More than 50,000 graduates recently recruited to government jobs under a special programme are undergoing a month-long leadership and motivation training in military camps in Sri Lanka. But unions and several political parties have questioned the move, saying it is a part of a government strategy of militarising society.

From 14 September, the Sri Lankan government launched an army orientation-training programme for 50,000 graduates recently recruited to government jobs. The project will be monitored by the defence ministry and coordinated and supervised by the Security Force, a branch of the army.

The University Grants Commission, army training establishments, the home affairs ministry, selected state and private sector organisations and other state agencies will work closely in delivering the project.

The new government of Sri Lanka, elected in August, has provided employment opportunities in the state sector for about 50,000 unemployed graduates in line with its election pledge aimed at lowering the unemployment rate to below 4%. Sri Lanka has a significant youth unemployment problem, which is particularly high among the more educated.

The country’s election commission suspended the programme until after the results of elections in early August and recruitment has been underway since then.

According to the government, the aim of military training is to develop and enhance the knowledge, skills and attitudes of the recently recruited graduates to make them more employable. Public perception of government employees is that they underperform and are inefficient, a view the government wants to dispel.

But the government also says it expects the programme will make an “effective contribution to nation-building” and the development of a “fully fledged and energetic workforce”.

Duminda Nagamuwa, propaganda secretary of the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP), speaking at a media conference in the capital Colombo, said: “It is true that these graduates need training, but it should not be done by the army and it should not be a military training. It should be [provided by] the public administration ministry.”

He added that the training was a part of the government’s strategy of militarising society.

Nagamuwa fears that if the military training programme is not resisted by the public, the government will reintroduce compulsory military training for university students. University students had to undergo weeks of military training from 2011. The controversial programme was suspended in 2015 following a surprise change of government.

Some graduates have raised objections to military training, saying it is difficult for pregnant women to participate. But the army has responded that Buddhist monks, disabled persons and pregnant women will receive special care and attention during the training period.

‘Leadership and team-building’

According to the Sri Lanka Army, the one-month residential programme will be conducted at 51 army centres island-wide and implemented in five phases – with 10,000 graduates for each phase to cover all 50,000 graduates currently recruited to government employment within five months.

It consists of six independent but inter-related modules by way of lectures, discussions, outdoor training activities, team-building, study tours and field studies. It includes training in leadership, and in ‘cohesiveness and resilience’ and management skills, training in private and state sector establishments, as well as project work.

These are considered critical in developing efficient public sector employees while mitigating poor productivity, according to the government.

In a media statement, the Sri Lanka Army said the training would impart commitment, interest and dedication, self-confidence, innovation, flexibility, visualisation, respect and recognition in society.

The army said long-term objectives to be achieved in less than five years include the development of a value-based public sector workforce, efficient mechanisms, transformation of attitudes and approaches, development of a ‘working culture’ in society, and recognition of public sector service.

But convener of the Combined Association of Unemployed Graduates (CAUG), the venerable Thenne Gnanananda Thero, said proper public administration training should be provided instead of military training.

In recent years CAUG has played a huge role in pressuring the government to provide jobs for unemployed graduates. During the screening process for the government jobs programme, the government rejected thousands of applications from unemployed graduates for various reasons. CAUG protested and demanded additional jobs for those rejected.

For example, the government had rejected some recent graduates who had worked in the private sector and who, with fears rising of job losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, had applied for the more secure government jobs.

Last month the government agreed to recruit 10,000 additional graduates, bringing the total to 60,000. The extra 10,000 will be recruited in the coming days.

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