Politics & Social Issues

'Our action has become wider than a trade union struggle'

Liyanage Amarakeerthi is a Senior Lecturer, in the Sinhala Department at the University of Peradeniya. Apart from being a versatile  writer, with at least 14 books to his credit, Dr.Amarakeerthi plays a prominent role in the ongoing trade union action called by the Federation of University Teachers' Association (FUTA). As one of Sri Lanka's foremost trade unions in the university sector with more than 4,000 academic members, FUTA is demanding, among other things, that the government allocate 6% of GDP to education.

Chennai based writer and activist Meena Kandasamy spoke to Dr.Amarakeerthi regarding the FUTA trade union action, university politics and the deep seated crisis in the higher education sector.

Excerpts from the interview follow:

Meena Kandasamy: I have been reading a lot about students struggles in the recent past. I would like you to comment on what is happening in Sri Lanka now in the context of the student protests in Santiago (Chile), and Quebec (Canada) and elsewhere worldwide, especially the common thread of students demanding greater spending on higher education, students demanding that education should not be privatized.

Dr. Liyanage Amarakeerthi: I think this is a global phenomenon. In the first half of the 20th century we had social democratic governments, there was the Soviet Union, the influence of the Marxist Social Democratic ideas which dominated the cultural and political discourse everywhere. Now these Social Democratic Marxist ideas are really being systematically marginalized. Because of the ideological defeat of the Soviet Union and because of the geopolitical situation, right now we are facing the logic of capital. This logic of capital defeats the classical idea of education like building a democratic citizen, a rational and freethinking citizen, the agency of the public and all those ideas are marginalized. The neo-liberal capitalism has offered everyone the unthinking consumer which is the global need of corporate capitalism. Perhaps that is the reason why everywhere across the globalized world -including in the US, there is an ongoing strike in Chicago, people are fighting to secure education, healthcare, public transportation and the so on. The logic of capital is rolling and that is why I think this has become a global phenomenon. I like to understand the Sri Lankan situation in connection with the global cry for the classical ideas of education. We need to hold on to those ideas again- the classical ideas that human civilization needs to be built with education.

Meena: Since you have clearly drawn the links between global capital and the way in which education is itself perceived, would you compare these massive strikes in Sri Lanka with May '68, or is it stretching it too far? I would want to connect how capitalism has ruined the educational system in my state for example, it is very difficult to get students to be involved in strikes. Because of the high level of privatization of education, students are afraid to protest anything.

LM: You mean, the 60s in Sri Lanka?

Meena: No, just what kept happening all over the world. It was not only protesting students, it was soon followed by the largest general strike in the history of France.

LM: Yeah, it is very interesting to see what is happening. We are asking for spending 6% of the GDP as government expenditure on education. This has been the main slogan for the last two and a half months. We thought we could easily attract the people with that type of slogan. But in Sri Lanka, it needed a great deal of convincing. Still some people are not convinced. After the open economy was introduced in 1977, an unthinking consumerist middle class began to grow and that class was gradually bought into the idea that individuals must take care of education, health care and so on. The burden on education fell on parents. Now those parents who have money can send their children to the best schools, best private tuition classes. The social equality and the equal access to education guaranteed by state funded education began to disappear. This consumerist and consumer-like middle class is quite vocal now in this country and it basically follows the government's ideology. They have enough private hospitals, private higher education institutions, private schools and shopping malls. And of course, if they have some more money, there is international travel. Capital is open, and that is what they support. Therefore, it has been rather difficult to attract the attention of people to this six percent slogan. Even the lower middle class and the working class people think that shopping malls and new roads and consumer culture with attractive facilities is what is needed. Skyscrapers, the capitalist visibilities of cities: these have been quite attractive to people from even the lower classes. Because these masses are under a capitalist, consumerist ideology I don't think we will have a huge mass awakening like in France and Europe in post 68 situations. But this might grow into an awakening of that scale if the authorities keep ignoring our struggle.

But right now six percent of the GDP for education is a kind of privilege slogan for most of the Sri Lankans, but our trade union has been able to convince a considerable section of the population that education has been one of the most important ‘revolutionary’ aspects of Sri Lankan culture after the independence. We have a very high literacy rate, 92%, the women are educated. People are realizing but it is quite slow. I see this going for months and years to make them understand the importance of educated citizenship and that will lead to some sort of mass awakening. I don't think something like the post-1968 European type rioting is to happen. It is very unlikely.  It depends on how long we can and we have to keep going.

We have been meeting a lot of political leaders, we are organizing a large political rally on the 20th in Kandy, central Sri Lanka. We see that even mainstream political parties have now realized that 6% GDP on education is a slogan they can use. In a way it is good because even mainstream political parties are awakening to the fact that education is fundamental to the development of a country. 

Meena: Yes. But universities are being closed to cripple the student protests. As somebody who is part of the University lecturers who are striking, how do you react to this? Aren't the student and teachers protests connected? 

LM: Well, this has to do with the recent political history of our country. The 1987-89 political uprisings were mostly led and participated by University students but it was suppressed really brutally by the government. Because of that experience, we, as University lecturers, are rather reluctant to get the participation of the students. By now, however, because of the lack of attention to our struggle on the part of the Government, our struggle has become much wider than a trade union struggle. Therefore, other trade unions are joining us now. Starting from 23rd August, when there was a huge rally in Colombo, so many other trade unions including students joined us. Our movement has become like a joint struggle. The government's reaction is that they have closed the universities, they've removed students out of their hostels, to limit their participation in our struggle. Students can be very emotional, they can go out of control, so we are asking them to participate in a disciplined activism for the free education slogan. We have been able to organize better and get student participation. For the last 3, 4 decades it was the students who took to the streets in protest. The lecturers were living a middle class and isolated life. Now that the lecturers have also taken to protest, it has been a significant change in Sri Lanka to get the civil society on the streets.  

Meena: I've heard that students who were arrested in 2010 and 2011 are still awaiting trial. Is the situation the same as of now, or has there been any change because of the international attention to the strikes?

LM: Well, no, it has remained the same. Both Sinhala-speaking and Tamil-speaking students have been arrested for various reasons. Some were released but trials are going on. At present we have not raised this issue. But in the future all these issues might be connected, and within our struggle these slogans will be raised. If unlawful arrests happen we will have to speak up as a trade union. Those things will come up when we develop our relations with the students. But right now, those issues related to student arrests are in the margins.

Meena: I certainly understand. I was reading a BBC story from January this year, where there are student allegations of girl students being subjected to virginity tests.

LM: Yeah. That is really weird. It happened in one of the Sinhala Universities located near Colombo. I am sorry that our trade union could not protest against it. As far as I know, at least. I was not a part of the trade union then, but then we could have protested. Individual lecturers wrote to the newspapers objecting that kind of action. This is what happens when this kind of parochial nationalism exists in the country. The Vice Chancellor is very much the ideological child of that parochial nationalism. And he became the Vice Chancellor of course, with the blessings of the current regime. His ideology about purity, the purity of women is very much a part of cultural nationalism . Who is going to test the purity of women? Males.

What does this mean? I think it is really tragic and shameful. But unfortunately we could not create enough debate about that incident. There was a lot of protest in the Press. But to see something like this happen in a University that is in Colombo and not in some so-called backward place or rural area but in an urban, metropolitan place, it was really shameful.

Meena: How do you see the role of Tamil students in this protest? Are they afraid to come and protest, given the previous history of how easily they could be labelled as terrorists? How are they reacting to the protest?

LM: The Tamil people, as a community, after the ending of the war and their struggle that lasted thirty years, and especially the younger generation tends to be politically quite careful. Peradiniya is a University that has Tamil students, we are a trilingual university. Tamil students do participate, but not in large numbers and they are not in the forefront of the struggle.

When all the university lecturers went to Jaffna last year, they had a five mile march there and then a public seminar in Jaffna. I remember that when I was in the procession, I saw some people looking through their windows. They did not come out into the streets and give us water or anything. Not that they didn't want to, but because they were afraid. In Colombo, people came to the streets, they gave us water and clapped. The Sinhala community was open. The Tamil community was quite hesitant to come. But this struggle has been kind of re-empowering them, not perhaps in active politics but in trade union activities.

The Tamil student population has been quite hesitant, both in Peradiniya and other Sinhala-speaking universities. We have Tamil lecturers in our leadership. Perhaps one of the reasons is that the protests have primarily been in Sinhala and English, not much in Tamil. The dominant language is Sinhala because the majority of articles about our struggle was written in Sinhala, then in English. I don't know if that is a factor. Also, we have to be extra careful not to make the participation of Tamil students visible.

Meena: You have got a huge rally planned on 20th September and you are possibly one of the most busy men in Sri Lanka right now. I will finish with this last question.  Your recent fiction is located in the university campus. How did that happen, was it a result of your activism?

LM: Just like poetry to you! In my recent fiction I have been trying to engage with the kind of parochial isolationism that has been the result of parochial nationalism in the Sinhala society. I look at how these nationalist ideas, these culturally puritan ideas have seeped into the very hardwiring of consciousness and how it is reflected in day-to-day life. This is the case even of University lecturers who are supposed to be critical agents. Even these intellectuals unwittingly have these dominant ideologies naturalized into their consciousness and they don't even realize that it is in them. This restricts their vision, their field of activities and their intellectual engagement.

Meena Kanadasamy is a poet, writer, activist and translator. She holds a PhD in socio-linguistics from Anna University Chennai, and is now working on her first novel 'The Gypsy Goddess.' She is based in Chennai. | Photo courtesy: www.boondi.lk

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Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

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