Countering protests under good governance

M S M Ayub (Daily Mirror)

Government caught between the devil and the deep blue sea President Maithripala Sirisena’s reported suggestion at the Cabinet meeting last week that former army commander Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka be given the task of running the essential services uninterrupted cannot be a joke, as suggested by Labour Minister John Seneviratna.

Given the backdrop of trade union actions by the government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) and other anti-government organizations one of which is being launched today as well and the protests such as those against the dumping of garbage in various areas, government seems to have been desperate and pushed to take drastic actions against those agitations.

Nonetheless, some ministers are apparently shy of or scared of acknowledging the fact that such a suggestion was made by the President. The Cabinet co-spokesman and Health Minister Rajitha Senaratna who first revealed the President’s suggestion about a mechanism under Fonseka to deal with trade union actions was furious when Seneviratna and Social Welfare Minister S.B.Dissanayake said that the President made the remarks in a lighter vein.

Field Marshal Fonseka during a casual meeting with the journalists in his Electorate, Kelaniya, had stated that he had rejected the suggestions by the President to re-appoint him as the Army Commander or the Chief of Defence Staff, but agreed to take up the task of maintaining essential services. Joining the debate, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told the Parliament on Wednesday that government had no plans to appoint Fonseka to any post as suggested by the media. But, all in all, now it is clear that a proposal to form a mechanism to quell the protests by the trade unions and other groups, in the guise of running the essential services unhindered, had been a topic at the Cabinet meeting, in a serious or lighter note.

In fact, the Yahapalanaya government is now between the devil and the deep blue sea. On the one hand essential services are occasionally being interrupted by the trade union actions and protests, at a time when the government is struggling to contain the rising cost of living. Also if the government attempted to suppress the protests, it would have to face the ire of the masses as happened during the last regime and the “Yahapalana” image of the government would be tarnished at the international level.

GMOA which launched a one day token strike on April 7 had launched its next round of protests today along with many other trade unions against the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) or the Malabe Private Medical College. The trade unions at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) showed last week that they could cripple the entire government mechanism even by a day’s work stoppage.

It is against the backdrop of mounting tension between the government and the unions that the Meethotamulla garbage dump collapsed on the Sinhala and Hindu New Year day, killing more than thirty persons. This created new issues and protests against the government. The authorities had to find new sites to dump garbage which met with stiff resistance by the people near those new sites. The response of the local government authorities was to abandon collecting garbage in Colombo and the suburbs. Then people in areas such as Orugodawatta vented their anger against the authorities for not collecting waste in their areas. Pressed by both kinds of garbage related protests, the President had to declare the disposal of garbage an essential service.

Despite many protests being launched by various groups putting forward seemingly reasonable demands, the involvement of Opposition politicians, especially the group led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa in those agitations, might have compelled the leaders of the government to take safety measures. Interestingly, the leaders of the former government who created the Meethotamulla garbage mountain and many other improper garbage dumping sites were seen with the protesters against the garbage dumping in Dompe. Leaders of the former government who supported the institution of the SAITM by providing loans and even giving scholarships to some of the students of that instate had the shameless audacity to pay their solidarity to the protests against the same medical college.

In fact, despite the merits and the demerits of the SAITM as a private medical college, the protesters against that institute have failed to counter the allegation of selectivity in their struggle. It goes without saying that it is illogical to protest against fee levying education in general without raising a finger against international schools and fee levying other schools, hundreds of local institutes affiliated to foreign universities and fee levying foreign universities that have been recognized by the UGC, the Green University in Homagama, the Kotalawala Medical College and most importantly the thousands of tuition classes conducted even by the members of the teachers’ unions that are against private education.

Also it is illogical to launch continual protests against the SAITM after meekly submitting when the institute was started and loans as well as scholarships were granted to it during the last regime. And the government gets fairly sufficient grounds to suspect the motives of the so-called non-political, anti-SAITM groups when they go to the extent of calling for the toppling of this government over the issue, while the leaders of the former regime with whose blessings the Malabe Private Medical College was instituted, also voice against that college.

Government argues that the CPC strike was launched last week over a non-existent issue – granting the Trincomalee oil tank farm to India. Also President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe have been alleging that the Opposition groups were inciting the people over non-existent issues such as compromising the sovereignty of the country through the ETCA and Buddhism through the proposed new Constitution, two documents which have not yet been prepared.
This insecure feeling of the leaders of the government seems to have pushed them to take counter measures, and they might justify it as some governments here and abroad have collapsed or almost collapsed due to protests. The government led by Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was so riddled with strikes before he was killed in 1959 that Mrs. Sirimavo Banadaranaike once said “My husband was almost killed by NM.” Former LSSP leader N.M.Perera, commonly called NM whose trade unions were said to have launched more than 365 strikes in an year during Mr. Bandaranaike’s tenure. Strikers had shattered the government of Marxist leader Salvador Allende of Chile before his government was overthrown in a military coup in 1973 in which he was also killed. It is with this insecure feeling that Megapolis and Western Development Minister Champika Ranawaka who is said to have initiated the debate at last week’s Cabinet meeting over the measures to counter protests, openly states that a small group cannot be allowed to take the government hostage.

This is nothing new. All past governments have suppressed the people’s agitations or scuttled them by buying over their leaders, whether the struggles were just or unjust. In 1964 during the struggle over the famous 21 demands, the leaders were bought over by Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government before the struggle was abandoned. President J.R.Jayawardene had sacked over 40,000 employees who joined the famous July strike in 1980.

During President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s regime the army and police were deployed in 1996 to arrest striking CEB workers and force them to work, by Power and Energy Minister and State Minister for Defence Anuruddha Ratwatte, as happens under military governments. The suppressive action was justified by the fact that more than twenty patients who were on oxygen at the Colombo General Hospital had to be taken off the machines since the power supply generator could not bear the brunt of the load it was carrying, any more. Protesting workers and ordinary people were killed at Katunayake, Chilaw and Rathupasawala during the Mahinda Rajapaksa Government.

However, the Maithri-Ranil Government which had earned a good name internationally for its Yahapalana policies that were pursued at its initial months would have to think twice if it resorted to the same strategies in countering protests. Because locally it would strengthen the hands of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is upbeat now after holding a massive May Day rally at Galle Face Green, and the government would have to face difficult situations internationally as well, as faced by the Rajapaksa regime.

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