Academics must support SF’s cause


By Saman Indrajith

Since July 04 this year, the day the university lecturers started their strike action, we have been seeing Dr Mahim Mendis’ face on TV news as the spokesman of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations. He earned his doctorate on media sociology from the National University of Singapore and teaches sociology and mass communication at the Open University of Sri Lanka. "The FUTA strike now suspended, but the mission of the FUTA to create a just and an equitable social, political, economic, cultural order in this country needs to be vigorously pursued," he vows in an interview with The Island during which he spoke of his being invited to attend the rally of General Sarath Fonseka’s new alliance of politicians and civil society leaders at Hyde Park on October 18. Dr Mendis does not deny his sympathy towards the UNP, but denies he is a cat’s paw of that party and says he never furthered UNP’s cause within the FUTA and its agenda. "I identify myself as a crusader, as an advocate for freedom and democracy in this country. I am a Christian by faith. My hope and prayer is that the rally on Oct 18 would be successful and become the first step towards restoring freedom and democracy."

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: There is an accusation that the recently concluded FUTA struggle was funded by NGOs

A: FUTA struggle was funded by the people of this country. An example was Bala Tampoe who is a pioneer trade union leader. If Bala Tampoe is considered an international conspirator those fellows calling him an international conspirator should get immediately hospitalized.

Bala Tampoe giving some donations to us was a formidable act inspiring others to be like-minded. The CMU is a movement Mahinda Rajapaksa belonged to when he was a library clerk or library assistant as Bala Tampoe mentioned in the press conference where he made the donation. So the organization which once Mahinda Rajapaksa belonged to made a donation of Rs 500,000 to FUTA.

Q: One of the key leaders at this Oct 18 meeting is General Sarath Fonseka and he has said that one and the only objective was to overthrow the government. How much does it tally with FUTA’s agenda?

A: I believe that all citizens of this country, whether they belong to civil or political societies, need to be concerned about democracy as a most fundamental prerequisite for their sustenance. Even the development process is useless if the democracy is in peril. I share the same sentiments with Prof Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner who said that development is not a matter to be pursued at the expense of freedom of the people- fundamental freedoms which are upheld in universal declarations of human rights. The academics must come forward and tell the people the truth that any person who works against democracy is nothing but an enemy of the people. The people should know whether the political leaders rule the country in accordance with principles of democracy or in line of principles of fascism and autocracy.

Education is of utmost importance because in a country where the process of education is not taken seriously people will become irrational. And they let regimes play the fool with them the way our government does now. When people are not rational as a result of very poor education they have received, they do not understand their rights and obligations, so the government can thrive on the ignorance of the people.

In this context, it is useless talking about what previous presidents did or did not, but the current President too promised to abolish the Executive Presidency. And it is his duty to be true to the people and respect his own words. No politician who is not prepared to respect his own words is fit to rule a country. And he belongs to a party that in 1994 gave a very clear promise to the people to do so. He was a cabinet minister of that government which gave a very clear promise that under Chandrika Kumarathunga, the executive presidency would be abolished by 1995 July 15.

This same government had been in power from 1994. It is a very long period of time. And President Rajapaksa had been a party to a government that ruled the country almost for 20 years. What was spent in peacetime previously or in war time for education has been cut by almost by 50 percent by the present regime and it is our duty to talk about it.

Q: Many have predicted that this so called get together of politicians and civil organizations on Oct 18 will end up forming another political party or alliance. Would you engage in politics in that level? Will you continue to do party politics?

A: I will only identify myself as a crusader as an advocate for freedom and democracy in this country. And at this moment of time, there is a firm understanding that and near total consensus that the executive presidency is the root of all evil. It creates a system of cronies and henchmen. The presidency has become, whether it be under this government or any other government, a law unto itself. The respect for rule of law has been absent under the executive presidency because the president is not answerable to a court of law in this country.

We the academics have seen ills not only in the country’s education sector but in all other sectors whether it be judiciary, whether it be in media, whether it be public administration, whether it be in the context of formulation of public policy in this country. There is near total absence of public policy not only in education but also in health, in public administration, in fisheries, in agriculture, in environment, in ports and aviation in every aspect of this society we see there is a near total absence of enlightened public policy in this country.

In the absence of an independent public service commission there is absolutely no way the ministries can be run with men and women of integrity. There are no permanent secretaries in this country. There are only political appointees. Whether it is Sunil Jayantha Navaratne of the education ministry or secretary of any other ministry, they have only has political henchmen and that is a very dangerous situation in this country. So as academics we pursue the need and we see the need for enlightened policy formulation that should not be in the hands of henchmen of the government.

Q: Are you planning to enter active politics?

A: I always wished to be someone who would stand for what is right. And that is why I am in the FUTA struggle. And when we stood for what is right that is to remind the government that the people of this country deserve six percent of GDP for education we were labeled as traitors, terrorists, tiger supporters. All types of accusations were leveled against us for standing for what is right. But we could not be silenced. And we would always stand for what is right.

Q: What is your political party? Are you a member of the UNP?

A: I am not a member of any party. At the elections I vote in a secret ballot. Ideologically I am a social democratic on one side with regard to the national development projects but a firm believer in liberal democratic freedoms with regard to country’s fundamental freedoms, freedom of choice, freedom of expression, freedom of gathering, freedom of movement, and freedom of religion. I am a firm believer in pluralism.

I also believe that there should be an equitable social economic order. That is equal distribution of resources. Singapore is not a Marxist state. It is a country that had enabled people to be empowered at an equal level. There are no privilege schools and under privilege schools, privileged hospitals and under privileged hospitals, the country’s resources had been equally distributed for the development of all sectors. President Ranasinghe Premadasa believed in transforming the UNP into a pro-people party. In taking the so-called right wing conservative UNP to the masses he was successful than the Marxist parties. Premadasa was a greater socialist in mind than any of these LSSP, CP, alliances with the SLFP. That is why Premadasa is more respected among the ordinary people in this country where it be whether in Badulla, Moneragala or Thumpane anywhere in this country than any so-called socialist leader since 1948. What he did was working for empowerment of the people- empowerment of the large mass of poor people in this country and enabling them to stand on their own feet. I am thinking on the same lines.

Q: But many describe you as a UNPer or cat’s paw of the UNP and some even accuse you of furthering the UNP cause in FUTA struggle.

A: I have never discussed any UNP agenda in FUTA. In our struggle I have close relations with every single political party. That is my strength. I have spoken to the JVP, I have spoken to their break- away faction, I have spoken to IUSF. I have spoken to Sajith Premadasa as well as Ranil Wickremesinghe loyalists but not as a member of the UNP.

Q: What kind of support you received from the university students for the FUTA struggle and what is expected from them on this Oct 18 event?

A: Unprecedented. That was because we stand for what is objectively right. The central focus of the FUTA was against acute politicization, militarization and autocracy in the university system. Inadequate infrastructure development and step motherly treatment of entire education sector from primary, to secondary to tertiary leading to our demand for the six percent of the GDP.

Then the students were the most affected by the acute brain drain. Since independence this country had been subjected to acute brain drain. The best minds in the country are lost in brain drain be it whether Cyril Ponnamperuma or Chandra Wickremasinghe to medical doctors to social scientists, to people with formidable names in culture and humanities like Prof Wimal Dissanayake we have lost. Why did we lose because of the bankrupt policies of all governments that did not believe in giving due respect to the country’s highest qualified men and women.

We have a politically sensitive student movement. The most politically sensitive ideologically oriented student movement with a Marxist orientation is the Inter University Students Federation that even the deft and blind will know. Except for SB Dissanayke even the deft and blind who are not interested in politics know that the IUSF is the most formidable student movement in the country and is the most organized student movement. Apart from them we had the support of the independent students- like students of the Colombo University which has no IUSF. They staged fasts and demonstrations in our support.

Q What about the participation of university students on October 18 rally?

A: I hope and pray to all gods and goddesses that they be there with us on Oct 18.

Q: IUSF is no longer a part of the JVP but is with the Frontline Socialist Party. The FLSP is not directly supporting the FUTA and IUSF even had a separate march from yours. Is IUSF the means of FLSP supporting FUTA?

A: The IUSF was not physically with us but IUSF with us spiritually. And there was no party which was not with us. It is no exaggeration. Except SB Dissanayake and few fellows, some cronies - people like Nalin De Silva all the people were with us.

Q: Do you expect there be other FUTA academics with you on Oct 18?

A: Yes, I believe. There would be many. They participate because they are extremely concerned about the rights of people. Because of the FUTA struggle, people know us, what we talk about and all conspiracies to undermine us. To go to the prison speaking on behalf of the people is natural for true leaders in this country and world. So many people had spent time in prisons unlike cronies and henchmen. To speak out on behalf of the people is the only honourable action that I can think of apart from serving god. I am a Christian by faith and consider apart from serving god the most honourable action is to speak on behalf of people on matters connected with their welfare. And we will boldly do that. And we shall not be silenced.

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