Will a military university break a military-backed govt.?

By Rajpal Abeynayake 

The forced quarantining of those protesting the contemplated passage of the Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) Bill was rather dramatic, and has created a ruckus about the propriety or otherwise of disallowing dissent on the basis of health considerations.

As interesting as this debate may seem, it’s a temporary problem. The protestors may be hauled away and taken to their isolation locations, and there would be pictures that any photo editor would die for. There will be a lot of kicking and screaming.

That issue would, however, be just one facet of the problem. An important facet no doubt. It would define the power dynamic that determines the stature and sustainability of this Government. Is this a quasi-military administration, as the detractors have been saying, that’s willing to crush dissent in the short term as well as the long?

The quasi-military characterisation of the Government is very much flawed. This is a civilian administration and it’s difficult for the Government’s opponents to say it’s top heavy with Rajapaksas and claim it’s a military regime at the same time. But the question is whether this dispensation is strong – so strong and single-minded about its policy decisions – and would follow through with them no matter what, with a little help from the military?

It’s a real litmus test for the Government on that score – this issue of the KDU Bill. The protests are in essence about the issue of privatisation of higher education. The KDU Bill will give the administration of the KDU the autonomy to levy fees and decide on the fee structure for courses that are offered. This would mean that for the first time, there would be a fee-levying, degree-granting institution in the country in the field of medicine, for instance.

The history pertaining to the issue of private medical education shows that each time protestors took on any government on this matter, such dissenters always won. This was the case with the North Colombo Medical College in the 80s. It was the case with the more recent so-called SAITM, or the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine, pioneered by the late Neville Fernando.

Also, there have been no State-run, fee-levying, degree-granting institutions that have been successfully established, and this goes for any discipline.

There are many private degree-granting institutions that offer foreign degrees on a fee-levying basis, but there aren’t any fee-levying universities run by the government as protestors have always forestalled any attempt to establish such bodies based on the cry of “assault on free education”.

The current crop of protestors may seem puny against the might of the State, but appearances can be rather deceptive. They may have been dragged kicking and screaming to be quarantined, but deep down, these eccentrics, as they are generally portrayed to be, may be smug in the knowledge that if history is anything to go by, they would have the last laugh.

Similar “eccentrics” have tamed powerful governments before, and let’s face it, if the doctors step into this, there is all likelihood that the KDU Bill, even if born healthy, would end up having to be euthanized.

However, this is where everything becomes exciting. They say the Gotabaya Government is not to be underestimated. They say the hitherto unknown level of military backing it enjoys makes it a powerful juggernaut that is unstoppable. Besides that, the KDU is about the military. It is military-run, even though the Bill expects to convert the academy into a fee-levying institution open to all comers.

Would a bunch of “eccentrics” who have unerringly won similar battles before prevail against the almighty Sri Lankan military that functions under a civilian administration that veritably swears by its “invincible” military?

If the Gotabaya Government wins this battle in the long run, it would go on to create history as a regime that broke the mould, and Singapore-style was able to achieve what it wanted despite the odds.

But if it loses the KDU Bill battle in the long run, that would signal that this Government is as vulnerable as any other before it, and would peter out, rather than soldier on – no pun intended.

Make no mistake – at the initial stage of all these showdowns between the State and free education advocates, as they may be called for want of a better term, the State always looked invincible at the onset of the battle. History repeats. When teacher union heads such as Stalin and some others are pushed into buses and hauled up to be quarantined things look bleak for the protestors, and it’s almost funny.

The KDU Bill, of course, in all likelihood, would be passed. There doesn’t seem to be any doubt about that, but the short-term advantage the Government acquires by securing passage of the Bill would by no means indicate that the battle is over.

Is the military poised to quell all forms of dissent surrounding this issue, because the military doesn’t like losing? But what is the military going to do about it if strikes paralyse hospitals and there is civil unrest that forces universities to close down? Is the military going to get doctors to work and lecturers to lecture with a gun pointed at their heads?

On the other hand, the prestige of the Gotabaya Government that walks the walk, as well as it talks the talk, on military-related matters is at stake on this issue. Will a military that is not used to bowing its head down – in a manner of speaking – even in Geneva, be cowed by a bunch of wild protesters whose only weapon is fomenting anarchy and mayhem?

Who wins this battle may also have some bearing on the future trajectory of the country. If the Gotabaya Government seems vulnerable on this issue, it stands to lose a great deal of respect in the eyes of the people. But if it prevails, it’s stature would be tremendously enhanced. The people would see the Government as one that can follow through, and Gotabaya as the achieving dictator that a lot of the voters wanted him to be in the first place.

Even if the score is tallied prematurely after this first skirmish, despite everything, it still doesn’t look all that good for the Government. It is true that the dissenters were all hauled up to be quarantined. But the optics have given the protesters perhaps some psychological advantage. They are able to portray themselves as the temporarily martyred. Not everyone is bound to accept that narrative, but many people would.

These battles are never won or lost by the power of brawn and authority. The Government is already using Covid and the general health-related restriction regimen as a cover to quell the protests, say dissenters. Cover or not, when using the health issue against those who want to stop the privatisation of medical education, the Government is presented with a bit of a conundrum. Quarantine issue to stop the doctors?

The military is not poised to go full on Myanmar mode to preserve their interests on this issue. This is Sri Lanka, not Myanmar. But yet, it is inconceivable that the military would give up on the KDU pursuit without a fight. It would be a prestige battle, and to this writer it seems that dissenters who are committed to preserving the so-called fundamental tenets of free education have the edge in this confrontation.

But it doesn’t mean this will be a walk over for them. The KDU may become the first institution to break the mould. There are a lot of dissenting doctors, for instance, that may take the KDU’s side on this issue.

The people would also weigh in on the side of the military in this showdown because of gratitude issues, etc., but in these things the people usually don’t count. The most powerful side wins. If this was a game of arm wrestling, however, it seems nobody is weary yet, and there is a lot more excitement to come.

(The writer is a former Editor-in-Chief of three national English language publications and a practicing Attorney-at-Law. He is an Editors’ Guild award-winning columnist, and contributing writer and columnist for the Nikkei Asian Review and South China Morning Post, while his editorials have been published in The Australian)