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The controversy over the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM) continues. Last week the Court of Appeal decreed that its graduates should be registered with the Sri Lanka Medical Council (SLMC).

Now, that all powerful trade union and self-proclaimed guardian angels of the hapless Sri Lankan patient, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) is protesting. Their comrades in arms are medical students in state medical faculties and opposition political parties, notably the Joint Opposition (JO) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP).
The GMOA is threatening to take prolonged trade union action over the issue which will inevitably put patients’ lives at risk. Students in state medical faculties have already begun boycotting their own lectures in protest.

Dabbling in student unrest is of course the bread and butter of the politics of the JVP, so it is not surprising. It thrives on leading the ‘struggle’ behind a human shield of university students, as it did in the late ‘80s when many students paid for their follies with their lives. Besides, being a socialist party it is ideologically opposed to any form of privatisation of education.

What is more intriguing is the support the JO has provided to the GMOA. Already, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has spoken out against SAITM publicly; so have Dinesh Gunewardena and Udaya Gammanpila. No doubt Wimal Weerawansa would have added to the raucous cacophony if he was not behind bars.

Take a look at the facts, though
SAITM was established during the previous government with its blessings. It was provided with a loan of six hundred million rupees. It was awarded degree-awarding status by the Ministry of Higher Education. All this happened when Mahinda Rajapaksa was President of the country. Now, Rajapaksa sings a different tune.

There is a hilarious video clip circulating on social media. It combines a recent speech by Rajapaksa criticising SAITM with visuals of several years ago, where Rajapaksa is seen distributing government scholarships to deserving SAITM students. The accompanying comments regarding the former President’s integrity are unprintable.

That other know-it-all in the JO, Professor G. L. Peiris has now added his two cents worth to the debate. He justifies the awarding of scholarships, saying it was conditional to SAITM obtaining recognition from the SLMC.

If SAITM was such a ‘half baked’ institution that was still awaiting recognition, why did his President hand out seventy million rupees of government money to ten unsuspecting students who sacrificed other courses of study in state universities to join SAITM, so they could get a medical degree? As usual, the Professor’s defence is worse than the offence!
Yes, there is a dispute here: the SLMC argues that SAITM has not met the required standards to grant them the authority to award medical degrees. The GMOA complains that SAITM lacks facilities for clinical training, but at the same time objects to SAITM students obtaining their training from government hospitals. It smacks of professional jealousy and thus far, the courts have held in SAITM’s favour.

Since the court decision, it has come to light that the state medical faculties in Anuradhapura, Jaffna and Batticaloa are also woefully short of qualified academic staff. Yet, the GMOA maintains a deafening silence on them. Why? Where is its commitment to ‘protecting the innocent patient’ then?

The courts have also observed that the SLMC – supposedly an impartial body – used double standards in judging the SAITM and the Kotelawela Defence University. The SLMC and its theatrical President, Carlo Fonseka, has been left with egg all over its collective face, but that is another story.

Everyone agrees that standards should be maintained in medical education because once they qualify, doctors deal with patients’ lives. So, not only SAITM, but all state medical faculties too should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny. Let an independent body – may be even a commission of inquiry – inquire into the facilities of not only SAITM but also all other state medical faculties. Let us see what they have to say about the facilities at the more recently established faculties such as Anuradhapura and Batticaloa, shall we?
Would the holier than thou GMOA and the SLMC object to that, we wonder?

But for now, the battle continues. The SLMC proposes to contest the Court of Appeal judgment in the Supreme Court. That is as it should be. The GMOA is making representations to the President, apparently asking that SAITM be nationalised. There is nothing wrong with making such a request either. Two students of SAITM have also taken the matter to the Supreme Court, alleging that their fundamental rights have been violated. Of course, they too have the right to seek legal redress.

What is disturbing is the involvement of political parties in this issue. They will have their own agenda which is to embarrass the government at every possible turn. They will not care about the hundreds of students at SAITM who have spent six years or more working hard to realise their dream of becoming a doctor.

They will also not care about the thousands of students in state medical faculties who are joining in the ‘struggle’, abandoning their own studies. These students, fuelled by the idealism of youth, have been drawn into a struggle that will wreck the lives of not only thousands of other aspiring students, but their own. It happened in the late ‘80s with the North Colombo Medical College (NCMC) issue. Now, there is this eerie feeling that history is threatening to repeat itself.

Already, this fight is becoming dirty. Earlier this week, the Chief Executive Officer of SAITM was reportedly shot at. As political parties, trade unions, student unions and every man and his dog join in this melee, it is difficult to predict what the outcome will be. What would be certain is that the original objectives of the dispute – ensuring an adequate standard of private medical education in the country – will be all but lost in this dogfight.
This matter is already before the courts and will very likely progress to the highest court in the land. Surely, that should suffice to allay the anxieties of all right-thinking people that justice would be done, especially now when the courts are not beholden to the powers that be. So, let’s keep this clean, shall we and let the law of the land have the final say? Some matters, after all, are too serious to be left in the hands of politicians!