By Jehan Perera –
The public meeting last week by university academic staff led by the Federation of University Teachers Associations was a success both in terms of numbers who participated and the government’s response to it. The outcome of the event also points to the possibility of domestic pressure as against reliance on international pressure to make the government move. The modestly sized Hyde Park where the event took place has been a favourite site for public rallies and demonstrations organized by left and socialist parties in the past. This time it was members of universities, both staff and students, who filled most of the park. One of the achievements of the organizers was to get some 40 other groups to join the meeting. Those who were on the platform included the icon of the trade union movement Bala Tampoe of the Ceylon Mercantile Union, and the Ven. Maduluwave Sobitha, the convenor of a peoples movement towards a just and righteous society to bring democracy back to Sri Lanka.
Unlike in the case of other protest meetings, most notably in the north of the country, the government made no visible attempt to obstruct the meeting at Hyde Park. There was no police submission to the courts to ban the meeting on the grounds of disturbance of the public peace nor an intimidating presence of security forces at the venue. The police however did close roads in the immediate vicinity of Hyde Park. This could have been to give greater freedom to those who attended the meeting to move to and fro without any possibility of clashes with those who may have been sent to disrupt the meeting or it could have been to prevent passing traffic from witnessing the meeting and joining it spontaneously.
For many who participated in the meeting, which was in effect a public rally, this would have been the first time in many years that they had engaged in a public protest-oriented activity. After the war entered its final phase in about 2007 there were real concerns about large public events, as they could be easily targeted for high cost terrorist activities. After the war’s end, the memory of its harsh end and the ruthlessness of the anti-terrorist campaign, which on occasion spilled over into acts of terror against even non-militant government opponents, chilled the enthusiasm for mass mobilization by civil society. For the past several years the public mobilization that has taken place has been by political parties.
As befits a public protest by the country’s academic community, the tone in which the meeting was conducted was generally calm and educational rather than emotional or rebellious. Another feature that softened the environment was the songs that were sung to provide a relaxing break from the large number of speeches. As about 40 groups had joined the meeting, and many of the leaders of those groups were sitting on the stage, there were a large number of speeches in which the speakers registered their cause and the case they were making. The ability to speak publicly and freely made the meeting to be a cathartic experience for many and would help to dispel the fear of mass mobilization that is still a heritage of the last phase of the war.
There was a feeling of confidence amongst the organizers that the worst was behind them and that the deadlock that had pitted the country’s academics against the government would soon be ended. Anyone who cares for the future of Sri Lanka would be very much concerned that the university teachers have been on strike for over two months and that the government has now closed all universities, with the sole exception of the medical faculties. One of the main grievances of the university academics has been the low priority given by the government to education, which forms a relatively small percentage of the government’s budget, as compared with other expenditures such as defence and physical infrastructure building. The running down of the education system by government neglect is bound to exacerbate the country’s long term difficulties in competing with the rest of the world on an equal intellectual footing.
It is unfortunate that the attitude of the government towards the grievances of the university teachers has so far not been conducive to conflict resolution. When faced with their demands, the government’s first reaction was to discredit the salary demands of the university teachers by describing them as excessive. The government negotiators claimed that their salaries had been increased by some 80 percent, but this was by the device of adding on all their allowances to their basic salary. The other major demand of the university teachers that educational spending should be closer to 6 percent of national income rather than the 1.9 percent figure as at present, was also countered by claiming that private spending by individuals who sent their children abroad to study should be added in and this made the total expenditure on education to come close to the 6 percent figure.
The government’s efforts to discredit the demands of the university teachers was followed by reports of unidentified men lurking around the homes of FUTA leaders and claiming to be from the government’s security agencies. The president of the organization, Dr Nirmal Devasiri was specially targeted for this intimidation. Other FUTA leaders such as its Secretary Dr Mahim Mendis also complained of being at the receiving end of threats. However, there was no escalation of these ugly incidents. The dreaded White Van and its associated abductions and disappearances did not manifest itself. This can be counted as being one of the significant improvements in the country’s general human rights situation today as compared to the recent past associated with the war’s last phase.
It appears likely that the government will soon negotiate with the university teachers union leaders to resolve the problem. The government has shown itself to be sensitive to challenges that are people-based and capable of mobilizing popular support. The getting together of a large number of trade unions and civic groups on the same platform as FUTA points to the possibility of mass mobilization on the issue of university education which is possible in a manner that impacts negatively on the voter base of the government. The university crisis is one that affects all segments of the country’s plural population, which consists of different ethnicities and religions. The worst affected in this case will necessarily be the largest, which is also the government’s key constituency. It is this political reality that is most likely to motivate accommodation on the part of the government.
The university teachers’ experience of the government suggests that the government can be flexible in the face of pressure. The challenge is to make the government feel that pressure. As the government appears to be driven more by pragmatic than ideological considerations, it can be flexible when it considers such flexibility to be in its political interest. The problem in the case of other festering problems, such as the still unresolved ethnic conflict, is that the political mobilization of the ethnic minorities does not erode the ethnic majority voter base of the government. The FUTA option of mobilizing all sections of the people, irrespective of ethnicity or religion, is presently not available in the case of the problems arising from the unresolved ethnic conflict. This is why the ethnic minorities look to other options, including appeals to the international community, to continue to put pressure on the government.