Fulbright’s global vision is a LESSON to those with narrow parochial minds, Mr President

Amarakeerthi Liyanage’s Open Letter to Mahinda Rajapaksa

His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa, The President Socialist Democratic Republic of Sri Lanka, Office of the President, Temple Trees, 150 Galle Road, Colombo 3, Sri Lanka.


Dear Mr. President,

AMARAKEERTHIMy name is Liyanage Amarakeerthi, a Fulbright Scholar (1998-2000) and a university lecturer.

I am also a fiction writer of some fame and acclaim. More importantly, I am a Sri Lankan citizen who imagines a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka where all its citizens can live without any form of discrimination regardless of their ethnicity, caste, gender and so on. Usually I do not write letters to political authorities or any person wielding power. As an intellectual I keep a critical distance from all centers of power. I will certainly not write any letter to such authorities to gain personal favors of any sort. However, I often write in order to draw the attention of people like you, Mr. President, towards the important issues of our country. I publish such letters in the press, which is one of the important spaces for freethinking citizens to express their views on matters of national and international significance.  In some of my recent articles to the press I have argued that state funding for education in our country has dramatically dwindled under your presidency. Yes sir. It has gone down. I hope you have read some of those articles. For the first time in my life, however, I am writing this letter to you because the topic on which I am writing is much more important than my pride and me. The topic is the Fulbright programme administered by the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission. I am writing this letter with a deep sense of responsibility and joy at this moment when the U.S.- Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission celebrates its 60 years of service to the people of Sri Lanka and of the United States. In the first part of this letter I want to focus more on myself than on the Fulbright programme, and please bear with me while I give you some autobiographical information.

I am from a very poor family in the Kurunegala district, and my father was a carpenter whose formal education was only up to grade 3. Having passed grade 10 my mother had a better claim for being educated, yet she was also a day labourer for a good part of her life. And they were driven out of schools for various socio-historical reasons for which they themselves were not responsible. Abject poverty compelled them to work from the early days of their lives. Though they were uneducated themselves they knew the value of education. By the time, I was born in 1968 there were some good schools in and around our village. (Sadly, this is not the case anymore). Though the education opportunities that Dr. C. W.W. Kannangara envisioned with his concept of free education were not fully realized at those village schools, we were better off than our parents’ generation. So, my parents, specially my mother, focused all their energy on giving my siblings and me the best education they could.

After attending three different public schools, all of them rural, I managed to enter the University of Colombo in 1990. That was after waiting for the universities to re-open after nearly three years of closure during the time of JVP riots in the late 1980s. By the time my batch of students entered the university, we had grown old and become even wiser than any other group of first year students because we had seen unimaginable violence, death and destruction. That history, I later came to understand, could not be detached from the geo-political situation of the South Asian region and the world at large at that time. For example, a group of educated youth from Sri Lanka’s south taking up arms against the state to create an egalitarian society and the state’s violent suppression of it cannot be separated from two-polar world of two opposing ideologies represented by the US and USSR. Our generation was trapped between those two major ideologies while the rise of nationalism in South Asia also made us extremist in certain areas. I am sure, Mr. President, you know this very well, and, for me, you are also a product of that history.

During my university days, I had realized that I needed to develop a much more inclusive and cosmopolitan worldview as an educated Sri Lankan and as a writer. Having published my first book when I was a first year student at the university, I entered that long path that would take me to the world of literary success one day, and during that literary apprenticeship I experienced within me the need for a wider vision of the world. As you know, Mr. President, if you are a person born to a poor family or in a remote village in our country, English language skills are hard to gain. That was one of the significant shortcomings of Sri Lanka’s free education: we do not have a quality bilingual or tri-lingual education where students complete their formal education seeing themselves as citizens of the world and feeling at home in the presence of those from other cultures. Vernacular monolingual education, which became a politically-willed norm of the country, had turned several generations of us into narrow nationalists though that vernacular medium of instruction made education accessible to many poor Sri Lankans like myself. So whilst grasping the essentials of my own society and culture through my secondary and tertiary education in Sri Lanka, learning to become a citizen of the wider world was a task I had to accomplish on my own.

As a part of that struggle I started teaching myself English by reading books. During my undergraduate years, the Internet or the World Wide Web was something we never heard of. I had to rely on books. Having worked at a university library, Mr. President, you know more than anyone else that our university libraries were not the best, with the possible exception perhaps of the library of the University of Peradeniya. Therefore, I had to make use of libraries such as the British Council, the American Center and so on to read modern literature from the world. At university I read for a degree in Sinhala literature, and, therefore, I had to acquire most of my knowledge of English by reading books, which were not directly related to what I formally studied. But I kept reading English books. There were some kind people who helped me with my study of English from time to time.

In addition, all this while I had to take up many different part time jobs to put myself through the university because my mother, who did not have my father’s support by that time, could not support me financially. My part time jobs during the university days ranged from a construction labourer to a freelance journalist.

Dear Mr. President, I know you have many other letters to read from other citizens of Sri Lanka. Other university academics must have written you better letters praising your work and asking for directorships, chairpersonships, diplomatic positions in order to help you to do your work better. Therefore, let me cut my story short. By the time, you became a minister in the 1994 government, I had graduated from the university to become an unemployed graduate. Though I had worked and written to defeat the United National Party (UNP) government at that historic election, I did not go behind politicians to find a job. Of course, that government, of which you were a part, gave away many important jobs to those who were pro-state henchmen.  Some of my friends and university contemporaries became government ‘officials’ overnight during the months after the formation of the 1994 government. As for me, I kept focusing on my writing career and my post-graduate education. Almost by accident, I became an assistant lecturer at the Department of Sinhala, University of Colombo in 1995. After that I began to focus more on my post-graduate education. Then, I realized that Sri Lankan universities did not have ‘graduate schools’ for a comprehensive graduate education in the subject I wanted to study. Mr. President, you might know that the lack of full-time post-graduate programmes with high quality research professors as teachers is something that has a crippling effect on our universities.  And that lack is a major impediment to your own ambitious goal of turning Sri Lanka into a ‘knowledge hub.’ By listening to some old fashioned lecturers on weekends, which is what passes for post-graduate education in Sri Lanka, one cannot be trained to become a quality research scholar.  So, I looked for opportunities for post-graduate education in foreign countries. By that time I had learned that the United States had well-developed post-graduate programmes of study in nearly all subject areas. I started dreaming about having my post-graduate training there.

It was while I was trying to prepare myself in the possible higher education experience overseas that I realized that in Sri Lanka, external migration and education are highly stratified, and that the social class one belongs to matters a great deal even to get access to information on overseas higher educational opportunities available to locals. I am, of course, referring to a time when access to the Internet was not yet existent in Sri Lanka.  This is where the United States-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission comes into the picture.  I came to know that apart from disseminating information on study in the United States, the Commission was actually offering Fulbright scholarships for higher study in the United States for Sri Lankans who possess the relevant qualifications.  Soon I came to know of famous Fulbright scholars in Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Some of those scholars came from similar social backgrounds as mine, and that was encouraging news.

Wanting to study Comparative Literature, Literary Theory and other related subjects for my masters and doctoral studies, I applied for a Fulbright Fellowship in 1997. Though my English language skills were still next to nothing and not enough to pursue graduate studies in highly competitive and demanding American Universities, I was ready to face any challenge. Owing largely to the kindness of the selection panels of the Fulbright Commission, I won a Fulbright Fellowship to study for my MA at the University of Wisconsin. After the initial two years of master’s degree studies, the university itself funded my doctoral studies which were completed in 2004. During those years I benefited greatly from the kindness and generosity of my teachers at Wisconsin and of the American people.

Looking back at those years of struggle in search of knowledge and a quality education, I recall with a tremendous sense of gratitude that it was the Fulbright Fellowship that provided me with the initial breakthrough. That has made all the difference.

Dear Mr. President, the education opportunity that the Fulbright programme gave me has helped me think as a global citizen regardless of my special attention to my own culture and people. Yet during my doctoral training, I realized that even what I call ‘my culture’ and ‘my people’ are related to many other cultures and peoples. In our phase of human history, no culture can be understood in isolation. The fate of our own nation and people is intricately related to the fate of many other people, and no issue can be solved by isolating it from other issues and other peoples. We are a part of an intricate human web that stretches through time and space. To understand the beauty and wonder of that human web would be to defeat the parochial nationalist views propagated by many extremist ideologues in our country and elsewhere. And in our country, such parochialism must be defeated in order for us win real peace and harmony within. Among many other good things, this global vision is one of the most important things I have learned during my Fulbright years. In this relatively short letter I do not want to elaborate on the other things that I have learned. After all you are known better as a practical man of action than as a man of letters. I know that you have many political allies in and out of your government who hate everything about America. Anti-American rhetorical pyrotechnics are visible everywhere within your government. If some of your ideologue-friends read this letter, they might conclude that I am being overly pro-American. Such an assumption can practically destroy my career at a state-funded university.

I know that many people fake and show off their anti-Americanism, anti-imperialism, anti-Westernism to survive in an atmosphere of patriotism that has your own blessing. Therefore, dear president, let me say these last few words. The Fulbright programme was initiated by and named after Senator Fulbright who was a relentless critic of imperialist American policies and interests.  In his famous book, The Arrogance of Power (1966) Senator J. William Fulbright warned the American leaders and people of the dangers of self-centered and imperialist policies of superpowers. He always stood for multilateral solutions for world issues. The book and the vision of its author are not only about America or the superpowers; but any center of power can learn invaluable lessons from the work of Senator Fulbright, the visionary leader. As the most powerful man in our country, Mr. President, you will be able to learn important lessons about modesty, humility and pragmatism by paying a little attention to Senator Fulbright’s life and work. On reading his work, I was even more convinced of the value of moderation that I have learned from such Asian sources as Buddhist philosophy, the writings of Rabindranath Tagore and others. That is one of the prime reasons why I am proud to be a Fulbright scholar.

Dear Mr. President, at this historic moment when U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission completes its 60th year of service, I kindly urge you to work towards supporting more tangibly this fine programme in the years to come. Even though our popular politics is overloaded with the rhetoric of xenophobia, Sri Lanka has been one of the most cosmopolitan places on earth. I think, that is our true national heritage. In re-claiming that forgotten legacy, we need to learn from the insights that people like Senator Fulbright offer and make use of the educational opportunities a programme of the kind provided by the Fulbright Commission. And that is the realistic way for Sri Lanka to seek to become the knowledge hub of Asia. I hope you will have the wisdom and courage to assess the history of US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission in that light. All the good wishes! Sincerely yours, Liyanage Amarakeerthi *This essay is taken from the book, ‘Letters to Our Presidents’ published by US-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission Cf. DM_01_05_2014

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