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Universities and Student Protests: Too Much Blood

Sri Lanka has a lot of protests, most of them conducted by local universities. We protest everything – governments,  private education, scholarships, private education, private education… you get the picture. It seems that every other month there’s a couple of metal barricades and one of them water cannon machines rolling up the road.

I’ve had the unfortunate experience of being caught up in a couple of these, and the level of thought gone into these is incredible. Mindless chanters – check. Coerced students – check. Placards. Banners onna stick.  Firebrands strung at strategic intervals to make sure everyone’s equally involved. There are always university students who, for fear of ragging, temporarily take up the robes of a Buddhist monk: these are generally placed front and center. Give it a couple more years and we’ll have enough expertise to launch a B.A. in Professional Protesting.

Usually it stops there. Usually people block traffic for a while, or sit on a pavement outside the Colombo Fort Railway Station, and usually bemused-looking cops hang back and hope nobody does anything foolish. Then everybody goes away.

This time, the excrement made physical contact with the electrically powered oscillating air current distribution device.

Let me now say the obvious thing that everybody expects you to say: this was wrong, those cops should be arrested, etcetera, etcetera, students, innocent, people getting people, blood, etcetera.

At the same time, it is  inevitable. Policemen are humans, and humans are not known for rational action. We go overboard. We do cruel things to one another. Perhaps there was one cop who had seen too many protests and had too many stones thrown at them. Perhaps Han shot first. This isn’t an excuse, but this is expected.

Now pull back a bit. This is not an isolated case. Why are students protesting? Why are there always students protesting? 

One reason: it’s too easy to protest.

Think about it. You have an idea. Say it’s something as stupid as wanting the government to guarantee jobs (er – why? If you can’t get a job, it’s not the government’s fault – pick something people want to hire you for, you moron!). Or say it’s something intelligent, like the disgusting standards of university accommodation.

Nobody listens. This is a blanket ban: smart ideas are rejected as equally as the stupid ones.

What do you do? Contact the Inter University Student Federation. The IUSF are the JVP lapdogs: by all accounts they’re what you get when you mix communism, clever rhetoric rage and popular idiocy together. These are the rednecks of Sri Lanka. They will, at the drop of a red cap, drum up a multi-university mob and hit the streets.

Now onward! You obviously don’t disperse when told to – who does that? So you wait until the vehicles are jammed for miles behind you and the police roll out the rubber bullets and the water cannons. The next day, assuming you’re not getting your beauty sleep in hospital and bitterly cursing your JVP overlords, you’re back in university, swapping tales and planning the next one.

Notice the people with the scripts in hand.

Is our system this bad? Not necessarily. Our system isn’t perfect, but look: we have free education.  Have you tried earning a degree in this country if you can’t get those three A’s for university? I have. It’s insanely expensive – you’re literally talking millions of rupees. Only a very small minority of very privileged children fit the “white-boy-coasting-on-rich-parents’-money” stereotype that applies when you say “private degree”: the majority of students have to scrap around, take loans, get themselves into colossal debt, and then work their rear ends off for quite a while before they’re out of debt.

This is the alternative. Trust me: you have it good.

Many of us look upon these protests with envy and a sort of amused sense of WTF. Envy, because some people actually have the time to protest, and WTF, because most of these protests are just flat-out stupid. Increase a scholarship by 2000 rupees? For fuck’s sake, find a side job. Freelance. If you have the time to be rioting, you have the time to be a productive human being and make that 2000 bucks and then some.

And this is funny, because Sri Lanka is cheap. In the US, or the UK, or developed countries where there is no free lunch, it’s common to spend your late twenties just working to pay the rent on a crummy apartment and pay off those student loans. We have it nice, really. Our parents have houses. Ammi cooks the rice (or that’s the norm). Most people only need to get out and be functioning adults after they get married – and even then you’re subsidized. And of course, nobody pays taxes.

Where we go wrong is this leeway. There’s too much of it. Educations are delivered free: no penalties. You’re allowed to protest education; you’re allowed to riot for the lack of education; you’re allowed to, and I’m not making this up, protest for people who were arrested on charges of ragging students. And we just sit back and dismiss this.

University students will be university students, eh?

We have become too used to this, I tell you: too jaded.

Every month the banners go up. Every month some hapless policeman must call up his wife, promise to get home for dinner, then don the helmet and go out into the streets. Every month, we share pictures, we make noises of outrage. Activists hashtag stuff. Someone cleverly blames it on whoever is running the government at the time. And then we go back to our lives.

Nobody fixes the problems. Nobody gives a fuck. All that happens is a bunch of students get used as cannon fodder, a couple of policemen are carted off to disciplinary hearings, and the world goes back to what it was. Does it matter whether universities are letting themselves be politically exploited ? Who cares? Some men just want to watch students burn.

While people bleed, the anti-government rhetoric goes up, some of it terribly written.

While people bleed, the anti-government rhetoric goes up. I’m no Hemmingway myself, but some of this stuff is genuinely bad writing.

What do we do to fix this? First, we arrest those policemen. Then we arrest those protesters. Then we arrest the organizers. While they’re beating the crap out of each other in a jail cell, we need to seriously address the issue of fixing things. Someone needs to get the Ministers of Education and their motley crew to go over each and every complaint, see if it’s reasonable, and implement it – or denounce it. And the next time a protest happens for something stupid, those protesters need to be kicked out of university. No buts, no temporary suspensions. There are a thousand others waiting to take their place.

If someone wants to riot, they better believe in it: believe in it to the point where they’re willing to sacrifice their educations and future careers for it. This is real life. You shouldn’t get to disturb a whole city and then get back to your dream of a white picket fence, three kids and a pension.  If you want to Disturb the Peace, it better be for a very, very good cause.


 

Regarding the recent protest:  the clash reportedly injured eight people – including four female students and a police constable. The injured have been admitted to the Colombo National Hospital. The police arrested 39 students: five female students and two monks were among the arrested, said the police. For what it’s worth, I’m glad that they’re not discriminating and letting the monks go. 

What Happened In Jaffna Should Not Stay In Jaffna

“The fighting’s started in Jaffna again,” said the woman at the shop.

I knew the incident she was speaking of: a hartal, a protest of sorts; police tear-gassing the crowd; a hundred and thirty people arrested; a lot of top brass in Jaffna being transferred away. The woman went on to discuss the Jaffna problem at length with her customer. Then, at some point in the conversation, they touched on the root of everything that had happened:

“All because of what happened to that girl, neh? Aney pau.  No one should have to suffer like that.”

The incidents that happened over the last ten days in Jaffna have been ethnicized, politicized and (if you read the newspaper reports) possibly lobotomized as well.  Let’s review what we know, minus the political accusations:

  • S. Vidhya, 18 years of age, did not show up for school on the 13th of May. Nobody raised the alarm until school was over, and when they did, the police assumed she had eloped. The next morning, she was found, raped and tortured and tied up inside an abandoned house.
    rape_0
    Note: I am not going to take this picture down, though I take no pleasure in posting it here. My purpose is to show you what the media deftly reduces to “a schoolgirl was raped”.  Understand that “rape” is not simply a occasional curse word or a Pornhub filter. This is the savage act that rape is – and by ignoring it, by refusing to see it, we paint over the horrifying ugliness that would otherwise churn our hearts.
  • The suspects were a local gang, including a Swiss national of Tamil descent. Locals say that they had a long history of crime to which the police turned a blind eye; police have not commented on this. Vidhya’s rape was apparently recorded on their mobile phones.
  • The suspects were arrested.
    Tevu-04Villagers attempted to assault the suspects while they were being transported to the Police station. The police used a Navy transport to take the suspects into custody.
  • The suspects were NOT brought to court.
  • Shit hit the fan. Protesters surrounded the courthouse and threw stones at it. The police responded with tear gas and the arrests of 127 protesters. Five police people were arrested.

This is not a “Jaffna problem”. It is a human problem. A girl was brutally raped. Her suspected killers were caught. They weren’t tried like they should have been. But there are two sides to this coin.

Firstly, the people.  Let’s clarify something: 200-odd protesters acting on a clear breakdown of justice are not Jaffna. They’re not an ethnic or political group. (If that were the case, our annual university protests would be tantamount to armed rebellion).

To be honest, we don’t know what the police did under the previous regime. We know that the suspects, back then, enjoyed tremendous influence. We believe that the police were, and possibly still are, corrupt. There certainly are suggestions that at least one of the suspects may have had “connections”.  There are also these photos being circulated, though take the photos with a grain of salt: there’s reason to believe that the one on the left is of an unintentional doppelganger.

jaffa_rapist_and_mahinda_rajapaksa

Naturally, people feared that the suspects would be let off the hook again. Out of fear, anger was born. Out of anger, hatred. Protests. Clashes. Conflict. I’m neither for nor against the police on this issue, but consider the facts.

It’s sad that people are using this to call for public stoning and all manner of other gruesome punishments – cures administered to a dead body will not make it live again. It’s even sadder that the media seem to be focusing on the protests rather than the reason behind them, which is . . . rape.

Sri Lanka does not talk about rape. It’s indiscreet. Women are raped all over this country, and if you believe the stats Powerpoint’d by every starry-eyed activists, one in ten men are rapists. We don’t talk about these problems. They’re hushed over. Pictures aren’t displayed. Names aren’t discussed.  Polite people do not think of these things; they just go on willingly blind until one of their own gets raped.  Monks get fired up about women wearing short skirts to temples and children not respecting their parents, but something as heinous as rape? Oh no, not here. We’re like a bunch of ostriches with our heads stuck in the sand.

As a result of this social and cultural blindness, we also end up with a civic and legal blindness that tries to avoid these issues and move on to the next case. Sometimes the only thing that can pierce this veil is a shout and a clenched fist and a stone thrown in the right direction.

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Now the police. Are the police worried? Yes, they are.

A policeman has a double duty: to protect both the citizenry and the criminals under his care. It’s not a pleasant job. You’re asked to be a line in the sand – a human shield with the thugs, murders and rapists on one side of you and the innocents on the other. Sometimes the line is clear – the thugs are out there and it’s your job to stand up for the weak. But once you make an arrest, the tables change. You’re told to stand and protect those who have murdered, looted, raped. You’re asked to be their defense against the mob.

What do you do, stand aside and let Everyman tear your charges from limb to limb? To wait as that inevitably escalates – as it surely must – into the total breakdown of law and order?

Police fire teargas shells to disperse Jaffna mob may 142015

The irony is that at this point, it doesn’t really matter if you were a good cop or a bad cop. The duty requires that you protect those in your custody and not let something like, say, an angry mob rip them apart. It is easy for us to sit in our armchairs and write open letters and condemn people, but the cause-and-effect chain is apparent. Remember that at the end of the day it’s not the corrupt top cops and bigwigs under the firing line – it’s the constable told to shut the fuck up and get his riot shield and get the fuck out there.

What will solve this? Not an inquiry or a protest, or two, or two hundred.  What will quell the protests is when all of Sri Lanka justly protests the rape of any woman, of all women: not as a mob, not as citizens and police, but as a society swiftly moving to set a process into action. What will prevent this from ever happening again is when each and every one of us understand rape for the horrifying crime it is  and  demand justice in every instance.  

Jaffna-rape-case-640x400

Because, you see, this system is not the police: it is not the government alone. We are a part of this system. We – you and I and that woman in the shop and all the other souls in this country – are the largest part of this system. We cannot just demonize the policemen and pin all the blame on them. This blood is on our hands, too. When a rapist knows with absolute certainty that every man, woman and child will be against them; when they know there is no door, no stone, no tree, no bush for them to hide behind – that is when this problem stops. Not before.

I’d like to point out that good things are coming out of this incident. Sri Lanka is reacting to this – not as Jaffna, or as Hambantota, but as a country unified in its disgust and horror. Wijedasa Rajapakshe publicly shamed a racist media person. In this incident, we’re not Tamil, Muslim or Sinhala, but simply human.

Dead Shot from Wijedasa Rajapakshe to Racist Media Person!!#lka #jaffna

Posted by Srilankan Unity on Friday, May 22, 2015

Small victories, but victories nonetheless.

So talk. Talk about rape. Break the ice. Bring it into conversations. Break the dogmas that let rapes go unreported and unpunished. Let the idea spread – not through stones, but through minds.  Society is a system of ideas enforced by action. To change the system, change the ideas.

Why Did They March? (Galle Road | March | 2015)

On the 31st of March, a cordon of Sri Lankan Police – in full riot gear, truncheons and shields at the ready – stood on one corner of the Kollupitiya junction. One of them carried a gun that rained tear gas cartridges on the road ahead. In front of them was a short stretch of Galle Road, empty save for one young monk with a stick in his hands and a few university students, fleeing back into the army of protestors that all but blocked Galle Road. Towards the sea, where Marine Drive connects to Galle Road, stood a vast mob behind a cloud of white smoke.

The riot gun made a dull thumping sound.

I’m not sure you can see all of this in the video I captured. Maybe if you slow it down, look through it frame by frame, you can pick out the pieces.

(I tried sidling up to the action and getting a better shot, but stepping out of that bus was a fool’s errand – not only did I end up with my eyeballs set on fire, but the photos suffered horribly from camera shake. The police near Liberty Cinema also did not seem to appreciate a Lumia thrust into their faces. Perhaps they were Apple fans. )

Surprisingly, nobody knew this was happening, or why. People in Bambalapitiya, had no idea; neither did people at Colombo Fort; nor, for that matter, did people on Duplication Road. It was a bit surreal. News sites reporting later only said that the police had closed off a section of the Galle Road and fired tear gas at “a group of university students”.

That wasn’t a group, it was a bona fide battalion. The line stretched from Barefoot to Kollupitiya junction. At some points the crowd was four lanes wide. Here’s a video showing just how bad it was. So the question is, what the hell happened?

THE REASONS

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When on a protest, it is customary to bring along banners, with your vision and mission clearly stated – just in case everyone forgets why they’re here.  Going by the banners,  it was:

a) The Mahapola Scholarship

This country has something called the Mahapola Scholarship. Based on merit and need (determined by factors like annual income), a certain sum is given to select university undergraduates. Maithripala Sirisena’s 100 Day Manifesto promised to increase this sum. It wasn’t. We can assume that a portion of the students took to the streets because of this. The protest seems to have worked because two days ago the government announced that the Mahapola Scholarship would be upped to Rs 5,000 (from Rs 2,500) starting June 2015.

b) University Attendance

Then there’s the question of making 80% attendance compulsory for students. This is where opinion kicks in with a punch, so I’ll share my thoughts about it below.

c) Political motivation

Sri Lanka’s universities have a history of being hotbeds for political activity; in fact, many of our politicians were once student activists. Our ivory towers, it seems, are two stories high and made of wood. It’s easy for political manipulation to set in. This current protest can be seen as a ploy to undermine the current government just before the elections – people have suggested that even pushing it to the brink of tear-gassing might have been a deliberate act to make the government appear militaristic and brutal.

I wouldn’t be surprised. Sri Lankan universities protest for everything.  So much so that it’s like the boy who cried wolf; nobody really wants to believe in them anymore.  Protesting is practically a form of art. Or, should I say, Arts.

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Old photo. Used here only for visual relevance.

Either way, a university attendance is powered not by need, but by desire.

People need food, water, oxygen. People desire  a degree because it adds to their perceived social worth. There is a choice, then. Nobody’s being held hostage, so the choice is to take the good with the bad or walk away and make a living elsewhere. And if the desire persists, to earn enough money to get that degree.

I honestly believe protesting this is a fantastically stupid idea. Schools require a minimum attendance from students. Offices demand a minimum attendance from their employees. The whole purpose of this is to ensure that work is being done, and that students are not off marching or blocking traffic on Galle Road whenever it strikes their fancy.

Many local university students I’ve talked to pointed out that unlike “private university students”, their families need their help at home. So help; instead of rioting, go home. If your family is starving while you’re here rioting in the name of free education, then something’s very wrong here. There are a lot of things that need to be fixed, but address them individually. If the lecturers are stupid, call for better lecturers. If what you are taught in University is easily accessible in Wikipedia, then you don’t need a degree; you need an Internet connection. Buy a dongle and a laptop and stay away from the riot police. But demanding the right to not attend something paid for by the people, something you’ve worked for 20 years, is like demanding the right to not show up to work while still collecting a salary.

Another friend, Chithru De Silva, stands on the other side of the fence. Taking the University of Sabaragamuwa as a case study, she points out that the way the system is setup makes 80% attendance needless torture for many students. There are those who must travel for 6 hours just to get to university, those that support their families by working while scraping through universities, and those that must go home for the harvest. The campus facilities are inadequate, there’s no clean water and the main hospital is nineteen kilometers away. Being less prejudiced than I am, she accepts that compulsory attendance is necessary, but suggests a figure in 60-70% ballpark.

This can go both ways.

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On one hand, it is taxpayer money. In an age when millions of people around the world must take on catastrophic debt just to pay for tuition, demanding more money (Mahapola) and more privileges on top of an already free degree sounds like the height of ungratefulness. The laws guarantee us free education, but in reality the world does not owe us anything.

On the other hand, part of it, especially the Mahapola scenario, is also about holding a government accountable. As my friend Senel Wanniarachchi pointed out, it’s easy to superimpose a beggars-can’t-be-choosers attitude because these are  taxpayer handouts, but at the end of the day a democratic society has to offer the right to protest to everyone and anyone.  If it doesn’t, you might as well don the boots, bend the knee and ready the prayer beads.

“Hope,” says the Architect of the Matrix, referring to humanity. “The quintessential human delusion, simultaneously the source of your greatest strength, and your greatest weakness.”

I disagree. Democracy, the law that states that every person has a voice: that is the source of our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. A system with checks and balances on the misuse of power also checks and balances the use of power.  Thus it has always been, and probably always will be, until someone pulls out the gun.

THE SAD TRUTH: FREE EDUCATION IS EXPENSIVE

The provision of education has always been tricky. On one extreme, you have America, where students bury themselves in so many student loans that they spend the next ten years paying them off; in Germany, you have tuition-free universities unable to afford more classrooms, more teachers, and more accommodation to deal with the demand. Free education is expensive. So is paid education. The only difference is who signs the cheque. Knowledge is power, and nobody’s giving it away free.

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Sri Lanka orbits an unhappy medium; a system of public universities accepting people through one metric (Z-score) and a system of private universities accepting people through another metric (cash). These systems hate each other. Most of the people in them are very similar, but private university students look over mountains of bank debt and recent public university students for “getting everything free”; public university students grudge private university students for their shiny classrooms, extravagant balls and parental money.

There are very rich people in both systems, very poor people in both systems (the private system punishes these people with heavy exam fees, often paid in Pounds Sterling) and a vast majority of average people everywhere. One group resents the time spent in study, the other resents the time spent in producing wealth.

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One group has certain standards guaranteed to it by the underlying mechanics of business and competition. If your university has bad toilets, you go sign up at the one across the street. Because your university wants your money, they’ll spend on good toilets rather than lose you. The other group doesn’t have that luxury and, therefore, has to go and protest.

I protest! You protest! Everybody protest! #campus

I stepped off the train today, made my way out of the station – as usual – and ran into a crowd.
Not the usual office crowd. No, this was a solid clump of guys and girls wearing badly-stenciled Anon masks on the backs of their head.  There was indistinct chanting ahead. A few monks floated here and there like huge orange traffic lights. Naturally intrigued, I footed it to the source of the chanting – and ran into today’s special: the university protests.

The general idea is this:

a) You are a state university student. You are one of the select percentage who, having aced your A/Ls, have made it into a government-sponsored university.

b) The government spends a ton of money on you and others like you. While private universities charge anywhere between 300,000 and 1.5 million rupees for that degree, you’re getting it free.

c) You’re dissatisfied. Naturally, instead of accepting the fact that the good things in life aren’t free, you decide to march on Colombo, COMPLETELY BLOCKING TRAFFIC and generally making an absolute ass out of yourself.

These youth seem to be laboring under the mistaken impression that life seems to owe them a red carpet and the whole nine yards in exchange for a few years’ bent half-heartedly over a book. Can anybody explain the logic of this? 

No wonder aliens don’t visit Sri Lanka all that often. If they’re looking for intelligent life, they’re going to be really, really disappointed here.

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