Mounting condemnation force ‘tough’ Sri Lanka government to set union leader free

“Let’s get together and carry on with our struggle” said Sri Lanka’s Joseph Stalin, soon after the government with a two thirds majority rule was forced to release the defiant trade union leader from arbitrary detention in a military base.

The Ceylon Teachers Union (CTU)’s general secretary speaking in Sinhala and Tamil a few meters away from the Keppapulavu air force camp where he was held with several student activists, was extending an open invitation to everybody who demanded his release.

He was arrested in the capital on 8 July while demonstrating in a protest convened by Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) against  the militarization of higher education . Despite a judge in Colombo ordering the protesters to be released on bail, police bundled them into a bus and whisked them off to the Keppapulavu air force camp, over 300km away from Colombo.

Anger and condemnation

Government measures to crush dissent seemed to galvanize opposition forces triggering an upsurge of anger and condemnation in the country and abroad. Protests were launched on the street as well as off it while teachers around the country stayed away from taking classes online to students forced into a lockdown.

The detainees themselves held daily protests and media briefings online widely shared on social media and several mainstream channels.

In the face of growing protests in the country opposing the blatant violation of right to free assembly, the minister in charge of the police, ex-navy Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara told parliament that the protestors were sent for quarantine for violating Covid19 control guidelines. However, neither he nor any other security official failed to provide medical authorization for the purported quarantine.

The minister faced heavy criticism from the opposition for the high handed manner the police dealt with a legitimate protest. The former PM warned that the detention of a respected trade union leader would jeopardize the government retaining much needed European trade concessions known as GSP+ due to be reviewed in November.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka cautioned the government against using quarantine as a punishment.


Many international trade unions, academics and activists denouncing the government’s heavy handed action called for the immediate release of the detainees.

On the day of the arrest Victorian Socialists based in Australia tweeted saying, “We condemn the Sri Lankan government's appalling attacks on unionists and political activists. Solidarity with workers and the left in Sri Lanka organising in such difficult conditions”.

Melbourne based Australia Asia Worker Links (AAWL) expressing the grave concern for the welfare of Joseph Stalin, demanded his immediate release.

“The Ceylon Teachers Union is one of the largest and oldest unions in Sri Lanka. Joseph Stalin has been a key figure in the trade union and progressive movements in Sri Lanka for many years. Unions in Australia insist that Joseph Stalin and the student activists be immediately released from custody by the Sri Lankan authorities,” said a statement by AAWL Chair Colin Long and the general secretary of Australia’s National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) Matthew McGowan.

IndustriALL Global Union, which represents 50 million workers in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors in 140 countries, including Sri Lanka, wrote to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa condemning the police action and violence used against the protestors.

“This is a serious violation of the Constitutional and democratic rights of the trade unionists and citizens of Sri Lanka,” said the letter by General Secretary Valter Sanches.

“Police also have no powers to detain people who are released on bail by a Court of Law. The police have no right to take away people in the name of quarantine when the health authorities have not made any such decision.”

“We stand in solidarity with colleagues whose academic freedom and civil liberties are under attack,” tweeted Education International based in Brussels.


UNI Global Union representing 20 million workers from over 150 countries worldwide based in Nyon, Switzerland, urged the president and the government to respect its commitments to adhere to internationally accepted conventions and restore the freedom for people to express their opinions in a democratic manner.

“We strongly support and stand with our affiliates, expressing their opinions on the proposed legislation that aims to weaken the tertiary education regulatory act, supplementing with a new legislature delegating the regulatory function of higher education to military officials under the Minister of Defence,” wrote the UNI Global Union Asia-Pacific President Minao Noda and Regional Secretary Rajendra Acharya.

The IUSF and CTU protest was aimed at defeating the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) bill which intends to set up a higher education system under the Ministry of Defence and run by the military.

“It is incomprehensible how higher education should be in the control of the military, especially as a policy of a purportedly democratic and socialist state. In the name of these treasured principles, please review this policy,” said Dr Andy Higginbottom, Associate Professor of the Faculty of Business and Social Sciences in Kingston University, UK.

“The arrest of the general secretary of a trade union and others for opposing the militarization of higher education sector in Sri Lanka is an outrageous attack on democratic rights,” tweeted Paul Murphy, a leading Irish leftist and a member of the lower house of the Irish parliament.

“The news that Sri Lanka's, Ceylon Teachers Union General Secretary and many men and women who were protesting the militarization and privatization of higher education have been beaten, arrested and bussed away by the police to an air force camp is extremely worrying. The Sri Lankan government should respect trade-union and political rights and immediately release all those who have been arrested for the mere exercise of their democratic rights,” said Dr Gilbert Achcar, Professor at SOAS, University of London.

Emphasising that "the arrest of trade unionists and students demonstrates the continued suppression of democratic freedoms", the UK based Campaign Against Criminalising Communities (CAMPACC) has  demanded an end to suppression of democratic rights of Sri Lankan citizens, including freedom of assembly, free speech and right to protest.

“These arrests and detentions represent the escalating repression of speech, assembly and political challenges against the actions of the government in Sri Lanka,” said Estella Schmid and Melanie Gingell in a statement on behalf of the Peace in Kurdistan Campaign.

“The violent repression of Ceylon Teachers Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin, and many others who stand up for freedoms in the face of the privatisation of higher education, is totally unacceptable. We add our voice to all those who want it to stop, as well as the ongoing militarization,” said Pierre Rousset of the International Institute for Research and Education in Amsterdam.

After his release from the air force detention, the trade union leader and his comrades in arms thanked those who stood in solidarity with them.

“We oppose this illegal arrest, and we are well aware that many of you spoke about this issue outside. We extend an invitation to everybody who spoke, let’s get together and carry on our struggle forward” said Joseph Stalin before boarding the police bus that drove them away from the detention center amidst cheers.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.