Unions resist Sri Lanka government war on teachers and student leaders

Confronted with a series of setbacks in addition to the failure in containing the devastating pandemic outbreak and economic crisis, the Sri Lankan government has launched a chilling crackdown on students and teachers in the Sinhala dominated south protesting militarisation of higher education. The crackdown has met with stiff opposition from academics as well as non-academics who have warned the government of consequences.

On Friday (6), police convinced a court in the capital to detain two university student leaders who were effectively abducted by police the day before. The two are in the forefront of an ongoing protest against the militarising higher education. Scores of union leaders are in hiding as police carry on with unannounced visits to their homes and places they frequent.

University dons have resolved to launch a strike action against the crackdown while many workers and professionals’ organisations have expressed solidarity with the teachers and undergraduates who are protesting the General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University (KDU) Bill aimed at the military having a greater role in education policy and administration.

Arrests & abductions

Two leaders of the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF), the largest student body in Sri Lanka, Wasantha Mudalige and Amila Sandeepa produced before court were remanded until August 11 by Kaduwela Magistrate Manjula Ratnayake while two other activists Koshila Hansamali Perera and Chameera Koswatta arrested from their homes were also remanded until August 11. Both orders were later extended until 17.

Mudalige going home after attending a live TV broadcast was manhandled and handcuffed by men in civvies accompanied by uniformed police officers. Sandeepa abducted in broad daylight by men in civies was later declared by the police spokesman to be in their custody. University students and academics were able to foil an attempt to abduct Sri Jayawardenapura university lecturer Aminda Lakmal.

Police are targeting nearly 50 other student and trade union activists for arrest, according to activists.

“We are aware of 48 names on the hit list and police have visited many of their homes. Now they are in hiding,” a student leader told JDS on strict conditions of anonymity.

A group in civilian clothes who tried to abduct Sri Jayawardanapura University Senior Lecturer Aminda Lakmal while travelling, were stopped by colleagues and students. A mobile video streamed live by him went viral on social media platforms.

“When professor Janak Kumarasinghe and Professor Saman Yapa intervened and kindly inquired for the reason to remove me and who they were,” Aminda Lakmal later posted on social media.

“The person who came is the crime OIC of the Mirihana police station. He had to show his identity card. What happened next can be seen in the live video. At the end the bus was allowed to travel unharmed.”

Death threats

A leading activist Dr. Mahim Mendis of the Open University had been threatened over the phone for speaking at FUTA protest on August 3rd: “When I came home, someone called me to say that they don’t like what I said. Since then, I’ve been receiving threats,” he told JDS.

Police have also threatened former leaders of IUSF with death and hostage taking.

“I am receiving calls from the telephone number 072 5167782 saying - we won’t let you live in peace, at some point we will abduct you- and I am afraid to lodge a complaint as the police are also in the lookout for me,” said ex IUSF Convener and Buddhist Monk Rathkarawwe Jinarthana Thero.

On Sunday, an Open University undergraduate tending to the father of another IUSF leader Udara Sandaruwan’s father who is undergoing treatment in the Colombo eye hospital has been given a police notice requesting Sndaruwan to present himself at the Peliyagoda police station.

The undergraduate had been warned that ‘someone from the family will be taken’ if the former convener doesn’t come the next day.

On Saturday, a vehicle claimed to be from the Peliyagoda police station in the western province had roamed Rajanganaya in the north central province seeking information about an IUSF activist while police teams had visited the office and residence of Chatura Samarasinghe, president of Ceylon Estate Staff union.

The Centre for the Protection of Public Assets and Human Rights, an alliance of more than a dozen trade unions and grassroots activists condemned the government’s repressive action as a death blow to the freedom of expression.

In a statement to the press the organisation said that the governments repressive action drives people to street protests notwithstanding the threat posed by the Covid19 pandemic.

Tamil MPs raise concerns

Tamil lawmakers who have witnessed continuing police abductions, torture and extrajudicial killings in their constituencies for years, expressed their anger in parliament condemning the same practice extending to the Sinhala majority regions.

“Why do they have to come in civvies? Why do they have to come in white vans?” questioned Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian M.A Sumanthiran.

“You are reminding them of the white van culture; you want to tell the country – “remember we did this earlier we have brought it back” you want to bring back those memories. You want to instil fear into people’s mind, and that is why you are doing this.”

Tamil National Peoples Front (TNPF) MP Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam recalled how police brutality that used to target Tamils and Muslims have come to Sinhala dissenters as well.

"Is this the precedent that you want to set? Yesterday it was the Tamils, today it is the Muslims. Tomorrow it will be your own, because the people who you believe to be your competition, you will turn against them. That is a reality. This is a downward spiral.”

Trade unions and grassroots organisations have strongly condemned the government crackdown and expressed their solidarity with victims of the police intimidation.

The country’s academics top union have unanimously decided to stay away from teaching on Tuesday (10), observing a token strike action to extend solidarity with the students and teachers.

Dr.Harshana Rambukwella, media spokesman of Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA), earlier told JDS that a token strike will be launched to protest crackdown on teachers, students and academics while necessary steps will be taken to make diplomatic community aware of the situation.

A month ago, several teachers and students leaders including Ceylon Teachers Union General Secretary Joseph Stalin, leading protests against the Bill, on charges of violating “health regulations”. They were forcibly quarantined for a week.

Following wide condemnation locally and internationally, the government was compelled to release them.



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.