1. Government relaxes fertilizer ban
  2. Protestors and trade unions hold government in their grip
  3. Principal and teacher trade unions bow to plea of medical specialists to suspend their action

Sri Lankan history has for long echoed with thecry of the panchamahabalawegayathe combined political force of the Buddhist clergy, farmers, doctors, teachers and the proletariat. It can make or break people and governments.  SWRD Bandaranaike nurtured them and they helped him to win the election in 1956 which launched the SLFP into mainstream politicswhere it held sway until its gradual decline and decimation in the 2020 parliamentary election. He continued to court them when he was prime minister and ironically, was the victim of an assassination that was masterminded by a Buddhist monk. The social project to bring the Yahapalanaya government to power was the brainchild of a Buddhist monk and a civil society collective which included academics.

Beyond Sri Lanka’s shores, the all too familiar peoples collectives driven largely by political ideologies have brought down governments and changed regimes.

These days, a complement of the same political forces have Sri Lanka in their grip. Their voices and protests becoming louder and gatheringmomentum in a groundswell of public opposition.

The farmer community has been protesting for weeks about the lack of fertilizer and the damage it is doing to their crops.  Lurking behind these protests is also the government’s decision in early May to suddenly ban the import of synthetic fertilizer, purportedly in pursuit of its pledge in its election manifesto Vistas of Splendour and Prosperity, where it is stated that the conversion to organic farming will happen during ten years. Following weeks of protests and a media blitz the government, which has now become notorious for reversing its decisions and gazette notifications, did a u turn last week and announced a relaxing of the ban.  It will allow licenses to be issued to import nitrogen minerals, synthetic fertilizer and chelated minerals and nutrients for green house agriculture, hydrophonics, aerophonics and floriculture. The move fueled claims by sceptics that it was after all a matter of dollars and not the welfare of the nation which brought on the ban. While the fallout from the ban and its effect on paddy cultivation is still to be assessed, experts speculate that the drop in tea productioncould be attributed to it. Although the trend in tea production in the first five months of both 2020 and 2021 was the same, last month itregistered a reduction of about 5. 2 percent, which is a drop in yield of 1. 4 million kilograms approximately.  Meanwhile, the answer to the shortage of fertilizer is still blowing in the wind despite efforts by the agriculture minister and his officials to hunt down errant traders suspected of hoarding in country stocks of fertilizer. The country’s annual fertilizer needs are finalised by the Ministry of Agriculture based on the recommendations of the Department of Agriculture, the Tea Board, the Coconut Development Board and others. The Fertilizer Secretariat, under the provisions of the Regulation of Fertilizer Act (No 69 of 1988), decides who will import the fertilizer and in what quantities. Nothing more can be imported beyond what is authorized by theMinistry. For this year, the government took a decision to import 247, 000 MT of urea, around 46, 000 MT less than last year because it left an allowance for uncultivated paddy land.  It was assumed that despite the ban there will be sufficient stocks for next season’s cultivationalthough now, it does not appear to be so.


Joining the farmers but in separate protests have been university lecturers and students and their unions who want to stop the KotalawalaDefence University Bill from being passedparliament. In a nutshell, the Bill provides for a militarized higher education system which will undermine the existing university system under the administration of the University Grants Commission. What was also seen as being irksome about the Bill was that the government scheduled it for debate when the country was in the throes of a lockdown in the middle of a third surge in the Covid virus. Even though the debate on the Bill has taken place, ministerChamal Rajapakse announced last week that the vote on it which was scheduled for last Friday has been postponed indefinitely.

Meanwhile energy sector trade unions are waiting for the President to reply their letter requesting the government to nullify the agreement which the Ministry of Finance entered into with the American company New Fortress Energy to divest its 51 percent share in the Yugadhanavi diesel power plant. The latter is managed by Kerawalapitiya West Coast Power which is owned by Lanka Transformers Limited, a subsidiary of the Ceylon Electricity Board.  Following their last protest on 5 August, the unions are likely to suspend their action for now in view of the Covid situation.

Also suspending their protests because of the Covid crisis will be the teacher and principaltrade unions which have been asking the government to resolve long outstanding salary anomalies.  A protest march they had scheduled yesterday from Pasyala to Colombo was called off. What had clearly weighed in on their decision was an appeal to them by the Association of Medical Specialists (AMS) to suspend their protests temporarily in the interests of the health of the nation and the certainty of the government instrumentalizing and scapegoating their protests for the spread of Covid. Firing their first salvo in a carefully worded statement the AMS, the trade union arm of the medical specialists, left no doubt about the solidarity they shared with the striking unions. ‘We respect and salute the long unattended and neglected demands your membership is unitedly pressing the government to resolve. No educated person will be able to put a price tag on the sacrifices you have made to keep childrens hopes alive by engaging in online education with virtually no state patronage and incentives. We blame present and past political authorities for neglecting your reasonable demands and are sad that the rigid approach of the current government has led to the current stalemate’, it said.

While the protests have resulted in tangible victories for the protestors and people who support them silently and otherwise, opposition MPs and the media have been quick to raise the red flag about the growing threat of arrests of ofteachers and student activists who have been taking part in the protests.  On the 4th of August44 people including 37 teachers who were returning home after taking part in a protest were arrested and detained in the Harbourpolice.  Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa who tried to visit them was not allowed entry to the police station nor were the detainees allowed to see a lawyer or their families. When they were produced before the Fort Magistrates court the following day, the Magistrate granted them bail and dismissed a request from the Police for them to undergo PCR tests. In another incident at about 3. 45 am on the 5th of August the convenor of the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) Wasantha Kumara Mudaligewas arrested by men in civilian attire when he was leaving the Sirasa TV station after taking part in a TV program.  Other student activists who have been arrested are Chameera Koswatte,Koshila Hansamli and Amila Sandeep, the president of the Sri Jayewardenepura university, who was taken away forcibly and detained. Also last week, a group of men in civilian attire had stopped and boarded a bus which was carrying academics and students.  According to eye witness accounts they appeared to have been searching for someone and thought it could have been the IUSF convenor. In addition to such searches and arrests being carried out by plain clothes men, questions have also been raised whether these protestors have been told why they are being arrested and whether warrants for their arrest have been produced. All these raise questions about the legality of these arrests and the subsequent detention.

These arrests which are a manifestation of the government’s current drive to not only suppress the fundamental right to freedom of speech,  but to also clamp down on dissent, are a chilling reminder of Sri Lanka’s not too distant past. TNA MP Sumanthiran, spelling it out in parliament last week, said it was the return of the white van culture. Slowly and surely, Sri Lanka’s ghosts of the past are coming back to haunt her.  


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