Air Date: January 9, 1996||
Various Sri Lankan citizens
Rodulfo Figeuroa, Mexican education official
JEFF MARTIN: This is Common Ground, a program on World Affairs and the people who
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?
ERLICH: Does he know how many were injured?
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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