By Lakmali Hemachandra –
“But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” ― George Orwell, 1984
Sanjeewa Bnadara, the convener of the Inter University Students’ Federation was remanded for the grave crime of participating in an unlawful gathering. Some comments posted as responses to a news report, in an online edition of a leading English newspaper, on the remanding of Sanjeewa Bandara, called for him being remanded forever, applauded the government for controlling the unruly students, chastised him on wasting public money and ruining the future of the students and reminded him that his job is to study not to lead student agitations against the government education policy. One comment even warned him not to take the country back into the terror days of 1989, the year I was born in. During a TV interview one of the questions that were posed at the remanded student leader was whether the next step of the student movement is to take up arms against the government.
I will not question the double standards of the Rajapaksa regime that arrests a student leader who conducts a protest march but not the monks of the Sinhala Ravaya who burn down shops in Tangalle, for the truth that is known to all of us is that we live under a law that persecutes us when it pleases, when we displease the puppet masters. However, it is important that I tell my story; share my experience as a student of free education that Sanjeewa Bandara is trying to protect from the privatization policy of the state. It is important that I tell the people who are listening because information, real information would help us to make better decisions, information will dwell in our conscience and demand that we take actions, but most of all information will break through the lies that bind us to the myths, created by the propaganda machine of the state.
Is Sanjeewa Bandara really the enemy of the people, the perpetrator of violence that the masses are anticipating, as the inevitable consequence of student agitations? Should he therefore be remanded forever, or dare I say murdered secretly to save the population from a catastrophe? Should he be expelled from the university because clearly he is not complying with the requirement of finding a job after completing the degree? Are the students who protest government policy on education a vicious, evil and a selfish group that prevents the rest of the population from accessing higher education? Are we dazed by the puppet masters’ lies to the extent that we cannot see that privatization policy of the government is destroying our public education system? Are we trapped in the reality created by the state so much, that we forget who is responsible for violence, rather who has always been responsible for violence?
Noam Chomsky an American Linguistics Professor, in one of his speeches about public education states that “”If you want to privatize something and destroy it, a standard method is first to defund it, so it doesn’t work anymore, people get upset and accept privatization”. Privatization is not a tool of efficiency, those of us who travel in private buses daily, must know it better than anyone else that just because something is privatized it does not mean that it is going to be efficient and does away with all the inconveniences in a publicly owned system. I am sure the public was overjoyed to accept the privatization of the transport system under the government of J.R Jayawardane because that meant more buses, because that meant fewer crowds. However that also meant that public control of the transport system was now going to be under private control, that only responds to profits which meant that bus fees were going to be raised regularly, that buses would not run in routes that were not highly populated, that our votes at elections would have no control of the transport system of the country. The rules of the game were set according to the maximization of profits for a few individuals who own fleets of buses. That is privatization, not the rosy picture that S.B. Dissanayake portrays to the public who are tired of the public education system that does not work anymore, for the simple reason that it is not funded anymore.
When the University lecturers went on a continuous strike last year demanding 6% for education, the government responded to it by cutting back education funds to an all-time low of 1.5%. When Sri Lanka Medical Council refused to let SAITM graduates practice as doctors because they did not have clinical training in a teaching hospital, the government pumped 600 million rupees to build a teaching hospital for a privately owned institution. When there are vacancies in the University system for medical students, the government awarded scholarships to students to study at SAITM and enrolled fee paying students into the vacancies in the state universities. Privatization of education is the government policy on education and I am not saying this because Sanjeewa Bandara ragged me, I am saying this because in the University that I study in, students are compelled to study with the minimum resources, libraries are not equipped with updated books, canteen does not provide nutritious food, students are not provided with adequate hostel facilities, even the existing facilities are not maintained properly, the university buildings are falling apart from the toilets to the lecture halls and lack of resources are wrecking a university that was once majestic and bred intellectuals.
Is Sanjeewa Bandara responsible for the deliberate government decision to cut back on education spending to pave way for private education establishments? Is Sanjeewa Bandara responsible for the dismal state of the Sri Lankan universities? Privatization is not limited to the higher education institutes, schools around the country are either shut down because of lack of resources or compelled to charge fees from the students to provide for themselves. The tragedy of the girl who was forced to steal coconuts to pay the cleaning fee for the school exhibited to the country the state of education in Sri Lanka.
Free education system was established in our country through a bill that was passed in 1947 which was debated in the parliament for four years but Sri Lanka is not the only country that has a free education system, Soviet Union had a mass education program that was funded by the state, Cuba to this date has a free education system that aims at mass education. Non Communist countries like Finland, Sweden and Germany also have education systems that provide education without charging fees from the students. The myth that free education is a burden on the state expenditure can only be justified if the Sri Lankan state was not giving tax holidays to Australian businessmen to open casinos. The myth that the government does not have the money to spend on education can only be justified if millions were not spent on importing luxury cars for the Commonwealth summit.
It is not a matter of insufficient funds, but a matter of prioritizing on what to spend on. The government can spend to educate the people of the country, to provide them with medicine, to invest in agriculture, to build houses for the homeless, to create jobs for the jobless. Instead it is spending on national security to make sure that militarization of Jaffna is in place, to make sure that dissent can be crushed when it gets in the way of the despotic regime, and it is spending money on building empty harbours, airports and highways that do nothing but drag the country further into debt and poverty. The economic policy of the current regime is not compatible with the condition of poverty that more than 40% of Sri Lankans live under. Privatization of education is even more problematic in a largely poor country like Sri Lanka for it will deprive the poor majority of the country an opportunity in education and a chance at social mobility. The medical degree at the University of Peradeniya was priced at a mammoth 7.5 million rupees that most Sri Lankan parents cannot afford.
Then why do we believe the lies of the higher education minister who promises more education opportunities to the students who are left behind at A/levels when he is not even providing proper opportunities to those who have already made it to the universities? When S.B. Dissanayake says privatization is going to create more opportunities, can he point at another country and prove it to us, because the story of most countries from USA to Brazil and UK to Chile is that privatization only leads to disparities in access to education. Why does not S.B. Dissanayake educate us about the similar debate on budget cuts on education that exists in United Kingdom? Do we have the information we need to make the right decision on privatization? Why does not S.B. Dissanyake tell us that privatization of education was one among many atrocities that USA committed in Iraq after the invasion in 2003? Is it not possible that Sanjeewa Bandara is actually aware of the history of privatizing education and therefore is only trying to warn us about the misfortune that will fall on this country if the majority loses access to education? After all students are more in touch with the education sector and the nature of their activities, their task as students make them aware of most things that others are not inclined to know. May be the reason that we are not wary of the state of education in this country is because we do not know enough and when everything is burnt and destroyed, universities and schools are sold to the highest bidders it would be too late to reverse the cogs of history.
The bitter truth is that neither Sanjeewa Bandara nor the IUSF can put up a brave front against the government policy of privatization without the students and the parents demanding the state to allocate more funds for education, to revive the fallen free education system, to put public interest back in its agenda. Free education system in Sri Lanka that gave generations an opportunity at education and social mobility, will die a slow death if the people continue to direct their anger at a puny student leader who is fighting a lost cause for a people who wants him jailed.
I do not know Sanjeewa Bandara personally but I do know other students who are sacrificing their youth and ambitions to protect a system that gave them a chance at knowing the world. I would not think twice to march with them to protest against privatization of education because contrary to what S.B Dissanayake or Bandula Gunawardhane might say I know that most students who study in state universities are doing so under extreme hardships and I know that most of my friends would not be lawyers and doctors if not for the education that are given to them for free, because they simply cannot afford it. I am the third born in a family of five children and my parents would have never been able to spend for my higher education, even if they were able to buy a future for my older siblings, if not for the free education system.
The reality of privatizing education is that most of us studying in the universities would not have been able to get that education had it been privatized already. Privatization of Universities would mean that only the children of wealthy parents who can afford to spend 7 million will be able to become doctors. How anybody can support such a notion while knowing the social reality of the country we live in is beyond my imagination. Therefore when I walk for free education I am not doing so because Sanjeewa Bandara brainwashed me into believing it, but because I believe that education is not for profit, that education is bigger than profits. It saddens me to see these comments asking for the persecution of student leaders because these students are honest people who are fighting a mighty state for something they believe in, for something they want to protect for everyone. They are not idiots who fail exams; they are intelligent students who think it is their responsibility to shoulder the weight of saving free education.
I was born in the year 1989 when the Premadasa regime was killing students around the country, I would never know what happened to them, how much is true and how much is not. Their story is not a part of the official history of Sri Lanka. A recent article by Gamini Viyangoda truthfully stated that the people who talk about an imagined fear of walking in the roads during the war time would not talk about the days when they were holed up in their houses while the government killed their children by thousands. I entered the university in 2009 when the war ended and the story of those who were murdered during that time because the majority of this country called them terrorists would not be a part of the official story of Sri Lanka either. The youth who were murdered during 71 insurgencies and the people who were murdered and robbed during 83 riots, Sri Lankan history is filled with narratives that will never be told because they reveal to us that we the people stood by and watched when the politicians, the puppet masters made fools of us and set us up against each other, that we mercilessly applauded when the oppressed were brutally massacred. The true history, the true story of our people who are murdered from time to time are erased form our memories because we never tell our stories.
The official story of Sri Lanka has made racists out of most of us and terrorists out of the others, the fact that most of us are only guilty of believing what our puppet masters tell us never goes down in the history. Therefore the official narrative of Sri Lanka does not include the oppressed, the tortured, the massacred, the dissidents, the terrorists and the ordinary citizens who are silent through everything. In the official story Bodu Bala Sena and Sinhala Ravaya are made the agents of the people but not the L.T.T.E, in the official story Sanjeewa Bandara is the villain not S.B. Dissanayake and the governments, who rob our chances at education and then murder those who fight for it. We need to stop repeating this narrative and think are we really racists, terrorists and religious extremists? Is that the identity of the people of this country? Do we really need another harbor? Do we really need another highway? Why are we not talking about education? Why are we not talking about healthcare? Why do people in this country blame each other but not the rulers, never the rulers for their misery?
History is what the rulers tell us it is, what they want us to believe, history is what gives us pride and history is what shames us to silence and passivity. In the midst of cruelty and injustice that will breed chaos and violence, under the thundering power of an evil regime that is indifferent to the misery of the masses, living in times of opportunism and fear that results in indifference and apathy we must always repeat the truth like a mantra so that our story, the story of the ordinary citizens will be remembered. Writing down our own narrative of what we experience every day, talking about our individual experiences of injustice and poverty will eventually create the collective consciousness that Sri Lanka desperately needs to revive the humanity and morality that it lost through years of exploitation, years of blatant lies and years of unimaginable human misery.