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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 880

Education Survives Amid Separatist War in Sri Lanka

An Asian Tribune U.S. Bureau Presentation by Daya Gamage

Washington, D.C. 30 May (Asiantribune.com): This is an amazing story Asian Tribune laid its hand about the remarkable survival of education amid a separatist war going on in Sri Lanka between the government and the Tamil Tigers.

Education has been the top priority of all Asians who are domiciled in the United States, and statistics clearly show how the children of Asian dissent match or most of the time surpass the Americans in the field of education and acquiring highly paid professional jobs in the U.S. entering the highest income bracket.

Sri Lankans are no exception in the U.S., and the following story carried in ‘Asia Sentinel’, a widely read internet daily with an experienced editorial staff most of whom are former American journalists.

The story carried in ‘Asia Sentinel’ on May 16 gives an ‘on the spot’ report by Keith Ng how education survived in the war-torn areas in the north-east of Sri Lanka.

The story goes like this, and Asian Tribune takes pride in presenting the account of an Asian nation that it frequently report:

(Begin Text) Education has been the most unlikely survivor of the civil war. Despite nearly a quarter-century of bloody conflict that has claimed over 68,000 lives, Sri Lanka still has a literacy rate of 92% – one of the highest among developing nations. Even deep in the Vanni, the heavily-militarized region controlled by the LTTE, the Sri Lankan government continues to fund and operate public schools.

The way in which education transcends the bitter divisions in Sri Lanka is noble, yet bizarre. In Kilinochchi, the administrative capital of the LTTE, bombing runs by government fighter jets are common. Despite being a civil servant on the government payroll, the principal of one school there asked UNICEF to help them reinforce their school bunker to protect the students from government bombings.

The importance of education for Sri Lankans is such that, even as the refugees flee across the country, the thought of schooling is not far behind. When the fighting started last August, local education directors expected children from 15 schools to be displaced and they appealed to UNICEF for makeshift school buildings. Even before the refugees arrived, schools were being set up for their children.

A veteran of these displacements, known only by the pseudonym Kanthasamy to protect his identity, now works as an emergency education consultant for UNICEF. During his time as a government education director in the northern city of Jaffna, the LTTE-held city fell to government forces. When the LTTE forced a massive exodus, leading more than 350,000 civilians into areas that the LTTE still controlled, he went to work with his colleagues and established over a hundred new schools within three weeks.

In the effort, principals lost their lives retrieving books, documents and even furniture from their old schools. “It’s a committed life,” says Kanthasamy, “you need a bit of sacrifice to be a teacher here.”

Aside from the cultural importance of education, schools take on a special role in the chaos of refugee life. “With the movements of people, concerns over security in the communities and in the camps, the school should be an oasis for these children,” says Rachel McKinney, the coordinator for UNICEF’s Emergency Education Program.

“Physically, it provides them with basic shelter. Emotionally, it provides them with support that they don't necessarily get in the camps and in the communities, because everyone around them is stressed. Their parents might not be able to provide the same support as they used to. Their friends might have been displaced to another area. Tensions are high all around, and so the school should really be a place where they can just be a child again.”

UNICEF’s emergency educational programs help provide study material and supplies for the children, as well as assistance to get the schools up and running. It also provides additional support for children who have missed a significant part of their education to prevent them from falling through the cracks.

“In some areas [in Vaharai], teachers could not get in for up to six months,” says McKinney. “For the last two terms, children there did not attend school. They can't perform at grade-level. They can't compete. And there's a cultural barrier against children repeating grades, because they have age-specific grades and age-specific examinations.”

The catch-up education program has been working to produce a condensed curriculum to for these children. However, the renewed violence and massive displacements is throwing the education system – along with everything else in the Batticaloa district – into chaos once again. Many classrooms are now filled to the brim with refugee families and their few possessions. Nineteen schools in the district have been converted into makeshift camps by the desperate refugees.

There is no place to teach the 13,000 students from these schools, much less the 30,000 new students that have poured into the district. Some of the students from Vaharai are being returned to their homes, whiles others are being mixed with the new arrivals.

“[The new influx] drew on resources that were already stretched,” says McKinney. “We were under the assumption that [the catch-up education program] would have access to these children in the same places of displacement … for up to six months. Now you have everyone lumped on top of each other, with many different types of problems, and an incredibly stressed education system.” (End Text)

Asia Sentinel, based in South East Asia, was created to provide a platform for news, analysis and opinion on national and regional issues in Asia. It is independent of all governments and major media enterprises.

The founders believe that with the retrenchments in recent years of regional weekly and daily print publications, there is a need and demand for such a site. They also believe that internet publishing is now beginning to become a commercial proposition and that Asia Sentinel can become a self-sustaining site.

- Asian Tribune -

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