21 May, 2024


But Not When They Came For Me

By Lakmali Hemachandra

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

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Latest comments

  • 0

    As per my Knowledge,
    This C.A. Chandraprema is a Licenced killer/Butcher to the JUST governance, [Former and now]
    and wrote a book about another phsychopath killer/ butcher who preach buddhist surmans, but who does not care about humane value.

  • 1

    I am very impressed with your ability and little knowledge about the social economic issues that gives you a better insight to the conditions that prevails in this so called social democratic republic .May tipple gem bless people like you and protect you from all the evils so that you can continue to use the knowledge you gain in this academy to create a better awareness in people like us that lives like frogs in the well.May all living beings be free of pain.

  • 0

    It is indeed sad – actually tragic.

    However, when they came, and came again, and came once more for the Tamils during most of the better part of half a century, the fair minded Sinhalese didn’t speak up.

    So, I suppose as aptly anticipated by Niemoller, this is justifiable retribution – right? Sad but not surprising!

  • 0

    The lack of support for undergraduates from the public is most probably due to the lesser numbers and and also because they may be looked upon as the privileged few. Just as the protesters a thunmulla were dubbed as night club buddhist, undergrads may be considered as somewhat above the normal status.

    This is common in our country where people who speak english are considered as a foreign elite class, minorities are considered as intruders or second class citizens etc. So our society is compartmentalised and divided into various categories and classes and none cares about the other.

    Look at the protests in other countries. Brazil started against bus fares and has developed into a mass campaign involving all segments against govt corruption. And see the response of the President who announces sweeping reforms and promises to invest 100% of oil revenues in education. In Turkey it was about a park and then included issues of governance.

    In ours even the protest aginst the electricity tariff just fizzled out. So it is more the mindset of our society which is more selfish and self centered. We just dont care about others, or the future of our nation as long as things are working out for ourselves.

  • 0

    It looks you are also hiding something.

    We will find as you will write more articles

    What is important here not what Voltaire says or said, what you think and what you say.

  • 0

    A fine article, lucid and well thought out. I am sure the majority of people will agree that free education must continue in Sri Lanka. Education is a key corner stone in the developing world.

    Student protests however do not attract the attention it did many decades ago because they have become so common and politicized. Sometimes they are violent, disruptive and abusive. If they are a means of conveying true grievances, then it is right that they are listened to and acted upon.

    One point on which I disagree. Only a small number enter the university system, and many are turned away though qualified for entry due to the limitation in the intake.
    It is not fair by Sri Lankan youth when protests are mounted to prevent formation of private universities. Many institutes have sprung up in the past 30 years to cater to the development of IT, Marketing, Accountancy, and Engineering. These have produced tens of thousands of professionals who have been absorbed in to the business world. The only difference is that they are not named as “universities”. Some are even called “campuses”. Thankfully this development took place almost without notice and overt student protest. Likewise, private universities must be allowed in the country, and the ‘dog in the manger’ attitude must not prevail. Good luck to you.

  • 0

    Even though there are details in this piece that one can quarrel with, the central thrust of it speaks volumes at a time when anything resembling principle or a “moral imperative” appears to have disappeared from public debate.
    Thank you, Lakmali,for a passionate piece of writing.
    We need more people like you speaking to the facts without any of the fact-avoiding nonsense that keeps getting published in the name of political commentary.

  • 0

    I would like to point out certain misleading inaccuracies in this article. I was a student of Peradeniya university when Universities were shut down for three years by Premdasa government. Nishmi was the biggest dictatorial student leader (IUSF) president which was the student wing of JVP.
    They did not listen to students and were not interested in listening to anything other than JVP politburo told them to preach. We had their henchmen just informing us in hostels that you are striking tomarrow and no questions were entertained. They wanted Universities closed so that frustrated students will eventually join their murderous campaign. Scores of innocent students who were at home abducted and killed by pro government militias being suspected of being terrorists. This is the legacy of Nishmi . There were rumours he was travelling in British High commissioners official vehicle while security forces were looking helplessly.
    I am not too sure what happened to Nishmi. I am extremely doubtful he was killed. I have a feeling he is living comfortably in a Western country . We lost three best years of our life (we are lucky to be alive thousands more were unfortunate not to be with us being mere university students). I will never ever forgive either the JVP nor IUSF nor Nishmi and his cohorts for the devastation caused to our lives.
    Although I don’t encourage violence fighting fire with fire was the only option viable. Only after JVP politburo was eliminated southern part of Sri Lanka returned to civilian life. Thank god for the government to what they did. Otherwise Sri Lanka would be run by a bunch of Polpots.
    Mohommed Nishmi did not fight for a student rights he just did what his masters did and imposed his authority on students.

    • 0

      Your comments brought me back to my days at HD/Pera.

      Those were the most cruel days in my entire life sofar. Universities kept closed without further notice. Later they reopened it for the students then again they closed it again and again. I left leaving my all the belongings at the hostel room. Now I have no idea where they had then been lastly kept – how the places are called etc. I left the country for Europe for my education. Since then, I travelled back to the country on a regular manner. Unfortunately, large numbers of students got killed just because they were registered students to the UNIs at that time. Batch rep of Vet 87batch had also been brutally killed either by JVPers or the state forces. I have no facts and figures about how many went missing since then. Anyway, AI had collected signatures to send to Premadasa regime – I was one of among who worked on it.
      Going back to that brutal period, I feel today, Wimal weeranse is the most known example – that JVPers cried only they achieved their gains. There was nothing in them than just abusing innocent masses until their targets are reached. Fyi, I was neither activist nor JVP or any other supporter to lanken politics.

      • 0

        Actually, many of you shold come forward to make aware the nation how we the youth of the country suffered in that brutal period. Many seem to have fully forgotten, if not for CBK, I dont think it was easy anyone to bring the peace back. CBK´s first term was not at all easy to that time, though the bunch of thieves in the rule today seem to have forgotten all these, when trying to mixing up but only attacking her for all.

        Today, we have zero FUNCTIONAL RULE OF LAW. One former CJ had repeated there are very many laws that state just avoid implenting – but it is time to do so at least now – in a critical stage because many of us feel today that there is a threat to our lives in SL today. Value of human lives have gone to that low levels, perhaps comparable to what Somalians OR Pakistanis face in those countries. In a country where we had such high democratic values in the past, have reached to these appalling levels is very sad to see.

      • 0

        I agree with you that it is time the story of the JVP atrocities in 1988/89 are brought out in the open. I am myself working on it. Fifteen of my friends were murdered by the JVP. One was shot dead for the crime of raising the national flag on our Independence Day! One was beheaded and his head was planted at the main road. JVP has so far refused to apologize. Even Mahinda Rajapaksa was moving from place to place unsure whether he will be hit by the JVP or the government of the day. JVP has so far refused to apologize. I have often wondered how many were murdered by Wimal Weerawansa, or Tilvin Silva. Somawansa Amerasinghe was in the politbureau at the time and escaped via India with help from Sirisena Cooray. He is privy to all the information.

        • 0

          The circumstances under which Lalith Athulathmudali died at the hands of Ragunathan who carried his ID and dragged himself a fair distance to commit suicide, left the traces pointing towards Sirisena Cooray as the prime suspect. After CBK secured power in ’94, Lalith’s case was reopened and Sirisena Cooray was under house arrest. Thereafter the Public never heard anything further and months later came to know Sirisena Cooray had gone to Australia as a free man and his erstwhile killer Baddegana Sanjeeva employed in CBK’s security net work. That was the end of Lalith’s case as no one wants to know what exactly happened. MR was no saint either as he used the Wambottas to eliminate his political opponents and once he became the President got the Wambottas eliminated lest they become demanding and a headache.

    • 0

      Thank you Sinhalaya for sharing those experiences.

  • 0

    Students are not the taking maximum out of the available free education. they only complain.

    They don’t want to understand that a good educational system can not be developed only by the govt and only by providing the free education.

    Because of the destructive student leaders both the country and the prospective students are suffering.

  • 0

    How free our undergraduates to study, think, research and contribute on domestic by their academic studies?

    How objective the university professors and lecturers in guiding the undergraduate in the contributory direction??

  • 0

    Thank you Lakmali for your nice article. It is unfortunate that most of the people who were benefited from free eduction and passed out from our universities never bothered to support students’ strugles to protect free education.

  • 0

    A well written article and my congratulations for Lakmali for that. However, to a larger percentage I disagree with your view but respect your right to bear that. Many comments on the article immensely display the extent to which most of these university agitations are politically motivated. Leaving aside the political side of it, I have two questions for the author on her ruthless defence of free education. What percentage of students who become eligible for university education secures enrolment to government universities to get free education? Where would those not securing a berth in Government Universities go? Lakmali and those likeminded children should understand that, whether free or paid, education is the right of all the children alike, it is the wish of all the parents alike. Children of wealthy parents (being wealthy is not a crime, provided the wealth is amassed by just means)in any case send their children abroad for higher education at the expense of colossal amounts of foreign exchange for the country. Those not so wealthy but deserve higher education, yet unable to find entry to Government Universities are the students who are stranded in most cases unless alternatives are provided at affordable costs. They are the children of parents who are aspiring to add value to their meager savings of the life time by spending them on the higher education of their children. Lakmali is seeking mass mobilization against the wishes of such children, who outnumber the incumbent university student population by many folds.
    What university students should agitate for is to rid the political stranglehold on education and improved physical resources to make the Government Universities competitive. Also leave your agitations free of politics. You will be able to muster the support of your own Academic and Nonacademic Staff, General Public of the country and most importantly the very people against whose wishes you are now looking for mass support. However it is too early to believe a mass street agitation will take place in a country where guardians of the law undertake contract killings. But things will change for good if the cause is sensible and non destructive. Agitate for a better environment where government and private universities provide mutually competitive high class education. Support to stop drainage of vast amount of wealth to foreign universities. Alternatively make provision of higher education a foreign exchange earner to the country.

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