• Country heading towards darkness amidst energy stakeholders tug of war
A modified version of Pastor Martin Niemoller’s indictment of the passivity and indifference of German society, especially the intellectuals and clergy which led to the holocaust is ringing true for this country’s university students. ‘First, they came for the socialists, then they came for the trade unionists and the jews, and when they came for me there was no one to speak for me’, wrote Niemoller in his famous confessional prose.
Wickremesinghe launched a witch hunt of university undergraduates after he took over as President of Sri Lanka. The Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) and its convenor Wasantha Mudalige in particular, has become Wickremesinghe’s nemesis. An inkling of an IUSF protest suffices to deploy disproportionate numbers of police officers with tear gas and water cannons.
Soon after Wickremesinghe installed himself in the President’s chair, Mudalige was arrested by the police during a protest and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which allows for lengthy periods of incarceration without charge. Although Mudalige has currently spent over 100 days in various places of detention he has not been charged under its provisions. At his latest hearing the Fort Magistrate chastised the police for taking time to conclude the investigation despite it being more than four months since Mudalige’s arrest. The arrest of Mudalige and another student leader, Siri Dhamma thero who is the convenor of the Bhikku Front in the universities, led to widespread calls from local and international lobby groups calling for their release.
The capacity of the IUSF to mobilise large numbers of people on everyday issues that matter to them has been particularly irksome to Wickremesinghe who ranted in parliament how he had completed his university degree on time and at a young age. He complained how undergraduates these days prolong their graduation from university for even ten years. Wickremesinghe promised to find these students to put a stop to it and prevent it from happening again.
The crackdown may have already begun with the indefinite closure of the Buddhist and Pali university after student unrest. Three students of the university, including the secretary of the student federation, were arrested in connection with it. Meanwhile at the Peradeniya university, the recent assault on its vice chancellor and his son led to the arrest and remand of 12 of its students. Any moves to expel them may boomerang on the government.
There were signs of this when President Ranil Wickremesinghe visited the Colombo Law Faculty recently to participate in a program to mark its 75th anniversary. His presence was not tolerated and he was welcomed with a thunderous boo by a group of students. Videos showed a sheepish Wickremesinghe being herded away from the spot by his security. Ironically, Wickremesinghe is an alumni of this very same faculty.
A boo is a show of disapproval or contempt of someone. It has become a popular form of expression in recent times. Before deposed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa was chased out of Office by the people on 9 July, the Opposition booed him out of the parliament chamber. In the months preceding this, several government ministers who were booed at by the people, including Mahinda Rajapaksa when he was Prime Minister, had to make hasty retreats. Shehan Semasinghe, a junior finance minister, was a recent victim.
Successive Sri Lankan governments have found the student movement worrisome and made it a thorn in their side. Wickremesinghe, who has been in politics for more than 45 years, has been a member of parliament holding various portfolios, during these years. Many students and student leaders were killed during the JVP uprising in the late 80’s. According to a lead story in the University World News back in 2014, student suppression had been at its highest and reached brutal levels between 2000 and 2014. The article quotes from a 69-page report – State Suppression Against Student Movements of Sri Lanka- released by the IUSF and Students for Human Rights which highlights how the government attacked protests and threatened and targeted student leaders to suppress students.
The report, which covers incidents at 13 state universities from 2010 until early 2014, states there were 1,420 expulsions and suspensions of students from universities. There were 391 suspensions from Sri Jayewardene University while 223 students at Peradeniya University – which it identifies as an IUSF stronghold, also faced suspensions. During this time there were 231 arrests and 426 lawsuits. Some 218 students, including student union leaders, faced death.
‘Three students activists – Susantha Bandara, Janaka Ekanayake and Sisitha Priyankara – were murdered during this time. ‘In all three incidents the government “managed to suppress the truth by false propaganda and delaying the proceedings in the court”, the report claims.
According to the report, between 2000 and 2014 the Higher Education Ministry banned 36 student unions and councils allegedly for ‘ragging’ – maltreatment of freshers. ‘The government wanted to ban the IUSF’. The report goes on to state that the government wanted to ban the IUSF in that instance because it was opposing private higher education. Major student demonstrations and resistance led by the IUSF forced the temporary withdrawal of the proposed Private University Bill by the Higher Education Ministry. The Socialist Students’ Union, affiliated to the JVP said it would not allow the government to ban any student union’. Nalinda Jayatissa, who was the union’s national organizer at the time, said any alleged attempt to ban the IUSF would amount to the suppression of students and student movements. He charged ‘the government is trying to privatise the country’s education system because the International Monetary Fund (IMF) instructed it to do so. To get IMF loans the government has to follow their conditions. The government wants to ban the IUSF because they want to suppress students and student movements. Then it will be easy for them to implement the privatisation. We are not going to allow the government to ban any student union,” he promised.
The report describes how a group of around 500 people armed with clubs forcibly entered Ruhuna University and attacked students for not allowing an exhibition of the government’s national development plan to be held on the university premises. Eight students were reportedly injured in the attack.
Tilvin Silva, a member of the JVP then and now in the evolved National Peoples Power, called on the government to stop student repression. He claimed thugs “led by government politicians” had broken into universities to attack students. It “is a serious situation”, he said at the time to what resonates even now.
Meanwhile, the three cornered tug of war between Energy Minister Kanchana Wijesekera, the Ceylon Electricity Board Engineers Union (CEBEU) and Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lankan (PUCSL) has ensured the country remains in the dark about its power supply next month. The position of the CEBEU and the PUCSL is that there will be lengthy power cuts for as long as ten hours. Wijesekera went as far as to threaten the President of the CEBEU with legal action for what he said is a false claim by him that there will be ten-hour power cuts from January. The rejoinder from the CEBEU was that it is not the job of a patient who consults a doctor to prescribe the medicine, but it is the job of the doctor.
‘The Minister is declaring there will be no power cuts next year’, quipped another source from the CEBEU. ‘It will be a miracle if so’
The reality though is that by now, at least 11 ships of coal should have been off loaded to power the country’s only coal power plant, Lakvijaya, near Norochcholai in the Puttalam district. It contributes 45 percent of energy to the national grid. However, the shipment of coal which is expected in the first week of January will be only the sixth in a long line of ships which ought to be surfacing on the horizon. According to CEBEU sources who stripped the issue to the bone, there is no money to pay for coal shipments despite the Central Bank’s assurances that they will be paid for. The ship will not leave the port until 30 percent of the total cost is paid before departure and the rest has to be paid when the coal is being off-loaded. Lakvijaya needs 38 shipments of coal every year. The coal has to be off-loaded between September and April to beat the monsoon and rough seas. The ship carrying the coal is berthed away from the jetty and the coal has to be off-loaded onto barges to bring them ashore. It takes at least five days to off- load a coal consignment. But this operation becomes impossible during the monsoon months.
The plausibility of off-loading more than 20 shiploads of coal between now and April is inconceivable. By shutting down one of three units of Lakvijaya earlier this month, Sri Lankans got a reprieve for the plant to function for a few more days. It would have come to a complete standstill if not unless it is powered with diesel which is a costly option. The cost of generating one unit of electricity with diesel is 100 rupees, and half that cost with coal. Given the certainty of not being able to receive the requisite number of coal shipments, a source from the CEBEU said they have handed over 12 scenarios to Wijesekera who will have to take preemptive measures to address the looming energy crisis without locking horns with energy sector stakeholders.