Political activist and former President of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA), Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri spoke to the on the revival of the FUTA campaign to win academics’ demands, the need to revisit the electoral political process in Sri Lanka and the reasons behind his decision to support the common candidacy of Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera.
Do you believe the revival of the campaign to resolve academics’ grievances initiated with the June 3 token strike would make any difference, given the government discounted FUTA demands even after the three-month strike?
The token strike was carried out to show our collective strength, which is the gist of trade union action. The important factor to note is that today, we have more justification than ever to resort to trade union action. Our position is being vindicated even by the behaviour of the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Higher Education Ministry during the past few days. Several letters have been sent to us promising more perks - on taking action to withdraw the latest circular concerning payment of Research allowance, promising the implementation of a pension scheme. Even the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Directors (CVCD) has expressed interest in discussing our demands related to university autonomy and student issues.
These developments show the authorities are well aware that our demands are not baseless, which means the token strike has already made an impact. But we are not interested in a new wave of promises, we need to see them put into action.
Do these letters sent by the Higher Education Ministry and the UGC contain specific assurances on when the decisions will be implemented or are they vague wordings?
Of course they are vague because there is no guarantee of the implementation of the decisions. Issuing circulars today has turned into a complete joke. The ad-hoc attitude adopted in issuing circulars without any consideration of its repercussions sheds light on the irresponsible approach of the authorities in handling university affairs.
Our expectation from the government is to show a firm commitment to the verbal and written agreements they made at the end of the last trade union action. So far we have not seen any genuine effort to do so.
Some have gone so far as to say that the LTTE was defeated because of the Executive Presidential system but I believe it is absolute rubbish because there is absolutely no link between the two.
The government has adopted a non-responsive attitude to all TU action. Is this due to an issue in the governance system or flaws in TU movements?
There is an issue in the trade union movement because they are not as impactful as they were four/five decades ago. However, when it comes to academics, their bargaining power is much stronger in comparison to a few years ago. The problem we are facing is formidable; they are not trivial issues. Our grievances have gone beyond the ability of university administrators to resolve. So the lack of a response from the government in our case particularly is deeply linked to broader governance issues governing policies - both economic and social.
Public support for the ‘6% GDP allocation to education’ movement is still nominal. Do you think it’s a result of the lack of efficient awareness campaigns?
Yes, the public support for the 6% campaign is still inadequate. The public might be happy to see more investments in education but even so, the public discourse in support of protecting state education is very minimal. Changing public opinion is a systematic process. People have understood the crises in the education sector and have found way to cope with them through action such as vying for popular schools, sending the children to private tuition classes etc. Unfortunately these solutions have in turn further deteriorated the situation.
As concerned citizens we have to keep raising these issues. At the moment, the majority still ridicule our 6% slogan - even by the media. Even the new Indian Prime Minister Modi has accepted the importance of allocating 6% of the country’s GDP to education. It is a policy decision and it is up to the public to awaken the demand.
You stated at a media briefing recently when FUTA called off the strike in 2012, that they were well aware of being tricked. What reasons really prompted the decision to end the three-month strike? Did the intimidations against you and your family play a part in it?
The intimidations took place even before we started the strike. Certain groups had visited my neighborhood and inquired about my family, I received various threatening phone calls but they all happened over a week before we initiated the strike. So there is no relationship between the trade union action and the decision to suspend the strike.
The decision to call off the strike was made due to several reasons. It is not easy to continue a strike of that nature for a prolonged period. Our members were continuing without salaries for three months and were facing various economic issues. There were also concerns expressed by the public – the parents and students concerning their rights being violated due to the strike. So it is not easy to sustain such action unless the struggle was taken to a different level in the form of a general strike.
During the end of the strike, although we had doubts of government promises, we needed a tactical break. We also wished to consider the options offered to us by the government. We were cheated but we wanted to be cheated in public and now the public is well aware of how the government tricked the academics.
Reports have been circulating of the possibility of you being fielded as a common candidate?
That was an idea put forth by a friend of mine – Prof. Sumanasiri Liyanage. I am sure on his part it was to start a dialog about the common candidate issue and the alternative political agenda etc. I have not been approached by any political party and I don’t think they would agree to such an idea either. I personally support the candidacy of Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera as the common opposition candidate.
Would you consider joining electoral politics if an invitation was extended?
I have been active in politics since I was 16 years old. I don’t mind contesting for elections but it is not a decision to be taken lightly. The initiation should come from the public as I believe I should be able to represent a people. If there is a constituency that considers me a potential candidate, it is only then I would think about it. Engaging in politics is much more than contesting in elections. I am content with my political engagement being kept apart from electoral politics because it is no longer a constructive system presently.
Giving into ideologies of the dominant ethno-religious groups and transforming them into ruling ideologies can be extremely dangerous as it creates scope for secessionist movements. This is why some and even I, believe that it is the majoritarianism of the Sinhala Buddhist movements that is promoting secessionist tendencies among the minorities.
Are you being critical of electoral politics in the Sri Lankan context or as a global phenomenon?
Even in the world, electoral politics has lost its significance as a serious way to engage in political life of people. In the early part of the 20th century for example, electoral politics was a transformative process that transformed the political fabric. For example, the LSSP and even the early SLFP in the 50s succeeded in transforming the political structure of Sri Lanka. But for the past 30 years, the transformative capacity of electoral politics has eroded. As a political activist, my concern is to engage in transformative politics, which presently exists outside of electoral politics.
What has contributed to the deterioration of the transformative capability of electoral politics?
Electoral politics today is an instrument of elite competition. As Aristotle said people are guided by desires, wealth, power and sex and I would add - status. Politics is seen as an easy way to realize these desires and opportunities. Electoral politics started as an emancipatory mechanism for underprivileged groups to take part in governance, but today it has turned into a source of conflict between the governing elite. The conflict between various elite groups has also helped certain underprivileged groups to climb up in the political ladder and be part of the political elite. This is reflected by several cases in Sri Lanka where powerful ministers who have started their careers in politics as low-key members of radical Marxist parties and have then left the movements to become part of the political elite. A critical approach to mainstream politics is required to reintegrate the transformative capabilities.
What are your reasons to support the candidacy of Sobhitha Thera? Do you believe he is capable of challenging the present regime?
I don’t care too much for the prospect of winning; my concern is of the process itself. The process that I propose with Sobitha Thera at the forefront is a new political discourse. If the elections are won, that would be a bonus but the very campaign he would initiate could open up a new political space based on three important slogans - democratization, social justice and ethno-religious reconciliation, which I believe are the main burning issues in the country.
There is a grave deterioration of social justice in the country at present. Sri Lanka had a vibrant discourse of social justice from the early 30s when the Samasamaja party started the egalitarian social justice discourse, which made a significant impact on post-colonial governments into initiating various social welfare schemes including free education and healthcare systems. Following decolonization, Sri Lanka was a third world model for democracy compared to most developed democracies. Sri Lanka has been tested over time of its ability to accommodate non-majority, ethno-religious communities into its mainstream governing process but we have terribly failed in that endeavour.
Instead, it has turned into a country where minority religious and ethnic groups are being progressively excluded from the governing process. There is a need to reverse the existing system and come up with a new social contract inclusive of various religious communities. I see great potential to mobilize public support for these three slogans in a campaign centered on Sobhitha Thera.
Religious tensions spurred on by extremist, nationalist movements are on the rise in Sri Lanka once more. Is it impossible to achieve peace and harmony in a society of ethnic diversity and religious pluralism?
This is a global phenomenon that is not simply specific to Sri Lanka. Even in Europe, countries such as France where modernist ideals are well kept wide notions of white-supremacy and neo-fascist groups still exist. Social issues including harassment of migrants are widespread in countries such as the US. So there is nothing surprising about the incidents occurring in Sri Lanka. The issue is the absence of a mechanism to engage with the various movements and reach a civilized, social contract.
Ethnic conflicts are part of the contemporary political fabric in the world but we have to understand it carries negative impacts in the long run. Giving into ideologies of the dominant ethno-religious groups and transforming them into ruling ideologies can be extremely dangerous as it creates scope for secessionist movements. This is why some and even I, believe that it is the majoritarianism of Sinhala Buddhist movements that is promoting secessionist tendencies among the minorities.
Discourse on Human Rights is being criticized by various parties as a tool deployed by the West to implement imperialistic agendas. It is also frequently used as an excuse to remain inactive on HR violations. What are your comments?
It is a trump card played by the governing elite and is quite closely linked with this patriotic discourse shaped by the majoritarian ethno-religious identities. Human Rights are a universal concept and yes, the modern movement on Human Rights started and gained grounds initially in the West. But that is not a reason that can be exploited to ignore the principles set forth by the discourse on Human Rights.
I don’t think anyone can reject human rights as a fundamental norm of the social and political life of the modern society. Even those who say so in various political platforms do not reject the principles in serious discussions. The issue in Sri Lanka is the lack of human rights consciousness among the public; there is no powerful human rights discourse in Sri Lanka. It is part of the political norms of the modern world and we have to welcome it, accommodate it into our public life and it has to be respected.
As of late, calls to abolish the Executive Presidency have been gaining grounds. Do you believe it would help address crises in the governance system?
I don’t want to reduce the whole problem to the Executive Presidential system. The crisis in governance system is broader and is a manifestation symptom of the issue rather than being a root cause. It was created by late President J. R. Jayawardena with a clear purpose. He claimed the system was established keeping in mind cases in point such as the economic recovery of Singapore etc , which made sense at least when going by his conceptual justification. But now the system has been tested by history. It has become instrumental in deteriorating the democratic set up in the country.
Some have gone so far as to say that the LTTE was defeated because of the Executive Presidential system but I believe it is absolute rubbish because there is absolutely no link between the two. Even if it was, I don’t see the root cause of the issue that led to the terrorist movement being settled, and more threats are emerging instead.
I don’t mind contesting the elections but it is not a decision to be taken lightly. The initiation should come from the public as I believe I should be able to represent a people.
The discourse and enthusiasm on abolishing the Executive Presidency has great potential for the renewal of democratic governance. Whether we should return to the Westminster model or other alternatives should be sought and left for constructive discussions. I have been closely associated with this discourse since the early 1990s and there have been a lot of constitutional alternatives. Therefore, my interest lies in a very important manifestation of the de-democratization of the Sri Lankan political system.