Colombo despatch International

Students, in the fore-front of protests

A Sri Lankan university student wearing a mask throws back a tear gas canister fired by police to disperse them during a protest in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on May 17, 2017.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Outside Colombo’s famous shopping centre Odel, a group of university students were seated encircling the roundabout last week, as part of their ongoing campaign for nationalising a privately-owned medical college. Soon, riot police arrived at the spot and used water cannon to disperse the agitating group, citing a court order prohibiting the protest. They arrested as many as 13 students. Following the incident, social media was flooded with comments. While some were angry about students holding “disruptive” protests, others condemned “police violence” unleashed on the peaceful dissenters.

For many months now, the acronym ‘SAITM’ has been making front-page news in Sri Lanka. Government doctors and university students have been agitating, demanding closure of the medical school that the privately-owned South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) opened in 2008, citing improper accreditation and poor standards.

The Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA), the largest union of doctors in the island, and the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF) became the face of the protests, despite known political differences between them. The periodic strike action of government doctors came under severe criticism, after sections complained that patients at government hospitals were left stranded, particularly at a time when Sri Lanka is trying to combat a serious dengue epidemic. The GMOA met President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe for discussions between their strike actions, while students have continued agitating.

Whether it was during President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s time, or after the new government came to power in 2015, Sri Lanka’s university students have been at the forefront of resistance. IUSF leader Lahiru Weerasekara has been remanded many times in recent months. On July 20, some media outlets highlighted a reported attempt by the police to “abduct” Medical Faculty Students Action Committee convener Ryan Jayalath, but said it was prevented after activists intervened at the spot. Nevertheless, police response to student protests have raised some difficult questions for this government, with critics worrying that it brings memories of the Rajapaksa era “white-van abductions”. Admitting there were “shortcomings” on the part of the police, Sri Lanka’s Law and Order Minister Sagala Ratnayake recently insisted in Parliament that there was no attempt to abduct the student.

Bigger question

Meanwhile, some academics and educationists are trying to broaden the debate, shining the spotlight on free education in Sri Lanka. They are concerned that the apparent shift to privatisation would be detrimental to the future of the country, known for its good record in public education that has in the past contributed significantly to the island’s high public health standards and better social indices in the region. Pointing to fee structures and admission procedures in privately-run institutions such as SAITM, they warn that such a shift would deprive large sections of students access to quality public education.

Their apprehension also comes in the wake of the new economic reforms initiated by the current government, which has charted a greater role for the private sector in the economy. The government’s current thrust is on public-private partnerships and debates on public spending on education and health are barely audible in the public domain. Though the controversy around SAITM is a specific case, it may well be a symptom of a greater dilemma confronting future generations of students in Sri Lanka.

(Meera Srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo)

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2020 5:46:34 AM |

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