Fait accompli of medical education, police and protests
Posted on September 7th, 2016

by Rohana R. Wasala Courtesy The Island

A protest march organized by the Inter-University Student Federation (IUSF) with the participation of   state university medical and bhikshu students demanding the abolition of SAITM was dispersed by police using teargas and water cannon in Colombo on August 31, 2016. The protest  march started at the Sri Jayawardanepura university premises and moved along the High Level road towards Colombo. The traffic congestion that resulted, as usual in such situations, inconvenienced the public a great deal. At Nugegoda, police read out a court order obtained from the Colombo magistrate’s court which required the marchers not to enter the high security zone in Kollutpitiya and Colombo Fort. When the protest march reached the high security area, the students tried to overrun the place toppling the barricades, and the police went into action.

Some students were seen picking up teargas canisters fallen near them and throwing them back at the police before they exploded; some equally intrepid policemen picked them up and hurled them again at the protesters. A few young monks, perhaps demonstrating their previous experience in facing teargas attacks, were seen dipping their hankies in water in a pond nearby and wetting their faces with them. To some extent, the daring youngsters seemed to enjoy the game (whether they had brains to match their apparent passion for their cause is a different matter). As a retired educator, with decades of experience working with young adults (students) both in Sri Lanka and abroad, I know how innocently  idealistic, uncorrupted, fresh-thinking, and creative they are. They are the flower of the nation in any country. In the case of some, however, their natural impressionability makes them vulnerable to abuse at the hands of manipulative politicians, as already so well known to all adult Sri Lankans.  I’d like to make this confident observation about the quixotic young protesters who were indulging in empty heroics demanding the closure of SAITM: swashbuckling narcissism is an embarrassingly silly substitute for acting responsibly in any crisis situation. This applies to the protesters and to the police alike.

Police had to be deployed in a similarly lawful but unfortunate operation on the same day at the Dambulla International Cricket Stadium. The occasion was the fourth ODI match between Sri Lanka and Australia. The stadium could accommodate only about 18,000 spectators, whereas the crowd that wanted to get in to see the match numbered around 45,000! So, three fifths of the cricket-crazy fans were shut out from the match that was about to begin out of sight just a few meters away from where they were standing so restlessly. It was obvious that many of them wanted to see the match free. The frustrated young men rioted, bringing down hoardings, and causing other property damage. Some of those who had bought tickets could not be ushered in. The crowd control mechanisms had failed or were utterly inadequate. The police had to intervene to restore order.  The usual teargas treatment was applied to try and partially save the immediate situation. Sri Lanka Cricket had arranged for seats to be reserved online, which was a disadvantage for many fans in the rural outback where this particular stadium itself is situated. We’re peasants’ children. What internet for us?” one of the young men complained.

The implicit charge of discrimination raised in that rhetorical question against cricket authorities should not be lightly dismissed.  The usual public reaction to the Dambulla incident may be to condemn it as an instance of unnecessary violence created by some young delinquents who didn’t care about  the damage done by their misdemeanor to the country’s reputation as a decent host of international sports events. It is true that we often boast that our cricket aficionados  would never stoop so low as to resort  to such ‘hooliganism’ in protest against some lapse on the part of the cricket authorities or in frustration at an instance of less than the expected level of performance by the players. This one incident will certainly not erase that good reputation. But it is important to ensure that it will soon be forgotten as a one-off occurrence. We trust the current sports minister Dayasiri Jayasekera, who I personally believe is an upright politician sensitive to issues of possible anti-country prejudice, to get the incident investigated and remedies decided on as appropriate.

Freedom to hold peaceful protests is connected with ‘the right to freedom of opinion and expression’ and ‘the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association’ guaranteed respectively in Articles 19 and 20 of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The UDHR is very clear about how these rights should be exercised. Sections (2) and (3) of Article 29 are as follows:

(2) In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

(3) These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.

The protesters in both instances I have mentioned above failed to make sure that their protests were peaceful. So, the police action was necessary to secure ‘due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society’. However, the young people involved need not be blamed overmuch. Greater responsibility devolves on the relevant authorities of government to take effective steps to preempt the recurrence of similar situations in the future. What happened at Dambulla is the less complicated problem of the two. The Sports Ministry and Sri Lanka Cricket must deal with that in an effective imaginative way. The recurrent problem of student agitation against SAITM is the more critical issue that is waiting to be settled without further ado.

If the political authorities have a mind to do so, the solution to the SAITM issue is not far to seek. The answer is with the politicians. Yes, it is with the politicians of the government and of the official opposition, and of the Joint Opposition.  (True or false, the widely held public perception is that the JVP is behind student protests.) But as their sights are narrowly focused on  grabbing power and holding on to it, they are or pretend to be oblivious of simple things. Every issue, be it minor or major, is grist to the mill of political expediency. Be that as it may, but what is the solution to the SAITM crisis that is meant here? The solution is to allow SAITM to continue, and persuade the protesting students to give up their uncalled for agitation against the private medical college. There is a danger of infinitely more important crises that the country is facing to get lost sight of  when a fait accompli like this is unnecessarily made to occupy the centre stage of public attention.  There is a consensus of opinion between the government and the Joint Opposition regarding the establishment of private medical colleges. SAITM was launched under the previous Rajapaksa government, and individuals who served as ministers in that government are today either in the current regime or in the JO. So, it is not likely that there will be a change, unless there is a drastic reversal of their perspectives in this regard. Let there be more private medical colleges if necessary. Let parents who can afford to pay for the higher education of their children within Sri Lanka instead of sending them abroad for the same purpose at a much greater cost to the country (which is what is happening now) be given the opportunity to do so. This will allow a larger number than now of more needy students to be accommodated in the free state universities. However, one mandatory condition that must be met is this: the state must introduce effective mechanisms to control abuses of every sort, and ensure the highest standards.

The two main arguments that protesters raise against SAITM are: 1) that it is a threat to the policy of free education , and 2) that private medical education will produce substandard doctors. Both are specious arguments. Is it not the case that most of the agitating students themselves have won a chance to be selected for a university education thanks to private tuition at the AL, which normally costs the average poor parents of the country an arm and a leg? Aren’t there many private institutions even for elementary to secondary school  education already? What about the proliferating international schools? Instead of being a threat to free education, private medical education will save the state scarce financial resources for it to spend on more students from less economically stable backgrounds. The problem about standards can be easily fixed by the state, which must strictly regulate and supervise services in vital national domains like education and health, be they run as public or private enterprises. Sri Lanka can learn from the experience of other countries like UK, Australia, USA in this connection.

(This is a personal opinion)

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