Elections, Regime Changes and Education Reforms: My 2015 Field Work Term

At Bennington I study Political Economy with a focus on Education Reform. My undergraduate dissertation (reffered to as “The Plan”at Bennington) is titled Education as a Tool to Rebuild Post- Conflict Nations. Bennington requires students spend 6 weeks every year receiving practical on- the-job knowledge related to their field of study in a non residential term called Field Work Term. I had spent my first FWT (2014) editing my second novel and I was certain I wanted to work in the education administration sector of Sri Lanka in my second, which I ultimately ended up doing. Below is a summarized reflection of my 2015 FWT experience in Sri Lanka.

When I first heard back from the Ministry of Higher Education in late 2014 about my internship request for FWT, I had my doubts about how productive and thrilling my work with them would turn out to be. A main reason was that neither I nor most of Sri Lanka were so happy about the Minister of Higher Education appointed by the administration of the country at the time. To say the least he was an impolite, openly (and proudly) sexist politician known for his abusive public speeches.

However when the previous regime in power called early elections to be held in Januray 2015 with hopes to (unconstitutionally)  reelect President Rajapaksa I was more than excited to head back home. I knew that this meant that apart from interning at the Ministry of Higher Education I could, as a citizen, do my part for the upcoming elections. My last FWT I had worked on my second novel which was a fictional story revolving around a corrupt regime that was in power in post-war Sri Lanka at time of great need for reconciliation. The book came out in the summer of 2014 and the while majority of  responses to the book  were amazingly positive, those that came from the supporters of the regime were not so positive, often threatening, and made my parents fear for my security. And hence they were not as thrilled as I was about me coming home during the time of the election. They knew I would want to get involved. They know me too well. On my flight home I wrote a letter to Lasantha Wickremetunga,  the editor of a leading naional newspaper who was murdered by the Rajapaksa Regime for speaking up. I promised him we won’t give up his fight.

When I landed in Sri Lanka my FWT supervisor at the Ministry of Higher Education Dr. Nimal Gunatilleke, a very inspiring, knowledgeable gentleman and academic, suggested I hold off starting work with the ministry till the end of the elections. I think he too, like I, was hopeful for a change in the administration. I was also thrilled that not being allied to a government institution would give me the freedom to campaign for the election. (There were hundred thousands of government officials, state institutions, and even the state media openly illegally campaigning for the Rajapaksa regime and I would have campaigned for the opposition either way but  as a law-abiding citizen who respects democracy I was glad I wouldn’t be breaking any laws by campaigning.)

The Rajapaksa regime was causing the country’s economy, judicial system, foreign policy, and the entire democratic structure unfathomable damage, which would take us decades to repair. I knew that if the Rajapaksas were to win the January elections they would be in power for the next eight years (6 year term +remaining 2 years of the 2nd term.) I couldn’t watch that happen. The next  eight years would be the best years of my youth, I couldn’t spend it watching my country decline. For all I knew, I may have children of my own in 8 years. I want them to grow up in Sri Lanka someday, and fall in love with it like I did. So for them, I decided to campaign for change, for a better administration.  I reached out to politicians, helped them with their own campaigns to promote the common opposition candidate and with the very little freedom my parents allowed me to engage in any campaigning activities (in fear of threats that prevailed to my security) I managed to do as much as I could for the election. And when the Election Day came, I voted proudly, my first ever vote.

The polls had predicted a 50-52% win for the opposition, I carefully went through the prediticions and data that different political parties and polling agencies had produced and I was convinced: The common –opposition was winning. We all knew the possibility of a military coup, but we also knew that the opposition had more than half of the country on its side, they were the most passionate of voters you could find. They were ready to reenact an Orange Revolution if there were to be a military coup. I knew as most others who knew the opposition well, that there would be no need for another Orange Revolution if there were to be a military coup. The opposition leader had unfathomably large international support and the US especially would have our back if a coup attempt was to come into play. And I was certain Secretary of State, our good brother Kerry would make some calls if it came to that. (which he did)  So while most of those who campaigned for the opposition stayed at hotels close to the airport on election night, I knew there’d be no need for that, democracy was coming. So I stayed home with my family and celebrated as I watched the election results unveil. I was serendipitously happy.

Within days of the transition of power the new Cabinet is appointed. I was absolutely thrilled about the newly appointed Minister of Higher Education Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha,  not only because, he was an academic who was highly qualified for the job, but  because he was also a writer and one of the first politicians to endorse my second novel for its speaking up against corruption.  He invites me to drop by his office on his very first day of work. I expect our first meeting to be a mere opportunity to catch up, exchange polite excitement towards the regime change, and just how much the country has changed since the last time we met at the launch of my book just months ago, perhaps over a cup of tea.  But the meeting I walked into, to my surprise, was very much different. It was almost like I had walked into a semi-formal board meeting.  “Meet the team” he says, introducing those sitting at the table to me. “I’m just an intern,” I introduce myself to the rest, “I’m working on a paper extensively analyzing President Sirisena’s  Manifesto’s Section 6 on Education, and doing research on pitfalls in the state education structure, supervised by Dr. Gunatilleke.” The shelves and cabinets at the minister’s office were still empty (his chair probably warm from the previous Ministers sitting) except for the national flag that stood proudly beside it. “We need to put together a reforms plan,” he tells us. “We will bring in students from each university department in the country every Thursday and hear their grievances and suggestions while simultaneously putting together our concepts for a reforms plan. We will meet every Wednesday at 4pm and discuss every week’s progress.”   The minister said casually, laying out the plan for the hundred days leading up to the general election.

“The Team” could have used more than what it was. After all, Sri Lanka produces much more talent than who was at that meeting with the minister.  But with the little support that he had, Prof. Wijesinha ran a great productive effort of putting together a reforms plan.  As I recall, (there were quite a few faces from that meeting I do not recall.) the ones at the meeting were Shyamalie the extremely cheerful, kind and hardworking Media Secretary, his Public Relations Coordinator, (happy guy, but to much disappointment to his title claimed he didn’t know much about Twitter,)  and the tri- lingual translators.  There was also Mr. Stephen (if I recall correctly) who after the meeting took us to aside and explained his role at the ministry. He said his soul job was to “protect the minister” which I assumed he meant was to physically protect him. But Stephen’s job description went much further than a bodyguard, he would occasionally sneak in and check up on what I was working on. “He’s too nice and kind” Stephen would tell me about the minister. “We need to protect him” he would tell me, almost in confidence. I wanted to tell him that  Prof. Rajiva Wijesinha is one of the most educated men in Sri Lankan politics and a grown man, and he does not need our protection, that he would do great work with or without our protection. But Mr. Stephen took great pride in his job “protecting” the Minister and I didn’t want to bum his spirits by saying so.

Minister Wijesinha was just what you needed for the job.  He had a vision of a reforms plan. “Kids in our education system are not happy, and reasonably so, we drain their critical and creative thinking skills with all the memorization-based standardized testing. We need to change that.” He would tell us at meetings. He worked harder than anyone else at the ministry, working late and putting together pieces of extensive writing for the Ministry’s website on reforms concepts currently underway. He was keen on transparency and using social media to communicate our work and hear feedback from the public. It is a shame that he had to resign due to political reasons, a week after I concluded my internship and came back to Bennington.

While working with the reforms team I also worked on my and research paper for Dr. Gunatilleke. This gave me the opportunity to see the insides of a system; its broad web, flaws, intricacies and needs for sustenance and understand the bigger picture while paying attention to the small details that make it. I came back to Bennington with a clear idea of the obstacles the process of education reform in Sri Lanka may have to face and with a plan to gather knowledge to help fight those challenges.

Below are rough excerpts from  my paper.

Excerpt1: In pages 16- 19 of my paper I’ve broken down  President Sirisena’s Manifesto’s Section Six on Education into “16 Promises.” 

Excerpt 2: In pages 22- 29 of my paper I’ve laid out 4 key issues to address when reforming Sri Lanka’s education system.

 

 

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