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In 1990s Sri Lanka, the University of Colombo Recovers from a Deadly Insurrection

August 30, 2023

By Dinusha Wickremesekera


Protesters at the University of Colombo. (Photo: Sunday Times, Sri Lanka)

In 1987–1989, Sri Lanka was in turmoil. In the North and the East, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam were calling for a separate state, while in the South there was an insurrection led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramunan party (JVP), which had been banned by the government.

Both conflicts were violent.

In the South, JVP insurgents began attacking military camps, seizing weapons, and assassinating key figures in politics and the security forces. The JVP called for hartal, the closure of all business enterprises and places of learning, to bring the economy and everyday life to a halt. The government’s countermeasures were equally fierce, and the period was marked by widespread trauma.

By 1989, the violence had spread to the universities. Militant unions with ties to the JVP and other parties paralyzed the universities as they battled among themselves. The festering grievances, rooted in social and economic inequalities, that had sparked the violence were discussed and debated, but never addressed. Students were tortured and killed. The vice-chancellor of the University of Colombo was shot in his office. Eventually, all the universities were forced to close indefinitely.

In 1990, government forces apprehended the leadership of the JVP, quelling the insurrection in the South and sparking hope for a new beginning. The acting vice-chancellor of the University of Colombo saw that decisive steps were needed to restore the university to normal, and he invited Dr. Siripala Hettige, an alumnus and former head of the Sociology Department, who had just returned from sabbatical, to lead the way. Dr. Hettige returned to a Sri Lanka that was traumatized but hopeful.

Prof. Siripala Hettige, first senior student counselor at the University of Colombo (Photo: Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

The crucial questions were these: How could the University of Colombo reopen its gates to students? How could it restore an environment where classes could resume? How could the university once again become an environment for learning? Devising and implementing these steps would draw on the practical and theoretical expertise of the academic staff, the resources of funders and partners of the University, and the networks of university alumni. Together, as a community with an unwavering vision of the rebirth of their institution, the university administration, lecturers from every faculty, development agencies, and alumni marshalled their resources to address the challenges facing the undergraduates of the University of Colombo.

Return to normalcy

In 1990, The Asia Foundation funded the establishment of the university’s new Student Counseling Information Center, which continues today as the Student Counseling Office and Student Resource Center, to provide essential support to the student population. The Student Counseling Information Center was the heart of the university’s answer to the question, “How can we become a learning environment again?”

The Asia Foundation had been working with the university through a number of initiatives, including the Foundation’s Books for Asia program, and providing research support and capacity development for faculty through exchanges, English-language training programs, and curriculum development. The acting vice-chancellor invited the Foundation to assist in reopening the university and reintegrating students in a manner that encouraged learning and helped to heal the trauma that so many students had experienced. There were also the lingering, unaddressed concerns that had first fueled student frustrations: poor job prospects for graduates and their lack of English proficiency at a time when a changing workplace increasingly required it.

The original file for the Foundation’s Pilot Project in Student Counseling in Universities. (Photo: The Asia Foundation)

In response to a request from the vice-chancellor, the Foundation funded the Pilot Project in Student Counseling in Universities to upgrade professional competence and student services at the university as a building block of national development. The grant funds helped to establish both student counseling services and the position of senior student counselor for a period of six months. At the end of the pilot-project period, the university decided to make the position permanent and appointed Dr. Hettige. The service of a faculty member in the position of senior student counselor continues to this date. In 1992, Dr. Hettige published the edited collection Unrest or Revolt: Some Aspects of Youth Unrest in Sri Lanka, based on findings from this period.

The Foundation’s grant also funded a series of faculty consultations to develop strategies to create a more conducive learning environment. These meetings recommended such basic reforms as providing students with safe and sympathetic places to talk about their experiences, and then making sure that those who needed more professional help were referred to faculty in the Department of Psychiatry. The grant also funded training, conducted by the Department of Psychiatry, Faculty of Medicine, in basic counseling skills for selected academic staff across all departments.

Changing the context

The consultations funded by The Asia Foundation established the scope of the new Student Counseling and Information Center’s activities to address the root causes of student discontent. The student unions at the heart of the ’87–’89 struggle, the alumni associations, and all student interest and affinity groups now came under the purview of the Center. To improve their academic life, the Center provided students with career guidance, coordinated their academic and administrative requirements, and developed an advisory and counseling program to help them manage their personal and academic challenges. A survey system was established to identify students in need of greater academic or psychological support.

The University of Colombo today, a view of the library. (Photo: University of Colombo)

As the founding senior student counselor of the University of Colombo, Dr. Hettige, now retired, looks back on the 1990–1993 period as one of the most rewarding and consequential of his career. He drew on his theoretical knowledge to create programs essential for students who had experienced violent conflict and continued to face economic, social, and psychological challenges to complete their degrees. He worked to unite the whole university community to restore students’ sense of inclusion and belonging. He called on the school’s alumni to start a mentorship program to help undergraduates with their professional development. He placed new emphasis on English proficiency and the university’s English Language Unit. And he courted new donors to support cultural and social programs to improve university life.

Many of the students who benefited from these programs are now leaders in Sri Lanka and beyond. The Office of Student Counseling continues its work at the University of Colombo, and almost all of Sri Lanka’s state universities have now established student counseling centers of their own.

Dinusha Wickremeserkera is a justice and gender consultant for The Asia Foundation in Sri Lanka. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Sri Lanka


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