For Adhil

(Opening remarks made at the Adhil Bakeer Markar Foundation’s Inaugural Youth Dialogue on the Role of Youth in Shaping Multicultural Societies )

A very good morning everyone. On behalf of the Adhil Bakeer Markar Foundation, it’s an absolute privilege to be able to welcome you all to the Foundation’s inaugural event: this Youth Dialogue with His Excellency Prof. Ahmet Davutoğlu, the Former Prime Minister of Turkey, who will speak to us about something extremely important to us and something that our dear friend Adhil cared so much about– the Role of Youth in Shaping Multicultural Societies.

I have a bad habit of writing word to word, speeches I’m most nervous about doing and I’ve written today’s down word to word. This is possibly for two reasons, one, as an International Relations graduate it’s an absolute honor to be able to welcome the Former Prime Minister and an academic and scholar like Prof. Davutoğlu but on a more personal note, it’s an absolute, absolute honor to be able to do this on behalf of this Foundation named after our dear friend Adhil.

When we were hanging out, Adhil always made the rest of us look bad. He was kind and forgiving, God-fearing and compassionate and while some of us sometimes assumed the worst in people; he always, always, gave people the benefit of the doubt. I think he understood that on a basic level, we’re all the same. We’re all human, and most of the time, we have good intentions and we’re all just doing the best we can. I think this is a skill that many of us need, especially living in society that is multicultural like ours.

Adhil was tremendously talented and accomplished so much in his twenty something years, that most people won’t in a life time. We often joked that he belonged in Parliament like our speaker this morning Prof. Davutoğlu and uncle Imitiyaz and his late grandfather Deshamanya Abdul Bakeer Markar who was a Speaker of the Parliament of Sri Lanka.

Speaking of the Parliament, one memory I have with Adhil, is when Indian Prime Minister Narenda Singh Modi was in Colombo, immediately after the Presidential Elections in 2015, Adhil got an invitation to listen to him address the Parliament and he asked if I wanted to come along. Of course I did.

You know the point in Parliament where the road splits into two and it says, Members of Parliament take the left turn and visitors take the right? I remember joking, as we had many times before, that the next time we come, Adhil had to take the left turn.

Of course we were joking, but we all knew that Adhil was able to step into a room and attract, charm, and influence everyone around them. He had the ability make everyone else in the room feel like his best friend.

When I first met Adhil, I was a lot younger, a lot more self-conscious, and shy and awkward and I remember, looking at Adhil across the table at different meetings and so on, and silently wondering to myself how he did; Just sit there and be so confident. And I think that’s what people call charisma.

And secondly, we also know that this country’s political establishment desperately needs people with that level of empathy, integrity and compassion that Adhil had towards just about anyone.

I do not wish to speak for any longer, but I want to end with this last thought. I read somewhere once that everyone dies twice, once when when you stop breathing and they bury you in the grave and the second time is the last time that somebody mentions your name. I hope this is true and if it is true, I’m so sure, that Adhil won’t die for a long, long time. And in a sense, this Foundation was formed, to make sure Adhil’s legacy is kept alive not just for us, but for our children who didn’t have the honor of meeting their Adhil uncle.

​So once again, I welcome you for this event today. This is the ABM Foundation’s inaugural event and we hope that all of you will continue to work with the foundation as it begins its journey here this morning. Thank you

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How Elitism In Access To Education Is Failing Our Young People

Originally published on the Sunday Leader

The Budget for the fiscal year of 2017 has been presented before the Sri Lankan Parliament. Once capital carrying costs are deducted from last year’s allocation, there has only been a marginal increase in the allocation for education. While some noteworthy steps such as increasing the student intake to universities, the provision of student loans and scholarships to top graduates, steps to uproot ragging and incentivise students to pursue technical and vocational education have been taken, I believe that the policymakers of the country could use some introspection on the inequalities in the education system at the school level.

Our system of education from kindergarten onwards is highly unequal and in many ways, elitist. The school one attends is directly linked to other grounds for inequality such as class, the urban-rural divide and English language proficiency. Rarely do we question the grossly unfair and conspicuously elitist system in which 3% of schools in the country are branded as ‘National Schools’ and others (97%) as ‘Provincial Schools’?As per the 13th Amendment to the constitution,education remains a devolved subject in the domain of the provinces; with the centre only being responsible for the formulation of national policy, monitoring and evaluation. ‘National schools’ always get the most qualified teachers and administrators, patronage from elite old boys/girls at high positions in government and the private sector, the best equipped laboratories, libraries and computer labs, swimming pools, gymnasia and so on.

Why don’t we talk about how only 8% of schools in this country offer Advanced Level in all streams? 92% of schools in Sri Lanka either don’t have classes up to Advanced Levels or only offer Arts and Commerce streams for ALs. This is why thousands of students have been left with no alternative but to pursue Arts subjects for Advanced Levels; not because they genuinely prefer to study subjects offered in the Arts stream but because the schools in their villages only offer the arts subjects for ALs. Predictably, 41% of all graduates are Arts graduates. Furthermore, even within the ‘Arts’ stream, while schools in the cities have a plethora of subjects which students can choose from including some which are perceived to be ‘sophisticated’ and therefore ‘marketable’ most ‘provincial’ schools only offer subjects like History, Sinhala and ‘Logic’ which are often perceived as ‘unmarketable’. This perpetuates the unfair hierarchy in our system of education, where the Arts and the Humanities are often placed right at the very bottom, both in terms of prestige and ‘employability’.

While we are quick to boast about instances where students of schools from rural areas perform well at examinations, why aren’t we talking about how this is the exception and not the norm. The truth is that 37% of youth in Sri Lanka do not proceed beyond the upper secondary level and there are huge provincial disparities in terms of student performance.

For instance, according to the National Youth Survey, only 15% of respondents from the Uva Province had attained GCE AL. However, in the Western Province 44% of respondents had attained ALs.

There is no institutionalised system in which students are provided career guidance and counseling. Students’ views of what they want to do in life and what choices are available before them are often shaped by the views of their parents and older siblings. Furthermore, in post-colonial Sri Lanka, English has changed from being a language of communication to a question of class and social standing. In the National Youth Survey, only 10% of youth from the estate sector said their English speaking skills were good.

This is while 20% of ‘rural youth’ and 38% of ‘urban youth’ said their English speaking skills were good. ‘Kaduwa’ in Sinhala means sword and it denotes the power of English to cut down anyone who do not speak the language.

Education is meant to be a leveler in an unequal society, not further reinforce existing disparities. While recognising that the system of free education has enabled thousands of students of this country from the most marginalised groups of society to have better standards of living, we cannot be oblivious to the fact that even ‘free’ education is systematically stratified.

If you’re born to a low-income family, your odds of receiving a good education are much lesser than that of the more affluent kids. This is grossly unfair and perpetuates the poverty trap from generation to generation. The government and development partners should take all possible steps to bridge these inequalities to ensure that all students get the best possible education.

Senel Wanniarachchi

Why Facebook Won’t Help Heal War Torn Sri Lanka’s Wounds

Originally published on the Sunday Leader

Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict: one of the world’s most protracted and destructive conflicts of our time was brought to a bloody, military end in May of 2009. Seven years have passed since, but the communities in the island remain divided along narrow ethno-religious lines. In many ways, this is a result of the conflicting narratives held by the Sinhalese and the Tamil communities as well as others on Sri Lanka’s history, the beginnings of the conflict and how it was brought to an end. Many Sinhalese people in the South only see the conflict as a separatist war that was initiated by terrorists who happened to be Tamil and do not recognize the years of discrimination and suppression that the Tamil people had to undergo under successive majoritarian governments in post-colonial Sri Lanka who turned the two communities against each other for narrow political wins. Many Tamils in the North have witnessed the violence they saw in their backyards but fail to recognize that thousands of bright and innocent men and women in the South were also killed by the LTTE and do not see the woundedness of the Sinhalese. In a sense, there is almost a competition between the communities to emerge as the ultimate ‘victim’ of the conflict. These narratives have sustained overtime and have been passed down from generation to generation  cemented by the media, politicians, textbooks, literature, the arts and so on. This is only exacerbated by various conspiracy theories and hate propagated by racist politicians who thrive on our differences.

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Becoming me

Kumudu and I studied together at our all-boys college in Colombo.  We weren’t friends, really- he was one year senior to me: but I knew of him (everyone did). While we practiced for the Shakespeare Drama Competition at the college main hall, Kumudu and his friends practiced for their Sinhala dramas for the national level competitions. Kumudu would almost always play the female lead. For us- teenage school boys, this was quite a spectacle and Kumudu and his friends would often be made fun of. They called him the ‘p-word’ (a Sinhala expletive) and all other kinds of names.  While in my first encounters of Kumudu, he seemed taken aback and clearly distressed by the unending bullying; as time passed by it seemed like Kumudu was unaffected by the endless name-calling and bullying: he even fought back a couple of times: almost as if the bullying made him stronger and more resilient.

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Kajan and Sulakshan: Motorcycle Diaries

Originally published in the Sunday Leader

Last Thursday, two young students of the Arts Faculty of the University of Jaffna — 23 year old Kajan and 24 year old Sulakshan were allegedly shot by the police at a roadblock in Kankesanthurai, Jaffna. There are various narratives being shared on the sequence of events that led to the shooting: everything from the youth being drunk and refusing to stop the bike at the checkpoint to them being members of the armed gang ‘Awaa’ which is allegedly linked to recent incidents of violence against civilians and police in Jaffna. However, until there is an independent inquiry into what happened, we cannot know what exactly happened that night at the Kulappidi Junction. The bottom line though, is whether drunk, not stopping when pulled over by the police, having a history of criminal conduct, all of the above or none, the police had absolutely no authority to shoot the two unarmed young men who were on the bike.
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