By Upali Tennakoon |Lanka Independent Published on June 10, 2011 at 2:50 am
The remains of the slain Free Trade Zone(FTZ) Worker Roshen Chanaka was buried last week. Now, on the surface, everything looks calm, quiet and tranquil. It appears the turmoil is over. But will this ‘peace’ last. That is the burning question.
This we know. The young factory worker Roshen Chanaka was shot dead by the Police. But we also know that the police could not have opened fire at peaceful protesters without an order from the top. Who issued this order? Why did they decide to issue this order? The answer is crystal clear. The top echelons of government were compelled to issue this order to safeguard the pension scheme they had offered the private sector. It was none other than the government that introduced this scheme – and as a result today an innocent private sector worker lies dead.
Meeting with workers
A few days before this protest, a meeting was held at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone chaired by the Minister of Labour Gamini Lokuge. During that meeting, the workers were given the chance to exchange their views and opinions on this scheme directly with the minister. One female worker visibly angry, was to throw some bold questions right up in the minister’s face.
“ We didn’t ask for something like this. If the government cannot ask our companies to increase our salaries, if the government cannot request them to grant leave for us on public holidays, how can they take a portion of our salary like this? The government will take this portion today and give us a ‘pension’ in 10 years. Will it be sufficient after 10 years? Finally we’ll lose our salary, EPF money as well as the pension. That’s why we don’t want this,” she said.
Some other workers present also expressed similar ideas. Whether the minister had satisfactory answers for the workers or not, while addressing the media after this event, he claimed he had had a cordial and constructive discussion with the workers. Lokuge also admitted there were some shortcomings on his side too. The Labour Ministry should have taken the necessary measures to raise the awareness of workers on this particular pension scheme, the Minister said.
But to the workers it was not a question of awareness. To them they were very well aware of the contents of the scheme and were in fact pointing out several flaws and discrepancies, many even accusing the government that the entire scheme was just an elaborate hoax to enable the government to dip its hand into Employee Provident Funds (EPF) money.
Certainly, no one would object to a viable proposal to introduce a pension scheme for the private sector. If the government were to introduce such a scheme not only private sector workers but the entire nation would welcome it. It would increase the popularity of the government and its leaders. However this present scheme has left the country in confusion and has ended in tragedy.
The government by issuing contradictory statements has only made matters murkier, perhaps deliberately. It issued a statement saying that FTZ workers are excluded from this scheme. This begs the question, if this scheme was the gold standard in pension schemes as the government claimed then why exclude the Free Trade Zone workers from it, so suddenly? This is not only a violation of their rights but it shores up another important issue. Can the government ever hope to formulate a sound pension scheme by cutting and chopping its parts in an ad hoc and imprudent way?
Women the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy
Consider this. Free Trade Zone workers are the biggest stakeholders of our national income. A few decades ago, Sri Lanka’s economy was dependant on tea, rubber and coconut but in recent times it has shifted to Free Trade Zones.
Today, Free Trade Zones, foreign employment and the garment sector have become the three main pillars of Sri Lanka’s national economy. More than 90 percent of Free Trade Zone workers are young women. The vast majority of migrant workers are also women and it is the same in the garment sector as well. Sri Lanka is dependent on its female labour force both within and outside the country. They have become the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy.
Therefore, if the government was implementing a pension scheme for private sector workers, FTZ workers should have been the main beneficiaries. If the government decides to exclude them from this pension scheme, they should be entitled to a better pension scheme that contains much better provisions. They can also merge garment sector workers to this pension scheme.
Today, the garment sector is also going through a period of intense turmoil. I will deal with the downfall of the garment sector in another article.
Through out history, workers have won their rights by shedding blood and it is an unshakable fact that they have a right to fight for their rights. If the government is not willing to address the grievances of workers and if it proceeds to suppress their legitimate rights by flexing its muscles and misusing its two-thirds majority in parliament, what alternatives do workers have? They will resort to demonstrations. They will keep fighting. This is what happened in Katunayake. The mayhem last week was nothing but a repercussion of the government’s highhanded attitude towards the grievances of workers.
The government did not discuss the controversial scheme with either the workers or the trade unions. Nor did the ruling elite exchange views and opinions with opposition political parties on this matter. One of Rajapakse’s ministerial lackeys claims that the President has in fact pledged to introduce a pension scheme to the private sector, in his election Manifesto – ‘Mahinda Chinthanaya’. But if the “Mahinda Chinthanaya” carried this sort of provision, people would not have voted for it. In his election manifesto what President Rajapakse has actually said was that he would grant a “special privilege to the private sector”. This is something entirely different and can be widely interpreted.
Surely has President Rajapakse and his government become so intoxicated by its two-thirds majority in parliament that they have forgotten that sovereignty and power lies only in the people? Is this why they are now engaging in such arbitrary behaviour?
Working class might
But the working class has proven that its power surpasses the so called ‘two thirds majority’. Withdrawal of this pension scheme is a sheer victory attained by the working class and they have, undoubtedly, nullified the ‘resounding’ majority in parliament. It does not auger well for the government and on the other hand it teaches several good lessons to the present regime. First of all, the regime should realize that despotism will not last long and people will stand against it, sooner or later. Any government, I believe, should not be humiliated in front of its citizenry and in the same way; rulers should know how to safeguard their ‘dignity’ vis-à-vis the challenges they confront on a daily basis.
The Rajapakse regime should now realize that it is futile to suppress the rights of people, by using police or military force. It is pointless to suppress their struggles by deploying police or army because at the end of the day, all these efforts will have serious repercussions.
Lessons from the past
Some lessons can still be learnt from the past. The Hartal which was launched on August 112, 953 is an ideal example for this. It quickly spread throughout the entire country and caused heavy damage to public property. It was launched by opposition political parties against the budget presented by then finance minister J.R. Jayawardena. With that budget, the government had removed the subsidy on rice and increased the price of sugar. Moreover, the government decided to stop the free mid day meal for school children and increased postal fee and rail fares. The Hartal was launched against these budget proposals and was spearheaded by the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) with the support of other opposition parties such as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) and the Lanka India Congress. The Revolutionary Lanka Sama Samaja Party also supported the Hartal but did not play an active role. On the day of the Hartal public transport services were completely interrupted and in some areas railway lines were damaged as well.
As a result of the Hartal then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake tendered his resignation and Sir John Kotalawala was appointed as the new Prime Minister. Sir John Kotalawala was able to control this sort of agitation by implementing emergency laws but he only managed to stay in power for three years and in 1956 the general election was won by the SLFP who came in on a nationalistic platform with the slogan “Sinhala only”.
This year has been a year of turmoil and uprising all across the globe. From the Arab spring we have seen the power of the people. We have seen how people have chosen different ways and strategies to bring about regime change. Social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter play a vital role in these movements against despotic regimes.
Even leaders like former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak who retained power for more than 3 decades with largely disputed ‘overwhelming majorities’ in elections, had to step down from power amidst growing protests and demonstrations by his own people. Libya is another example.
We can find a common characteristic in all these cases. That is the military forces of these countries have refused to control or suppress these protests. Instead thousands of military officers and soldiers have switched their allegiances and joined the protesters. They disobeyed the inhuman orders of their political leadership and decided to safeguard the civilians who were rioting against the regime. This could happen anywhere in the world. The military of a country would not follow wrong orders everyday.
In a context like this, the media and the opposition parties obviously have a pivotal role to play. When police open fire at innocent, unarmed civilians they cannot remain silent and act as if they are blindfolded. They have to come forward and safeguard the rights of citizenry. They can’t act deliberately in favour of repressive regimes. So, In Sri Lanka’s case; it is interesting to see how the opposition political parties and media behaved in this regard.
Particularly, in a context such as this, media should have covered all the aspects of this story rather than carrying press communiqués of the government. But unfortunately, most of the newspapers didn’t play their role and instead of that they just wash their hands off the story by carrying superficial news items. But, news websites, on the hand, did a tremendous job by publishing hidden stories that the newspapers turned a blind eye to.
Media suppression – a futile exercise
Everyone, including Sri Lanka’s government should understand a simple reality. The world has changed and in this modern technological era, no one can censor news or information in any manner. Sometimes repressive governments may restrict newspapers overtly and covertly but they cannot restrict websites and other alternate media. Therefore, controlling the flow of information is nothing but an outdated and stupid concept. The more they censor newspapers and other mainstream media, more websites and alternative publications will be launched.
In Sri Lanka there are nearly 1.8 million internet users and this equals to approximately 8 percent of country’s population. However the total circulation figures of all the newspapers ( Sinhala, English and Tamil ) sold on weekends, does not exceed this number. Under this condition, if the government tries to censor news and information directly or indirectly, it is nothing but a futile exercise.
Direct or indirect censorship will only result in the deprivation of news to a limited number of people who live in very rural areas. And such censorship will only fuel rumours that will spread quickly among them. In fact this will impact adversely on the government more as nobody is clearly worried about the veracity of rumours when spreading them. That is the nature of the beast.
In order to confront this challenge, the Rapajapkse government is now imposing bans and restrictions on these websites in many ways. Rather than help the government this will only worsen the situation. There are a number of countries that have already realized their folly having earlier adopted such asinine policies. Iran is a good example. In Iran, most of the anti government protests are being organized using mobile phones. Therefore, imposing bans, restrictions and censorships on media is a suicidal act. The Rajapakse regime must face up to and understand this reality.
India however has obviously seen the light. In India the government has ensured some level of media freedom by passing legislation such as the Freedom of Information Act and setting up an independent elections commission. They are now in the process of drafting an anti corruption bill. This is, undoubtedly, a good example for us.
Sri Lanka today is hurtling towards disaster. The agitation that took place in Katunayake was not influenced by political elements. If the government thinks so it is merely burying its head in the sand. The Opposition debilitated as it is, is not capable of triggering such agitations. If they did have such an ability to mobilize the people they would have and could have done a number of things by now.
The demonstrations at the FTZ last week were spontaneous. They were the result of the people’s anger towards the government. Their anger was exacerbated by those politicians who tried to misguide them. So ,much so that if there really had been a proper leadership to this ‘outburst’ of anger and frustration by the people , it could have transformed into a huge political tide that would have spread across the country. This spark had the potential if properly handled to have brought out hundreds of thousands of people onto streets against the government.
But this was not to be. It sparkled for while and then fizzled out. And yet this might be the first spark of a coming revolution. The second one will surely be stronger than this. If the government doesn’t change its approach it will certainly find its way into a political abyss. When that day comes the intoxicating two-thirds majority of the Rajapakse regime will become otiose.