A group of students drag the vice-chancellor of the university up onto the roof of the building. They threaten to throw themselves off it before his very eyes if he fails to comply with their demands. What choice does he have but to give way?
Of course, the chief executive in question is not the Rector of the university in romantic Heidelberg. But the scene is not fictitious. It actually took place on the premises of the University of Colombo, where students not infrequently take matters into their own hands and do not baulk at shows of collective violence. Christine Bigdon, director of Heidelberg University's South Asia Institute at Colombo until a short time ago, knows exactly what she is talking about.
This tradition of violent student unrest dates back to the 1970s. High youth unemployment makes it relatively easy to mobilise young people and also to incite them to radicalism. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) or People's Liberation Army is a case in point. They are notorious for their infiltration of the universities in a bid to recruit supporters for the JVP Union. In Sri Lanka, the term "young people" has very different connotations from the meaning it has in Britain or Germany. It refers to the group of people between about 16 and 30 who are not yet married and it can easily be extended to the age of 35 if the persons in question are still single.
Young unmarried adults are frequently not taken seriously, Bigdon reports. And this state of affairs does not change with their entry into the workforce. Marriage is the crucial status factor. Aspiration to marital status is delayed until around the age of 25 and people without a job, even if they come from the middle classes, simply do not marry. As for job desirability, a safe government post has much greater kudos than a job than in the business world, even though civil service salaries are much lower.
The open education system in Sri Lanka means that an "astonishingly large" number of young people from modest backgrounds have access to university education, says Bigdon. But the expectations of a government post on the basis of a university degree are frequently disappointed, due to the fact that the government has been dismantling its huge administrative apparatus over the last few years. The frustration born of this development can easily lead to an increasing readiness to resort to violence.
Accordingly, the situation of young people and the idea of conflict management and conflict prevention are central to the research projects conducted or supervised by the South Asia Institute at Colombo. In addition, the Institute coordinates preparations for research sojourns in the framework of the German Academic Exchange Service's project "Subject-Related Partnerships with Universities in Developing Countries".
A major survey of "young people" conducted by the University of Colombo in cooperation with the South Asia Institute forms the basis for many ongoing projects. In part, the evaluation of the data thus obtained is undertaken in collaboration with partners such as the Goethe Institute, the Friedrich Ebert Foundation or the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ). The GTZ building also houses the offices of the South Asia Institute at Colombo, which is run by a director and a local assistant. Bigdon explains this location with reference first of all to the university's lack of technical equipment, such as copying machines or telephones. Another advantage of the situation is the proximity of the development institutions the Institute cooperates with. But the links with the University are also good, not least because the former director of the Institute, Markus Mayer, has remained there as coordinator of the IMCAP programme (Improving Capacities on Poverty Research in Sri Lankan Universities).
With a dissertation on "Local Governance and Conflict Management", Christine Bigdon will soon be completing her doctoral studies. Her successor is Dr. Birgit Mayer-König, whose main concern in recent years has been with topics related to peace policy. Sri Lanka is of especial interest in this respect because after long years of civil war the peace process there has now finally got under way.
Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Press Officer of the University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 54317