By Laksiri Fernando –
“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions.” – Noam Chomsky
It was quite reassuring to see positive comments with equally valuable suggestions from over a dozen of people to my last article on the “Need for Peaceful Regime Change.” Of course I have got nasty and hostile comments as well. Among the positives, many emphasized the FUTA example and called for the young to take the lead. Whoever she is, one Sunila Mendis summarised the sentiments of many commentators as follows:
“We failed in nation building from the very outset and launched divisional politics hiding behind a facade of patriotism. Religion and ethnicity were used to propagate heroism and patriotism. As someone has commented we have overused the senior politicians. We have to go in search of shiny new leaders from the younger generation where there will be plenty.”
Yes, there will be plenty of ‘shiny new leaders from the younger generation.’ I first wish to reflect on some local experiences and then relate my main theme from Chomsky about the ‘role of intellectuals’ again with some overseas experiences to break away from the usual monotonous writing. I beg your pardon however from those who are ‘allergic’ to first person narratives which might give an appearance of self-indulgence!
I was sitting in my office at the Faculty of Graduate Studies, University of Colombo, the day after that catastrophic event, on Monday, when three unknown youngsters, two girls and a boy, approached me. As I was acting for the Vice Chancellor, in his absence, they were asking my permission to use the university sports grounds in front of the College House for a fundraising campaign to collect funds for Tsunami relief on the same evening. While I gave permission immediately in consultation with the administration, I was more intrigued by what they were planning to do.
The young man explained to me that he is from the Deep South but working as an executive in a private company in Colombo. The two young women also were from the private sector, one doing a MBA at that time in our Faculty. He further explained with deep emotion the devastation that he has already seen in the coastal belt from Hambantota to Kalutara, travelling on a motor bike. When I asked him how he is going to mobilize people for the event on the same day, one girl jumped the gun and in fact showed me her mobile to mean SMS. I was rather sceptical but didn’t show my feelings.
That evening I came with my wife in our personal vehicle to see what was going on. It was astonishing. The Thurstan Road was full of vehicles. The ground was filled with youngsters apparently from the private sector. At the entrance you had to buy a candle and make a contribution. Then you light the candle on makeshift tables made out of what, I was not concerned. By 7.00pm there were hundreds of candles giving light to the otherwise dark ambiance. There was not even moonlight that day. Amusingly, many youngsters were explaining to me the purpose of the event and how they would utilize the funds. I couldn’t find the boy or the girls to whom I gave permission to hold the event. Anyway it was immaterial.
The following day, I travelled up to Galle to see what has actually happened and to see what we could do through the Peace Building Project that I was in charge of at that time. Everywhere I saw youngsters, including young monks, distributing provisions to the displaced people and cleaning up the mess in many places. The reactions were spontaneous with little organized efforts by that time.
Several occasions thereafter I reflected upon the three youngsters. They were slightly different to the youngsters whom I used to meet in university lecture halls. But the spirit was perhaps the same. They appeared typical ‘Colombans’ at least in dress coming from mainly the private sector. That was their advantage to raise funds, but deep down in their hearts they were the same. I have seen the courage and resolve, and sometimes misdemeanours, of university students but that was the first time I realized the strength of the young outside the universities. This I should emphasise. They must be the new generation of professionals in the private sector with social consciousness.
Experience in Prague
Many philosophers have emphasised the role of intellectuals in social change and the Marxists are undoubtedly the most prominent among them. Here the intellectual should not be identified with the academia alone or those who hold formal degrees. One of the foremost intellectuals in Sri Lanka was Martin Wickremasighe without a degree or a proper formal education. The intellectual could mean anyone who possesses ability to rationally comprehend social reality and act accordingly. Academia perhaps can play a major role.
“As intellectuals, we are men and women of ideas. We think. We rethink. We disagree. We debate. We rethink. That is our life; that is what we value about our life. Although each of us has his or her own ideas about things, we have come together to fight for a common cause because we know that many of the problems we face in our academic life have resulted from lack of funding allocated to our sector, to universities…”
I was in Prague that week when its democratic revolution took place in 1989. I was attending a conference on higher education sponsored by UNESCO from 14 to17 November and making a presentation on the “Lima Declaration on Academic Freedom” on behalf of the World University Service (WUS) in Geneva. It was the final day when we went to celebrate the International Students Day, which marked the struggle against fascism in 1939, in the morning of 17th Friday at the Charles University, one of the oldest universities in Europe.
When we were coming out, there was a group of students distributing leaflets with placards in hand. I talked to the person who appeared to be a leader of the protest who gave me his name card which marked Panek Simon. That kind of protest was not common those days under the communist regime.
We had our final session in the afternoon and after dinner in the evening as usual I went with two others, one Indian and the other Swedish, towards the Wenceslas Square, a habit for the last three days. The place was unusually empty and there were police instead of people. We heard shouting from the riverside of Vltava. In between the Wenceslas square and the river there were about 200 people shouting slogans in another park. They were surrounded by another circle of police of about 500. The time was around 8.00pm and within hours thousands of people encircled the police. It was around 10.00pm that the riot police moved in and administered a baton charge and teargas but not shooting. There were few skirmishes which we were watching from the first floor of the Charles Bar nearby, drinking plum brandy.
The following day on Saturday, hundreds of thousands of people gathered at Wenceslas square and the police could hardly do anything. They were chatting, chanting slogans, discussing and distributing leaflets. It was called the ‘Velvet Revolution.’ I had my flight back on Sunday and within few days it was announced that the ‘democratic revolution’ won, led by the students and academia. After the democratic transformation, Vaclav Havel, a playwright intellectual became the president.
A more violent uprising took place a year before in 1988 in Burma but the democratic transformation was aborted despite the elections in 1990 where a new party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) of Aung San Suu Kyi won 80 percent of the seats in parliament. The power was not transferred to the elected representatives and the army again took over the reins against the popular will. That uprising also was led by the students and intellectuals. Since 1962, the country was under a military rule and that was the main obstacle for the democratic transfer which needs to be prevented in any other country, for example in Sri Lanka. The more an authoritarian rule becomes entrenched the more it would be difficult for a change.
While Suu Kyi was kept under house arrest in 1990, many of the other leaders had to flee the country. I met Dr Sein Win in Sydney in March 1992 who was selected to be the Prime Minister in the NLD government in exile. He was a professor of mathematics who has in fact come to Sri Lanka in 1980/81 on sabbatical leave attached to the University of Colombo. There were many other intellectuals and student leaders in the movement. U Hla Pe was another, whom I met in the Thai-Burma border in early 1993. Many of them had not been in politics before including Sein Win or U Hla Pe. When I asked Hla Pe how he got involved in politics he smiling said, “My students were on the streets, so I followed them.” I was sad to hear later that he disappeared and his body was found with bullet wounds. I don’t know whether they used a ‘white-van’ for the abduction!
I have met some of the leaders of the ABSDF (All Burma Students Democratic Front) and they all had interesting stories to tell. The most characteristic was their determination, resolve and revulsion against dictatorial rule. Of course there can be many failings not only in student movements but also among intellectuals. Noam Chomsky highlighted what the intellectuals could do in exposing ‘lies and hidden intentions of governments’ but at the same time emphasized the responsibilities as well. Raymond Aron did the same in criticizing the possible errors of intellectuals. There is no reason therefore to merely idealize the role of the intellectuals or students but their role is crucial.
Even looking back at the past of our own Sri Lanka, the role of the students, teachers and intellectuals has been pivotal in the left movement and in the nationalist movement, whatever were the weaknesses of both. Two exemplary personalities that instantly come to my mind are Handy Perimbanayagam of Jaffna and Vernon Gunasekera in Colombo. Both were school teachers and the latter became a lawyer subsequently.
Presently, the democracy opposition in Sri Lanka is still incipient. The totalitarian tendencies are abundant. There is a vast asymmetry between the emerging opposition at the ‘center,’ to mean the Western Province, and in the periphery. The election results of the three provincial councils may be discouraging but the FUTA struggle and the commitment of law professionals to uphold rule of law are more than encouraging. The euphoria of the former should not be allowed to influence the latter. The role of many journalists and the media has been exemplary. The movement to reestablish democracy in the country is a medium term struggle which might span from two to three years.
The internal forces need to be strengthened and realigned in order that international factors would not affect the internal situation negatively. It has already been noted that anti-Sri Lankan activities in Tamil Nadu must have influenced the voters towards voting for the ruling UPFA. The performance of the UNP or the JVP is also not up to the mark. There were many who stayed away from the ballot box. Apart from the misuse of state power by the government, there were apparently many weaknesses on the part of the opposition. Even the TNA may have to reassess their political strategies in the future.
All opposition parties need to open up more opportunities for the ‘young and the bright’ at the leadership levels in their respective parties. Of course the senior leaders should be respected. What the country need is not merely a ‘regime change;’ but ‘regime changes’ in all spheres and systems for better democracy, transparency, rule of law, justice and fair play. ‘Regime change’ does mean more than the change of heads or personnel.