Academics and students wary of political crisis outcomeplayed a key role behind the scenes in the defeat of Sri Lanka’s former president Mahinda Rajapaksa. But Rajapaksa is now back as prime minister after a sudden and unexpected move by the country’s president, Maithripala Sirisena.
Sirisena unleashed a political cyclone after he pulled his party from the National Unity Government, a coalition of parties, on 26 October and later appointed Rajapaksa as prime minister, joining hands once again with the leader he ousted in 2015.
Sirisena also issued special gazettes (administrative regulations) to sack Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and his cabinet – in a move seen by many as unconstitutional – and suspended parliament until 16 November.
The storm of events sparked street protests and a heavy social media campaign by students and young people against the president’s “betrayal” of voters, while the pro-Rajapaksa camp celebrated sudden victory with fire crackers and later took control of government media. Clashes were reported in government institutions where one person was reported killed.
Political parties including the ruling United National Party (UNP) and opposition People’s Liberation Front (JVP) launched massive protest marches and a rally in the capital Colombo demanding democracy. Protests have been occurring daily in Colombo while civil society members are actively engaged with the fight against the unconstitutional move.
Along with many other protesting groups, the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) issued its statement requesting the president to immediately convene parliament to allow parliamentarians to debate the issue and take decisions within the ambit of the constitution.
However, Sri Lanka’s major university students’ union seems curiously inactive despite their previous role in opposing Rajapaksa. Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) convener Lahiru Weerasekara told University World News the union was “not loyal to any party” and was not happy about the way the Unity government delivered on past promises.
“The Unity government came to power selling our slogans. They failed to fulfil their election promises, even for 6% of GDP [gross domestic product] for education,” he said. Instead, they continued to suppress students. Some 15 legal cases against student leaders on charges relating to protests and damage of public property during 2015-18 are still pending in the courts.
In 2015, the Unity government promised that higher education would be completely restructured to develop the human resources necessary for an innovative economy and pledged to spend 6% of GDP on education.
Students have continuously protested against the new government’s failure to bring in the promised reforms in demonstrations that have ended in baton clashes and tear gas.
But IUSF says it is not happy with the reappointment of Wijayadasa Rajapaksa, who served as higher education minister under the Unity government and, according to Weerasekara, was behind the suppression of students and threats against students’ unions and their leaders. Wijayadasa was reappointed higher education minister after he defected from the UNP – the party of the sacked prime minister – in support of the country’s president.
The government and ministers “will continue education privatisation, they will not solve students’ problems”, the IUSF convener said.
During the Rajapaksa regime (2010-14) suppression of students was at its worst, with 1,420 expulsions and suspensions of students from universities, 231 arrests, 426 lawsuits and several student union leaders facing death penalties, according to a university students human rights report in 2014.
Fears are already growing among students over the new developments. On 27 October police stormed a university students’ hostel in Dehiwala, close to Colombo, and launched a search operation, possibly to gauge whether planned protests were related to the political situation in the country.
Overseas students speak up
IUSF’s low-key approach contrasts with protests by Sri Lankan students abroad. Indian media reported that students from Sri Lanka studying at the South Asian University in New Delhi held a silent protest against Sirisena’s undemocratic actions, demanding the Sri Lankan parliament be convened.
Another group of Sri Lankan students overseas expressed their deep concern about Sri Lanka’s ongoing constitutional and political crisis, issuing a statement that said: “On Friday the 26th of October, for the first time since Sri Lanka’s independence, an unconstitutional and illegal transfer of power occurred. President Maithripala Sirisena, violating his oath of office and the mandate given to him on 8th January 2015, attempted to appoint Mahinda Rajapaksa, member of parliament, as prime minister. This was unconstitutional.
“These acts damage the health of institutions and processes that sustain democracy, pluralism and rights. They will have a permanent impact on the future of Sri Lanka’s youth,” the statement said. “Sri Lankan students studying overseas from various universities, including Harvard, Oxford, condemn recent developments, encourage others to make their voices heard, and commit to using education to build a more just, fair and democratic Sri Lanka.”
Many foreign governments and organisations, including the European Union, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, the United States, United Kingdom, Norway, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and Canada, issued statements to push for Sri Lanka’s parliament to meet immediately to resolve the political crisis. Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, People for Human Rights and Equality Inc (Australia) and International Federation of Journalists issued similar statements.