Gaunt, he seems to be, albeit resonating with zeal, Lahiru walked into Ceylon Today office a couple of days after obtaining bail after a 47-day spell in prison. “I am back in the campaign” he uttered blithely.
Lahiru Weerasekera, Convener of the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) was arrested and remanded on charges of causing damage to public property when IUSF members attempted to enter the Ministry of Health (MoH) for a discussion with the Minister, Rajitha Senaratna.
“Being in prison was an unforgettable experience. I learnt a lot during my stay there,” he chuckled. Lahiru noted that although people hold a diabolical notion about prisoners, the ones that he got to associate with in prison were an exception. “Prisoners are also human beings. During my stay in prison I was never disappointed with the behaviour of my fellow prisoners. They were friendly and assisted me to get adjusted to the uneasy situation,” he said.
When asked how his family dealt with his arrest and imprisonment, Lahiru said that the family collapsed emotionally when they heard of his arrest and imprisonment. Although they possessed a fair knowledge of the responsibility and the risk involved in being a students’ leader, Lahiru’s imprisonment had sent waves of shock through their hearts. “It is natural for any parent to worry over the arrest and imprisonment of a son. It is my mother who could not cope with it albeit she was aware of the risks associated with my responsibility as the convener of IUSF,” he said.
His father who is a retired banker and mother, a housewife had visited him at the prison once a week. “My parents came to the prison from Mawathura, Gampola to see me. I was eagerly expecting that day to taste the delicious food that my mother prepares,” he reminisced.
Lahiru has a brother and a sister, who have always been pillars of strength to him.
Lahiru had enrolled, for the BSc Science degree course, at the University of Rajarata in 2011, but has not yet completed his degree despite the fact that the batch had passed out in 2015. “I’m inundated with the work related to the students’ campaigns and can hardly find time for studies. That is why completing my degree has been delayed,” he said while asserting that he has given the foremost place in his life to the students’ campaigns and everything else comes after that.
Below are the excerpts of the tête-à-tête with Lahiru Weerasekera:
?: You were arrested and imprisoned on allegations of causing damage to the property of the MoH and of unlawful assembly. Do you see any other motive behind your arrest?
A: It is apparent that there are other ulterior motives behind my arrest. Whenever we staged protests, cases were filed against us on the allegation of causing inconvenience to the public.
Although my imprisonment was a lawful one, I see there are other motives behind it. The government wanted to repress the students’ campaign against SAITM. In order to hamstring the campaign, the government arrested and imprisoned the student leaders.
This is also the reason for the attempt to abduct Ryan Jayalath, the convener of Medical Faculty Students’ Action Committee. History has proven that students’ campaigns cannot be impeded by any means. Students have been able to secure victory in the battles they fought over their rights.
Rulers of the country are well aware that students will not settle for anything less than what they demand. But, still they try in vain to repress the students’ movements.
?: Do you think the education sector in the country is confronted with a crisis?
A: There is obviously a crisis in the education sector in Sri Lanka. Students have to fight for the right of free education. The authorities only take pride in speaking about the Father of Free Education C. W. W. Kannangara, while attempting to deprive the citizens of the country of free education. My reflection is that there is no free education in the country at present. Free education was only an undelivered pledge that was mentioned in election manifestos.
?: Many are of the view that some of the politically motivated movements take advantage of the students to serve their selfish political ends. Students too, out of ignorance, act in accordance with the whims and fancies of those movements, audaciously jeopardizing their education. Are you for or against this view?
A: I do not think so. The campaign against SAITM is not the first or the last battle the students fight for their right to education. If we look at it in retrospect, we can learn that students have fought against the privatization of the education and health sectors and have emerged victorious. They dared to sacrifice their lives to secure their rights.
The students who are studying at universities are adults over 18 years wthem as adults and has vested them with the right to vote. So, they are no more immature, but are well aware of what they are doing. They are intelligent enough to choose between what is good and what is bad for them. They are a wise and knowledgeable set who got selected to universities.
I reject the claim of some selfish people that the students are deceived and made to dance to the tune of politically motivated movements. This endeavour is not for providing undue mileage to those movements such as the GMOA, the Frontline Socialist Party or the JVP. This endeavour is to secure the right of free education for the citizens of this country.
Students, as I said, are not unintelligent thickheads to imperil their education for the sake of satisfying the above movements. In fact, those movements are a pillar of strength to students in fighting their battle against the privatization of education, especially the privatization of medical education.
?: The Medical Faculties have been closed for over seven months and the education of the medical students is at a standstill. Don‘t you think these students are wasting their valuable time on the streets in vain?
A: This battle against privatization of education will never be futile. The benefits of our battle will be experienced by the generations to come. The government’s plan is to set up five more private medical colleges in the country to derive profits out of them. That will imperil the free education of the country, because then the State universities will be neglected and one day will face the threat of total closure.
One of the disadvantages of the education system in Sri Lanka is the importance given to theoretical knowledge. Practical knowledge or experience is often neglected. In order to produce a complete citizen, theoretical as well as practical and social knowledge are vital. By moving closely with the society can a person acquire sound social skills that are not taught at educational institutions.
The students are not wasting their time, but are being endowed with lifeskills. By being a part of the battle against privatization of education, they obtain a vast gamut of experience on socio-economic condition of the country. By engaging in campaigns of this nature, students feel the importance of collective responsibility and team spirit. They get the opportunity to learn the importance of voicing and rising against injustice.
Students are travelling around the country and meeting different types of people. They get to listen to the ideas of the masses and acquire experience through that.
They become knowledgeable of the social hierarchies and that will enable them to be more responsive to social crises when they embark on their careers after completing studies. Their learning is not confined to the classrooms and laboratories but has expanded across the society.
Although these students who engage in this campaign miss their classroom education, they acquire a vast spectrum of social knowledge and they will surely become dexterous and a skillful set of employees in the future. Moreover, they will be good citizens.
Hence, we never think that this is a waste of time since the students are engaged in continuous learning.
This battle is vital for each and every citizen of this country because if given up, one day their children will also face this crisis.
?: Is the government not responding to the SAITM crisis?
A: Not only to the SAITM crisis, this government is generally not attentive or responsive to the issues of the masses. However, this government does not seem to provide an agreeable solution to the SAITM crisis.
We embarked on our battle against SAITM on a small-scale, by staging peaceful protests in front of universities. We held talks with the authorities. We also discussed this issue with the President. But the government failed to provide us with an agreeable solution.
Students thought that boycotting their studies will make the Government sensitive to the demands of the students.
Medical faculties have been closed for over seven months and the government takes no notice of that. The government is obsessed with what is profitable for them. In order to make SAITM a profitable venture, the government is recklessly endangering the education of the students who are studying in State Universities.
It is conspicuous that the government is repressing students. And, we are ready to sacrifice our lives in the battle to win our rights.
The government is gradually attempting to privatize the education sector. This government is self-seeking and not responsive to the problems of masses. Hence, we cannot have faith that the government will solve our problems. That is why we have embarked on this campaign to make the government feel the strength of the hoi-polloi.
?: Do think this government will privatize the State education sector?
A: It is obvious that the government is eying the privatization of education since privatization of public institutions is an attribute of the government. One of the chief negative aspects of the open economy, that was introduced by the then UNP Government, is the curtailing of social-welfare. The aim of Open Economy is not to look into the welfare of the masses but the deriving of profits for the government.
The government will stop developing the public institutions like hospitals and educational institutions and let them become inefficient.
They will later be privatized or the government will charge fees to run them. This is not appropriate for a country like Sri Lanka.
?: When can we expect an end to the SAITM crisis and when can the students of the medical faculties resume their studies?
A: Ending the SAITM crisis is in the hands of the government. Unfortunately, the government does not need to provide a solution to the students and make arrangements to resume their studies.
Students will resume their studies if the SAITM is abolished. I reiterate that they are not prepared to settle for alternative solutions other than abolition of SAITM.
The government is attempting to privatize the health sector in the country. In order to implement that, institutes like SAITM should exist.
We cannot say when this campaign against SAITM will come to an end. If the government provides us with a prompt and agreeable solution, we can end our campaign and the students can resume their studies. The government should decide whether it needs to keep the students on the road longer or allow them to resume their studies.
?: Do you think the Minister of Higher Education will be able to contribute towards the securing of the right to free education and enhance the higher education sector in the country?
A: Not at all. Securing free education or bolstering higher education are never his objectives. He derisively spoke about the State universities lacking facilities. If the State universities lack facilities, the Minister of Higher Education is responsible and should take action to develop them.
He is also a member of the government which is attempting to privatize public assets. We can never expect him to contribute towards free education or to enhance the quality of State education.