SRI LANKA: Court to rule on student military training

Sri Lanka's highest court is to rule on a bitter controversy between the country's higher education authorities and student, human rights and minority groups over a compulsory three-week Leadership and Positive Attitude Development Programme at military facilities.

The acrimonious debate took a turn in mid-May, when several student groups including the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) - a political student body associated with the ultra-Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP-People's Liberation Front) - petitioned the Supreme Court.

The petition is due to be taken up before a five-member bench tomorrow (30 May), even as the first batch of 12,000 of 20,000 new students began three weeks of training on 23 May, ostensibly to learn much-needed 'soft skills' and leadership skills, Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Higher Education, Dr Sunil Jayantha Navaratne, told local media.

All students, male and female, accepted at one of the country's universities for the academic year that begins in August must report for training at one of 18 army, two navy, two air force, four cadet and two police facilities island-wide.

Instruction includes drill, physical training, conflict management and an orientation programme themed 'Sri Lanka's future and global changes'.

Navaratne denied that students were being forced into military training, saying the military had been selected to deliver the training because it had the space and accommodation for large groups of students.

In their 'fundamental rights' application before the Supreme Court, the petitioners alleged that courses held at military establishments around the country would be degrading for undergraduates and a violation of their fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution.

"The decision had been made without any regard whatsoever for the beliefs and cultural values of the students, many of whom may be reluctant to participate in such a programme due to their cultural, religious or personal values, beliefs and choices," the petition reads.

Following the petition, the Supreme Court last week directed the Attorney General to consider instructing the relevant authorities to postpone the training for one week until 30 May.

However, in a move seen by some as defying the court, Higher Education Minister SB Dissanaike said that as this was a request and not an order the government would go ahead as scheduled.

Minority groups, especially Tamils, have said the training amounts to the militarisation of government and society. They have also raised concerns over perceived fears of the military among Tamils, developed during the bloody 30-year civil war that ended two years ago, in May 2009.

The country's third largest group, the Moors, the majority of whom speak Tamil, have not rejected the course in principle. But several Muslim religious organisations requested the authorities to separate male and female students, adding that Muslims should be provided with Halal food and time for their religious observations.

Many see the military courses as a long-term calculated step to curb the activities of the hardline pro-left JVP and its student arm, IUSF, which have traditionally considered universities as their bastions.

"This act is a concerted move to suppress student unions and other groups that oppose the government in universities," a junior lecturer at the country's top campus, the University of Colombo, told University World News, requesting anonymity.

However there were mixed signals from both student and academic communities, he added. "Nearly half of students and lecturers oppose this, although the remaining half do not see it as a negative move," he said.

Although the court's ruling cannot be anticipated, many people believe the programme will proceed without hindrance.

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SRI LANKA: Students to learn soft skills in army camps