Air Date: January 9, 1996 Program 9602


Various Sri Lankan citizens
Rodulfo Figeuroa, Mexican education official


JEFF MARTIN: This is Common Ground, a program on World Affairs and the people who shape events.

KUMAR PONNAMBALAM: So much of blood and lives have been lost with every attack of the government forces, mostly bombing and shelling because they cannot go on foot because the territory is enemy territory. The only way by which they could fight the war or fight the LTTE is by dropping bombs or shelling the places. With each such incident, they are naturally antagonizing the people.

MARTIN: In this edition of Common Ground, there is a civil war underway in the South Asian nation of Sri Lanka. Even though it's not reported on much by the Western media, it has all the same complexity, bloodshed, and treachery that you will find in any civil war. And then later in this program, the Mexican government's effort to educate its citizens who live here in the United States.

RODULFO FIGEUROA: They are looking for jobs to provide us. The majority of our community and most of them are in the countryside or in services in big cities. In the evenings, we bring the trainers and teach them literacy. Some of them don't know how to write or read, and some others want to finish their primary school.

MARTIN: Common Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Jeff Martin.

Fighting has intensified this past fall in Sri Lanka's long-running civil war, which has cost an estimated 50,000 lives. The government launched a major offensive in October, and tens of thousands of Tamil civilians fled the fighting. Sri Lanka's 18 million people are about 74 percent Singhalese who are Buddhists and about 17 million Tamil who are Hindus. Muslims make up about another 7 percent.

In the past, the government has sought to impose the Singhalese language and Buddhist religion onto the minority populations. In reaction, some Tamils are now fighting to create an independent state. But the main Tamil guerilla group, the Tamil Tigers, has also committed its share of human rights abuses. Journalists have had a hard time covering the story because the government forbids travel to Tamil Tiger-controlled areas. But reporter Reese Erlich was able to visit a guerilla zone in the early fall.

He begins the story in Vaharai, a small Tamil Tiger-controlled village in northeastern Sri Lanka.

REESE ERLICH: In this isolated dusty village, a visitor hears only the chirping of birds and an occasional passing motorcycle. But the village is far from tranquil. The Sri Lankan army withdrew from this area in late June, and now it's under control of the Tamil Tigers. The Tigers are fighting to form an independent Tamil state and have gained notoriety by blowing up politicians and attacking civilians. The villagers here don't criticize the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam or LTTE as the tigers are known. The villagers do strongly oppose the counterinsurgency tactics of the Sri Lankan military. This villager says the army used to harass and detain young people in the area, accusing them of being guerrillas.

VILLAGER: We have formed a committee while the army was here. We had a lot of restrictions regarding the food and other things. If they took someone into custody, we would go speak to them to get them out. When the LTTE came in, those problems are not here now.

ERLICH: Despite their reputation as ruthless terrorists, the LTTE retains popular support because of the army's counterinsurgency tactics. Kumar Ponnambalam is a prominent attorney in the City of Colombo who defends Tamils accused of terrorism. He says the military bombs and shells civilians prevent people from fishing and farming in some areas, and often subjects detainees to brutal torture. Tamils see the LTTE, he claims, as the only force capable of militarily defending their people.

PONNAMBALAM: The people are with them. You see the people are with them. They are fighting for a cause. There is no doubt about that in view of the fact that so much of blood and lives have been lost. So for one reason or another, the people are behind them with every attack of the government forces, mostly bombing and shelling, because they cannot go on foot because the territory is enemy territory. The only way by which they could fight the war or fight the LTTE is by dropping bombs or by shelling the places. With each such incident, you're naturally antagonizing the people.

ERLICH: But the military has no monopoly on human rights abuses. Critics charge that the LTTE ruthlessly kills opponents, whether Tamils or Singhalese. And in recent years, the LTTE has alienated significant numbers of Tamil-speaking Muslims. Carpentry teacher, Kalanda Lepid, stands in the now empty Meera Jumma mosque in the northeast town of Kathankudy. Lepid describes what happened on August 3, 1990, as worshipers entered the mosque for morning prayers.

KALANDA LEPID: There were three people on the right side and three people on the left and two behind. They came as if they were all coming for worship, and then they locked the a grenade inside. Thereafter, they started firing. The firing was more or less like the mosque commandant.

ERLICH: How many people died?

LEPID: Three.

ERLICH: Does he know how many were injured?

LEPID: 60.

ERLICH: Who carried out the attacks?

LEPID: He is the leader of the LTTE.

ERLICH: Muslims here are convinced that the LTTE masterminded the attack on innocent civilians, because some Muslims had formed a fundamentalist Islamic group that opposed the Tigers. To this day, they remain furious at the LTTE. However, the Sri Lankan military could also have been responsible for the massacre. American Jesuit Priest Harry Miller has lived in Sri Lanka for nearly 50 years, working on human rights cases. He questions whether the LTTE was really behind the attack.

HARRY MILLER: My major objection was that the government did not investigate, so no one can be really accused. In my opinion, the only ones to benefit from it were the army and the people who did it were Tamils masquerading as Muslims. The army had such people at its disposal to do its murdering. There were murder groups going around in that context at that time. The Tamils and the Muslims were broken apart to the great disadvantage of the local Tamil people, the local Muslims, and the LTTE. The only ones who benefitted were the army. In absence of any other proof, I claim it was not the Tigers but the army with its Tamil helpers.

ERLICH: While the origins of the attack on the mosque remain unclear, there is no doubt about the LTTE policy toward Muslims in Jaffna, the city they control in the far north of Sri Lanka. Muslims were expelled from Jaffna in 1990, and that has caused a deep rift between Muslims and the LTTE.

In Colombo, the ocean laps against the shore as tourists scurry along the beach. Tourism and every other aspect of Sri Lanka's economy depend on stopping the civil war. However, bringing Sri Lanka's ethnic and religious groups together is no easy task. The one-year-old government of President Chandrika Kumaratunga is trying. In August, her administration introduced the peace package offering a devolution of power to regional councils. Tamils and Muslims would be able to control their own education, police, religious affairs, and even raise money from foreign governments. A peace negotiator explains the government position.

PEACE NEGOTIATOR: Tamil people living in the northern and eastern provinces still have a greater degree of autonomy than what they have at the moment with the present constitution. For example, what the regional council will set up under the proposed plan, the central government's ability to intervene arbitrarily would be largely restricted and there would be a very wide scope of power that the regional councils can exercise. For example, on matters relating to land—law and order, police, regional development, and even to the extent of raising the foreign investments and foreign support—of course with the concurrence of the central government.

ERLICH: However, right wing political parties and some Buddhist monks have launched a big campaign to defeat the peace package. S. Mano Ranjan is coordinator of the campaign for peace and democracy.

S. MANO RANJAN: Always the right wing groups can mobilize the clergyman in the south whom are really close emotionally to the Singhalese community. You know the thing that the committee really functions around the pancillas in the villages. Pancillas are the religious centers in the village where the monks are living as a family. So that kind of emotional setup can be aroused by the right wing parties. So the government has to handle these two things very carefully because the government can't use force on that, because that attacks the ordinary singular mass emotionally.

ERLICH: But it's not just the extreme right that opposes the peace package. A group of workers are meeting in a union hall outside Colombo. Most of Sri Lanka's union leaders have expressed support for the principles of the peace plan. But rank and file Singhalese workers are not so sure. Kumar Mahinda, a garment factory mechanic, doesn't support the package because he distrusts the LTTE.

SPEAKER: I believe that organizations like LTTE, they got these powers to decide to police and police powers and you're going to see borders and other things. Because the LTTE cannot trust them, because they have also cheated us. They've got this type of power, so they will become a more powerful. Sometimes they will create more problems for us.

ERLICH: For their part, LTTE officials have reacted negatively to the peace package, claiming it doesn't go far enough to meet Tamil demands. However, the LTTE has not taken a formal position on the peace package. The government has stepped up military attacks against the Tamil Tigers with a major offensive in October and November. Regardless of the immediate outcome of the fighting, many observers say it will be difficult for the government to eliminate popular support for the LTTE. Rajan Hoole founded the University Teachers for Human Rights Jaffna chapter. He's a math professor who lived in Jaffna for many years before the LTTE repression forced him to leave. His group now documents human rights abuses by both sides in the civil war.

RAJAN HOOLE: There is a political vacuum among the Tamils. There has been no political activity and even some of the other militant groups who are in the northeastern provincial counties will discredit it—when they were with the Indian forces and engaged in human rights violations. At least for the first round of elections or maybe for the first few years, I have no doubt that the LTTE will get the majority of the votes. If the political horizon opens up and people are able to think of other possibilities, then either the LTTE will have to change or it will be thrown out.

ERLICH: A group of church and trade union activists are trying to form a third force that can pressure both sides to negotiate a settlement. Reverend Dr. Rienzie Perera, general secretary of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, heads a coalition trying to do just that.

SPEAKER: There will be no sudden guerilla warfare going on and military retaliation. That will continue for some time. I believe that in the end we must have a political solution. Until we have that, our nation will just be consumed with this war, and we will lose. We have lost so many politicians; we have lost so many young people; and if it continues in this way, we will lose the best in our nation.

ERLICH: Back in Vaharai village in the Tamil Tiger-controlled northeast, local residents have their own opinions about the prospects for peace. Most of those interviewed do not favor establishing an independent Tamil state. Here a villager tells us peace is uppermost in his mind.

VILLAGER: If the country is separated, it will be difficult for us to live; but we must live to be there without any suppression for the Tamils.

ERLICH: What does he think of the government's new peace plan?

VILLAGER: If that settlement comes right, we have no problem.

ERLICH: For Common Ground, I'm Reese Erlich.

MARTIN: In a moment, Common Ground continues with a report on the Mexican government's efforts to educate its citizens in the United States.

Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts varied programs and activities meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.


MARTIN: Missing several weeks or even months of school can be a severe setback to a child's education, especially if it happens every year. The Mexican government has instituted an education program to help students temporarily in the United States keep up with the Mexican curriculum. Mary Gray Davidson reports.

MARY GRAY DAVIDSON: This novel education program set up by the Mexican government is just five years old. It provides specially trained teachers for Mexican students living temporarily out of the country. Rodulfo Figeuroa is director of the programs for the Mexican communities abroad, which is a branch of the Mexican foreign office. While many of the programs are targeted toward the young, the office actually provides several educational services.

RODULFO FIGEUROA: We do it for adult education, we do it in the context of migrant education, and we do it also supporting the works and the efforts of almost all of the bilingual education institutions of this country.

DAVIDSON: Then are you talking about education and the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic literacy or are you talking about education as far as laws and rights and services?

FIGEUROA: No. It comprehends almost those two, but basically it is done at the literacy level and primary and secondary education.

DAVIDSON: Is this to insure that when these people return to Mexico that you will have a more educated citizenry?

FIGEUROA: Yes. The idea is to help them as individuals independently of where they decide to live. If they come back to Mexico, they will be better educated and better citizens. As such, they will also be better citizens and better educated people.

DAVIDSON: I assume these are working class people who aren't going abroad for business or that type of thing.

FIGEUROA: No. They are looking for jobs. They are looking for jobs to provide us, the majority of our community. Most of them are in the countryside or in services in big cities. In the evenings we try to organize them, if they wish to of course, because they have to take the initiative. Then we bring the trainers and teach them literacy. Some of them don't how to write or read and some others want to finish their primary school. We help them to do it, and some others are taking secondary and some others are in the US system. They support and help themselves through the bilingual education programs.

DAVIDSON: Does the program work exclusively in the United States or do you have programs in other countries?

FIGEUROA: At this point, it's just working in the United States. We will start soon in Canada. Basically, that is where most of the Mexican community are.

DAVIDSON: About how many people do you serve?

FIGEUROA: That's an interesting question. We estimate the Mexican community in the United States between five and six million people. Most of them are legal residents and the others, some of them are undocumented, also participate in this program.

DAVIDSON: You don't have any requirements for participation as far as their status goes?

FIGEUROA: Like most of the US states don't. Most school districts will accept almost any person who wishes to educate himself as far as basic education is concerned. We do the same thing.

DAVIDSON: Where in the United States are you mainly concentrated?

FIGEUROA: Where most of the Mexican community is located—California, Texas, Illinois, Florida, and New York.

DAVIDSON: How do you track where the need is? Is it through US agencies?

FIGEUROA: Most of the Mexican community is organized by themselves. They do have different kinds of organizations. They organize in civil organizations, in cultural organizations, and in sports organizations. We go basically to the organizations that do already exist and ask them if they have any kind of funds. Usually that's why education is one of the most popular ones. Usually the first need is they come to us and they say what they need basically is education. So these organizations are already there. All you have to do is contact them and see they really have that kind of need, and they do want to participate in the program of this kind. And usually they do. They organize themselves. They select the students. What we do basically at the beginning, because they end up paying the books at the end, but the first collection of books, we give them to them. Then the teacher, it has to be an American teacher, who has to receive a special training in certain cases, how to use the books and the method of adult education, for instance. We send a trainer to train teachers and they teach. They train the teachers so that they can keep on going with the program, and from that point on we just give them sort of maintenance to what we have started.

DAVIDSON: The teachers would have to speak Spanish I assume since most of the programs, I mean...

FIGEUROA: Especially when you deal with adult education. Yes. When you talk about adult education, and in the case of migrant education the problem is these children come with their families. They go for one or two months in the San Joachin valley in California and then they move to Oregon. Then they move to Washington State, and they end up having three or four months in the United States formal education. Then they go back to Mexico and then they go back into the Mexican system. The idea is that they can revalidate what they have done in the United States down in Mexico so they can finish their year and have their certificate.

DAVIDSON: So they don't lose an entire year of education because they're...

FIGEUROA: Only one, two, or three. So at the end, they will end up finishing their primary school and having their own certificate, and the same thing with secondary school.

DAVIDSON: In the past we typically thought of the migrant worker as maybe being an individual who came here for a few months and then went back home with money for the family. Now you're talking about entire families that are...

FIGEUROA: Often, they are beginning to be more with their families so that the worker has some home stability. They also bring their children so...and then they go back to where they came from.

DAVIDSON: Then the children aren't losing out on their education.

FIGEUROA: On the contrary. That's a way of helping them so they can continue here or there, but basically that is where they will stay, because they go back and forth.

DAVIDSON: When you talk about the adult literacy education, in a way, would they perhaps be getting more of an education while they're here in the United States under this program than they might at home?

FIGEUROA: Well, more or less the same, okay? But you would be surprised how enthusiastic they are when they receive their diplomas. They know how to read and write. Imagine when you are 35 years old and for the first time you are able to read and write. That is really very emotional and very encouraging.

DAVIDSON: Since its only been in service for five years, are you able to track results in any way?

FIGEUROA: I have been in charge of this program only for nine months myself. But the program has been in effect for five years. Yes. The fact is that the program becomes more and more popular. The demand for it is all the time greater and greater. And we are struggling to get resources so that we can help them. And the word has been passing on so the community is demanding more and more of this kind of programs. We are working on that.

DAVIDSON: How do people find out about the program?

FIGEUROA: We visit the communities, and we do it. We inform them through the communitarian organizations we already have. We have network consulates throughout the United States, and they can have information about this. We also have a network of Mexican cultural centers and institutes throughout the United States, that are actually American institutions in which the members of the governing body are Americans but of Mexican or Hispanic origin. They are the ones who coordinate very often this kind of program.

DAVIDSON: How about using media? Do you use media to advertise, say on the radio?

FIGEUROA: Oh yes. We have...

DAVIDSON: ...everyone's got a radio, just about.

FIGEUROA: Yes. Among our community, radio is with no doubt the best instrument of communication. We do have several campaigns in the radio, Spanish speaking radio, in the United States. And we are about to launch a campaign in education so that people will listen to what we have to offer and the campaign is in Spanish. So even though you're out of Mexico, we'll support your education. That's more or less the translation.

DAVIDSON: Boy, what a...

FIGEUROA: It is going to be in two or three weeks in the radio.

DAVIDSON: Where did you get the idea for the program? Are there other countries in the world that are doing this for their nationals who are working abroad?

FIGEUROA: Not that I know. Actually it came out of the community itself. It was a demand. When we started this program, we asked them, what do you need basically? How can we help your own and to improve your own personal situation or family situation? The common response throughout the country, wherever we went, was education. That's the most popular one. We have other programs like sports, like cultural, like health, promotional business and so on. But the most popular one is education, which I am glad because that's teaching people to fish instead of just feeding them.

DAVIDSON: Do you get cooperation, and do you find that both US federal government and local governments cooperate well with you in the program. Do they welcome the program?

FIGEUROA: Oh yes, very much so. Especially in the case of education, the school districts are very receptive and very helpful. We provide some books and libraries, and we ask them to come down to Mexico to improve their own knowledge of the language and to improve their own knowledge of the country. They are very, very receptive.

DAVIDSON: How does it work in a local school district with primary age children who are only going to be there for one season, a harvest season? Will they be in a separate school or separate room?

FIGEUROA: No. In certain states we have signed some agreements to have a sort of a transference card. Whatever they do in that particular school is certified by the teachers and by the school. That document, that card, is immediately accepted in Mexico, so they can as I said go into the system. So they cooperate. The professors and the school districts are very very helpful to us.

DAVIDSON: Do you anticipate even greater need as, right now, currently in the United States bilingual education is under attack? Do you anticipate having more people come to you because of that or do you anticipate repercussions just because of this attack on bilingual education in the United States?

FIGEUROA: No. I am an optimist. My forecast is that those positions will not succeed and that there isn't going to be a substantial change in that. I think that to propose the—to end up with bilingual education is a silly proposition.

DAVIDSON: I guess the argument that some people are putting out about bilingual education is that it keeps people separated and prevents them from integrating fully into the American society. But what's your view on bilingual education?

FIGEUROA: It's exactly the contrary. Bilingual education like I see is a transitional stage because there is a universal principle in education that says that if you don't speak well your first language, you will never learn well the second language. If you really want to speak English well, for a Mexican who comes to live in this country or stay for a while in this country, they do have to speak good Spanish. If they don't speak well their language, they will never learn well their English.

DAVIDSON: For Common Ground, this is Mary Gray Davidson.

MARTIN: To share your comments, write to us at the Stanley Foundation, 216 Sycamore Street, Muscatine, Iowa 52761.

B.J. Liederman created our theme music. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation. I'm Jeff Martin.


Copyright © 1996, The Stanley Foundation