Ministers of Sirisena’s 100 days and the FUTA’s 100 days

The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) — or so its Facebook Group indicates — is in high spirits over the “dethroning” of Mahinda Rajapaksha and the election win of President Sirisena. President Rajapaksha and his ministers of Education and Higher Education — Bandula Gunawardena and SB Dissanayake — had totally “lost it” with even the less anti-governmental of the University community, that people seem to be a tad over-enthusiastic to see a “Maithree Yugaya” for education in the appointment of Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Rajiva Wijesinha to the above-mentioned, freshly evacuated seats.

In a mighty hurry to blot out / set straight the perceived “grievances” caused by the Percy Regime, people are over-eager and expect ready-made-solutions; and in their ignorant hurry, tend to mix up Sirisena with Santa Claus. Akila Viraj and Wijesinha, then, are — for the ignorant theoric — a couple of reindeers: either way, pack hounds of good omens. In that one mighty mad bid for freedom, these simpletons forget the great tutor in history — not, say, history dealing with the ruins of kingdoms now long lost; but, the history where the reindeer of today was the barking watchdog of a “kingdom” recently toppled; the ex-watchdog assisting.

Blue eyed minister

Akila Viraj Kariyawasam is untested matrial. His wikipedia page, updated up to his current appointment, doesn’t say much either. At 41, he is probably one of the younger Ministers of Education the country has seen since Ranil Wickramasinghe. His education indicates a General Degree from Colombo and an LLB from the Open University. Rajiva Wijesinha, on the other hand, is a seasoned campaigner who, as the bulwark of “The Liberal Party” has been liberally moving up and down the political lobby over the past two decades. Since the 1994 Presidential election, he has been quite mobile, his penultimate stint being the defence of Mahinda Rajapaksha’s regime in the face of (globally) Northern media, when being prodded with allegations of war crimes. I well remember one such instance where, when pressured of genocide during the closing stages of the war, Wijesinha took a pot shot at the interviewer (who didn’t see it coming) with the old trick: that there are little children up North idling in around with eyes of blue.

The blue-eyed, blue-tied Wijesinha — one time court-of-arms embossed Rajapaksha shield — then, four years later, is among one of the “original pilgrim fathers” at regime-break. Flippant as my essay may sound, I don’t hold it personally against Wijesinha that he defended the regime against BBC (or whatever it was). He was merely doing his job; and as the Godfather and the Sicily-descended mafia operating in New York believes, “it is not personal; it is just business”. None of us are in this for the love of the country. That is why the “The country first, country second, country third” piece of poetry doesn’t work for a third time.

FUTA — the “real” and “virtual” FUTA — has to understand this fundamental fact, as well. That there is nothing personal in any of these government topplings, ministerial appointments, majority securing etc. Irritatingly, a fair number of ignorant people (for FUTA Facebook is an open forum — its membership cuts across the board) seem to think that Maithreepala Sirisena and his merry “100 day cabinet” is obliged to deliver what they have promised as election manifesto: in that same quantity and quality; in the very same way they said it will be given. Of course, they will / may / would / could get down to deliver what was promised: it is, indeed, their prerogative to do so. But, politics and power is such a fundamentally delicate pair of twins, even the slight changes to equations and stakes thereupon hinged call for “second thoughts” and “deviations” from original promises. Once again, make history your tutor. Of course, continue the struggle, until your demands are addressed, or are heard. But, do not expect what you demand to be slipped down your chimney: that everything is now solved and there will be lasting peace. Maithreepala Sirisena doesn’t wear a Christmas beard, so you cannot later accuse him of having faked it.

Sisitha & Janaka

Meantime, vivacious FUTA members seem to have gone back and opened the thread dealing with their “6%” battle-cry from 2012. For those who may forget — because we do forget — in 2012, FUTA gate-crashed Rajapaksha’s party with a sustained struggle that almost touched on 100 days, demanding a higher state investment on national education. FUTA lobbied with confidence and managed to muster the strength of multiple civil agencies, trade unions and students. In a very rare development in Lankan University history, the lecturers (of whom, 95% for 95% of the time know next to nothing about the students) and the Students’ Movement joined forces to combat a common enemy: the State. Bala Tampoe, the veteren trade unionist / lawyer, addressed the nation from the FUTA stage. A five day march was held — lecturers marching to Hyde Park from Galle, and the IUSF-backed students from Kandy — in which hundreds of the University community threw a last gauntlet at Rajapaksha’s regime. Two Students’ Movement frontliners, Sisitha Priyankara and Janaka Ekanayake, were killed in the midst of it, under “dubious” circumstances (which moved Vivimarie VanderPoorten to write a haunting poem, “Borrowed Dust”). The Students’ Movement maintained an allegation of foul play; that the government was responsible for the deaths.

The “6%” TUA ended inconclusively. What happened right at the end — the final agreement between the governmental and the FUTA representatives — was not given publicity. If it was, indeed, given publicity, not many of us heard of it. The only tangible outcome of the Lankanized “Occupy Wall Street” type “struggle” seemed to be a salary increase to the senior tiers of lecturers. But, a few months ago, a very intriguing and annoying sequence came to pass. This is when an academic (one who made his demonstration debut in 2012) stated with all seriousness that the “TUA in 2012 was more an attempt to get a pay hike” for the lecturers. That, the “real struggle for 6% was beginning only now“. The same line was repeated to me, almost in the same words, a month back by a colleague I met at a seminar: “though we said ‘6% for education’, our main intention was to effect a pay hike, isn’t it? The real struggle will start now” (italics mine). The “isn’t it?” in this colleague’s question is rhetorical, and it already frames me in giving agreement and consent to the statement, which — by all means — has been pre-empted. This repeated reference to a “real struggle”, which incidentally is afoot, further baffles me. I sincerely hope these individuals’ reading of the FUTA TUA is personal gibberish and does not reflect the stance held by FUTA as a body in 2012; that there is no such demarcation between a “phony” and “real” struggle; for, much irretrievable was invested on that 100 day agitation, including the young lives of the slain student leaders.

To connect the story of the new ministers with the story of FUTA, I think it is more than beneficial to accept that we all work with agendas, complexities and complacencies. Our demands and projects are steered around these larger “themes” of contest, while that engagement continuously redefines and refreshes us all the time. In other words, there is nothing called a “renewal of a 6% struggle”; perhaps, there never was such a struggle to begin with. Even if it did, that historical moment has passed and the facts and figures of the equation has changed. With that lost initiative, the struggle — if at all — must collect anew, and begin again. Some of the naive, less critical people on FUTA Facebook should seriously take a second glance at declarations they make and tempers they share. Their absence of critical-minded thinking and their prattle-talk only wastes net space; and that is irresponsible cyber practice.

 © SLWakes

Vihanga Perera is a poet, prose writer and blogger. This article originally appeared on his blog 'In Love With a Whale'.


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