The much-awaited talks between Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and the protesting teachers’ unions have failed, and the protesters are threatening to intensify their trade union action. The government is hopeful that it will be able to solve the dispute by next Monday. The Prime Minister undertook to present a Cabinet paper to redress the teacher’s grievances, the main being the salary anomalies. The teachers’ unions remain skeptical.

Teachers’ protests are likely to escalate despite government promises to sort out their salary issue, because the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) bill is scheduled to be taken up for second reading on 06 August. The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FITA) has taken exception to the proposed laws and its members have already taken to the streets, and several other trade unions have pledged solidarity with them.

The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) has also unanimously condemned the KNDU bill as a threat to university education. What action it is planning to take to express its protest remains to be seen. It fought a successful battle against the SAITM (South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine) medical degree programme, which was terminated, and the students who followed it were absorbed into the Kotelawala Defence University medical faculty under the yahapalana government. However, that struggle dragged on for months on end, and the graduation of medical students who took part in it was delayed. So, it is not likely that the GMOA will commit to such a continuous agitation again and run the risk of crossing the point of no return.

Suppressing protests

How will the government react if the ongoing protests spin out of control as the day of the parliamentary vote on the KNDU bill draws near? The passage of the bill is only a matter of time, given the government’s steamroller majority.

The knee-jerk reaction of any government, troubled by agitations, is to use the state power to neutralize protests that show signs of escalating. We have witnessed numerous such incidents in this country during the last several decades. These suppressive measures may work in the short run, but definitely fail in the long run. Public anger does not fizzle off easily. Here are a few examples selected randomly (not in chronological order).

Rathupaswala crackdown

Memories of the 2013 military crackdown on a group of people protesting at Rathupaswala in the Gampaha District against the groundwater pollution in their area, caused by a factory, are still fresh in the minds of Sri Lankans.

Three protesters were shot dead and several others injured. The incident tarnished the image of the Rajapaksa government both locally and internationally, and helped the then Opposition gain traction on the political front.

Rathupaswala became synonymous with the suppression of people’s right to protest. The protests were effectively quelled but public anger subsequently found expression in a protest vote against the UPFA government responsible for the violent suppression of the people’s democratic rights, as could be seen from the defeat of the then President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the 2015 presidential election.

1953 Hartal

Unprecedented rice price hikes caused public anger to spill over into the streets in July 1953 in the form of a hartal. Protests began in Randombe in the Galle District and soon spread to the other areas in the Southern Province as well as to faraway places like Jaffna.

The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) was at the forefront of the hartal, which unsettled the UNP government of the day so much that the Cabinet of ministers met in a British warship, fearing for their safety. A countrywide emergency was declared and a violent suppression ensued. The police shot dead about 10 people taking part in hartal. Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake had to resign, and Sri John Kotelawala succeeded him and restored the rice subsidy partially.

The UNP government survived the hartal, which almost toppled it, but incurred much public opprobrium over the brutal suppression of the protests, and lost power in 1956.

JRJ’s failed march to Kandy

Goon attacks on protests are not of recent origin. In 1957, the then the SLFP government unleashed violence to disrupt a march the UNP launched from Colombo in a bid to reach Kandy, in protest against the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayagam Pact.

J. R. Jayewardene, Dudley Senanayake, Sir John Kotelawala, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Ananda Tissa de Alwis, and other UNP seniors took part in the march. Jayewardene was the leading figure in the protest.

The UNP marchers who started their trek from Colombo were attacked with stones along the way had to disperse at Attanagalle, where MP S. D. Bandaranaike lay across the road, with his supporters being ready to go all out to prevent the protesters from passing that point. The police sided with the government and discouraged the UNP from proceeding. But the UNP gained a boost for its anti-government campaign, and Jayewardene achieved his objective; he succeeded in outshining other UNP stalwarts.    

Goon attacks on Federal Party MPs

In 1956, goons set upon the Federal Party members who launched a silent protest on the Galle Face Green. The police did virtually nothing to rein them in, and the Tamil politicians were roughed up and chased away. The assailants could not have done so without the blessings of the government. That incident provided the much-needed momentum for the separatist lobby, which used it among other things to justify a violent campaign against the state decades later.

Suppression of Opposition under JRJ rule

The UNP’s five-sixth majority won at the 1977 general election turned out to be a curse for democracy. The Jayewardene government did not tolerate dissent at all, and did everything in its power to suppress the Opposition and trade unions. It crushed the 1980 general strike in the most ruthless manner; about 100,000 workers were sacked, and some of them were even driven to suicide.

The proscription of the JVP, which the Jayewardenegovernment falsely accused of having had a hand in the anti-Tamil pogrom in 1983, created conditions for the second JVP uprising in the late 1980s, when the country was plunged in a bloodbath.

The suppression of the Opposition continued under the Ranasinghe Premadasa government, which was formed in 1989. It was brutal attacks on the political rivals of the UNP that enabled political leaders such as Mahinda Rajapaksa and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga (CBK) to work their way to national prominence. President Premadasa died in a bomb attack in 1993. Both Kumaratunga and Rajapaksa went on to become two-term Presidents.

Attacks on protests in late 1980s

The JVP, during its second uprising organized a large number of protests against the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, the establishment of the Provincial Council system, etc. The UNP government unleashed mindless state terror to suppress those agitations. There was no social media, and the mainstream newspapers which were critical of state terror were censored. The police and the armed forces opened fire on protest marches and nobody knows exactly how many people were killed.

The JVP also attacked pro-government demonstrations and Opposition political events. Its death squads gunned down trade union leaders belonging to both the UNP and the Opposition.

Both parties to the southern terror did not tolerate dissent. The killing spree went on until the decimation of the JVP leadership save one member, Somawansa Amarasinghe, who fled to India. But attacks on the Opposition continued under the Premadasa government and they provided Mahinda Rajapaksa, Anura Bandaranaike, Mangala Samaraweera, S. B. Dissanayake, Jeyaraj Fernandopulle, Richard Pathirana, Dharmasiri Senanayake, D. M. Jayaratna and other SLFPers opportunities to endear themselves to the people by fighting for their rights and democracy.

Attacks on UNP dissidents

President Ranasinghe Premadasa did not hate anyone more than Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake because both of them came from elitist social backgrounds and did not kowtow to him. He became furious after they made an abortive attempt to impeach him with the help of some other UNP dissidents and the SLFP-led Opposition.

The Police and the pro-UNP goons enjoyed a free hand in disrupting the protests conducted by the DUNF (Democratic United National Front) formed by Lalith, Gamini and other UNP rebels after their expulsion from the UNP. Almost all the DUNF demonstrations were attacked so much so that when Athulathmudali was assassinated, many a finger was pointed at Premadasa, who was an extremely worried man when he died in an LTTE human bomb attack a few days later on 01 May, 1993.  

Goons given free rein under CBK and MR governments

Attacks on protests survived the 1994 regime change, and President CBK did not fulfil her pledge to restore democracy. Strongarm tactics did not help that administration consolidate its power, though; it lost the 2001 general election. It took it more than three years to recapture power. The situation took a turn for the worse under the Rajapaksa presidency; countless attacks were carried out on protests, one of the worst being the Rathupaswala crackdown.

But these suppressive measures did not help that administration electorally as can be seen from its collapse in 2015. It was the defeat of the LTTE that enabled the Rajapaksa government to win the 2010 general election, but it did not make a course correction, and continued to suppress the Opposition and paid for its mistake.

Protests and hidden dangers

Protests are like sea waves; not all of them are devastating, but some of them have the potential to be. There could also be tsunamis.

Unlike in the past, the advent of social media has led to the phenomenon of leaderless protests which have the potential to plunge countries into anarchy. The Arab Spring could be considered an example.

Tunisia, which was considered the only country where the Arab Spring had succeeded in bringing order out of chaos, is in turmoil again; its President Kais Saied has sacked Parliament and the Prime Minister.

In this technologically-driven world, leaderless protesters can be manipulated by external forces with sinister agendas. Mobs do not reason, and tend to obey commands that promote chaos if not destruction regardless of who issues them. Social media platforms serve as ideal tools in the hands of disruptive elements.

External interference through technological means has made even the most technologically advanced and powerful nations vulnerable. It was alleged in the aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election that Russia had manipulated the American electoral process to enable Donald Trump’s victory, a claim that both Trump and Russia have denied. But Time magazine reported in April 2018 that a wide-ranging group of Russians had hacked Democratic Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee.

The Time report also said the Russians had ‘released politically damaging information on the internet; spread propaganda on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram; staged rallies in Florida and Pennsylvania; set up meetings with members of the Trump campaign and its associates; and floated a business proposition for a skyscraper in Moscow to the Trump Organization’ and ‘the goal, as determined by the U.S. intelligence community and backed up by evidence gathered by Special Counsel Robert Mueller: To damage the Clinton campaign, boost Trump’s chances and sow distrust in American democracy overall’.

Such being the vulnerability of the US, how prone the developing countries to manipulations by powerful external forces goes without saying. Hence protracted protests have an unsettling effect on governments.

Tackling protests and bomb disposal

Governments have to gauge public opinion on their decisions on a regular basis if they want to prevent public anger welling up and spilling over into the streets.

Tackling protests is something to be carried out the way bombs are defused. It requires an enormous amount of patience and skill if disaster is to be averted. Violence is the least desirable in handling protest because it fuels people’s ire and begets violent reactions and could lead to chaos.

Attacks and bloodshed generate public sympathy for the victims of violence. This is what Sri Lankans governments fail to take cognizance of.

In Sri Lanka, the oppositional forces are apparently trying to engineer a wave of anti-government protests by using the controversial decisions of the incumbent administration. They have already exploited issues such as the high cost of living, fertilizer shortage, sugar tax scandal, environmental destruction and are now flogging the issue of KNDU bill hard. The timing of the presentation of the Bill to Parliament and its second reading has raised many an eyebrow because it has triggered street protests amidst the current health crisis.  

The next few days are likely to see a spate of protests with the Opposition trying to provoke the government into resorting to strong-arm tactics, which are counterproductive.

The government has acted with restraint so far, but only time will tell whether it can remain unprovoked in the face of persistent provocations. It will be in trouble if it orders crackdowns on protests, and, at the same time, leniency will be seen as a sign of weakness, and protesters will be encouraged to step up their agitations. The government is caught between a rock and a hard place. (Concluded)



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here