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Sri Lanka:The Military Expansion into Education

Military training for University students
Militarisation, or securitisation, in Sri Lanka is not necessarily restricted to the formal military structure; its orientation is far more pervasive, as can be evidenced in the recent developments in the education sphere. Already existing imbalances and practices in the education sector have been exacerbated by the military ideology imposed upon it by the Sri Lankan government.

Little has been done to contain the bloated military structure in Sri Lanka even though over three years have passed since the government formally declared victory in the 30 years of civil war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist group which fought for a Tamil homeland in the North and East of the island. In fact, militarisation is a frequent charge made against the government today. The repressive structures that make institutions vulnerable to militarisation, however, emerged far earlier than this government and have been a conduit for militarised processes to operate. Within higher education, the state’s administrative processes, and student and staff hierarchies and actions reinforce these repressive structures. This article explores the nature of militarisation and forms of repression in the educational sector of Sri Lanka in recent years, with a special focus on higher education.

Generally, the country has experienced a growth in the military apparatus through the progression of three decades of war and over successive governments. In the 1980s, at the war’s inception, the military consisted of 30,000 personnel. Now, despite the no-war situation, this figure has ballooned into hundreds of thousands.1 While the military’s involvement in active combat is now minimal, their presence has expanded to various other activities such as the maintenance of tourist destinations, mega construction projects, agricultural projects, vegetable stalls and city beautification. The military of the post-war era is a very different entity to its war-time, combat-intensive counterpart. Today, with escalating trends born years earlier in the North and East of the country during times of war, the military is becoming increasingly embedded into society. It seems to have penetrated many facets of civilian life, in all regions of the country, and become an integral part of civil life.

Education structures in Sri Lanka have succumbed to such penetration as well. They have blurred distinctions between institutes of education and defence and have supported military-sponsored educational initiatives while neglecting others. For instance, funding cuts have crippled the public school system, but a resource-rich, state-of-the-art school for officers of the armed forces, The Defence Services School, was recently opened.2 Located in Colombo, its website states that plans are underway to establish satellite schools in other regions, and touts it as a new experimental model for a refurbished national school system of the future. Just as this school illustrates how funding privileges military endeavours, it also shows how military access to educational services is also privileged.
Children of military personnel even enjoy better and easier access to the national school networks through special admission slots. Because of Sri Lanka’s skewed school system, which gives 80% of its funding to approximately 350 schools and the remaining 20% for the 9,000 odd provincial schools, these privileges are especially significant.3 While this education system needs a complete overhaul, because of the extent to which it privileges the wealthy and urban, of particular relevance to this essay is the nature of the privilege it grants the military. Many other military-education collaborations have recently been publicised, which have formalised the military’s involvement with educational establishments, such as the induction of 23 principals to the rank of brevet colonels.4 Last year’s military camp-based leadership training programme to new entrants to universities and the hiring of a security agency composed of ex-military personnel are other such initiatives.

The conspicuous presence of military vehicles and personnel at universities, and smaller, less publicised events such as military propaganda seminars organised at the Uva Wellassa University5 have further embedded the military within the educational system. Just as the military has entered public higher educational institutes, public higher education has entered military institutes. The Kothalawala Defence Academy, created in the 1980s to train military officers, has now been converted into a university (Kothalawala Defence University, KDU) and offers degrees in a range of courses, some of which are broader than defence, such as management and language studies. Further, this new university, as of 2012, provides programmes for not simply the military but also to the larger public.6 As with The Defence School, KDU holds a privileged position in the dispersion of funds. While public universities are seriously under-funded, the military carders teaching at KDU are better compensated and resourced, with special funds for foreign travel, vehicles, support staff, and other facilities.7

Thus, as the roles of military and educational institutes blur, the resources for the military, as a privileged category have expanded. Yet, the manner in which the military is able to infiltrate the educational sector and justify a privileged position in society requires the acceptance of the military structure, ideology, competence to disperse other non-military services and their entitlement to resources.

A Conflict in Ideologies
With respect to ideology, the military subscribes to a repressive philosophy that clashes with the ideals of democracy, on which education is built. Education, especially public education, was founded on egalitarian principles to provide opportunities irrespective of circumstances and resources to all its members. The Sri Lankan system of education is founded on sweeping reforms in the 1940s, which were also based on such principles.8 Further, publicly-funded education is considered an integral part of a democracy, a means through which members of the democracy obtain the education to exercise their franchise. Finally, the cherished ideals of intellectual freedom and the constitutionally guaranteed university autonomy are essential for universities to function as spaces of new ideas, creativity and critical analysis. Spaces of higher learning require a democratic ethos to flourish.9
In contrast is securitisation, which applies the concept of militarisation to non-military systems and structures (Bernazzoli and Flint 2009), and is useful in interpreting recent actions, taken by the government in relation to higher educational institutes. Securitisation venerates the military process of engagement with an activity, and uses a lens of conflict and force with which to perceive problems and their solutions. Violence is viewed as an acceptable and inevitable means of resolving crises and the actors in the conflict are perceived as “us” and “them”. It idealises a system of governance where the decision-making authority is heavily top down.
The minister of higher education’s statement regarding universities and the problems they face because of ragging reveals a securitised orientation. In an interview held in 2010, the minister is quoted as saying

I will take tough action against those ‘terrorising’ the university system…The government does not want to use [the] military to control student unions. We have to protect democracy as we did it in the North. Today universities are like uncleared areas. We need to liberate them.10

His description clearly refers to war and the need to maintain security within universities. In response to the threats, the security services at universities were outsourced to an organisation with close ties to the military employing ex-military staff. This decision made at the national level encroaches on each university’s powers to determine its security needs. It also overrides established tender procedures (through a cabinet paper that disregarded procedures that would not have allowed costly services to be selected, when alternatives were available).

When the rest of the university system saw fund cuts, the increase in security costs highlights the position given to security and control today by the government. A spate of clashes between the minister and students illustrates the former’s hardline position. In a series of incidents, the government swiftly and aggressively acted against the unions.11 At the University of Peradeniya, the students’ protest against the minister’s visit to campus resulted in the arrest of 21 students. The union organised demonstrations against ministry-sponsored higher education reforms were “securitised” with the presence of the military and the police to the extent that students seemed a minority. During this period, parents of student leaders received threats from either those who were identified as military personnel or from plain clothed individuals. Students were arrested at the University of Ruhuna because of a ragging incident and in a confrontation over hostel facilities, which resulted in the death of one student. At the University of Sabaragamuwa, unions were made illegal after another case of ragging when 58 students were suspended. At the time, minister Keheliya Rambukwella publicly stated that the student unrest was part of an “insurgency to be launched soon using university students”12 as justification of the government’s actions and connecting the events at universities to national security. Most recently, the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF)’s demonstrations, in support of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations’ (FUTA) demand for increased government fund allocations to education, has resulted in threats and intimidation towards students and even the arrest of their leader, Sanjeeva Bandara.

Even the government’s response to the trade union action this year of the teachers was much like a military operation in its organisation and philosophy. The FUTA is an umbrella organisation that represents 43 university teachers unions. In both 2011 and 2012, the FUTA engaged in about three months of trade union action, first for increased salaries and later to demand increased fund allocations to education and decreased government interference in educational institutes.13 The government portrayed FUTA as an enemy – ie, backed by foreign conspirators and even with ties to the LTTE. Compromise and debate were not sincerely attempted as evident by the government’s schizophrenic changes in stance between discussions and public statements and by their use of good cop-bad cop routines; both of which hindered constructive discussions between the two parties. The president’s statement that he would not negotiate with an entity engaged in trade union action illustrates this stance.
The government used its control over the media, many times using blatantly incorrect information, to counter FUTA campaigns. They used threats to intimidate the union membership and divide and rule tactics to split it. The government’s official stance towards the union was unprecedentedly combative and paralleled their military-based solutions to the war. Unlike the civil war, however, the involvement of the military itself was marginal, even though the government’s analysis of and the response to the issue demonstrates a similar attitude.

Likewise the government’s efforts to reform the university system was heavily top-down and unilateral. The present educational system originates from the far-reaching reforms of the 1940s (Little 2010). During this time, the existing system, based heavily on British educational structures, seemed irrelevant and difficult to access to rural populations in Sri Lanka. Reform efforts were designed to address these issues and were based on principles of justice and equal opportunity and were developed after a long drawn out process, with much soul searching and debate.

The present government and the public have similar concerns with the system of education today. For instance, universities are accused of inaccessibility, because of the low percentage of qualified students who are admitted, and irrelevant, because students are accused of being unfit for the corporate sector. However, the government’s approach to addressing these criticisms is very different to the original reforms process. While the 1940s model strove for broad consensus, dialogue and debate, today’s attempts seem to shun such methods. In 2011, the government presented a reforms bill for higher education formulated with such secrecy that the general body of university academics had no knowledge of it. The bill was leaked to the FUTA. The resulting uproar from the FUTA and other unions resulted in the temporary shelving of that bill.

The contrast between the two attempts to address very similar concerns about higher education reflects the different orientations of the government and the public to public services. Much like the military’s stealth, the response of the government to executing change, which is deployed as a military might deploy a tactical team, using command and control methods that favour swift decisive action rather than consensus building. This is partly because these tactics clash with the prevailing philosophy about the purpose of education and higher education. However, the extent of this clash would also depend on the extent to which these spaces of education are actually democratic and have established structures that make these other processes acceptable.

For the government to be able to employ these tactics with such success requires an environment vulnerable to such attacks. This vulnerability comes from two fronts. First, the universities themselves operate using oppressive systems and processes that parallel those employed by the government. Student unions themselves use unilateral, undemocratic forms of decision-making, use securitised lenses to view university spaces, and are aggressive and non-compromising with other parties in times of conflict. They support ragging, at least to some degree, which uses intimidation and force to help create compliant student bodies. Ragging indoctrinates students into the university “subculture”, which includes enforcing classroom etiquette that discourages student involvement, reinforces hierarchies, and imposes dress codes. Students are harassed verbally and physically, and those with spirit are “broken” to supposedly achieve a certain equality among the students. Ragging is highly gendered with respect to the behaviour expected of the women and men and to the roles assigned to them. Much of the ways these student unions operate provide spaces for the ideology of militarisation because the two ideologies complement and reinforce each other.

Administrators and teachers are frequently complacent to this repressive environment and at times sustain it. Universities are often hierarchical, where students reinforce and staff condones clearly demarcated distances between students and staff. These hierarchies are relatively non-malleable. The practice of hiring students into departments and faculties from which they received their degrees keep these hierarchies throughout the professional relationship between the student and teacher. These relationships reinforce the hierarchical nature of faculties and help maintain this culture through successive batches. Because of these hierarchical structures, decision-making is often top-down, where the “senior” staff speak for the faculties and universities and their opinions become policy.

In this context, teacher autonomy and freedom of voice are often challenged or ignored. Recent efforts from the University Grants Commission (UGC), the umbrella organisation that administers the university system, to improve the quality of university teaching, has not helped the situation. Often quality is evaluated at a higher level than the university and is based on standards created for this purpose, which are the basis for curricula, lesson plans, assessment and evaluation systems. These quality control initiatives may originate from a sincere desire to improve the learning experience of students; however, they are also tied to a baggage of assumptions regarding curricula, teachers and the experience of teaching. They assume that a particular subject has clearly demarcated and well established boundaries, ignore the dynamic relationship between a teacher and her or his class and questions the teachers’ legitimacy in deciding what acceptable knowledge in the area is. By these assumptions, quality control interventions at universities challenge intellectual freedoms and university autonomy.

These types of initiatives make it acceptable for the UGC and others higher up in the structure of the university system to become important actors in decisions regarding curricular and degree programmes. It should be stressed that efforts to enrich the educational experiences of students are important. It is however troubling that these types of efforts are implemented with little debate into the role of the teacher and the students in the process of quality control and standardisation. Whether it is with respect to the hierarchical structure of universities, idealisation of force and conflict or increased top-down decision-making at universities, these changes create an environment which makes the system vulnerable to attacks, such as from military institutes which are also hierarchical and use similar top-down methods of decision-making.

There is yet another reason that makes educational institutes vulnerable to securitisation. The government and even systems within universities have, over time, allowed the structures of higher educational institutes to deteriorate. At the highest level, cronyism in the selection of leaders of educational bodies, such as the UGC and universities, has resulted in poor decision-making and decision-making that prioritises the needs of their political patrons over those of the universities. These decisions have made universities susceptible to crises which are exasperated by universities’ impoverished nature, staff shortages and the lack of support. To deal with this ineffectiveness created by undemocratic decision-making, higher level decision making is made a necessity. Similarly, crises breed urgency, and the need for efficient execution to address the crisis, all of which is ideal for a militarised orientation towards the solution. Military tactical teams excel at just that – urgent, crisis rooted solutions based on orders from above.

The violent clashes between students and the government and administrators are not new; they have been very much a part of the university spaces. Problems with ragging have also been around for many years and organisational cultures that are deeply hierarchical made top-down decision-making acceptable. Finally, the need to control university spaces and to use this control to harness them for the needs of the government, while ignoring the democratic principles that are closely tied to the service of education, began many years before the present government took office and the military became what it is today. Each of these attitudes clearly complements each other. They use a top-down decision structure, focus on security, utilise force and intimidation to garner support. The “militarisation” ideology that is fostered and the processes that are put in place because of it, stand contrary to democratic ideals and privilege a select few over others. They condition educational spaces, such as illustrated here in educational institutes, to make the military ideology more acceptable and even palatable. Militarisation, or securitisation, is therefore not necessarily restricted to the formal military structure; its orientation is far more pervasive. However, the extent to which the formal military structure is able to infiltrate a system is also facilitated by this orientation.

1 Ministry of Defence and Urban Development (October 2011) http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20100429_05
2 Ministry of Defence and Urban Development (March 2012) http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=20111214_DSC
3 Sri Lanka Labour Force Survey, Annual Report (2010), Department of Census and Statistics, Colombo.
4 Ministry of Defence (November 2012) http://www.defence.lk/new.asp?fname=Education_Officials_Commissioned_as_… 20101008_05
5 Anonymous comment from a staff member at the Uva Wellassa University; Uva Wellassa University (June 2012) http://www.uwu.ac.lk/index.php/news/183-commander-of-the-navy-visits-uwu…
6 Sir John Kothalawala Defence University, http://www.kdu.ac.lk/
7 Anonymous comment from a staff member at KDU.
8 Sessional Paper XXIV of 1943, Report of the Special Committee on Education.
9 S Sivamohan, D Karunanayake and S Kumar (7 January 2013). What are we waiting for: Objectives of Higher Education. Presented at the University of Colombo, seminar titled “The Future of Higher Education in Sri Lanka”.
10 S Sriyananada (July 2010), “I’ll Ensure Democracy in Universities, says SB”, Sunday Observer.
11 Interviews with union leaders.
12 K Ratnayake, Sri Lankan minister warns of “insurgency” in universities, World Socialist Website, http://www.wsws.org/articles/2010/nov2010/sril-n12.shtml
13 See http://uteachers.blogspot.com/ for a record of newspaper articles and published documents related to the FUTA strike.
Bernazzoli, R M and C Flint (2009): “From Militarisation to Securitisation: Finding a Concept That Works”, Political Geography, 28, 449-50.

Shamala Kumar ([email protected]) is a member of the Peradeniya University Agriculture Teachers’ Association and University Teachers for Democracy and Dialogue (UT4DD).
Vol – XLVIII No. 07, EPW 


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