% of students who fulfill the minimum criteria at G.C.E. A/L become eligible to enter state universities, this argument seems true at its face value. Arguably if a country spends more on free university education there is an opportunity cost of higher taxes or less spending elsewhere. Yet, there is a greater social benefit & it provides the country with a skilled, intelligent work force in the long run. Even today a major demand by both university students & lecturers is to increase the percentage of GDP allocated for education to 6% which is not an unreasonably high value. This will allow the state universities to expand gradually to provide free tertiary education to all.This should be a prime responsibility of a civilized government if itis to prioritizethe citizen needs.

Another wide spread misconception is that free education violates the freedom of education by depriving the students of their right to follow a course of study of their choice. As previously mentioned in this article knowledge needs to be free for all those who deserve it and what a person deserves should be decided by an individual’s capability and intelligence and not by wealth. So every student will not be able to follow their choice of study if there’s a discrepancy between what they like & what they are capable of. So free education system will differentiate these students based on their ability. But differentiation is not discrimination. The real discrimination will be depriving a capable student of obtaining tertiary education due to his inability to pay for it.

Some people suggest scholarship schemes for ones who cannot afford private education while the rest pay for their education. Although scholarships are intended for the disadvantaged few, the disadvantaged aren’t just few in Sri Lankan context. Scholarships help only a handful, for others providing free education would come as a great relief.

Is free education better?

The society is more divided by wealth than by any other criteria. There is the unbelievably rich few, the very rich, the middle income group, the poor, and those in utter poverty. And amidst all this are impoverishment, unemployment, and destitution. How can anyone think of spending money on education, when they do not have money for food and shelter? However, education is the remedy for all these ills that plague the society. Education is the only means that can open up the doors that lead to employment, and through it food, shelter and better quality of life. Therefore, providing free education to the deserving ensures that at-least the future generation can step through these doors to a better living.

Providing free education would enable students to concentrate on learning and gaining more through the education, instead of struggling with the payment of tuition fees and meeting other expenses. When the focus shifts to learning it leads to empowerment of the youth to work towards an increasingly intellectual society.

Free education would lead to more educated people. More educated people in the society leads to overall improvement in the quality of life in the society. Through better employment and elimination of the struggle for basic needs, people would concentrate on the higher aspects of life, such as improving administration and management of issues that impact the society in general. Therefore free education would have a very positive impact on the overall quality and thinking in the society.

More educated people would mean better governance from the grassroots to the national level. Educated people would make better choices in electing their representatives and are better equipped to question corruption and misuse of power. Therefore, education is not only the remedy for the ills of unequal wealth, but also the remedy for the ills that plague our administration and governments. By making education free, we prod our society towards the path of better governance.

Intelligence and talent are not the forte of the wealthy alone. There is lot of untapped and undiscovered talent and intelligence lying covered under impoverishment and destitution. Free education opens the doors of opportunities to these talented people. Through free education, we can ensure that the talented and intelligent can gain the assurance of a better tomorrow through maximizing their academic potentials.

Free education would be beneficial to those who deserve it, as well as, to the society as a whole. Where everybody is talking about equal and better opportunities, the prospects of a better future should not be lost due to lack of equal opportunities for education.

Let me conclude this article with a famous quote which is applicable not only for today but for tomorrow & generations to come.

“Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.”

~ Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

References:

01. C.W.W.Kannangara – Father of Free Education

            http://freebetterebook.blogspot.com/2009/10/cwwkannangara-father-of-free-              education.html

  1. The Educational System of Sri Lanka

              http://www.fulbrightsrilanka.com/?page_id=609

03.නිදහස් අධ්‍යාපනය රැක ගත යුත්තේ ඇයි?

              http://www.boondi.lk/article.php?ArtID=3475

04.Benefits of Free Education

              http://benefitof.net/benefits-of-free-education/

05.THE BENEFITS OF FREE HIGHER EDUCATION

              https://progressivespring.com/2014/10/17/benefits-free-higher-education/

06.Should university education be free?

              http://www.economicshelp.org/blog/949/economics/should-university-      education-be-free/

07.පිස්සු කෙළපු ති‍්‍රමාලා හා වැඬේ ගොඩ දාගත්තු ධම්මිකලාගේ කතා වස්තුව

              http://rivharapinnaduwa.blogspot.com/2017/02/blog-post_28.html

APNFS Workshop on TNC Investment in Agriculture: Trends and Impacts

Written by Ms Anne Beatrice – IMCS Asia Pacific Lay Chaplain, Directress of North South Initiative Malaysia

17195189_10202767278300283_300527278_o

On the 25 to 27 February 2017,Asia Pacific Networks on Food Sovereignty (APNFS) conducted a regional workshop on TNC Investment in Agriculture: Trends and Impacts in Caloocan City, Philippines. IMCS AP coordinator Ravi Tissera and Chaplin Ms Anne Beatrice attended this workshop.

In current time, where the agro chemical companies controls the food system, they begin to produce seeds that need their chemicals and genetically engineered crops that tolerate pesticides ensuring continues sales and profit for them. 95% of the seeds and fertiliser are controlled by only 10 companies and with this control over land, water and coastal area resources are taken by them which led to increasingly control over food production and entire food supply chain.

Dr Rene Ofreneo presented key note on the trends in Agriculture Investment and Impacts where he addressed on Neo liberal “food security”.

The key points which came out from panel discussion on TNC Investment and Resource Grabbing: Impacts, Remedies and Actions were Gender Impact Assessment, land grabbing and land usage for industrial crop leads lesser food production which effects the whole food chain. This push out small holder from own farming and leads them to work in contract farming and low wages.  These also threatens local industries and local food crop.

Following this, the APNFS members shared their initiatives to curb the corporate control of food and agriculture by doing some direct action such as Global campaign against Monsanto, https://www.organicconsumers.org/campaigns/millions-against-monsanto/international-monsanto-tribunal

Human Rights Situation in Sri Lanka

Written by Budi Tjahjono – Indonesian, Former President of IMCS from 1999 to 2003, currently Asia Pacific Programme Coordinator of Franciscans Internationa, basedl in Geneva, Switzerland.

In March 2017, one of the key human rights issues addressed during the UN Human Rights Council (UN HRC) in Geneva is the human rights situation in Sri Lanka. The country has gone through difficult situation especially the tension between the Sinhalese dominated government and Tamil minority. The arm conflict ended in 2009 with tens of thousands of civilians killed during the last phase of the war. They were trapped during the conflict between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and Sri Lankan military. The decades conflict also resulted in thousands of went missing persons. There has been allegation of war crimes against the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and LTTE.

The UN HRC has been addressing this issue since 2009 until today. One of the landmarks is the HRC Resolution 30/1 in 2015 on Transitional Justice in Sri Lanka. The new government, installed in 2015, promised to the UN and the international community to bring reconciliation and justice for the victims and agreed to involve international judges and lawyers as part of the process.  However, two years have gone, and the fulfillment of the promises by the Sri Lankan government has been “worryingly slow”, to the disappointment of most of the victims and international community. Issues of missing persons, land occupation by the military, surveillance, intimidation and threats to human rights defenders are not properly addressed. Victims and NGOs have been pressuring the immediate implementation of Transitional Justice. This comes up in the adoption of UN HRC Resolution in 2017 which two more years to Sri Lanka to fulfill its promises and obligations.

The situation of human rights in Sri Lanka is part of my work in Franciscans International. Personally, I have been involved on the UN advocacy work on Sri Lanka for several years now.  Intense negotiations with diplomats, series of public conferences, giving voice to victims, their family and human rights defenders, delivering statements are part of the activities I have been doing at the UN Human Rights Council. The objective is to put international pressures to Sri Lankan government to fulfill its obligation in protecting and promoting human rights.

My involvement on this issue is not only by chance. As a member of Pax Romana, and a former leader of IMCS, the human rights situation in Sri Lanka has always been part of my personal commitment. This goes back in 1998 during an IMCS regional meeting in Tagaytay, in the Philippines, when I met Ruki Fernando (who was part of IYCS Asia Team). He was one of the first Sri Lankan I met.  Thank to opportunity I received from IMCS, I continue my friendship with him. It has helped me very significantly in my advocacy work on Sri Lanka, including during the difficult time when he was arrested by the Sri Lanka security, and later released through the international outcry.

The issue of Sri Lanka is one of many examples in which Pax Romana (both IMCS and ICMICA) has allowed me to meet other human rights defenders from many countries. At international level, I have come across many outstanding defenders and civil society leaders from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, West Papua who are part of Pax Romana network. One of the key values we all share as members of Pax Romana is that we put the victims at the center of the advocacy work and we are inspired by the Social Teaching of the Church. And I believe that this tradition will continue by the next generation, who are now are the active members of IMCS.