10 August 2018

Who truly deserves the asikkhitha (uncivilized) label: unions, commuters or the government?

Striking railway workers were attacked by irate commuters, we are told. Social media is full of cheers.  Minister of Project Management, Youth Affairs and Southern Development Minister Sagala Ratnayake has dubbed the action by railway employees ‘trade union terrorism’.  He opined that union leaders ‘showed callous disregard for the interests of the public, particularly young students currently sitting for their A/L Examination.’ 

Ratnayake claims to ‘have the greatest respect for trade unions and their rights’ but insistes ‘it is imperative trade unions act in a civilized manner within an ethical framework.’

What’s unethical, he says, is that the action was unannounced. He adds that such action should be the last resort and not an option to be considered at any provocation.  

This is a classic ruse. It combines a half-truth with a deliberate lie, a focus on an end-point snap shot and embellishes it all with a wild reference (to terrorism: more on that later).

The union action which prompted the so-called spontaneous attack by commuters has a long history. The unions submitted proposals and cabinet approved the same. Subsequently, clarification were sought over confusing elements of that document, and these too were examined, leading to a fresh decision.  If demands are ‘unfair’ as some have claimed, sharing pictures of salary slips, then consider this: Ministers’ salaries were upped by over 200% and those of judges by 250%. And we are not even talking about perks and other institutionalized ways of fattening bank accounts. 

Ratnayake’s cabinet colleagues Sarath Amunugama and Rajitha Senaratne are privy to the entire process. The ‘uncivilized’ action began when the relevant Secretary informed the unions that the decision had been suspended. That’s where the asikkhithaness (අසික්ඛිතකම) began. The unions reciprocated likewise. Today, an irresponsible and deceitful government is calling the workers to suspend the strike action. They are not negotiating with the unions.  

Ratnayake makes no mention of all that. Neither are the cheer-leaders of this government saying anything. Those who are cheering commuter-terrorism as an appropriate response to union-terrorism are ignorant of all this and don’t seem to be interest in examining antecedents. 

Instead we have Ratnayake likening the unions to the LTTE and calls for action similar to what took to defeat separatist terrorism. He of course pretends to have supported such action (‘we, as a country, must work together to defeat this “trade union terrorism” in the same way we defeated the separatist terrorism which crippled the nation for over three decades.’).  The truth is that his party was principally to blame for the rise of the LTTE: the 1983 riots, the excesses of the military in the 1980s, submitting to Indian hegemonic interests to halt decisive military action in 1987, giving arms to the LTTE to spite India, giving a cornered Prabhakaran a new lease of life through the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002 and vilifying military action post 2006.   

What’s also worrisome is the threat that he has articulated. Either the man has no sense of proportion or is downright ignorant or worse is taking a page off J.R.Jayewardene’s book on how to deal with unions and recoloring it with everything that took to defeat the LTTE, which we know was nothing like arresting union leaders, sacking workers, banning unions and vilifying those parties which supported the trade union action. It was about the concerted efforts of the security forces. It was about guns and grenades, air strikes and long range patrols.   

If the LTTE example had been mouthed by someone in the previous regime before 2015, I am sure the bleeding heart liberals would have had a lot to say. After all, they did make a lot of noise about a blundering journalist being named in the mildest manner by a low-ranking member of the Opposition. But no, they are silent. Says a lot about how serious they are about civil liberties, democracy and such.

Anyway, we saw a bit of how Ratnayake understands ‘defeating trade union terrorism’ is all about in the retaliation by commuters. For now. People ‘worked together’ in that instance. There’s been, as mentioned, a lot of cheers. People have wanted to extend this ‘anti-terrorism terrorism’ to deal with other unions as well, in particular the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA). Some even recommended the method to deal with politicians. 

First of all, if the government has to depends on people-terrorism to deal with terrorism, it indicates failure on the part of relevant authorities. More seriously, it points to impending anarchy of the worst kind (no insult to anarchists or anarchism intended here).  Uvindu Kurukulasuriya’s comment on Facebook on the matter is worth reflection. Here’s the translation:

‘I see the attack as a case of spontaneous violence. However it is not good to justify it by taking it as a general framework (method?). It could have dire consequences. If that happens we might very well see politicians making statements off the D.B. Wijethuga type, ‘incensed public carried out the attack’.  They will however be less about spontaneity than about the work of organized thugs attacking demonstrations, strikes and other protests. It is good if my friends who are consuming kiribath over yesterday’s attacks think about this as well.’

Attacking striking working is not some new phenomenon. It’s old. Very old. Painting them with a broad brush is also an old tactic. Terrorists, after all, are not exactly the kind of people one needs to talk to. You just shoot them.  When a corrupt, incompetent, confused government heavy with people who do not have eyes to see corporate excesses that are far worse than anything workers do by way of union action calls for counter-terrorism methods of dealing with workers, it’s a bad sign. It’s dangerous. The relevant Sinhala idiom would be monkeys armed with razor blades. I don’t see anything to cheer in that.

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer. malindasenevi@gmail.com