Sri Lankan student leader says diversity strengthens the people’s movement

July 22, 2022
The people’s movement has turned the Presidential Secretariat into a commons space. Photo: @jayfemrock/Twitter

Following the humiliating departure of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on July 9, the people’s movement in Sri Lanka continues.

Rajapaksa fled the country, appointing Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe as acting President before resigning. Wickramasinghe became president through an interparliamentary election on July 20, mostly with the votes of Rajapaksa allies. This highlights the continuation of the neoliberal militarised authoritarian regime, and the disconnect between parliament and the people’s movement.

Rajapaksa first escaped to the Maldives and from there to Singapore. Interestingly, Singapore is also the safe haven for Sri Lanka’s former Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran — a close friend of Wickramasinghe.

Wickramasinghe was the Prime Minister from 2015‒19, when an insider-trading deal on Treasury Bonds led to the loss of public funds. According to the Auditor General, the 2015 Bond Scam involved a loss of Rs1.6 billion to the Treasury. This is on top of Rs10 billion lost from Treasury bond auctions from 2005‒15, when Ajith Nivaard Cabraal, an inaugural member of the Rajapaksa-dominated party, was Central Bank Governor.

These losses are important to understanding the suffering of young people, who are also among the collective leaders of the People’s Movement. Youth unemployment, not to mention underemployment, has been about 20% since 2005. Youth unemployment is particularly profound in the north and east — former war zones still occupied by the military. Youth unemployment is also high in the tea plantation areas in the central hill country, which consist of mostly Tamil communities.

The lack of work with a liveable wage has been an enduring feature of the market economy since its launch in 1977, and perpetuates the migration of workers to other regional labour markets. Most migrants are women working as domestic workers in the Middle East. The remittances from these workers increased from about 2% of GDP in 1979 to almost 9% in 2020. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, employment pathways as migrant workers or as manufacturing workers in garment factories disappeared.

Meanwhile, young people suffer from the lack of access to education and skills training. Government spending on education in 1996 was about 3.3% of gross domestic product (GDP). It declined to 2.3% of GDP in 2005 and 1.9% in 2019. This amounts to US$1.7 billion (Rs302 billion) out of a total GDP of US$84 billion in 2019. Comparatively, the military budget for 2020 was about Rs270 billion. Spending on education has remained consistently lower than other countries in the region. 

Particularly in the plantation sector, there is an enduring lack of schools, teachers and other resources, resulting in the lowest rates of access to education. Students with a disability face even more challenges to access education.

Low levels of public investment in education are due to the marketisation of the education sector, since the 1977 introduction of the neoliberal market-driven economy. The spread of profit-making enterprises into public education, promoted by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, accelerated after Mahinda Rajapaksa became president in 2005.

With a growing global market for higher education, the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime promoted Sri Lanka as an Asian education hub. This was seen as a way to redirect the money spent by international and local students at universities in other countries — such as Australia — to the domestic economy. 

The struggles against the privatisation of education — and fee-paying places — emerged in 2008. Under Mahinda's regime, the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) was established with five faculties, including medicine. Although the initial government approval was to offer training courses, not degrees, the institute expanded through the support of key politicians and bureaucrats involved in the education and health sectors. This allowed SAITM to enter the market, exploit the lack of university places and offer fee-paying degrees.

Prior to SAITM, another public education institution, Kotelawala Defence University (KDU), was given university status in 2007 and expanded admissions to fee-paying students in 2012. With the closure of SAITM’s medical faculty in 2018, students were absorbed by KDU.

The student movement was also instigated in response to the government providing a private university with access to public teaching hospitals, when public universities were suffering from low wages, inadequate resources and bureaucratic constraints.

The SAITM struggle was central to mobilising students, faculty members and doctors in a broader campaign. They raised issues related to the quality of education, as well as the militarisation of education. The student movement was led by the student wing of the Janatha Vimukthi Preramuna (JVP, People’s Liberation Front), Antharr Vishwa Vidyalaya Shishya Bala Mandalaya (Inter-University Students’ Federation), colloquially known as Antharai. Antharai later affiliated more closely with a JVP splinter group, Peratugami Samajavadi Pakshaya (Frontline Socialist Party).

Young people in Antharai make up a core group of activists within the people’s movement. They are known for their ability to mobilise students through a range of tactical and strategic coordination efforts. Their militancy and mutual support is admired by many. Their leaders have been threatened, physically attacked, tear gassed, berated by mainstream media and arrested multiple times.

Lahiru Weerasekera, one of Antharai’s convenors, emerged as a key actor in the people’s movement, building alliances with a range of other activist networks and groups. Janaka Biyanwila spoke with Weerasekera at Gota Go Gama in Galle Face in late June.

How did this people’s movement emerge?

This came because the people could not look after their basic needs. This suffering intensified. Even the slogan “Gota go home” comes from this suffering. This is a common struggle; there are people within political parties, people without party affiliation, trade unionists and artists. They all participate in this struggle. The struggle that targeted Gotabaya to go, also forced Mahinda to leave. The executive president had to leave and work from another office under heavy security guard. The cabinet also had to resign.

It is under these conditions that the Aragalya (struggle) has come forward, and the government wants to repress it. They want to calm this down. They tried to break it up. They tried to create problems. They tried to supress the activists in this struggle many times. So again, they have announced the arrest of nine activists linked with the struggle. But as we see, the historical lesson from protest movements here, is that in the face of repression, instead of going backwards, the struggle goes forward. That’s the way we see it. Although the government thinks it’s only us [activists] in the movement, there are thousands more behind this struggle.

This is where the government has made a mistake, because we think through this repression the struggle is going to get renewed, get stronger and go forward in the coming few days.

How does the struggle contribute to the student movement?

This struggle has been a learning experience, not only for the student movement, but for those who were protesting before and those who joined the protests. And those who will engage in a continuous struggle into the future.

We were hoping that people would come to the streets. And now the people have come to the streets. But, organising this has been a challenge to all the groups. Because its everyday people that have come. We are all facing the challenge of: how do you make an average everyday person a stakeholder in an organised struggle?

They are young men and women. It’s a generation that has faced a lot of criticism — that they are on TikTok and Facebook and they have no sense of social responsibility was the critique. Now, they have become active in the struggle. Now we have to ask ourselves, why didn’t these people join our movements before? How do you make these young people active stakeholders in a movement? I think we all have this challenge.

In the student movement, as well as other activist groups, there are new configurations, new forms, new ways of struggle. When everyday people come, how do you organise them? These are some of the lessons we are learning. If we get motivated from this, in the future we can use these tactics and insights towards elaborating this continuous struggle. 

What has been learned from this movement?

We were used to seeing protests and demonstrations from a particular format or configuration. We thought going to a rally and getting hit with tear gas was the struggle. But, there is a strength within this struggle, brought by the cultural diversity.

If you take this place we are in [Gota Go Gama] at Galle Face, this is the Presidential Secretariat. No one could previously walk by this place, because of the high security. But in this place, people are having discussions. There are cultural activities.  Brothers and sisters are living together here by learning about each other’s issues.

There are lots of issues that are discussed here. When problems arise, how do you discuss them, resolve them, mutual[ly] forgive, how do you revisit those issues? What kind of new constitution should we have [for the country]? What kind of new governance arrangements? Are we going for elections or building a government of our own?

If you take the people’s library here as an example, there is a saying: “If you can’t return a book you have taken from here, please give [it] to the nearest library.”

They have shown a potential to improve our knowledge at a cultural level. We can use these configurations. We can use these as examples, because for a lot of people this struggle is about getting onto the street and demonstrating. But, they are unable to do that. So, for some people here, their configuration or their format was to get onto the street individually, or holding hands with others or singing a song. Some young people get on the street by singing songs.

How we use this diversity for participation is a considerable education, a lesson. We have to escape from the old format. We have to learn how to use these diverse formats to strengthen the common struggle.

How do you see leadership in this people’s movement?

We have had this enduring notion of leadership that only one person should lead, and one person should be the decision maker; and that person should be above others. I think through this struggle there is a refutation and an escape from those notions. Yes, within any struggle, an individual is influential. But, the more we make it collective, the more possibilities of success. There is no one leader who is mobilising this, but there a lot of leaders in common. They take decisions collectively through discussions. Sometimes, there are lot of debates and arguments before a final decision is made.

There is a message to society in that. After the removal of Gotabaya, is it about replacing a leader or creating a system for collective decision making, decisions made by people’s power? These are the issues they discuss. The young people here get together and collectively discuss. So, we have fractured the commonsense understanding about leadership.

What is your message to progressive movements in the international community?

We are going through an economic crisis in this country, but we are not alone. It’s a general condition globally. There is a dollar [foreign exchange] issue, there is an emerging food crisis. These problems are not a concern for only us. At the global level, all oppressed people globally experienced this under COVID-19.

We need to build alliances among people. Not the present inter-state relations, like China and the [Narendra] Modi government in India. Everyday people, the working class, the oppressed, the artists and others. A global alliance among people is crucial. So for us, Gotabaya will go home, but the people’s strength, the common capacity that’s made here, needs to build alliances with international movements. We think that’s possible. We invite all progressive movements to unite with us. We also encourage them to organise the oppressed groups in their own places and join us.

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