FUTA: How I stopped worrying and learned to love conspiracy theories

No, it’s not the acronym for the football association of Sri Lanka, in case you are wondering. It’s the federation of university teachers’ associations that we are talking about. Why did they suddenly come into the limelight? Because they led one of the longest trade union strikes in recent Sri Lankan history, and have gathered support from more quarters than anticipated.
 
Yes, they demanded a salary hike – doesn’t everybody? Who after all, can survive on a Sri Lankan salary? But that is not all. They also asked the government of Sri Lanka to set aside 6% of the GDP for education. Have you seen one of their posters? It contains an image of devolution from Homo sapiens sapiens intelligentsis back to chimpanzee, superimposed on a graph showing the already low education budget of Sri Lanka dwindling proportionately to the country’s GDP in the last decade. Now I don’t appreciate them insulting the intelligence of chimps but let’s leave that aside.

We have a pretty shoddy government. Everyone – more or less – knows that. True, the Rajapakses brought an end to “the war” and for that we are all supposed to be eternally grateful. But since they have won the war, they have done everything in their power to relinquish every opportunity for peace and reconciliation. And for that are we supposed to be eternally grateful?

In the last decades Sri Lanka came to be known as a breeding ground for terrorists. Travelling through any airport in the world, each of us, Sri Lankan citizen, whatever ethnic group to which we purportedly belonged, was a terrorist unless otherwise proven. Nowadays Sri Lanka is getting a reputation as a breeding ground for torturers. Terrorists or torturers, both begin with a “t” – does it make a difference? All it means is that a rather small group of people committed to violence are holding the rest of the population hostage. So we have a hostage crisis in Sri Lanka. Now isn’t that slightly better than a humanitarian war?  The question is: where’s the rescue squad? Who’s going to undertake Mission Impossible?

Now, some will say let’s take the long-term view. Sri Lanka is a democracy, citizens can use the ballot to topple governments, so let’s look at the opposition to the current regime.  Keep looking and looking…what do you see? Three musketeers – Ranil, Sajith, Karu. And there’s the fourth one, Sarath, lurking in the shadows. All for none. None for all. Mission aborted. Why do we not have a single credible politician who can galvanize the good sense of people, who, at the end of the day, all want pretty much the same things – a reasonably satisfying, uneventful but dignified life? Because no respectable, intelligent person with integrity ever enters politics in Sri Lanka. Why not?  Because politics is dirty, politics is corrupt, politics is violent and no respectable person who tries can survive this hunger game.

So who’s to blame for the sorry state of affairs in Sri Lanka? The Rajapakses, the LTTE, the past and current politicians, the government, the citizens of Sri Lanka, the Sinhalese, the Tamils, the Muslims, the diaspora, the NGOs, the western nations, each one of us, all of the above?

Then here comes FUTA – our knights in shining armour. They ask us: how can Sri Lanka become a knowledge hub or even more miraculously the Wonder of Asia by slashing public investment on education? So far, so good. If we look at our other Asian neighbours, which are miracles of one sort or another, none have managed to become a miracle without investing in higher education.  Miracles, as you know, happen because of God. And God helps those who help themselves.

The government has said education in the island is of such high standards, compared to our neighbours, that the budget allocation needs no increase. Sri Lanka as we know boasts the highest literacy and education rates in South Asia – excepting Maldives. So all the more reason to sit on our laurels and let the country fall abysmally behind everyone else in this new “Asian Century”.

And the government has also said the union’s 6% of GDP demand for education was not legitimate because it is politically motivated and part of a conspiracy to bring about “regime change”.  That is a favourite term of conspiracy theorists these days.  Now let’s consider the possibility of these academic types, peering through thick-rimmed glasses, waving some banners and placards on Bogambara grounds or Lipton Circus, bringing about “regime change”.  Think again.

By making the FUTA strike into a conspiracy, however, the government, at first glance, seems to have done the union a favour. It has turned a bunch of brave new academics into a band of super heroes. Everyone loves a conspiracy and wants to join one to overthrow the government – gee, man, that’s what we’ve been waiting for. Or is it really a favour? In the process FUTA collected a set of bedfellows, as conspiracies to bring about “regime change” tend to do. It seems everyone was marching to Lipton Circus in the last few weeks – university teachers and students, but also Sajith, the rebel UNPer, Sarath, the fallen general, Vickramabahu, the eternal socialist, Somawansa, the failed revolutionary. One of these bedfellows not surprisingly was the IUSF – the Inter-University Student Federation.

The IUSF, otherwise known as anthare, is the ragtag student union controlled by the JVP responsible for making freshers eat their own vomit and dunk their heads into toilet bowls. The one that attempts to control the entire student population at universities, including the more intelligent ones, by orchestrating the infamous “rag” – which FUTA has failed to eliminate for the most part from the university system. Yes, the very same union led by student leaders with GPAs between 0.0 and 1.0 – the ones whom VCs don’t dare throw out of the universities because they don’t want to suffer threats of bodily harm.

This is the union that screams that education is being sold to mud(th)alalis (a word, by the way, shared by Sinhalese and Tamils alike) so that the dumb children of mud(th)alalis who otherwise don’t qualify for state universities can buy themselves an education. Never mind that a considerable proportion of the students in state universities are children, dumb or otherwise, of small-town mud(th)alalis, including some of IUSF’s ragtag leaders. Even though free education in Sri Lanka is ostensibly to benefit the poorest-of-the-poor from the rural hinterlands.

The JVP loves conspiracy theories too and one of their pet ones is that the government is waiting to hand over education to the private sector in Sri Lanka – so “let’s protect free education”. The FUTA campaign meanwhile has marched with “let’s protect state education”.  See any difference – an academic one, perhaps? In case we forget, the JVP with which FUTA is aligned is the very same party that has fought tooth and nail to prevent a minimum sort of political autonomy to be offered to ethnic minorities in the country, or even to recognize that this is their country as much as everyone else’s.

Sri Lanka is a mixed economy. It has always been one.  Diversity offers people choices and makes up for inadequacies in quality and price of goods available in the public and private sectors. Why is education the only exception, the holy cow, in Sri Lanka? Because it is a right? So are food, shelter and health. Those of us who lived in the 1970s know what happened when food was monopolized by the state. Or was I the only kid who was forced to stand eternally in line at the CWE (Cooperative Wholesale Establishment) clutching an empty bag in my hands?

We are also a mixed people. Education monopolized by a Sinhalese dominated state has always been in the hands of those who believe that it is the right and privilege of the Sinhalese rural masses. What is called the “hidden curriculum” of the state education system has perpetuated prejudice, rather than multi-culturalism depriving opportunity, respect and dignity not only to Tamil, Muslim, Malay, Burgher and Veddah students, but those coming from dirt poor rural and urban Sinhalese, including so-called “low caste”, households.

This superior public education system has still not been able to teach boys to stop harassing girls, and men to stop harassing women on every public bus. It has not been able to teach our ethnic groups with their rich, ancient heritages to co-exist peacefully. It has not even been able to teach barely anyone to stop throwing garbage that pollutes our beautiful landscape. If FUTA wants to have 6% of the budget for education, it cannot be just “symbolic” as its leader has pronounced. Now that FUTA has come to some agreement with the government and called off the strike, perhaps it can spell out to us on what and for whom it would spend new public resources, and how exactly it will transform what is rotten at the core?

Until then I have stopped worrying and learned to love conspiracy theories.

Bird of Passage corresponds every other week exclusively with iSrilankans.

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