By Yudhanjaya Wijeratne –
Sri Lanka has a lot of protests, most of them conducted by local universities. We protest everything – governments, private education, scholarships, private education, private education… you get the picture. It seems that every other month there’s a couple of metal barricades and one of them water cannon machines rolling up the road.
I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being caught up in a couple of these, and the level of thought gone into these is incredible. Mindless chanters – check. Coerced students – check. Placards. Banners onna stick. Firebrands strung at strategic intervals to make sure everyone’s equally involved. There are always university students who, for fear of ragging, temporarily take up the robes of a Buddhist monk: these are generally placed front and center. Give it a couple more years and we’ll have enough expertise to launch a B.A. in Professional Protesting.
Usually it stops there. Usually people block traffic for a while, or sit on a pavement outside the Colombo Fort Railway Station, and usually bemused-looking cops hang back and hope nobody does anything foolish. Then everybody goes away.
This time, the excrement made physical contact with the electrically powered oscillating air current distribution device.
Let me now say the obvious thing that everybody expects you to say: this was wrong, those cops should be arrested, etcetera, etcetera, students, innocent, people getting people, blood, etcetera.
At the same time, it is inevitable. Policemen are humans, and humans are not known for rational action. We go overboard. We do cruel things to one another. Perhaps there was one cop who had seen too many protests and had too many stones thrown at them. Perhaps Han shot first. This isn’t an excuse, but this is expected.
Now pull back a bit. This is not an isolated case. Why are students protesting? Why are there always students protesting?
One reason: it’s too easy to protest.
Think about it. You have an idea. Say it’s something as stupid as wanting the government to guarantee jobs (er – why? If you can’t get a job, it’s not the government’s fault – pick something people want to hire you for, you moron!). Or say it’s something intelligent, like the disgusting standards of university accommodation.
Nobody listens. This is a blanket ban: smart ideas are rejected as equally as the stupid ones.
What do you do? Contact the Inter University Student Federation. The IUSF are the JVP lapdogs: by all accounts they’re what you get when you mix communism, clever rhetoric rage and popular idiocy together. These are the rednecks of Sri Lanka. They will, at the drop of a red cap, drum up a multi-university mob and hit the streets.
Now onward! You obviously don’t disperse when told to – who does that? So you wait until the vehicles are jammed for miles behind you and the police roll out the rubber bullets and the water cannons. The next day, assuming you’re not getting your beauty sleep in hospital and bitterly cursing your JVP overlords, you’re back in university, swapping tales and planning the next one.
Is our system this bad? Not necessarily. Our system isn’t perfect, but look: we have free education. Have you tried earning a degree in this country if you can’t get those three A’s for university? I have. It’s insanely expensive – you’re literally talking millions of rupees. Only a very small minority of very privileged children fit the “white-boy-coasting-on-rich-parents’-money” stereotype that applies when you say “private degree”: the majority of students have to scrap around, take loans, get themselves into colossal debt, and then work their rear ends off for quite a while before they’re out of debt.
Many of us look upon these protests with envy and a sort of amused sense of WTF. Envy, because some people actually have the time to protest, and WTF, because most of these protests are just flat-out stupid. Increase a scholarship by 2000 rupees? For fuck’s sake, find a side job. Freelance. If you have the time to be rioting, you have the time to be a productive human being and make that 2000 bucks and then some.
And this is funny, because Sri Lanka is cheap. In the US, or the UK, or developed countries where there is no free lunch, it’s common to spend your late twenties just working to pay the rent on a crummy apartment and pay off those student loans. We have it nice, really. Our parents have houses. Ammi cooks the rice (or that’s the norm). Most people only need to get out and be functioning adults after they get married – and even then you’re subsidized. And of course, nobody pays taxes.
Where we go wrong is this leeway. There’s too much of it. Educations are delivered free: no penalties. You’re allowed to protest education; you’re allowed to riot for the lack of education; you’re allowed to, and I’m not making this up, protest for people who were arrested on charges of ragging students. And we just sit back and dismiss this.
University students will be university students, eh?
We have become too used to this, I tell you: too jaded.
Every month the banners go up. Every month some hapless policeman must call up his wife, promise to get home for dinner, then don the helmet and go out into the streets. Every month, we share pictures, we make noises of outrage. Activists hashtag stuff. Someone cleverly blames it on whoever is running the government at the time. And then we go back to our lives.
Nobody fixes the problems. Nobody gives a fuck. All that happens is a bunch of students get used as cannon fodder, a couple of policemen are carted off to disciplinary hearings, and the world goes back to what it was. Does it matter whether universities are letting themselves be politically exploited ? Who cares? Some men just want to watch students burn.
While people bleed, the anti-government rhetoric goes up. I’m no Hemmingway myself, but some of this stuff is genuinely bad writing.
What do we do to fix this? First, we arrest those policemen. Then we arrest those protesters. Then we arrest the organizers. While they’re beating the crap out of each other in a jail cell, we need to seriously address the issue of fixing things. Someone needs to get the Ministers of Education and their motley crew to go over each and every complaint, see if it’s reasonable, and implement it – or denounce it. And the next time a protest happens for something stupid, those protesters need to be kicked out of university. No buts, no temporary suspensions. There are a thousand others waiting to take their place.
If someone wants to riot, they better believe in it: believe in it to the point where they’re willing to sacrifice their educations and future careers for it. This is real life. You shouldn’t get to disturb a whole city and then get back to your dream of a white picket fence, three kids and a pension. If you want to Disturb the Peace, it better be for a very, very good cause.
Regarding the recent protest: the clash reportedly injured eight people – including four female students and a police constable. The injured have been admitted to the Colombo National Hospital. The police arrested 39 students: five female students and two monks were among the arrested, said the police. For what it’s worth, I’m glad that they’re not discriminating and letting the monks go.
*Yudhanjaya Wijeratne is a contributor to Colombo Telegraph, his articles can be found on his blog, icaruswept.com