Academics from Sri Lanka’s state universities on Wednesday withdrew from online teaching and administrative duties in resistance to a government Bill that, they say, threatens to “militarise” education.
University teachers also held a silent protest across campuses on the island, according to Harshana Rambukwella, a spokesman for the Federation of University Teachers Associations’ (FUTA) campaign against the General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University (or KDU) Bill.
“The FUTA’s main demand is that the government keep military and civilian education separate,” Prof. Rambukwella said. “This Bill is not just about one university, it is essentially a model of private education, subsidised by the government and run by the military. It is an assault on the country’s public education system,” he said.
The KDU Bill, scheduled for parliamentary debate on August 6, seeks to change the governance structure of the University that was set up in 1980 as an Academy exclusively for the tri-forces, and named after Sri Lanka’s former Prime Minister. The proposed changes could pave way for a greater military role in education policy and administration, academics warn.
With their symbolic action, the university teachers joined other teacher and student groups calling for withdrawal of the controversial Bill. The Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU), a body of school teachers across the country, and the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF), one of the largest student bodies in Sri Lanka, are also opposing the Bill. Earlier this month, dozens, including CTU general secretary Joseph Stalin, were arrested during a protest against the Bill, on charges of violating “health regulations”. They were forcibly quarantined for a week.
Following wide condemnation of the arrest, including by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, they were released. “Discussions with the government have been very disappointing so far, we will continue our strike action,” Mr. Stalin told The Hindu, of the CTU’s ongoing protests against both, the KDU Bill and for a “long-pending” salary hike.
Concerns over militarisation in Sri Lanka grew following the election of ex-military officer Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President in November 2019. In her report in January this year, UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet referred to “the accelerating militarisation of civilian governmental functions”, citing the appointment of at least 28 serving or former military and intelligence personnel to key administrative posts.
For a decade now, the Tamil people living in the north and east, who have faced the brunt of post-war militarisation, have repeatedly objected to the visible presence and participation of the army in civilian activities, including agriculture. The growing momentum and media coverage of the ongoing protests against the KDU Bill lately have put militarisation in the spotlight in the country’s Sinhala-majority south.
Those slamming the Bill are flagging the possibility of a military-run, parallel structure of higher education, with provisions to quell students’ right to free expression and dissent. In a recent Oped article, Opposition legislator and former professor Harini Amarasuriya wrote: “The proposed KDU Bill offers a privatised, military model of higher education, which will take Sri Lanka on a trajectory towards militarisation of society as a whole.”
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa told the politically influential Maha Sangha [Buddhist clergy] recently that the “obstacles” in the “University Grants Commission Act” would be removed, and the KDU would be brought under its purview. “It is a mistaken reference to Sri Lanka’s Universities Act, as there is no UGC Act,” Prof. Rambukwella said. Questioning the “ad hoc” amendment of laws governing the University system without wider consultation, he said: “Even this move is a back door attempt to bring the KDU under the purview of the University Grants Commission, which has neither the authority nor competence to oversee military education. The objective of both will only get diluted.”