Siri Lanka on Monday began compulsory military-led training for thousands of university entrants, despite protests by opposition-backed student unions that called it the government's latest move to militarise the country.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa's government has ordered 22,000 university entrants to attend what it calls "leadership and positive-thinking training" for three weeks at 28 military camps islandwide. The first 12,000 began on Monday.
Sri Lanka's traditionally influential student unions have long been bellwethers of political unrest. They were key parts of the deadly 1971 and 1988-89 insurrections led by the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or People's Freedom Party.
"We commenced these theoretical and practical training courses to develop leadership ability and positive attitudes," Higher Education Minister S.B. Dissanayake told Reuters.
The largest student union, the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF), rejected the training as a government method of coercing political support. The IUSF has long been seen as the student wing of the JVP, which is now in opposition.
"This is another step of this dictatorial government's agenda of militarising the society," IUSF leader Sanjeewa Bandara told Reuters.
He said the IUSF did not mind receiving training, but said it should be given by mutual consent and not by force.
"They are trying to terrify and suppress students by conducting the training forcibly in military camps so they can have a loyal group of students to fulfil their political agendas," Bandara said.
The IUSF has filed a Supreme Court challenge against the training. The court asked if the programme could be delayed by a week to give it time to rule, but the government refused.
Rights groups and opposition critics have said the Rajapaksa administration has spread military influence into every corner of government since defeating the Tamil Tigers' three-decade separatist insurgency two years ago.
Most of the top military commanders have been given diplomatic or other influential government posts since the war's end. Soldiers are being used in post-war rebuilding efforts and even sold vegetables after floods in January and February ruined crops and prompted hoarding by private vendors.
Dissanayake defended the programme as aimed at giving students skills they need to succeed in the private sector.
"This training course is not a weapons training or military training. We think that university students should be fortified with the weapon of knowledge," he said. "This is only one programme aimed at creating a disciplined generation."
From Emirates News