WUS Asia/Pacific was a large region which also included the Middle East and the Pacific islands. The purpose was not to cover all countries but to assist and guide where there were active committees or contact groups. My first assistant was Gail and then Carmen. Gail already had considerable knowledge of the committees in the region, projects and personnel.
I had one advantage as I knew many of the key people in various national committees and contact groups from the Assembly in Nantes in 1984. They included G. S. Randhawa, Munisamy Thambidurai and Devender Karkar from India; Harunur Rashid and Akmal Hussain from Bangladesh; Ruben (Ben) Caluya and Godofredo Liban from the Philippines; Purushottam Shrestha and Rathna Badracharya from Nepal; Luke Wong from Hong Kong; Kasemsak Poomisrekeo from Thailand; Manzoor Ahmad and Hussain Haqqani from Pakistan; Gunduz Vassaf from Turkey and many others.
I participated at the Nantes Assembly from Sri Lanka along with V. K. Samaranayake (Sam) and Saman Halgamuge. Both were extremely helpful in my work thereafter. Saman, then a student and now a Professor at the University of Melbourne became a close friend. WUS Sri Lanka nominated me as a candidate for the post of Associate Secretary for Asia/Pacific. I was then the Chairperson of the WUS committee at the Dumbara Campus of the University of Peradeniya which had many WUS activities.
After Samaranayake, Hema Goonatilake served in the WUS International Executive Committee from Sri Lanka. Previously L. M. V. Tillekeratne (University of Colombo) was the international Treasurer. Most of the above delegates from Asia were reputed academics nationally and internationally. In addition, Munisamy Thambidurai from India became the Deputy Speaker of the Lok Sabha (1985-89) and Hussain Haqqani later became Pakistan’s Ambassador to Sri Lanka, and the United States.
Among the WUS committees, Bangladesh had the largest and most numerous WUS projects. India had a similar number but was mostly self-reliant in Delhi and Madras. Equally self-reliant were the projects in Thailand, South Korea, Hong Kong and partly Sri Lanka. Given the unstable political conditions in the Philippines there were no possibilities to manage long term projects and their focus was mainly on advocacy, especially academic freedom and freedom of expression. There were several female journalists working for WUS Philippines. They even managed to protect academic freedom in the new constitution drafted in 1987, working along with other organizations after political change in 1986. WUS Philippines was mainly based at the Manila Central University where Filemon Tanchoco had played an admirable initial role.
In October 1985, WUS Asia/Pacific conducted an important regional workshop in Manila hosted by WUS Philippines. Two policy themes were: ‘Academic Solidarity and Cooperation’ and ‘Project Planning and Management.’ The WUSI General Secretary, Marco Gandasegui, myself and Gail Hunter participated, with Gunduz Vassaf, an Executive Committee member. For the workshop, the Secretariat produced a ‘Manual on Project Planning and Management.’ Gail should be commended for many of the entries. These were difficult times in the Philippines. During my stay, a son of one of our important WUS members was shot dead during a student demonstration. I attended the funeral on behalf of WUS.
WUS International supported and conducted a moderate number of scholarships for Palestinian refugees through assistance from WUS UK and Britain in general. Some of the recipients later had the opportunity to pursue further studies in Germany thanks to WUS Germany. Our main contacts were with the Birzeit University and Hebron Polytechnic. Hanna Nassar (President of Birzeit University) was our major contact. He had visited WUS Geneva several times. I also had the opportunity to visit them. My visits to the Gaza Strip were both educational and exciting. Along with that assistance, WUSI supported the legitimate Palestinian cause/demands at the UN Human Rights Commission.
One of the new scholarship programs started during the period was in newly emerging/changing Vietnam. During late 1980s, a university student scholarship there cost only $10 a month. After a Dutch agency, WUS undertook this task without a separate administrative cost, with the Ministry of Education. The initial number exceeded 200 scholarships. During my many visits to the region, one of the most enthusiastic receptions was from Vietnamese academics. They were zealously looking outwards at that time, interested in academic freedom.
It is only possible to give some selected highlights here. One of the major projects of WUS Bangladesh was the ‘Poultry Development Project’ in Mymensingh funded by DANIDA (Denmark). It was a large project that covered 75 villages, the poultry breeding farm being at the Agricultural University of Mymensingh. The main objective was to introduce a mixed or a high breed of poultry to the villages which gave larger eggs and weightier flesh. Vaccination for Ranikhet disease also was introduced. The villages were covered in stages. It was my first task in WUS in early 1985 to reorganize the project management after some complains. It worked well thereafter. The poultry farmers were mainly women. They were recruited as the vaccinators. They were also trained in basic bookkeeping and other small managerial matters. Otherwise, they were exploited by men, especially by husbands! It was also about women’s empowerment in remote villages.
WUS Bangladesh had several other projects in Jahangirnagar, Rajshahi and Dhaka, conducted by university WUS locals. Some were on poverty alleviation of poor communities and others were training for students, technical workshops and advocacy on academic issues. WUS Bangladesh Chairperson, Harunur Rashid, who served as the WUSI President during 1984-1986, was a natural leader for these activities.
WUS India had continuing preoccupations in running student services through hostels for women, student welfare centers, bookshops and other facilities on a non-profit making basis and concessional rates in Delhi, Madras and other main universities. All those buildings and centres were funded by WUSI donations. WUS Madras also had some projects taking students to remote villages for educational and assistance activities. WUS India assisted the holding of the 69th General Assembly in September 1991 on the theme of “A Holistic Vision of Education for All.” WUS India was one of the first Asian national committees of WUSI after 1950. One dedicated Chairperson of WUS India, C. D. Deshmukh, said the following in his life story.
“I was happy to be able to infuse life into the WUS movement in India and increase its membership – University WUS committees. It happened that during my tenure the Danish Government made a most magnificent grant (Rs. 18 lakhs), thanks to the persuasive efforts of Chidambaranathan, Secretary-General of the International WUS, towards the constitution of the Madras WUS Centre.”
WUS Hong Kong was basically a student organization assisted by academics and administrators at the University of Hong Kong. Both at assemblies and other WUS International activities women students were strongly represented. Luke Wong was a leader of this. It is not clear what fate has befallen on WUS committee/contacts there as a result of recent student suppression. WUS PNG also was mainly a student organization. One of the important projects that they conducted was ‘barefoot lawyers’ utilizing the senior law students to go to the community and assist them in legal matters. They in turn obtained academic credit for their courses.
WUS Thailand was extremely helpful in assisting WUS Asia/Pacific in conducting several regional workshops in Bangkok. Kasemsak Poomisrekeo at the Thammasat University was the Chair of the Committee. They also had projects initially funded by WUSI for a mobile Xray service for communities, a health centre and a library for people’s education. The National Library in Bangkok also was funded by WUS. Bangkok was a popular centre for workshops. Two of the most important regional WUS workshops held in Bangkok during the period were on “Women in Education” in May 1988 and “Education for All, Human Rights and Development” in December 1990 with UNESCO participation. At the latter workshop, my main submission was that the level of education for all depends largely on the population size of the country and of course the economic resources. Higher the population, lower the level of ‘education for all.’
WUS Korea although not very interactive with WUS Geneva by this time worked through two centres. One was at the WUSI Student Centre in central Soul which had become virtually a private university; and the other through an English Teaching Institute initiated by some of the WUS members. The driving person at the second centre was Kim Jung-Tai. During my visits I had the opportunity to conduct training workshops there.
WUS Nepal had an active committee composed of dedicated academics and students. Based on the WUSI student centre, the committee ran a ‘People’s Campus’ in Kathmandu, the President being Rathna Badracharya. WUS Nepal Secretary was Purutom Shresta based at the Thribhuvan University. They also conducted several community projects in remote areas. WUSI also had contact groups in the Maldives and Malaysia. In the Maldives, WUSI worked with the Educational Development Project in the Ministry of Education. In Malaysia, the Consumer Association of Penang (CAP). School curriculum development and teacher training were some of the focuses in the Maldives. In Malaysia many of the academic freedom issues and human rights problems were raised supported by CAP and others.
There had been an active WUS Committee in Australia from the early 1950s till the mid-1970s. Robin Burns had been an active member and a WUSI executive committee member, and still works with WUS Alumni for the centenary celebrations this year (2020). During its heyday WUS Australia had raised funds to fight apartheid in South Africa and helped Czech refugees settled in Australia after the Prague Spring of 1968. They have also worked for educational and social needs of aboriginal communities through the International Development Action (IDA) group. However, after certain political and economic policy changes in the country in early 1970s, the committee became defunct.
In 1990/1991, WUSI made several efforts to resurrect WUS in Australia. The new interest was based on the ‘Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom.’ During this time, there were moves to introduce a Bill of Rights in Australia. Academics were interested in protecting academic freedom in such a bill. The effort was reported ‘The Australian’ newspaper in May 1991.
“A group of academics and students are attempting to revive an Australian branch of the World University Service (WUS) which folded in the 1970s. A meeting to revive the service was held at the University of NSW last week and addressed by Mr. Laksiri Fernando from the WUS head office in Geneva and the university’s Chancellor, Mr. Justice Samuels. Among its supporters at the campus are Law Department head Professor Garth Nettheim, council member Dr Jessica Milner Davis, and Dr Barrie Dyster from the Department of Economic History.”William West
WUS Sri Lanka had similar activities to India, based on student services and facilities particularly at the University of Peradeniya, University of Colombo and the University of Moratuwa in addition to conducting regular workshops and training. The driving force for the national committee for a long time was V. K. Samaranayake supported by Hema Goonatilake. Worker’s Education programs at Peradeniya and Colombo universities were largely supported by WUSI. The assistance included the donation of books and amenities in addition to WUS members teaching in the courses. WUSI had conducted a regional workshop in Sri Lanka in 1976 on “Non Formal Education” leading to the inauguration of these workers’ education programs. One of the most far reaching projects in Sri Lanka during my time was the Namibian English Teacher Training Program supported by the Commonwealth Secretariat through WUSI. There were 22 Namibian refugee women undergoing three year training at the English Teacher Training College at Peradeniya. WUS Peradeniya managed the project under the guidance of WUSI.
WUS Committees in Asia had both strengths and weaknesses. If self-reliance was the main strength, too much of self-reliance or ‘self-centrism’ was the main weakness, particularly in my time. As time passed, some of the WUSI assisted projects started to become small ‘enterprises.’ Some of the committees were the same. As some of the pioneers of WUS Asia have emphasized, WUS should have been considered as a movement rather than just committees. The situation was extremely difficult to change without a strong and inspiring WUS International. Similarly, the national organisations of WUS should have been broad based with an extensive membership and with students and women playing a major role.
Dr Laksiri Fernando was senior lecturer, Political Science, University of Peradeniya before appointment as associate secretary, Asia/Pacific, WUS International from 1984 to 1991. Laksiri studied in Sri Lanka (BA Economics), Canada (MA Political Science) and Australia (PhD Human Rights) and migrated to Australia in 1991. He was deputy director, Human Rights Centre, University of NSW (1991-2); PhD scholar University of Sydney while teaching (1992-1995); executive director of the Diplomacy Training Program at the University of NSW (1995-97); returned to Sri Lanka as professor, Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo (1997-2010) where he served as dean, Faculty of Graduate Studies; Director, Centre for the Study of Human Rights, and Director, Peace Building Project, Ministry of Constitutional Affairs. He was also a member of the advisory committee to the president on Constitutional Reforms; director, Sri Lanka Foundation Institute and Television Training Institute; director and Chair, National Centre for Advanced Studies; and a director of the Colombo Stock Exchange. A Japan Foundation scholar (2005-6), and a visiting scholar in several countries, his two major academic publications are: Human Rights, Politics and States: Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka and Thomas More’s Socialist Utopia and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Since retirement to Australia to join his family, he has focused on popular writing with many publications, and is now enjoying a focus on art.