This volume of 20 letters by former Fulbright scholars, half of them Sri Lankan and the other half American, addressed to their respective presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Barack Obama, constitutes part of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Exchange Programme. All writers do a splendid job of what they were asked to [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Fulbright days and a plea to leadership

Book facts | Letters to our Presidents by Sri Lankan and US alumni of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission 1952-2012, commemorating 60 years of the Fulbright Programme. Edited by Tissa Jayatilaka. Published by the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, 2013. Reviewed by H.L.Seneviratne

This volume of 20 letters by former Fulbright scholars, half of them Sri Lankan and the other half American, addressed to their respective presidents Mahinda Rajapaksa and Barack Obama, constitutes part of the 60th anniversary celebrations of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Exchange Programme. All writers do a splendid job of what they were asked to do — to comment on how the experience enriched their personal and professional lives, and to urge the two presidents to continue to support the programme.

US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, Executive Director Tissa Jayatilaka speaking at the book launch on October 3. Pic by Indika Handuwala

The Sri Lankan letters are distinguished by a third message, which we might consider the sub text of the volume, reminding President Rajapaksa of the need for good governance within which alone a sound system of education and a truly free intellectual life can flourish. It needs hardly to be stated that this message is irrelevant for the American writers, whose president needs no reminders about good governance, accountability, dissent and other ingredients of democracy.

The longest piece in the volume is the introduction by the editor Tissa Jayatilaka, the present Executive Director of the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission (US-SLFC) in Colombo. Mr. Jayatilaka emphasises the unique nature of the Commission. As he informs us, the Commission was established in 1952 by an Agreement between the two countries for purposes of promoting mutual understanding between the two peoples through an exchange of scholars. While the Commission is managed by a board of directors appointed by the two governments, and receives “funds, policy guidance and counsel” from both governments, it is an agency of neither. This remarkable autonomy has enabled it to maintain its integrity throughout its six decade long history.

Jayatilaka points out how this autonomy has enabled the Commission to make awards solely on the basis of merit, conferring on the Commission a reputation for fairness. Awards are open to all Sri Lankan citizens who meet the eligibility criteria. Jayatilaka illustrates this by quoting one of the writers, Dr. Muttukrishna Sarvanathan, who tells us how surprised he was to receive an award by nothing more than the stipulated application and an interview, when the common practice is for “such privileges [to be] afforded to people with influence, patronage and power”.

The 60 year period in which the programme has been functioning was a period of radical social transformation in the island, and the programme has adapted itself to these changes realistically and creatively. Paralleling the process of decolonisation signified by the electoral victory of the nationalist forces in 1956, the programme has opened its doors increasingly wider, as seen, for example, in the apparent devaluation of an excellent knowledge of English as an indispensable criterion for selection for an award, although the programme expects, as it must for obvious reasons, that successful candidates acquire, prior to their departure, a knowledge of English adequate for them to follow their studies in the US. This democratising trend reveals an imaginative understanding of the country’s social processes for which Tissa Jayatilaka deserves credit, for it was during his tenure as Executive Director that this wider openness was gradually woven into policy. One could notice a related adaptation in the shift in emphasis from the US to bi-nationality as the prime mover of the programme, reflected in turn in the change in the designation of the institution from “the US Educational Foundation” to “the US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission”. It is important to note however that this democratisation, while paralleling the decolonisation process, is nevertheless qualitatively different from the latter with its component of re-feudalisation that since 1956 has been gaining greater dominance, culminating in the post-war state about which, as mentioned above, the Sri Lankan contributors have expressed dire concern. 

One of the misunderstandings about the programme is the view that it is an elaborate design to brainwash the recipients of the award into becoming American agents spying to undermine the Sri Lanka state, and that its office is some sort of American outpost. One of the writers, Dr. Deepika Udugama, puts it mildly, “At first glance, it may appear that the programme is about indoctrinating foreign students about US interests and the American way of life”. (I have met educated, intelligent, affluent, “westernized” Sri Lankans who believe that Americans who learn Sinhala do so solely for imperialist purposes). If this view is rooted in xenobphobia, we have another derived from anglophilia. This is the view held in particular by some university intellectuals that the American MA and PhD degrees the Fulbright programme enables are no match to their counterparts conferred by British universities. This is part of a broader world view held by these individuals that American universities and their system of education are inferior to those in Britain. This naive understanding is fast disappearing, with some who held it revising it so convincingly that they have sought academic and other positions in the US.

For most writers, the Fulbright enabled their first experience of travel abroad. In their separate ways, all letters tell us about the generosity of strangers, the thrill of discovering a new culture, having new experiences and making lasting friendships. These are not just between Americans and Sri Lankans but a large variety of people of other cultures these scholars met in the course of their studies in classrooms, libraries, archives, in the field, or simply on the streets. This in all probability is the kind of intercultural understanding through the exchange of scholars that the visionary politician Senator William Fulbright had in mind when he dreamed of the programme. 

In the area of professional enrichment, the letters are even more eloquent. Many record with appreciation the unique flexibility and understanding that is the hallmark of the programme, coupled with the efficiency of the Executive Director Tissa Jayatilaka and his small staff at the Commission’s office in Colombo. Equally important — and this is where the personal and the professional come together – writers are keen to appreciate the academic contacts facilitated by the programme taking a life of its own, and multiplying manifold as they gradually became part of an academic/professional community in their host country and beyond, making the Fulbright programme a world wide cultural institution. Among the achievements that all writers report are some outstanding successes, like that of Professor John Holt, who has published several internationally acclaimed scholarly books some of which are published in Sinhala translation and are being used in teaching in Sri Lankan universities.

There is no space here to mention all letters, each of which is a statement of unique interest. Instead, I would like to mention two, that of Bradman Weerakoon, the island’s most distinguished public servant who in 1952, the year the programme was established, was the first Sri Lankan ever to receive the award; and of Professor Gananath Obeyesekere, a world renowned anthropologist who held the Chair of Anthropology at Princeton, having previously held the Chair of Sociology at Peradeniya. I select the letters of these two distinguished citizens to illustrate the undercurrent of critical thought mentioned above, common to most if not all Sri Lankan letters; and their respectful request of President Rajapaksa to restore the democratic state that his stewardship has chosen to undermine. 

Professor Obeyesekere’s letter, the most absorbing in the volume, harks back to the glorious days of Peradeniya, but this is no mere nostalgia. While urging President Rajapaksa to support the Fulbright programme, he speaks of “another challenge for a wise leader and that is to bring back the universities to its early glory by supporting them … because a world bereft of intellectual life will end up as a dreary world”. The infamous Higher Education Act of 1966 of the then minister of education I.M.R.A. Iriyagolla designed to abolish university autonomy politicised the universities which have since been in steady decline, and dragged down to new depths under the present regime. Since the politicisation of the universities is part and parcel of the style of the present regime’s governance, a call to restore to the universities their past eminence, is no less than a call to restore good governance in general.

Bradman Weerakoon’s letter recalls how he witnessed the functioning of democracy first hand while he was a student at the University of Michigan, and refers to two events as being of “a defining quality”. The first was the presidential election of 1952 when the republican Dwight Eisenhower won a majority over the democrat Adlai Stevenson. Mr Weerakoon found striking the transparency of the contest and the unanimous verdict of all analysts and observers that the result reflected the will of the people. As he puts it, “[t]here was a great deal here I could learn and did learn about the ways of elections to public office, transparency, the rule of law and due process, the accountability of public office-holders and so on”. 

The second event Mr Weerakoon reports is the 1952 crisis in the state of Arkansas arising from the African-American minority’s attempt to desegregate schools and thereby gain equal rights. What impressed Mr Weerakoon was “that Eisenhower, elected by the majority of white voters, took decisive Presidential action to use Federal troops against the action of the State Governor to ensure that black children enjoyed the same rights as their white brothers and sisters”. Mr Weerakoon expresses his “grave disappointment and dismay” at the deterioration in both democracy and minority rights under the present regime, and makes a fervent appeal to President Rajapaksa to change course. Here is Mr Weerakoon, verbatim:

“All I can do is to hope and pray that during your historic term of office as President, you will summon the courage and strength necessary to correct the imperfections that now detract from the image of Sri Lanka as a functioning democracy at peace with itself.” 

When patriotic citizens of the eminence and integrity of Mr Weerakoon and Professor Obeyesekere make so earnest a plea, a wise leader has only one thing to say: “Thank you gentlemen. I will do as you say. Please give me specific advice”. And the rest of us can only say, Dear President Rajapaksa, please summon that wisdom, and ensure the country’s democracy and your place in history.

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