By Jayadeva Uyangoda
Member, Arts Faculty Teachers’ Association (AFTA) University of Colombo
Some politicians and media officials linked to the government have begun to describe the FUTA strike as an attempt to overthrow the present government. Some have even come out with the fantastic idea that the FUTA is planning a ‘Suharto style’ conspiracy. I understand that my name has been linked to this imagined conspiracy, either as a co-conspirator, or even as the leading conspirator. I don’t think I deserve such an honour.
Although I am amused by these conspiracy stories, which are nothing but political mud-slinging against the FUTA, I am concerned about them, because they are propagated in some sections of the government media, with sinister objectives.
First, for the protection of FUTA leadership, myself and our families, I strongly reject these conspiracy allegations as malicious, absurd and totally untrue.
Making allegations against trade union struggles as ‘anti-government conspiracies’ is not new. This has been a practice resorted to by all Sri Lankan governments for decades, beginning in the early 1950s. It has become worse since the 1970s. But, there is a difference between then and now. If some organisation or an individual is branded publicly by powerful people linked to the government as ‘conspirators’, it can lead to serious consequences for the safety and security of individuals thus targeted. The Sri Lanka in which we live today is no longer a place where the rule of law protects, as a matter of course, its citizens.
To return to the FUTA strike, it is not incorrect to say that the FUTA strike has political overtones. It seeks policy changes with regard to education. It challenges the government’s positions on education, allocation of public expenditure, and, the role of the state in social issues. It critiques the government’s policy priorities. It actually argues for policy reforms on education, particularly in higher education. This is an attempt for minimalist regime reform, and not in any way a project of regime change. Therefore, to construe the FUTA strike as an attempt to provoke an Indonesian style, or even Arab-Spring style, political uprising is more than just an act in political fanaticising. Rather, it seeks to provoke the state apparatus to target the FUTA as a threat to national security.
Interestingly, the logic of the conspiracy thesis, propagated by the government supporters, also suggests that it is based on the assessment that President Rajapaksa’s UPFA government is weak, vulnerable to a strike action by just one trade union, and utterly incapable of managing the strike without allowing it to spread to other sectors. This is actually wrong logic. All in the FUTA are quite aware of the fact the UPFA is not a weak government that can fall, merely because academics are engaged in a protracted strike. They know that bringing political pressure on the government is a legitimate and lawful strategy to win their trade union demands. Unions usually do such mobilisation as a part of trade union politics. However, mobilisation can spread to other sectors, not because of the FUTA action, but because of the way in which the government handles it. If the government resorts to outright repression, as some in the government appear to insist, then it may generate further opposition in society, spreading resistance beyond universities. Then, the government will also be compelled to be more repressive, producing a new logic of repression-resistance-repression-resistance.
Prudent rulers do not usually handle trade union issues in that fashion, as Mr. Jayewardene did three decades ago on the argument that the government should not give into demands from trade unions. Actually, the government of President Rajapaksa does not need to view university trade unions with hostility. It should rather be listening to FUTA demands, because many university academics, who are on strike now, --except a very few like me-- have been in the forefront of the campaign to elect and re-elect Mr. Rajapaksa in 2005 and 2010. Prudent governments also usually listen to their constituencies, instead of antagonising them.
It appears that the government has two parallel tracks to deal with the FUTA strike. One stresses a hard-line approach with no concessions to, or compromise with, the striking academics. The conspiracy story seems to emanate from the faction which advances this hard-line track. The other is for a negotiated settlement though compromise. When the negotiation track has begun to show some positive directions, the other line seems to be determined to undermine the possibilities of a compromise. That is why they appear to be trying to re-define the FUTA action as a national security issue. Let us hope that leaders of the government will not make the mistake of treating trade union issues as national security issues, as being suggested by some fringe elements.
Comments - 2
P.L.J.B.Palipana Friday, 21 September 2012 10:02 PM
THANKS PROF.UYANGODA. WE NEED ONLY THE COMPLETE REFORM OF THE STATE UNIVERSITY SYSTEM AS SOON AS POSSIBLE.
sunila mendis Saturday, 22 September 2012 02:37 AM
I have noted that FUTA action is different to other trade union strikes. They differ in the art of mobilising people and online awareness campaigns with hard facts and figures thrown at you . Starting with a usual demand for a pay rise it has now grown into a massive people's movement mainly of young adults.As the Rajapakse regime is basically insecure they are unable to negotiate with intellectual giants.A negotiated settlment is a loss of face to a despotic regime. Under these circumstances it's overused method is to drive fear into the people. They know no other solution other than uttering despicable lies.
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