14 June, 2024


Teacher Protests & Free Education: Reality & Distorted Thinking?

By Laksiri Fernando

Dr. Laksiri Fernando

The current ‘crisis’ in Sri Lanka appears to have two salient features. First is the ongoing corona epidemic and the resulting economic consequences. Second is the teacher protests and political mobilizations by the opposition utilizing the economic uncertainties. The two are linked, but the second does not appear to be justified by the first.

On the contrary, it appears that the street protests, whether peaceful or not, are unethical given the pandemic conditions. The pandemic undoubtedly is the most important ‘single issue’ at present in the country. Citizens and activists have every right to ask for transparency, and criticize whatever weaknesses the government and the health authorities show in implementing preventive and vaccination policies. It is incorrect to say that there are no discussions or criticisms on these matters, but most of the debates have been limited and oblique.

For example, when compulsory and forceful cremations were conducted, the people had every right to protest and campaign. The compulsory cremations were an extreme and unnecessary measure. Religious biases and prejudices were involved  or at least religious sensitivities were neglected. Constructive criticisms and non-street protests are the way forward for the country. In the foreseeable future, it would be difficult to expect spot-on policies or governments in the country from any side of the political divide.

Street Protests?   

The recent street protests this month are totally different. Pure political motives took the center stage. The main opposition leader, Sajith Premadasa, declared that he would launch ‘street struggles to oust the government.’ Whether he meant a revolution or a coup; no one was very clear. Perhaps an advisor must explain! Elections are far away. The criticisms however are on ‘family rule, cost of living, militarization, and free education.’ The ‘single issue’ this time has become multiple. These are undoubtedly important and debatable issues.

The political opposition mainly started over the Kotalawala National Defense University (KNDU) bill. This should undoubtedly be discussed in the country, even under the pandemic conditions, and the opposition parties have every right and possibility to debate and bring necessary amendments in Parliament. The opposition also have the duty to very clearly explain to the people why they oppose the bill. Has this come forth? I doubt it.

Then came the more militant street protests. Free education was the main slogan. It was completely unnecessary and arbitrary to quarantine Joseph Stalin and other teacher union leaders after their street protests against the proposed bill. The day before, some leaders of the Front Line Socialist Party also were quarantined. Now they are all released, but the government undoubtedly got its image tarnished to an extent because of these actions.

Those who violate health orders could/should be punished (fines or jail), but not necessarily quarantined unless they are contaminated, with necessary evidence. Even in Australia, these rules and punishments are severe. The demonstrations can be stopped and/or dissolved. As I write, the news reports say that over 300 persons have been punished by the police yesterday (19 July) in Sydney for violating health orders. I have seen again and again the police breaking up demonstrations and protests.

After the arbitrary quarantine measures, there were further demonstrations and street protests mainly led by teachers and teacher unions. Notable leftists also were involved. Some were on motor cycles and vehicles. Perhaps they were keeping social distances and wearing masks! They undoubtedly have grievances. In a country like Sri Lanka who does not have grievances? The question is not about expressing dissent, grievances or demanding concessions, but the methods which are being used under the covid and present circumstances.

Ethical Questions

I have been a supporter and a researcher of trade unions. I have at least addressed one annual conference of the Ceylon Teachers Union in late 1980s. Although I supported the July 1980 strike, I had occasion to warn about its premature and adventurist character. The present government perhaps might not crush the trade unions as the UNP did in 1980. Because some of the leaders appear to believe that the working mass (gurugovi-kamkaru) is one of their support bases. This must have changed today and no one knows for sure.

My concern today however is about the ethical character of the several protest actions conducted by the teacher unions under the covid conditions. Let us just forget or ignore about the motorcycle demonstrations. In addition, the teacher unions had resorted to boycott ‘online teaching’ for students as a protest against the quarantine measures. Even after the release of their leaders, this boycott is still continuing quite harming the student education under the present extremely difficult circumstances. The new claim is that they protest against their salary anomalies!

The salary anomalies must be a genuine grievance. But this must be negotiated with the relevant authorities in a constructive manner. The students should not be prey to teacher grievances. Education also should not be a political game. It appears that the quality of teachers, or perhaps their leaders, have degenerated a lot over the years. Is this not a blow to free education?

Questions on Free Education?

There are nearly 250,00 teachers in public schools. Perhaps all teachers are not the culprits. But without the support of each other, the teachers who do not agree with the boycott might not be able to conduct online classes. There are over 4 million students in public schools. Particularly in rural areas these students have to undertake online studies with enormous difficulties. Al Jazeera ran a sensational story on 13 July outlining their difficulties, at the same time explaining their commitment and enthusiasm.

In some remote areas, students in groups have to climb mountains to access online signals. The attached picture is about some students climbing down after such lessons in Bohitiyawa village. But Joseph Stalin however has been cynical about online teaching in that Al Jazeera interview.

Authorities say they make every effort to provide all children with access to education, but Joseph Stalin, who heads the Ceylon Teachers’ Union, says at most 40 percent of Sri Lanka’s 4.3 million students can participate in online classes. The majority lack access to devices or connectivity.”        

Would the students who have difficulties in online access or devices oppose online classes? Their natural inclination would be to ask for proper online access or devices, but not to support sabotage by their teachers.

Do we have here over 4 million students going against 250,000 teachers? If we count their parents, over or around 8 million, what would be their opinion? I may be exaggerating, because some of the parents also might be teachers of Stalin type.

We talk about free education. Free school education is conducted by over 10,000 public schools. What about the online teaching in private or pay schools? They jolly well conducting their online education. There are over 150,000 private school students in nearly 100 schools taught by around 7,500 teachers.

Of course, the present online education is not a permanent or a long term measure. It can be supplementary in the future. Therefore, the opportunity is also to prepare the students for the future. This is what the teachers or the leaders are sabotaging under the influence of some pathetic political advocates. The teachers should be given the jab and brought into the duty of teaching soon. 

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Latest comments

  • 1

    Laksiri: Covid-19 is a Data Hoax Numbers Game. Covid-19 is a narrative , comparable to the Nazi propaganda – the Big Lie – to spread fear to shut down the Global Economy and Society with Face Mask and Infodemic. Covid-19 has enabled the capture of national institutions by external networks and surveillance systems via hyper- digitalization of Economy and Society, Health and EDUCATION SYSTEMS. COvid-19 is used to militarize and strip people of their RIGHTS, FREEDOMS and LIBERTIES including the freedom to think critically.
    Please Read Michel Foucault on Biopolitics and Surveillance – and Lectures at the College de France “Society must be Defended”.. Indeed, Covid-19 shows as Foucault said that society must be destroyed to be defended – by preventing Sociality by the Global Surveillance project!
    Sri Lanka and the world is being MILITARIZED under the Covid-19 Mask as the Cold War heats up and the US military business industrial complex that is addicted to war and waging Cyber, bio-warfare at this time crashes. Australia is totally BACKWARD and intellectually and morally bankrupt in analysing this situation because it is a partner of the US and QUAD and Played by the DeepState.

  • 8

    As usual, Dr.Laksiri is deliberately blind when he writes “As I write, the news reports say that over 300 persons have been punished by the police yesterday (19 July) in Sydney for violating health orders. I have seen again and again the police breaking up demonstrations and protests.”
    The fact is, in Australia even the Prime Minister will be punished if he breaks the rules. The SL govt is blatantly using the police for political purposes.Joseph Stalin was arrested, but not the guys who welcomed Basil Rajapaksa in processions. Now the govt is paying for Sarath Weerasekera’s stupid military mentality. Come on Laksiri, please don’t try convince us about the government’s innocence. Remember, we live here, unlike you.

  • 3

    These dumbos who protest and strike against establishment of private universities do not see that in this country education is already in private hands who operate tuition schools. The way tuition schools are flourishing show that free education has failed.

    • 4

      “show that free education has failed”
      Well, since you are a product of free education, I cannot but agree with your statement.

  • 2

    The behavior of some selfish politicians, teachers unions, trade unions, and health workers unions while the country is facing a pandemic and financial problems is really disgusting.
    Sri Lanka may be the only country in the world where employees in the health sector resorted to strike action demanding pay hikes and solutions for other job-related matters during a pandemic. The guy who encouraged nurses to take strike action is a monk. What kind of an idiot this guy is?
    Sri Lanka may be the only country where teachers engaged in protests violating health guidelines and strikes demanding pay hikes while the country is facing a pandemic. The language they used in protests is really third grade. Can students and people respect these hooligans as teachers?
    The money spent by tax payers to provide free education to these dong keys who do not know how to behave as responsible citizens is an utter waste.
    These dumbos who resort to protests and strikes forget that their salary is paid by tax payers. Even the poorest woman who buy a packet of milk for her baby is contributing to pay these don keys. But these morons did not care two hoots for the difficulties and suffering the tax payers who pay their salaries had to go through because of their selfish actions.

  • 4

    Dr laksiri Fernando,

    I aagree that pandemic is the single most important issue facing Sri Lanka today.Most others are secondary and could be delayed if possible.

    Government should set examples for opposition to follow and focus on pandemic as the first priority.
    But the behaviour of the government is questionable in this respect.

    The Parliamentary General Election was conducted in August 2020 in the midst of pandemic compromising on all safety measures aggravating the spread of pandemic second wave soon thereafter.

    The government in the meantime brought in many controversial legislative measures, mostly as urgent bills not allowing wide discussions before enacting, such as
    20th Amendment to the Constitution, the Colombo Port City Economic Commission Act and the recent kotelawala defence university bill 2021.None of these bills were urgent and could have easily been postponed and taken into consideration after normalcy returns.

    Furthermore the controversial measures concerning Eastern Terminal and Western Terminals of Colombo Harbour and, fertilizer issue could have been delayed.

    Having said this, it does not mean that the ongoing protests spearheaded by teacher trade unions and the decision to discontinue online teaching should be condoned because education should be student centered and trading the interests of students for trade union bargaining is a deplorable act.
    Dr Laksiri Fernando, be more balance as a reputed academic.

  • 8

    Dr. Laksiri,
    You motive is very clear. It is to protect a family dictatorship and this using Pandemic to maximise their robbery of this island. Don’t call you as a leftist. You are a racist and Buddhist fundamentalist who celebrated the massacre of Tamil civilians by honouring doctorates to these criminals.

  • 7

    Laksiri, you being righteous and erudite, as long I am aware strikes and protest are a routine in Lankan politics and Rajapaksas are masters in organizing such political protest. Colombo is not Sydney where you are right now. I hear Aussies are pretty angry about messed up vaccination plans. Compared to them, Lankans have enough and more reasons to be angry. The protest is not just about education but their own survival. It is more of a hunger pain/cry than a protest. If not now when ???

  • 5

    Laksiri Fernando,

    Dissidence comes out of public frustration and hopelessness. Political opposition is there only to give support.

    Even in times of Covid, gatherings and demonstrations are possible as most have had the vaccine and it is a protectant.

    Delta varience does not affect those who have had their double dose. And if they wear masks, all are much safer.

  • 5

    The state created an environment for Terrorism. then Terrorism was an excuse for 30 years or more. Then created another set for terrorism for 10 years. Now Corona is an excuse for dictatorship. What a politics?

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