Sri Lanka Brief
FeaturesMinister Kiriella’s Anger is Reflective of a Collective Angst – Kishali Pinto Jayawaradena
Minister Kiriella

Minister Kiriella’s Anger is Reflective of a Collective Angst – Kishali Pinto Jayawaradena

Minister Kiriella

Minister Kiriella

The ‘Rainbow Revolution’s ‘Satakaya’ Infiltration.

In a typical twist of Sri Lankan humor, there is a sardonic caricature doing the rounds of Ministers in the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition government sporting a ‘satakaya’, the habitual wear closely associated with the Rajapaksa brand of political leadership.

Changing shades of crimson
Initially signifying an earthy affiliation with the village, the ‘kurahan satakaya’ (a shawl in the colour of finger millet) underwent an unfortunate metamorphosis during the second term of the Rajapaksa Presidency. Its colour variation from brown to ominous shades of crimson came to signify a plethora of sins, ranging from corruption to killings.

Some may protest that draping ministerial types of the ‘rainbow revolution’ in this (symbolically) deadly raiment is unfair at the least and grossly exaggerated at the worst. But there is more than a morsel of truth in this satirical characterization when assessed against the outrageous conduct of ruling party politicians elected to power just a few months ago.

This particular caricature was occasioned by Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella’s ‘recommending’ in a letter sent to the University of Kelaniya that a party supporter be considered for appointment as a Temporary Assistant Lecturer. Later it transpired that this was not the only instance; another such ‘recommendation’ had allegedly been sent to the Rajarata University regarding recruitment of a minor worker.

Degeneration of academic standards
No doubt, Minister Kiriella would have been immensely puzzled as to what the furor was all about. He was simply following in the (dis)honorable traditions of the past. Indeed some academics have publicly explained away the controversy on the casual basis that ‘well, it is always done.’ This is the same reasoning which justified excesses of the previous regime. I recall one academic responding to a call in these column spaces on the need to foster institutional democracy at the time by arguing that the people need a strong ‘monarchical’ ruler, not democratic institutions.

Certainly it is no secret that under the Rajapaksas, the Universities faced the brunt of extreme politicization extending to the highest levels of academia. Academic standards fell to brutally unimaginable depths with higher degrees being awarded on the basis of a single phone call by a politician. Senior academics scrambled over themselves in slavishly urging the gratuitous bestowing of academic honors not only on the former President and his brother but also on sundry others. Indeed, an exploration of the issuance of these degrees may be useful as a learning experience.

For those of us proud to have studied at Sri Lankan Universities, the proliferation of mediocrity in disciplines as diverse from history to law to languages was difficult to witness. This distasteful process of political favoritism was fully encouraged and supported by the University Grants Commission (UGC) at the time. Ironically, after having virtually destroyed the university system, some of these very individuals have become veritable shining lights of the present administration.

Understanding the reason for political change
So it would be naive to expect reforms overnight. However, considerable disquiet arises as a result of several other factors. The Higher Education Minister’s fury when a journalist routinely queried regarding the impugned ‘recommendation’ was plain to see. But Minister Kiriella’s anger is not singular. Rather, this is reflective of a collective angst which lies at the heart of this Government’s basic incapacity to understand what the people of Sri Lanka expected from the change in power last year. Assuredly this was not to continue pervasive practices of politicization in Universities or elsewhere. It was also not to justify such practices by lashing out at the media in response. Yet this is the overriding pattern that we see.

Last week, this newspaper’s publication of a gazette notification issued by the Central Bank requiring banks to observe due diligence safeguards in regard to monetary transactions over two hundred thousand rupees was ferociously castigated by the Minister of Finance. This was later admitted to be a ‘bona fide’ error on the part of the Bank itself. But in the meantime, journalists following up on the story were labeled as ‘catchers of the previous regime.’ This is the same choleric accusation leveled against the Federation of University Teachers’ Association (FUTA) by the Higher Education Minister over his ‘recommendation’ controversy.

Meanwhile Prime Ministerial tirades against the media and professionals disturbed at secretiveness over the proposed Economic and Technology Cooperative Agreement (ECTA) with India had been discussed previously in these column spaces. The terminology was uncannily Rajapaksa-like, with dissenters being sweepingly labeled as ‘traitors.’ Demonizing critics appear to be a trait that Sri Lankan politicians are simply unable to free themselves of.

Need for a reconciliation agenda
Let it be clearly said. The sooner that this Government displays some maturity in responding to critiques of its performance, the better it will be for its own health. It is no excuse to say that academics or journalists are not ‘white-vanned’ (‘disappeared’) as before. That is an unacceptable process of reasoning. It must be rejected outright.

At another level, the Higher Education Minister’s formal response to the controversy in issue was monumentally ill-advised. First, his defence was that he had merely asked for the ‘recommendation’ to be considered. Secondly and far more disingenuously, he asserted that this was covered under his statutory power to issue ‘directions’ to academic institutions. This position is contrary to law. One wonders if these Ministries have no Legal Department to go through such responses before being released to the media.

The scheme of the Universities Act is expressly designed to reduce politicization as repeatedly observed by the Supreme Court. More than a decade ago, the Court struck down amendments to the Universities Act radically revising the structure of appointments of Vice Chancellors to Universities, opining that academic freedom must be safeguarded. These are norms that were discarded thereafter even while our judicial institution was subverted. Presently, the need for legal competence in regard to the functioning of government is obvious. This week’s issuing and abrupt withdrawing of an (unlawful) notice by the Ministry of Media calling upon all websites to register is another example.

It seems that, quite apart from a reconciliation process for the North and the East, this Government needs to set a reconciliation agenda for itself in regard to Sri Lanka’s citizenry, including the media, the professional sectors and apparently the farmers protesting over the withdrawal of the fertilizer subsidy. Difficult times lie ahead.

– Sunday Times

Back to Top