ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s Veddah community, a minority indigenous group that never enjoyed political representation, has weighed in on an ongoing standoff between the government and trade unions over an International Monetary Fund (IMF)-backed tax hike.
Uruwarige Vanniyalaeththo, the leader of the community, told reporters this week that Sri Lanka’s university lecturers who have refused to mark answer scripts of a crucial school-level university entrance exam should not hold the country’s children to ransom.
“The delay in marking answer scripts has become a major issue to young people here,” the Veddah chief said.
The indigenous leader was referring to an ongoing strike campaign by the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) who are boycotting the evaluation of last year’s GCE Advanced Level candidates as part of trade union action against a steep IMF-backed progressive tax hike.
Vanniyalaeththo did, however, acknowledge that teachers and other government officials who are on strike or resorting to other trade union actions have legitimate grievances.
“Teachers and officials have their reasons, [but…] if you go to get some medicine, there is a protest there,” he said, referring to a recent strike organised by the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) over the same tax hike.
“It’s only innocent citizens that are inconvenienced by all this,” the Veddah leader said.
“Young people lose two years of their lives.
“The teachers probably have their grievances. But why take children hostage?”
FUTA’s strike has been controversial, despite the unpopularity of the government’s tax hike. Sri Lanka’s main opposition, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, has all but sided with President Ranil Wickremesinghe in his vocal opposition to the teachers’ tactics.
SJB parliamentarian Nalin Bandara told reporters in Colombo on Thursday April 20 that teachers can resort to alternative forms of agitation to win their demands.
“We are against trade union action when it comes to marking papers. Unions may have their concerns, but union action must be taken without holding children’s future to ransom. This is a serious situation.
“These children have a lost a year or year and a half of their lives due to exam delays. This is unfair by the children who sat for their exams. Their goals are being delayed,” said Bandara.
Meanwhile, FUTA has said they will not be intimidated and also accused the government of hurting the quality of the paper-marking process by hiring substitutes.
FUTA spokesman Charudaththa Illangasinghe told reporters Monday April 24 that the association will meet Tuesday evening to discuss the issue and any further trade union action.
“A/L is an important exam; it is the university entrance exam. The government is attempting to bring down the quality of the process by getting other parties to mark the answer scripts,” said Illangasinge.
“We will not allow the government to destroy education,” he added.
Illangasinghe was referring to a decision by the government to recruit retired university lecturers to the answer scripts. This follows a controversial statement by President Wickremesinghe on April 19 when he issued a one-week ultimatum to the education sector trade unions engaged in the papermarking boycott.
The two-month delay has already seen the schedule for releasing results being disrupted, which has also delayed this year’s exams.
President Wickremsinghe at a meeting with Education Ministry officials on Wednesday warned that he would make education an essential service under emergency law and initiate legal action against teachers who did not comply with the law.
“All those marked the papers last time, must be available for service now. If not, I will prosecute them and take their property also,” Wickremesinghe told the officials.
“You can’t stop the education of children. What nonsense is this? By next week, I will tell the AG (Attorney General) to be ready with the emergency regulations.”
FUTA and school teachers unions’ have been up in arms over the president’s warning.
Illangasinghe called the government’s progressive income tax hike “inhuman”.
“It was the government that brought this problem and it is the government that keeps the problem going.
The government must find a speedy solution and quickly resolve the problem of marking answer scripts,” he said.
FUTA has written to President Wickremesinghe about how they will not be intimidated by “empty threats”.
“We would like to tell the public, don’t fear anything. We plan to end this soon. We stand for these children.
We care about education. We won’t let the government destroy education,” he said. (Colombo/Apr24/2023)