A quagmire that could have been avoided

5 November 2015 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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The recent police-university students clash need not have happened. Perhaps there were deeper unseen motives behind the violence



The recent student-police clash in Colombo raised many concerns and questions with regard to the nuances of good governance. The main accused party was the police that came under heavy criticism and condemnation from various quarters of society. But in overall context the government handled the issue well by swiftly responding in a professional manner. 

A detailed analysis would reveal that this particular issue had erupted out of nothing. According to Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella all demands of the students had been met a day before the controversial protest, but his officials had failed to convey the message to the students. The Sunday Times reported that the mayhem would have easily been avoided if the officials were efficient enough to mitigate an upcoming crisis by just relaying the information of the government to the students concerned, according to the minister. Furthermore, while claiming that he was not aware of the students’ protest, Kiriella extensively criticised the action of the police.Many of his ministerial colleagues joined him in defending the rights of the students – a cause that they were committed to as a prominent part of the Yahapalana concept. 

In fact the communication gap between students and the Higher Education Ministry was highlighted by Minister Tilak Marapana in his special statement to Parliament on Tuesday. 

Minister Kiriella’s genuineness should be appreciated. Unlike his predecessors who held the portfolio of higher education, he has blamed the police for attacking the students, safeguarding the rights of the students to protest. On the other hand, without defending his own officials for their failure to avoid a crisis situation, his act was transparent enough in highlighting the loopholes of the system of governance. In a nutshell, the lethargic attitude or the inefficiency of an individual public official at the Higher Education Ministry brought the entire regime into an uncomfortable position and created chaos in the city for two consecutive days. There are numerous actions being taken by various institutions against the action of the police in this issue, but what about these officials at the Higher Education Ministry who failed to communicate an important decision of the government to the students in the wake of an upcoming protest?
One cannot claim that neither the government nor its officials were aware of an upcoming student protest as there are established mechanisms to learn about these upcoming civil unrest events well in advance. These systems are well networked in all segments of government as well as in social networks.

Consequently, a crisis situation could be mitigated if communications are well managed. But in this instance, something has drastically failed somewhere. 

Later, the police said that the protest could have been mitigated had there been an official at the UGC to meet the protestors as it was held after-office hours. But the students were chanting slogans in front of an empty building as by that time all had gone home.It was Saman Ekanayaka, Secretary to Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who volunteered to meet the students although it was late in the evening, but then it was too late. But interestingly Deputy Minister Mohan Lal Grero was waiting to meet the protestors next day at the same venue. Hopefully some lessons were learnt. 

Be that as it may, let us have a look at the conduct of the police in this incident. In fact the particular conduct of the cops in handling such a crisis situation was no different from police behaviour during the previous era. If one could remember, a similar act of the police against a students’ protest became a hot topic during the last presidential elections. Yahapalana campaigners used a powerful image of a policeman attacking a protesting university student mainly on the social media and vowed that such incidents would not be repeated under a new regime. 

It was clear that the police had not yet realised that there had been a regime change – from a de facto police state to a system committed to good governance. This was their usual responses for student or any protest for the past ten years – remember Katunayaka and Rathupaswala? Use maximum power but claim it was the minimum.

This wrong perception of the police was clearly visible during the press briefing when the top brass  defended their act just after the incident. They talked about using minimum force and maximum force against protestors, and then ended up with a controversial comment by the police spokesman who used the phrase [using] ‘ necessary force’. But none of the top brass justified why police used any kind force at all against the students who were exercising their democratic right to protest. In fact the body language and demeanour of the police top brass at the press briefing did not not convey a professional message. Some of the police participants appeared to be in need of a serious capacity-building exercise on how to conduct a press briefing. 

The strategy would have been to allow the protestors to block the roads and create havoc for office time traffic which would have been entirely counter-productive to the protesting students. It happened on Tuesday when Colombo came to a stand-still with protesting university students and frustrated office crowds spending many immobile hours on the road. The blame went to the protestors-not to the police. 

To my mind, there should be a specific awareness programme by the government or concerned stakeholders to public institutions like the Police Department on the concept of good governance and democracy. Of course they were governed by an autocratic, undemocratic system for a decade, posing a challenge to change.Someone should make them realise that this is no more a police state. Hopefully at least the Batagoda Committee would do the needful. Its report is expected in Parliament in two weeks. 

What about the students who had always been the cat’s paw of interested political groups? This argument of students becoming political tools does not undermine their rights to protests and fight for their own rights. But that has to be done according to accepted norms and practices which they never do. Sometimes I wonder whether we need a specific module in university curricula to teach them how to conduct a peaceful protest. These student protests are deliberately designed to disturb public order and attract unnecessary attention through unusual means which ultimately provoke the police-the reason for ugly incidents. 

Do not forget that this government has two leading political figures who have successfully led student struggles – Patali Champika Ranawaka who once was the head of the Inter University Students’ Federation and Karu Paranawithana who was the President of the Colombo University Students’ Union. Both have been leading firebrands in their respective university lives. They could guide the present students on how to conduct effective, successful struggles [and win].
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