MUN in Sri Lanka goes back to the early 90s. My time in it started in 2008. It has been 8 long years doing MUN in Sri Lanka and actively contributing to the MUN community. But that is not what I am here to talk about. This is not to glorify my years of MUN. Instead it is to take a look at MUN in Sri Lanka in the current moment and to look back to see where as some say ‘things went wrong’. In this first part I will be introducing MUN in Sri Lanka and exploring the issue of politics in chairing conference and what can be done to avoid politics.
Recently, the news opinion platform I Co-Founded and operate, The International Cauldron, received an article submission by a young MUNer who had participated in Colombo MUN (COMUN) 2016. The content was shocking in a sense. The delegate had had a very bad experience of the conference and wanted to express the sentiments openly, to ensure accountability. This article titled ‘COMUN? No thank you – A delegate’s review’ is being published on intca.org alongside my article. My article was written as a result of reading and editing that delegate’s review.
MUN in Sri Lanka is a high school affair. We have flirted with a couple of university level MUN conferences like Youth MUN and Varsity MUN. But they never became annual mainstream conferences. COMUN was the founding conference in 1991, followed by SAARC simulation in 2005 and SLMUN in 2008. MUN conferences are student run events here, unlike in India where companies have popped up to run them. Simply we do not have an economy of scale in MUN for that. And that’s actually a relief. MUN is no business enterprise. It’s a learning experience.
Being student run is not an easy privilege. Students ranging from ages 14 to 21 run the conference and they are seen as the leaders the rest of the community look up to within that time period. Most of these students, including myself, have not held formal office before hand, maybe other than prefectship. As a result the conferences become breeding grounds for the creation of the next generation of young leaders. And they have been. Since these are leaders in the making, the manner in which they steer the ship is not always ideal. Mistakes are made, arguments happen, friendships are broken, infighting and politics result.
As an admin at COMUN 2008 and as a young delegate since SLMUN 2008, I did not perceive the politics and infighting and arguments that breakout behind the curtains of the conference. On the outlook things seemed perfect, jubilant and harmonious, other than for the aggressive debate one might observe. Aggressive debate has sort of been the unique identity of Sri Lankan MUN, as it amalgamated aspects of debating. While Harvard MUN emphasizes more on the lobbying and compromising during causes, we are mainly about what goes down during the formal debating sessions. The oratory and research skills take a slight precedence over social skills. I would know, because otherwise I wouldn’t have won any awards.
As I became a mature MUN delegate who was up for the awards and who had to manage his school MUN team, the politics of MUN became apparent. Who you knew in the Exco became to matter. Which delegates from other schools you knew became to matter. Being on the good books of your chairs began to matter. One cannot blame the chairs/Exco. In a General Assembly committee there are over a 100 students, typically. And identifying their skills is no easy task. Someone is obviously going to be looked over. Till 2011, I was usually overlooked by chairs. I made sense, but I wasn’t the best orator and I wasn’t known to be a good delegate in the community. I had a political disadvantage.
Likewise, most MUN delegates have a political disadvantage going into conference. They are not known and the known names get the attention. It helps to be from certain schools. Because you are more likely to know the chairs or know someone who knows the chairs. It is why we have workshops and practice debates prior to conference so that the delegates and chairs can familiarize with each other. So that the chairs can identify the skilled delegates in his or her committee. But most chairs are first time chairs. They need to learn from a an expeirenced the chair the art of identifying skill. How to handle the dozens of mod caucuses and amendments received. How to handle the point system. How to handle those extremely aggressive delegates who are always at the head table. And that means training chairpersons is vital. A vital aspect that has been forgotten at times.
As the USG for SLMUN 2015, my main responsibility was training chairpersons. I had to identify their drawbacks, identify individual chairpersons’ idiosyncrasies and help them improve to provide the best committee experience for the delegates. In addition to the above, I had to ensure loyalties to schools were minimised and I helped them identify the means they could be unintentionally biased towards certain delegates. It’s natural for anyone to look for his/her friends placard among the dozens being raised. It’s natural for someone to see the friend’s Mod Caucus topic to seem special. Frank conversations about these things and the creation of a stringent marking criteria helped minimise this issue of natural human bias. Many said I was largely successful and many delegates were happy with the improvement in chairing. But as usual there were issues and things I missed. I have a responsibility to accept those mistakes.
As the President of the Security Council of COMUN 2015, I was never trained to chair. Luckily I had prior chairing experience at SLMUN 2014 and I had chaired the practice sessions at school. But unlike me, most of the COMUN 2015 chairpersons were first time chairs. They ended up having to learn how to chair on their own during the Practice Debates and Conference itself. The same scenario applied to COMUN 2016. The result is chaos. There are extremely good committees chaired by experienced chairpersons. And then there are the ones where first time chairs commit the mistakes that chair training takes away. A few good committees don’t define a conference. It’s the one rotten apple that defines a conference.
I am not telling SLMUN was so much better because I was there to train the chairs. Or that COMUN failed because I wasn’t allowed to train them. Chair training should be an aspect of any well planned and managed conference. SLMUN had the advantage where chair training was made a vital aspect of the run up to conference. I received training from my Secretariat at SLMUN 2014 and I turn trained my chairpersons as USG at SLMUN 2015. Chair training is a tradition of SLMUN, now. In contrast it has become lost from COMUN. Being the founding conference, COMUN would have added all the necessary aspects over its 22 year history. But in recent years some of these aspects have been lost. And that is where issues have popped up.
Experience must flow from one generation of MUNers to the next. Then the mistakes of one conference do not get repeated in the next. SLMUN has started doing that. COMUN has temporarily stopped it. If the privilege of being student run is to remain in the MUN community, chair training must become an inherent tradition. ‘Let the kids learn things on their own because we learned things on our own’, doesn’t go a long way. So kudos to all the old timer MUNers who took some time to give me words of advice over the years.
As a former MUNer, who helps the young MUNers when I can, I will continue to write this series, Review of MUN in Sri Lanka. The aim through this is to create accountability within the MUN community. Frankly no one ever bothered to write articles after a conference. It’s time we started writing. Its a responsibility of being part of a community.
Don’t forget to read the article that inspired me to write this review.