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The academics are marching. The students are marching. The Muslims are marching.

Dharisha Bastians
The academics are marching. The students are marching. The Muslims are marching.

Every day hundreds images of throngs of people shouting slogans and demonstrating blare across television screens, newspapers and of course, the internet.

SMS news alerts about road closures and barricades abound as popular discontent rises to the surface through trade union agitation and ethno-religious outrage. In fact, with the opposition largely impotent, public discontent is being channelled into people’s movements that are taking arms against unpopular Government policy and rampant corruption.

In the north from Point Pedro to Jaffna, in the south from Galle to Colombo and in the central hills from Kandy to Colombo, university students and teachers are engaged in long marches to push for education reform. Over a period of five days, the Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) and the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) will gather support along the way from Galle and Kandy respectively, and finally converge upon the capital on 28 September for a mega rally in Colombo.

Last Wednesday (19), just five days before the marches were scheduled to get underway, IUSF Convenor Sanjeewa Bandara was arrested by the Colombo Crimes Division on charges of vandalism and assault of police officers.

Remanded till Tuesday (25) Bandara was released on bail by the Fort Magistrate, but interestingly when his case was taken up this week, CCD officers made a strange request of the court. The officers requested the magistrate to issue an order confining all student protests to Hyde Park grounds in Colombo. The magistrate denied the CCD request, saying he had no authority to issue such an order, but the appeal by the Police made it clear that the ruling administration was very keen to call a halt to the long marches to Colombo.

The IUSF march having commenced as scheduled on Monday (24), had a new battle-cry since their leader was incarcerated – to demand the release of Sanjeewa Bandara. Bandara leads his protestors in demonstration against Government moves to privatise tertiary education with student unions claiming they are defending the right to free education in Sri Lanka.

Broadening the scope

FUTA meanwhile has been engaged in trade union action since 4 July, initially demanding a 20 per cent wage hike. But as the campaign raged on, the academics opted to broaden the scope of their demands, perhaps in a bid to make their struggle for better wages more universally appealing. FUTA’s present set of demands in fact, deal with three key factors that the broader Sri Lankan public can get on board with.

They want the Government to spend six per cent of the country’s GDP on education, compared with the current 1.9 per cent. FUTA is also calling for scrapping of the military leadership training that has been made mandatory for university entrants, de-politicisation in university appointments and the removal of a security firm Sri Lankan universities have been forced to hire that is affiliated to the Ministry of Defence.

Nearly three months on, FUTA’s struggle is finding more support and resonance than ever. The state of education in the country is a cause parents, students, teachers and the general public can get behind whole-heartedly and the union is playing to these strengths. The Government’s bungling of Advanced Level scores and botching of exam papers and the rampant politicisation of once hallowed academic positions, have lent credence to FUTA’s struggle.

Regular updates from the march indicate that the public in main towns are coming out in support of FUTA’s demands, offering marchers refreshments and shade and cheering them on. UNP MPs Rosy Senenayake, Dayasiri Jayasekera and Eran Wickremaratne joined the long March earlier in the week, while MPs Kabir Hashim, Akila Viraj Kariyawasam and Sujeewa Senasinghe joined the march in Beruwala yesterday.

JVP MPs and other trade union groups are also joining in the march, according to activist reports. The UNP is expected to mobilise crowds to attend FUTA’s mega rally in Colombo on Friday (28) with the JVP also likely to activate its base into participating in the demonstration.

UNP Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa and DNA Leader Sarath Fonseka were also present at the beginning of the FUTA march in Galle. Over lunch at Dodandoowa, Fonseka having finished his lunch, walked over to Premadasa who was lying on a sun-bed eating sandwiches he appeared to have brought with him.

Observers noted that while Fonseka walked up to Premadasa for a chat, the UNP Deputy Leader gave him a lukewarm greeting and did not even rise to his feet to speak with the former general. Despite theories emerging that Karu Jayasuriya, Premadasa and Fonseka were going to join forces to create a common opposition to take on the Government, those observing the two politicians in Dodandoowa said this seemed a remote possibility under the circumstances.

Power of social media

In addition to mobilising their own, FUTA has sought to expand its reach through the use of social media, a tactic that is beginning to prove highly successful. Even as State media denounces the agitation as Indonesian style or Arab style conspiracies to effect regime change, FUTA is carrying its message to ordinary people, most of whom spend their days scouring Facebook and Twitter, spurring them on to join the campaign.

All over the world, FUTA posters have become Facebook profile pictures and the Colombo elite youth that remains woefully disengaged in the political process are donning 6% t-shirts and heading out to join marches and rallies. During its long march, FUTA and IUSF activists have kept up a relentless update of its progress on Facebook and Twitter. These updates are being responded to by other users of the social media networks, who say they will join the march from one point or the other, or urge FUTA activists to keep them posted when they are marching through their hometowns.

Former Director General of the Al-Jazeera network Wadah Khanfar who was in Sri Lanka recently to present the Annual Bakeer Markar Commemorative Lecture, was to underscore the growing importance of social media in empowering citizens.

Citing the example of the Arab Spring, Khanfar said that social media played a key role in the uprisings in the Arab World with updates from these networks actually getting news out to the world so fast that the news networks could barely keep up. Khanfer has maintained at many forums that when the Egyptian Government kicked Al Jazeera crews out of the country, the network was forced to use social media updates to keep up with news on the ground.

As long as people centred media remains free of manipulation by governments and their agencies, in countries such as Sri Lanka where media freedom has taken a severe beating in recent times, inevitably citizen journalism will take centre-stage. Through the medium used to perpetuate their struggle, FUTA and its affiliates are demonstrating this point, better than ever. Social media’s ability to engage almost anyone in a political cause makes it a platform hitherto unexploited by the opposition political parties, although animal rights activists and now trade unions appear to be waking to its power.

Executive vs. Judiciary

Hemmed in by massive and unyielding agitation on one side, the Government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is also grappling with a pitched battle that has erupted between the Executive and the Judiciary. While the education sector agitation is of grave concern for the Government, the real make or break situation could be the administration’s resolution to lock horns with the Judiciary, political observers say.

Signs that a battle was imminent between these two key branches of Government first emerged as far back as April this year, when heated negotiations were underway to obtain a presidential pardon for former Army Chief Sarath Fonseka. In that case, the Government was keen to release the former General before his appeal of the ‘White Flag’ verdict was scheduled to begin, since the verdict was in all likelihood going to be overturned by the Court of Appeal, with Fonseka also likely to receive bail while the appeal case was being heard.

Matters came to a head after National Savings Bank Chairman Prasad Kariyawasam tendered his resignation after a controversial share purchase went sour. Since then, the Supreme Court adjudications on several issues of state, most particularly the constitutionality of the Divi Neguma Bill has displeased the higher echelons of the political leadership. The Divi Neguma Bill seeks to amalgamate the Samurdhi Authority of Sri Lanka, the Udarata Development Authority and the Southern Authority, to form a single body called the Department of Divi Neguma Development. The Supreme Court bench ruled that the Bill needs approval from all the provincial councils, before it can become law.

Divi Neguma muddles

Last Tuesday (18), the day the Supreme Court decision on the Divi Neguma Bill was to be communicated to parliament, Samurdhi unions lined Parliament Road, claiming it was an opposition conspiracy to derail the programme. The protestors were joined by senior Government Ministers including Basil Rajapaksa and Lakshman Yapa Abeywardane. Divi Neguma is said to be Minister Rajapaksa’s brainchild and the department will function under his Economic Development Ministry.

Minister Rajapaksa is known to be a ‘doer’ in the Rajapaksa Administration and an astute and experienced politician. Opposition Parliamentarians therefore registered their surprise at the presence of senior Government ministers amidst the protestors seen to be demonstrating against the Supreme Court decision.

When UNP National List MP Eran Wickremaratne expressed his surprise about senior Government ministers being in the middle of the demonstration including Minister Rajapaksa, the latter returned to the chamber immediately although he was not present during the first half of the UNP member’s speech. Wickremaratne said he hoped both Minister Rajapaksa and Justice Minister Rauff Hakeem would have answers for him but neither Minister opted to comment on the issue.

Political analysts feel that the Government does not want to comment on the tensions with the Judiciary but are rather adopting a ‘they can have their say, but we will have our way,’ position. The Divi Neguma Bill is a tricky manoeuvre for the Government that has now been ordered to go to the Provincial Councils for approval. Opposition legislators like Wickremaratne argue that the approval of all the councils cannot be obtained because the Northern Provincial Council for instance, does not exist.

The Opposition also feels that where the Government suspects a council may not approve the provisions of the Bill, it could disband ‘unfriendly’ councils and bring them under Central Government control in order to get the bill passed. The UNP is contemplating taking the matter before the courts but has decided on legal advice to wait until the bill is presented to parliament, after the approval of the PCs is sought and received.

In fact, it is beginning to look as if in the battle between the Executive and the Judiciary, the opposition is resolved to stand stoically on the side of those determined to uphold the rule of law, with former UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya in a strongly-worded statement expressing his party’s support with members of the Judiciary that are striving to keep political influence at bay.

Karu hits out

“With its systematic assault on the rule of law and democracy, this regime chips away at every last remaining hope and redress of the victimised and oppressed citizen. When the people of Sri Lanka cry out for justice, this regime is intent on destroying the judicial system by striking at its very heart. Our collective future rests on safeguarding the dignity and independence of our judges: men and women who serve in capacities that might decide Sri Lanka’s future course.

An independent Judiciary could see democracy restored; a broken, cowering one would surely pave the way for tyranny… We respect and honour those men and women of the Judiciary who have decided to make those choices. We stand with them, beside them and for them as they face what will likely be the toughest challenges of their careers. If they will keep the faith, they carry with them the assurance of the opposition’s enduring and unwavering support for their struggle,” Jayasuriya said in a statement to the media.

Jayasuriya who has also been a strong critic of the 18th Amendment, and a proponent of the now repealed 17th Amendment which established independent commissions to de-politicise state services. His is the first and lone voice of the opposition following the statement released by the Judicial Services Commission, after senior members of the Judiciary were allegedly subjected to a smear campaign at the hands of the State media. It is the first time the JSC has reacted to the machinations of an incumbent Government and signalled a shift in relations between the two branches of democratic governance.

The tussle between the administration and members of the Judiciary now appears to be in the public domain, after the JSC was allegedly summoned by the President for budget discussions and its members declined to attend, prompting the state media onslaught against them.

The letter issued by JSC Secretary Manjula Tilakaratne makes it abundantly clear that the Judiciary feels it is under threat from various influences seeking to interfere with its independence.

Informed sources have indicated that in addition to the Divi Neguma decision, a few other matters have also irked the current administration, namely, disciplinary action against certain magistrates who were interdicted amidst protests by politicians and the JSC’s refusal to appoint a Tangalle High Court Judge as a High Court Commissioner following his retirement.

In a further development, President of the Bar Association and MP Wijedasa Rajapakshe is reportedly putting a panel of lawyers including former attorneys general together to determine whether contempt charges can be filed against State media for its attacks on the Judiciary and the JSC. Lawyers and civil society activists have come out strongly in support of the Judiciary since the issue surfaced and are engaged in a strong campaign of agitation against the alleged interference.

Asserting independence

Since the appointment of Neville Samarakoon as Chief Justice by President J.R. Jayewardene, it has become a phenomenon that chief justices although appointed by the executive, ultimately assert their independence, thereby falling out of favour with incumbent administrations.

Often, the Chief Justices are handpicked in fact, by the executive president at the time. So it was with Neville Samarakoon who President Jayawardene handpicked from the unofficial bar to be Chief Justice of Sri Lanka in 1977. Oddly enough, so it was with present Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake who was appointed as judge of the Supreme Court in 1996 by President Chandrika Kumaratunga on the recommendation of Prof. G.L. Peiris, while she was serving as Dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Colombo. Former Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva who was considered a controversial appointment by President Kumaratunga, was also hand-picked for the role.

It became clear during the tenure of Chief Justice Samarakoon that although judges could be carefully chosen by the political leadership, their conduct and judgments would be entirely their own. In fact politicians began to see the necessity for procedures to remove judges after Justice Samarakoon in a speech at a prize giving in Colpetty, made certain adverse remarks about the executive, irking President Jayewardene.

Subsequently, Parliament moved to enact procedures for the removal of judges, under the guidance of then Justice Minister Nissanka Wijeratne. A select committee was appointed headed by Minister Lalith Athulathmudali to go into the remarks made by Chief Justice Samarakoon, but the matter was ultimately amicably resolved. Be that as it may, Justice Samarakoon’s judgments went down in Sri Lankan judicial history as highly independent, laudable decisions hailed even by the opposition at the time, and his legacy is that of a strong Judiciary in the face of an all-powerful presidency.

Similar moves may now be afoot now to curb the independence of the Judiciary, or if they refuse to be cowed, to have provisions for their swift removal, Government sources claim. On Monday (24), President Rajapaksa was to summon key ministers of his Government to discuss the deteriorating relations with the Judiciary. Several ministers have allegedly urged the President to take severe action against the JSC, using the powers vested in him constitutionally.

Government insiders claim the President is mulling a constitutional amendment to limit the term of a Supreme Court judge to five years. Constitutionally, Supreme Court judges can hold office until the age of 65 years, unless they resign or are impeached. The current Chief Justice, being only 54 years of age, will serve on the bench for at least another 11 years. However it is not clear if a constitutional amendment, if passed, will relate to the present Chief Justice’s term of office.

That the Government is perturbed beyond anything else about the issues with the Judiciary is perfectly understandable. Enjoying significant popularity, this Government has won every single battle it has waged since it was first elected to office. Although its popularity saw some decline in the results of the recently concluded provincial polls, it is still far less of an erosion than has come to be expected for an incumbent regime. Naturally therefore, it does not sit well with the political leadership that of late, some of its battles in the legal sphere have been resounding losses.

The Supreme Court has prevailed in several matters of crucial importance to the citizen and civil liberties lately, by granting leave to proceed in Fundamental Rights cases filed by journalists following the Sri Lanka Mirror raid and a case against the Central Bank challenging the prudence of its governor investing in Greek bonds.

Lower courts have also stood firm on several issues, including the matter of murder suspect and UPFA MP Duminda Silva and the contempt case against Rishard Bathiudeen, a Cabinet Minister. Undoubtedly adamant to have its way, the Government will devote all its energy into finding ways to thwart what they view as defiance by the Judiciary. If the battle intensifies, the Judiciary too will have to seek redress in the people.

This is where the opposition comes into play, if it can organise itself effectively to stand firmly with the judges and pledge to protect judicial independence under a future regime. It is a cause which, many political analysts avow, almost every political party will support.

With the home fires burning it is no wonder that President Rajapaksa decided to give the UN General Assembly a miss this year.

The trip to New York in September is usually an opportunity for jumbo delegations to charter aircraft and fly to the Big Apple for the annual adventure. Rajapaksa has cherished the opportunity to highlight his country’s successes at the forum, once addressing the UNGA in Tamil, to highlight the progress his Government was making towards reconciling with the minority Tamil people.

While it is not certain whether international pressures prevented the President from making the trip this year, Government insiders also believe that it could be an attempt to keep warring factions within his Government pacified.

Leading the Sri Lankan delegation to UNGA this year was External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris. The forthcoming Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next month has resulted in renewed tension between the External Affairs Minister and Plantations Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe, who is also the Presidential Special Envoy on Human Rights and will be leading Sri Lanka’s UPR delegation this year.

According to Government sources, the decision for Minister Peiris heading the UNGA delegation this year was aimed at placating him somewhat for not leading the delegation to Geneva in October. In March this year, the tug-o-war between the various factions of the Lankan delegation became an ugly affair and the Government now believes it may have jeopardised Sri Lanka’s defence against the US led UNHRC resolution.

Poised delicately in its battles on almost every front, the Government’s next steps will be crucial to the continuance of democracy and rule of law in Sri Lanka. It is as if the people’s movements, the Judiciary and the international community are all saying one thing to the Sri Lankan Government: It’s your move.

Courtesy: Financial Times


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