PM resigns amid violence, as student protest camp targeted

Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa had to resign from his post due to mounting pressure from all sectors of society including students and young people after waves of protests which began in late March later turned into a mass struggle.

Not satisfied with the prime minister’s resignation on 9 May, protesters are calling on his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, to step down.

The immediate reason for the prime minister’s resignation was the attacks and violence launched by his pro-government protesters against peaceful protesters, which many said could have been avoided. As violence escalated to unprecedented levels, the president imposed an island-wide curfew.

On 6 May he declared a state of emergency for the second time in five weeks after university students protested near parliament.

Students and young people started the protest in front of the president’s office in the capital Colombo and have been camped there and on the main route to parliament since 9 April, erecting tents, setting up a library, a medical camp and an anti-teargas unit. Thousands of supporters have visited the protest sites daily.

Students hung their underwear from the barricades they had constructed in a pointed insult to the president and chanted, “Gota, go home”.

Police fired teargas and water cannon on 5 May and again on 6 May to try to disperse the students after they quickly reassembled.

The peaceful protests became violent on 9 May after thousands of supporters of Mahinda Rajapaksa marched to the anti-government Galle Face protest site and attacked protesters and destroyed tents set up by protesters. Nine people including a parliamentarian from the ruling party died in the ensuing violence and at least 250 were injured.

In unprecedented scenes, anti-government protesters set on fire and damaged the residences of at least 100 politicians, including over 30 parliamentarians. One of former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa’s residences was also torched. More than 80 vehicles including buses which transported pro-government protesters were either set on fire or damaged.

The prime minister quit amid escalating violence. Protesters are seeking his whereabouts and demanding his arrest. They assume he may have fled the country.

Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) convener Wasantha Mudalige said the protesters would withdraw from an area near parliament until the beginning of the next session of parliament on 17 May.

But students say they will occupy the streets until Gotabaya Rajapaksa steps down. He has responded with greater police aggression and introduced new laws to give the state more powers to crush dissent.

People who once criticised the student movement and IUSF protests are now seen praising them. The experience and the inspiration gained from their many years of struggle are being seen as very important to the people’s current struggle.

Protests escalate

Scattered general protests began in January, initially sparked by lengthy power cuts and later built up due to skyrocketing inflation and shortages of fuel, gas and essential commodities, as the country is experiencing its worst crisis since its independence from Britain in 1948.

The protests were reinforced and backed by students and young people, badly hit by the economic crisis. Non-partisan Sri Lankans, regardless of race or religion, united to remove Mahinda Rajapaksa from the post of prime minister, just as they had been instrumental in removing him as the country’s president in 2015.

Academic activities at all universities have been affected as Sri Lanka’s main university teachers’ union, the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA), launched a strike until further notice. FUTA demands immediate legal action against those responsible for attacking peaceful protesters, the withdrawal of the emergency law, and guarantees of the safety of protesters, especially university students.

The government said the state of emergency declared on 6 May was needed to ensure political stability as a vital condition in overcoming the current socio-economic crisis by assuring public safety and uninterrupted supply of essential services.

However, IUSF’s Mudalige said “the government used the state of emergency to carry out a massive crackdown”, and suggested it may be preparation for military rule, echoing the fears of some politicians.

“The government says there is no money to buy oil, no money to buy medicine but the price of teargas brought to suppress the student movement is US$1.5 million,” Mudalige said.

“We removed Mahinda Rajapaksa, we will remove President Gotabaya Rajapaksa also and this struggle must end in victory, and for that we need to move forward in a stronger and more organised manner,” he added.

Former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga also suggested saboteurs may be used to incite violence in order to pave the way for military rule.

“I appeal to all our citizens who have carried on a wonderful struggle for justice and democratic governance so peacefully, to be aware that saboteurs may be used to incite violence in order to pave the way for military rule. Please use your organisational skills to halt this danger,” she tweeted.

“In the guise of angry mobs, violence is being incited so military rule can be established. Rule of law should be maintained through the constitution, not with guns. It is time to empower citizens, not disempower them,” Opposition leader Sajith Premadasa said via Twitter.

Students hard hit

Students have been hard hit by the economic crisis, including the cost of living crunch and a lack of employment opportunities. According to Colombo Consumer Price Index statistics, Sri Lanka’s inflation in April was almost 30% while food inflation was at 46.6%.

Chami Kalupahana, a student at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in Colombo, said the most difficult aspect of the economic crisis for a university student was the rising cost of food.

“A rice packet in university canteen has increased to LKR150 [US$0.41]. It was about LKR50 few months ago.”

“Most students do not have hostel facilities, so they have to live in a boarding room which costs more than LKR5,000 [US$14] per month; with food it will cost more than LKR10,000 per month,” she added.

Student unions have requested an increase the government’s Mahapola Scholarship monthly subsistence for poorer students from US$15 to US$30, in line with the rise in the cost of living.

Anushka Gunathissa, a lecturer at the University of Peradeniya in Kandy, said final-year students looking for internships are mentally and emotionally down.

“Most government institutions and private companies have limited recruitment due to the economic crisis. Recently passed out and final-year students are severely affected as they struggle to find job or training opportunities,” she told University World News.

Exams scheduled amid uncertainty, price rises

The Examination Department has finalised arrangements for GCE Ordinary Level examinations taken at age 16, scheduled to begin on 23 May. But after the prime minister’s resignation and after cabinet was dissolved, there is currently no education minister in post and it was left to officials to decide to go ahead with the exams as planned.

Educational activities in almost all schools have been hampered due to protests, general strikes and curfews.

School students note rising prices of stationery, exercise books and other education materials. There is also a major shortage of exercise books due to import restrictions. Teachers have been advised to use the previous year’s exercise books for the new school term.

Dinuka Hewage, a parent from the Galle, said a 120-page exercise book which cost LKR70 a few months ago had almost doubled to LKR120. Similarly, the price of a school bag which was LKR700 has now increased to LKR1,500.

The attendance of school children had decreased due to the increase in the price of exercise books and market shortages, Chandima Gamage, a school teacher in Monaragala told University World News.

Prasad Chaminda Lokubalasooriya, a popular economics tutor in Gampaha town, close to the capital Colombo, said “due to the current crisis, parents are no longer able to spend large sums of their limited salary on private tutoring, so they have cut back. The tuition industry is facing a challenging period; we don’t even have paper to print study materials, assignments and question papers.”

With fuel prices increasing by over 100% since the start of the year, Nirosha Madhubashini, a parent from Kalutara, says that she now has to pay LKR16,000 for school transport for her two children compared to LKR10,000 before. Some students are forced to use cheaper but crowded public transport.

Political analysts predict that the ongoing political crisis will last a few more months and the economic crisis will worsen.