By Ranga Kalansooriya –
The recent student – police clash in Colombo raised many concerns –predominantly questions with regard to the nuances of good governance. The main accused party was the police that came under heavy criticism and condemnation from various quarters of the society. But in overall context the government handled the issue well by swiftly responding in a professional manner.
A detailed analysis will reveal that this particular issue has erupted out of nothing. According to Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella all demands of the students have been met a day before the controversial protest, but his officials have failed to convey the message to the students. The Sunday Times reported that the mayhem would have easily been avoided if the officials were efficient enough to mitigate an upcoming crisis by just relaying the information of the government to the students concerned, according to the minister. Furthermore, while claiming that he was not aware of the students’ protest, Kiriella extensively criticized the action of police. Many of his ministerial colleagues joined him in defending the rights of the students – a cause that they committed to as a prominent part of Yahapalana concept.
In fact the communication gap between students and the Higher Education Ministry was highlighted by Minister Tilak Marapana in his special statement to Parliament on Tuesday.
Minister Kiriella’s genuineness should be appreciated. Unlike his predecessors who held the portfolio of higher education, he has blamed the police for attacking the students, safeguarding the rights of the students to protest. On the other hand, without defending his own officials for their failure to avoid a crisis situation, his act was transparent enough in highlighting the loopholes of the system of governance. In a nutshell, the lethargic attitude or the inefficiency of an individual public official at the Higher Education Ministry brought the entire regime into an uncomfortable position and created a massive chaos in the city for two consecutive days. There are a numerous actions are being taken by various institutions against the action of the Police, but what about these officials at the Higher Education Ministry who failed to communicate an important decision of the government to the students in the wake of an upcoming protest?
One cannot claim that neither the government nor its officials were aware of an upcoming student protest as there are established mechanisms to learn about these upcoming civil unrest events well in advance. These systems are well networked to all segments of the government as well as the societal networks, thus a crisis situation could easily be mitigated if communications are well managed. Something has drastically failed somewhere.
The police later said that the protest could have been well mitigated had there been an official at the UGC to meet the protestors as it was held after-office hours. But the students were chanting slogans in front of an empty building as all have obviously gone home. It was Saman Ekanayaka, the Secretary to Prime Minister who volunteered to meet the students even it was late in the evening, but then it was too late. But interestingly Deputy Minister Mohan Lal Grero was awaiting to meet the protestors next day at the same venue. Hopefully some lessons have been learnt.
Be that as it may, let us have a look at the conduct of the police in this incident. In fact the particular conduct of the cops in handling such a crisis situation is nothing different from the previous era. If one could remember, a similar act of the police against a students’ protest became a hot topic during the last presidential elections. Yahapalana campaigners used a powerful image of a policeman attacking a protesting university student mainly on the social media and vowed that such incidents would not be repeated under a new regime. It was clear that the police is yet realized the fact that there had been a regime change – from a de facto police state to a system committed to good governance. This was their usual responses for student or any protest for the past ten years – remember Katunayaka and Rathupaswala? Use maximum power but claiming it was the minimum.
This wrong perception of the police was clearly visible during the press briefing the top brass conducted in defending their act just after the incident. They talked about using minimum force and maximum force against protestors, and then ended up with a controversial comment by the Police Spokesman about using “necessary force.” But none of these top brass justified why you had to use any kind force against the democratic right to protest. In fact the body language of the police top brass was not conveying a professional message at a decent press conference. Some of them certainly need a serious capacity building exercise on how to conduct a press briefing.
The strategy would have been to allow the protestors to block the roads and create havoc for office time traffic which is entirely counter-productive for the protesting students. It happened on Tuesday where Colombo became stand-still with protesting university students and frustrated office crowd spending many hours on the road. The blame went to the protestors not to the police.
To my mind, there should be a specific awareness program by the government or concerned stakeholders to public institutions like Police on the concept of good governance and democracy. Of course they were governed by an autocratic, undemocratic system for a decade, thus could be challenging for them to be changed. Someone should make them realise that this is no more a police state. Hopefully at least Batagoda committee would do the needful whose report is expected in Parliament in two weeks.
What about the students, who always become cats-paw of interested political groups? This argument of they becoming political tools does not undermine their rights to protests and fight for their own rights. But that has to be done according to accepted norms and practices which they never do. Sometimes I am wondering whether we need a specific module in the university curricular to teach them on how to conduct a peaceful protest. These student protests are deliberately designed to disturb public order and attract unnecessary attention through unusual means, which ultimately provoke the police. Thus, these ugly incidents happen. Do not forget that this government has two leading political figures who have successfully led student struggles – Patali Champika Ranawaka who once was the head of the Inter University Students Federation and Karu Paranawithana who was the President of the Colombo University Student Union – both have been leading firebrands in their respective university lives. They could guide them on how to conduct effective, successful struggles by university students.