By Lakmali Hemachandra –
First they came for the communists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.
Then they came for the socialists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for me,
and there was no one left to speak for me.
– Martin Niemoller
I have a friend in the university, a good guy who believes in democracy and freedom, a catholic who denounces religion and hatred based on ethnicity or religion. When I heard that he was among the protesters who were harassed in front of the Sambuddha Jayanthi Mandiraya, in spite of the fact that I did not agree with the way the protest was organized and carried out I defended his right to participate in it. I believe we live in a country called the “Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka” where citizens are not harassed, arrested or punished for protesting, for dissenting. My friend who got into trouble for protesting always quotes Voltaire’s famous words, “I disapprove of what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, he believes in freedom of expression and practices it with a fierce spirit. Is the purpose of this piece to admire my friend’s democratic spirit? No, but I want him to be seen in that light first before I mention the other thing he defends and fights for, free education. He is not a ragger, but he is from the hostel, he is not a member of any political party, although there would be nothing wrong with it, my friend believes in democracy, he marches for free education, he wants good things happening to people and yes, he is a university student.
The perception of the university students in the society is that they are destructive hooligans, and much to the relief of the government, that spending public money on them is a waste, not an investment. I am not going to generalize the student population and whitewash their misgivings, but my years in the university has taught me that there’s a gap between this perception and the reality, it demonizes the student leaders who want proper libraries and hostels, and project them to be barbaric, uncivilized thugs who only want to destroy the futures of the rest of the students. This argument is in fact used by the Higher Education minister himself, who feeds into the myth to create a public opinion against state universities. The battle for free education is therefore harder than it was in the 80’s, nowadays, university students like my friend fight for free education and against stereotypes as well. Faced with government propaganda and a civil society that looks the other way, the students who are trying to hold on to what’s left of the free education system, the only hope of the vast majority of the people in this country who cannot afford higher education for their children, are in a vulnerable position with no one to look over their shoulders.
The response of the civil society to the brutal attack on the students of the University of Sabaragamuwa is a clear example of the double standards the Sri Lankan rights rhetoric maintains. When the protest by Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena was attacked, the response was immediate and uniform; there were dozens of articles on how the attack was a violation of a democratic right and a threat to the rule of law in the country. Sabaragamuwa students on the other hand were ignored, to fight a lonely fight. They were not just attacked, they were suspended and imprisoned, but those who cheered for the democratic right of the BQBBS to protest did not say a word about the supposed hooligans who were ruining everyone’s chances at a good education.
This, of course, is not solely because of the society’s perception of the university student; it is also because they were fighting for free education, because they were not crusaders of ethnic and religious harmony, because we live in a well-established liberal democratic society that is post history, because free education is reminiscent of the ‘socialist’ Sri Lanka that has become only a word in its official name. Most liberal intellectuals, rights activists and civil society groups do not agree with the slogan for saving free education, private universities for them is not a threat to the state education system. While my view on the matter opposes that position it should be reminded to these civil activists that like Voltaire’s words say, what we believe in terms of political ideology should not matter when it comes to defending the right of a people to protest and dissent. Sadly not all liberals in the country follow the advice of the great French philosopher. Therefore who is protesting, against whom is the protest and what are they protesting against is relevant and as a result of that bias, the human rights rhetoric in Sri Lanka has to a great extent ignored the plight of the university students who are attacked and suspended in their feeble fight against the government policy of privatization.
Freedom of expression is a highly controversial right for it can, in theory, include pornography and hate speech as well; however it is very clear, at least in Sri Lanka what it does not extend to, free education. The debate on free education is not new to Sri Lanka nor is it limited to Sri Lanka, student movements across the globe are addressing the inequalities created by privatized education, especially after the occupy wall street movement and the collapse of the American economy in 2008 which marked the return of the history, as David North claims. Sri Lankan Student movement is nevertheless portrayed to be ignorant, jealous and petty, when in reality students who struggle for free education make much more sense than the Higher Education Minister. Still, the public, and I mean much of the educated urban public with pseudo liberal values, are unsympathetic to the woes of the student community even when their rights, protected under the law of the country are blatantly violated by the state.
Education, for a majority of the Sri Lankans is just as important as peaceful co-existence, in fact education is instrumental in peaceful co-existence of different ethnic and religious communities in the country. How we are going to nurture good democratic values in a society, which cannot afford education, remains a mystery to my limited knowledge on both subjects. Nevertheless I am willing to accept the reluctance of the human rights activists to promote education as a right; that is a matter of ideology. However their reluctance to stand up for the students who are beaten up on the roads of Colombo, arrested and tortured in thousands and murdered to silence dissent is something that cannot be understood or accepted.
Genuine human development cannot be achieved through political games that USA and the UN play with the Sri Lankan government, the history of UN interventions and US interference reeks of political and economic agenda. Those of us who wait for the United Nations’ Human Rights Council to tame the unruly government of Sri Lanka must keep in mind that neither constitutional changes nor UN resolutions can amount to social change towards democracy and freedom. Democracy is people, public participation; democracy cannot be separated from the people who challenge extremism in front of the Sambuddha Jayanthi Mandiraya, it cannot be separated from the people who scream on the roads against unfair electricity price hikes, it cannot be separated from the prisoners who stand on the prison roofs to challenge the violence inside the prisons, it cannot be separated from Tamil students who are called terrorists for mourning their dead and it cannot be separated from the students in Sabaragamuwa who protest against the ban on their unions or the medical students in J’pura who protest against the admission of fee paying students.
Howard Zinn said that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. Dissent in the form of public protests revitalizes dying democracies as we witness in Turkey, Bahrain, Bulgaria and Brazil today. Protests by students in USA during the Vietnam War eventually forced the US government to call the troops back home. Protests by students in the Tiananmen Square exposed the dissatisfactions of the public with the authoritarian rule of the Communist party in China. The student movement in Chile continues to struggle for free education and eradication of inequalities in education that were inflicted by the senseless privatization of the education sector during the tyrannical rule of Augusto Pinochet. Students in London staged protests against rising tuition fees only a year ago and continue to struggle for affordable education. Around the world, student movements are battling budget cuts in education while demanding more public spending on education.
Protests by students in the Sri Lankan history during the 80’s defeated the then government’s attempts at privatizing education and it is an achievement that most university students cherish and celebrate. Protests by students in Sri Lanka are also connected to a very violent past that continues to haunt the conscience of the Sri Lankan society even today, twenty five bloody years later. Perhaps that too pricks the pseudo liberal minds who cannot forgive the Sri Lankan students for the atrocities committed during the 89 insurgency in the name of Marxism. May be that is the reason why nobody questions what happened to more than sixty thousand people who simply disappeared from the face of the earth. Or is it because they were dissenting to the Thirteenth Amendment, which was never accepted by the people of the South or North? Well, not the terrorists of the South and North at least.
Student leaders like Padmasiri Threemavitharana, Venura Edirisinghe, Mohommad Nishmi and Nimal Balasuriya were killed simply because they opposed the government policy on education but their names are never mentioned, their murderers remain unpunished. Memories of them, along with their young lives are buried deep down in the political history of Sri Lanka. The death of Threemavitharana stunned the nation, he was not just murdered, he was brutally tortured before his death, his body was burnt and nails were inserted into his head, but the culprit of Threema’s murder, a well-known politician, was never convicted. All these students, who were abducted, tortured and murdered deserve better than the complete silence of a nation that pretends to have never seen them dying, burnt to ashes on the road sides in the bright day light. The culture of impunity and extra judicial killings have confronted the Sri Lankan society with the ugly case of D.I.G Vas Gunawardhene but it has a history that nobody remembers anymore, a history that collides with the bloody fate that Threemavitharana faced twenty five years ago, along with sixty thousand youth that nobody wants to talk about anymore.
Students like Threemavitharana must be remembered and celebrated, irrespective of the differences in political ideology because citizens like Threema are the real threat to despotic governments, citizens who remind the state that public policy must be for the people, citizens who lead mass movements to bring strong governments to their feet. Forgetting Threema therefore symbolizes our further decline into apathy and fear to create mass movements against unpopular government policy. Threemavitharana could have looked the other way, he could have completed his studies and become a doctor perhaps, he could have been alive and successful, instead he chose to be politically active, he chose to engage with the public, he chose to face the oppressing government and assert his democratic right to protest, to dissent.
A few days ago C.A. Chandraprema, in an ominous article to a national newspaper, instigated the government to crush any student activism against the government policies using the law against terrorism. He was publicly condemning the students to prison cells, jails and torture chambers. In a country where thousands of University students were tortured and murdered not once but twice, why are we not rushing forward to protect the youth of an apathetic country who are politically active enough to oppose a despotic government? When the fourth wave of mass murder since the independence washes over the country would it matter that they are dying for values and political opinions that you do not share? Would it help to sleep at night to think of them as criminals who hate the more privileged because they cannot write and speak English as the Higher Education Minister contemptuously mentioned? Should it not eat us alive to know that among these supposed anti-social criminals, students like my friend are there somewhere, protesting against religious extremism, protesting against privatization? Should not our conscience be heavy of the knowledge that the loss of a people, who fiercely defend democracy by practicing it openly in the streets of the cities and villages, is deepening the apathy that has settled in the Sri Lankan society that has been silently killing the morality of a nation for more than twenty years?
*Lakmali Hemachandra –Student – University of Colombo, Faculty of Law