By Ranga Kalansooriya –
The former Commissioner of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission Dr Prathiba Mahanamahewa of the Colombo University Law Faculty delivering a lecture on Tuesday (01) at a symposium for journalists on transitional justice at Sri Lanka Press Institute revealed one of his personal experiences during the Geneva engagements, a couple of years ago
“During thick of activities and negotiations, we received a text message saying – Wanathe Sunil is missing in Sri Lanka. Everyone started panicking, on more than as to what has happened, but who this Wanathe Sunil was. Almost everyone participating in the sessions received this message and even some African and Asian Ambassadors approached us inquiring who this person was. Even we did not know. It took us several hours to determine the story behind the message.”
It was the guy who mobilized people to protest against the allocation of sub-standard houses for those who were evicted from shanties in Colombo. Sunil Samaradeera alias Wanatamulle Sunil took the initiative to fight against a powerful regime – especially against a powerful official at the Defence and Urban Development Ministry – on an issue of concern of his own community. But he was ‘abducted’ and went missing – the message went to Geneva within minutes when the sessions were on.
“Wanathe Sunil became a world famous name within minutes. And I think he was ‘released’ within hours mainly due to the fact that he became a talking point in Geneva,” said Dr Prathiba.
That was the nature of democracy we were experiencing for the past ten years. No dissent was tolerated and fighting for rights was a crime – or was a totally unpatriotic act. As far as I can remember the only fight that sustained to some extent without a major hindrance was the protest by the university teachers that predominantly demanded six percent allocation for education. But it ended with no results, apart from the fact that it became an eye-opener for those concerns that culminated results several years later, at least at this year’s budget.
But in contrast, today we see a wave of trade union actions and protests that are being taking place in several sectors of the society. What does it mean?
Trade union actions or protesting for rights is a sign of a healthy democracy. Responses such as tolerating them, providing them with necessary space, listening to them are cardinal components of good governance. But both sides – the protestors and the government – have their own limitations.
Look at what happened during the HNDA students protest. The brutal response was a mere continuation of the policies of the previous regime, as publicly claimed. Neither the protesting students nor the police could exceed their own limitations when exercising democratic rights.
The railway protest last week led to raise many concerns. The first was the violent act by the passengers of the Rambukkana train who attacked a sick engine driver who could not move the train. They assumed that he was drunk. What was the ultimate result? An island wide train strike. At whose fault? To my mind it was the responsibility of the railway department. Who assigned a sick train driver for the job? Who monitored the train that was not moving for a long time? Did anybody took any serious effort to look into this matter?
The most interesting part that was reported in the media was the act of another engine driver who decided to join the ongoing strike action by his colleagues. He was driving the Badulla – Colombo bound train and at Gampola station he was informed about the strike. If the media reports are correct, he decided to join his protesting colleagues, disembarked the passengers informing them about the issue with the help of police and then moved the empty train to Colombo, just after an hour as the strike was called off. What a joke…!
One pertinent issue that comes up with these trade union actions is morality or ethics. Do these protesting sectors follow basic ethics and their basic moral values? Especially in the fields like medicine, this could be an argument of immense public interest.
If one seriously analyze the ongoing trade union actions, who are in the forefront? The professionals and administrative executives of the state sector. They include doctors, engineers and other executive levels of the public service. What is the main issue? Cancellation of their privileges such as vehicle permits by the budget. Salary anomalies, EPF and ETF are added to that.
Cancellation of vehicle permits was a blanket policy decision for every segment that included even MPs. But the government made a chaos out of this issue with its reversal of the decision with regard to Parliamentarians. Thus, it provided a valid and justifiable argument and a better stand for a struggle by these professional bodies for their portion of the privileges as well. The government would have maintained its blanket policy stand at least for an year, mainly with regard to MPs.
On the other hand, of course, trade unions and such gatherings are to protect the rights of the profession and its practitioners – but what about its recipients? For an example, should the poor helpless sick patient in this country should suffer (or even die) merely due to the fact that his or her doctor is not getting a duty free car this year? What about the rights of this poor patient? Have we ever seen the doctors getting on to the streets demanding better medical conditions for their patients? Have they ever protested against the lack of medicine at hospitals or did they enjoy it by writing prescriptions to the nearby pharmacy that brings direct benefits for them?
However, this government should expect more such trade union activities in near future due to many reasons. The working class would feel comfortable to getting into the street for their demands as compared to the previous regime. That would certainly be another litmus test for the Yahapalana government as well, mainly on how they would handle this wave of strikes and protests. Generally the UNP had a black mark some 35 years ago when it brutally responded to the 1980 July strikes. But now the world is different. Socio-political and market trends are different. Mainly its leadership is different. Thus, the perceptions, too.