Can University Teachers Bend the Sri Lankan State?

The major strike launched by university teachers in Sri Lanka on July 4th is gaining momentum. Their struggles are proving to be the single most sustained and nationally organised movement in Sri Lanka’s post-war years. This strike follows previous trade union action taken last year where the Heads of Departments of state universities resigned from their positions for several months. With the Government unheeding of their demands, the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) has reinitiated a full blown strike that is national in character with state universities from all regions of the country participating.

This is not to say there have not been other formidable struggles particularly by subaltern forces in post-war Sri Lanka. There was the militant strike in the Free Trade Zones last year leading to police firing with one protester dead. There was the prison uprising against prison conditions in the Welikada Prison in January this year which was met with repression by the military. There were the fishermen’s protests following the fuel price hikes in February that brought parts of the country to a standstill, but led to police firing with one dead. There was the massive hartal organised by the Muslim community following an attempt to demolish a Mosque in Dambulla. And in recent days the protests by Tamil ex-militants in the Vavuniya Prison crushed by the military and the worrying murder of one of those prisoners who was transferred to another prison. Indeed, the Northern and Eastern Provinces continue to face militarised repression with curtailment of space for dissent and constant intimidation and violence. This has been the signature response of the Rajapaksa Regime in dealing with any kind of dissent and resistance; a response characterised by intimidation, violence and the targeting of leaders organising the struggles. Furthermore, the Regime has depended on polarising ethnic communities and singling out minorities in their attacks. And this is where the sustained all-island national struggle led by the multi-ethnic constituency of the state university system may pose a serious challenge to the Government.

In recent weeks, much to the shock of the academic community, some of the same forms of attacks and intimidation that others have faced, have been deployed against the President of FUTA, Dr. Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri. In addition to death threats over the phone, suspicious persons claiming to be from the Ministry of Defence have been lurking near his home inquiring about the movements of Dr. Dewasiri and his family. These acts of intimidation have been met with the outrage of many former academics and the public more broadly.

What is unique about the current strike, which builds on years of negotiations between the State and university teachers, is that the current campaign is framed as one much larger than the salaries of university teachers. Their demands challenge attempts to privatise higher education while undermining state education, the increasing politicisation and patronage characterising university education, the increasing militarisation of education characterised by the compulsory training by the military for new students and a call for an increase in national spending on education from a meagre 1.9% of GDP, one of the lowest in the world, to 6% of GDP. Indeed, for a society that has always found pride in education with historically high rates of literacy and free state education from elementary through higher education, this is a demand that will resonate with the public. And for the moment the university teachers seem to have won over not only teachers in schools but also their students.

Thus the university teachers strike has opened a debate about national policy on education. This debate is about the State’s contract with society on education. What does education mean for a democracy and how is education itself democratised? Even as university teachers are preparing to face the intimidation of an authoritarian State, they are also struggling with questions of hierarchy within the university space and the despicable practice of ragging by students. It is that democratic ethos engendered by meaningful struggle that is perhaps the most encouraging aspect of this strike; a movement that transforms universities. On July 6th, at a well attended press conference and meeting, preceded by numerous meetings over the last few weeks, FUTA was able to display both its strength and its organisation as it launched a new website, engaging posters and pamphlets and a call for a million citizens to sign a petition to save state education. The million dollar question is whether the increasingly neoliberal authoritarian state bent on slashing social welfare will bend in the face of this determined struggle of university teachers.

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