Student suppression worst since insurgency – Report
The government has used various methods at its disposal such as using the law and law enforcement agencies to suppress students, attacking protests and threatening and targeting student leaders, according to the 69-page report State Suppression Against Students’ Movement of Sri Lanka, released by the Inter University Students’ Federation, or IUSF, and Students for Human Rights.
It includes details of suspension of student funding, banning student councils, suppressing classes and other action such as law suits, arrests, assaults, threats, assassinations and abductions involving students.
The report covers incidents at 13 state universities from 2010 until early 2014.
IUSF said its aim was to expose the “real nature of the current government” in violating the human rights of students.
According to statistics presented in the report, during the last four years suppression of the student movement has increased to reach brutal levels.
IUSF Convener Najith Indika said strong intervention from civil society organisations, activists and people who value human rights and respect democracy was needed to save the country’s higher education system from repression.
According to the report, in the last four years alone there were 1,420 expulsions and suspensions of students from universities, 231 arrests and 426 lawsuits. Some 218 students, including student union leaders, faced death.
Three students activists – Susantha Bandara, Janaka Ekanayake and Sisitha Priyankara – were murdered during this time. In all three incidents the government “managed to suppress the truth by false propaganda and delaying the proceedings in the court”, the report claims.
The report said there were 391 suspensions from Sri Jayewardene University in Colombo, and 223 students at Peradeniya University – an IUSF stronghold – also faced suspensions.
In early 2012 a bomb blast that damaged the symbolically significant Student Heroes Memorial at the university, dedicated to students killed in previous uprisings, unleashed a wave of protest during which more than 100 students were arrested.
During the past four years the Higher Education Ministry has banned 36 student unions and councils allegedly for 'ragging' – maltreatment of freshers – according to the report. The government wanted to ban the IUSF.
Tilvin Silva of the JVP, a Marxist party, called on the government to stop student repression. He claimed thugs “led by government politicians” had broken into universities to attack students. It “is a serious situation”, he said.
A group of around 500 people armed with clubs forcibly entered Ruhuna University on 2 June and attacked students for not allowing an exhibition of the government’s national development plan to be held on the university premises. Eight students were reportedly injured in the attack.
Local and international human rights organisations have expressed concern about violations.
Minister disputes figures
Commenting on the report, Sri Lanka’s Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake disputed the report. “The figures issued by IUSF are wrong; there may be few class suspensions but not studentship [scholarship] suspensions as mentioned here.
“The Higher Education Ministry is not influencing universities regarding punishments. Universities have [their] own set of procedures to handle it when students have done wrong.”
Universities conducted investigations and punished students, Dissanayake stressed, and accused the IUSF – which has the backing of the Marxist party – for being behind campus unrest.
Vice-chancellor held hostage
Last week around 300 students surrounded the office of the vice-chancellor of Rajarata University, demanding that the university lift its order to suspend several student leaders.
Students held the vice-vhancellor and several lecturers hostage, and police in riot gear were called in to free the university officials.
After a tense standoff as police beefed up security near the campus, students finally allowed the vice-chancellor and others to leave after holding them for almost 24 hours.
Police are still searching for 38 students believed to be involved in the hostage-taking.
Later, the vice-chancellor closed down the university. Student unions and councils have been banned from campus.
Commenting on the report, Brito Fernando, president of Families of the Disappeared, or Fod, said abducting, assaulting and illegally detaining students and ‘forged suspensions’ were a grave violation of the fundamental rights of students.
“There were human rights violations during the war. The war is over, now the pressure has moved to student movements. This is a very critical thing – the government has launched a campaign of repression against student activists fighting for education rights,” he said.
“If we let the government destroy student unions and suppress their activities, it will be a disaster that will affect other parties also,” Fernando said, adding because the student movement was strong in Sri Lanka, how the government treated students could have a knock-on effect on teachers, labourers, trade unions and other civil society groups.