Just as government troops prepared this week to celebrate the second anniversary of the decimation of Tamil separatist rebels, thousands of young, new entrants to national universities across Sri Lanka on Monday began entering military camps for a three-week training course that has triggered an intense debate as to whether the country is heading towards a militarized society.
“Militarization of society? That is already happening,” noted Prof. S.I. Keethaponcalan, Head of the Department of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of Colombo, echoing the views of many civil society leaders.
Sajith Premadasa, co-Deputy Leader of the main opposition United National Party (UNP) accused the government of “further” militarizing the society despite the conclusion of the war in May, two years ago. Soldiers have been rehearsing for a “victory” celebration to be held in Colombo on Friday, May 27 to mark two years of the end of a nearly three-decades battle with the rebels in which thousands of combatants and civilians died.
Two weeks ago the government said the 22,000 students, whose university career starts around August, would be asked to follow a compulsory leadership and “positive development” course at 28 army camps aimed at instilling discipline and to wean them away from violence, ragging and political activity on campus.
Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake, who handles the universities, and his officials have been at pains to explain that this is not a political program and not any kind of military training. Higher Education Ministry Secretary Sunil J. Navaratne denied that the students were being forced into military training saying the army camps were selected for this purpose because they had the space and accommodation facilities for large groups of students.
However the increasing influence of the military in the governance of Sri Lanka with senior military officers being appointed as ambassadors, handling urban development and to various government institutions, has led many people to infer that the latest scheme is an attempt to instill military-type discipline into university students and that similar training for students in national schools could be the next step in the militarization of institutionalized structures.
This is the first time university entrants are receiving this kind of pre-entry training. According to Prof. Siripala Hettige, a senior sociologist attached to the Colombo University, the Colombo campus has always had its own orientation training for new entrants. “We provide them guidance on various aspects of university life and also career guidance,” he said.
Responding to the military-type training scheme, he said very little is known about this scheme “other than what has been reported in the newspapers”. He said, “It’s not right to comment on a program that we have little knowledge about. What should have happened is that there should have been transparency in this scheme which has not been discussed, as far as I am aware, with the university and its staff.”
Political affairs Professor Keethaponcalan looks at it at two levels. “One is that at a national level, political parties have been competing with each other for the support of university students. With this move the government appears to be taking everyone to their side and wants them on their side. Secondly there is little resistance within the majority Sinhala community,” he said adding that this is an issue for students from the minority Tamil community.
“This may be an ethnic agenda because I’m positive that many Tamil students will drop out since going to army camps is an issue for them,” he added. Over the 30-odd years of conflict, scores of Tamil youth and other Tamils have been questioned or detained in military camps mainly in the northern province where the Tamils mostly live.
Army camps in the north, in those days, instilled a sense of fear, as parents often spent endless hours or days at these camps trying to locate a son or daughter who had gone missing, only to be told that the missing person was not there.
However in this case, even Sinhala parents are reluctant to send their university-entrant children to army camps. “By making this training mandatory, Higher Education Ministry authorities are being unjust to the parents and students. My youngest daughter has to travel far away for the training program,” Nalani Ganegoda, a concerned parent from the north-central district of Anuradhapura was quoted as saying in the Sunday Times newspaper.
Another parent was quoted in the same newspaper as saying he feared sending his daughter to the training camp. “My daughter was not into sports and physical activities; she was only interested in studies. We come from a conservative family and my concern is that the ministry does not explain the type of outdoor activities,” he said.
Residents in the northern town of Jaffna, the former seat of the Tamil insurgency, said many of the university entrants headed to their training camps over the weekend. “There doesn’t seem to be any worries among the students and parents over this kind of training,” one resident said.
The People’s Liberation Front or JVP, a former revolutionary group-turned political party, also urged parents not to send their children to army camps to undergo what it described as military training. JVP Parliamentarian Anura Kumara Dissanayake told reporters that the government could not take legal action against students who do not take part in the training as there is no legal provision to bar them from university if they do not attend the program.
On Friday, a petition was filed in the Supreme Court challenging the program and the court requested the government to consider postponing the program for a week till this case is concluded. But the government went ahead with the program saying students were already heading for the camps and millions of rupees have been already been spent on the plan.
— The author is a senior political analyst based in Colombo __