This week the media reported that President Maithripala Sirisena had called upon former Army Commander and current Minister of Regional Development Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka to head all the security divisions including the armed forces in order to “discipline the country”.
This was reported to be a response – a somewhat reactionary one – to the strike organised by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) workers as well as the ongoing SAITM saga that has been the catalyst for endless protests and demonstrations by students and the GMOA. The recent CPC strike had the public scrambling at petrol stations and crippled Government and private sector services before talks with the relevant authorities brought it to a halt.
This proposal was made during a Cabinet meeting at which the topic of discussion was the many inconveniences faced by the people at the hands of strike actions launched without prior notice. The President suggested that a mechanism be set up to provide essential services without any disruption and unfortunately, if not unsurprisingly, the Government turned to the armed forces for a solution.
Some Cabinet Ministers have spoken out in defence of the move, claiming that it is not meant to curb trade union activities or suppress them but to ensure that unionists cannot act irrationally and disrupt essential services to the people. Pointing to the fact that these strikes also have hidden political agendas, the Government has looked towards the security divisions to restore discipline and order, a notion that perhaps takes an all too familiar tone. One Cabinet Minister even suggested that the move was discussed only to discourage protests that are being held for things that can be deemed “unnecessary”. However, he did not specify as to who would, in future, decide what would constitute a worthy-enough cause for protest action.
Furthermore, it was suggested that the task of disciplining the citizens of this country, trade unionists though they may be, was given to the veteran former Army Commander who led the country to a decisive victory against one of the most brutal terrorist organisations the world has ever seen. The thought that those in power could consider enforcing the discipline of the armed forces on public servants, however, is troubling.
Even though a few ministers have been quick to dismiss it, stating that it was only a suggestion while others have even gone as far as to call it a joke that was taken out of context, it is unclear as to whether this was simple back-tracking in the face of media scrutiny.
The intervention of security personnel in protests and trade union activities hits a historically sore nerve with Sri Lankans. It wasn’t that long ago incidents such as Rathupaswala and the shooting of an FTZ worker in Katunayake took place. The public will also naturally be wary of the language used by Cabinet ministers in describing the reasons for this move.
In the midst of this, it is also important to note that the interruption of essential services is a serious matter while trade unionists have on many occasions used it to bully governments into meeting their demands. In Canada, for example, certain services have been proclaimed “essential services” in which all strikes are illegal while some governments have signed agreements with unionists to provide minimum service to its people during strike actions. The Government must tackle this situation with similar tact through legal measures and not through gestures that could easily be construed as threatening and which run the risk of impeding the freedoms granted to its people.