Students mount renewed protests over their leaders’ arrest

Sri Lankan university students are intensifying their fight against the arrest and detention of students and activists during and after weeks of protests over the country’s economic crisis which led to the unseating of the country’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who resigned on 14 July, a day after fleeing the country.

Students launched a new wave of protests calling for the release of three student activists detained by police in Colombo on 18 August under the country’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which allows up to a year’s detention without trial.

The arrests included Wasantha Mudalige, the leader of the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF), the country’s largest and most powerful student union, which played a key role in the protests, organising a campaign of peaceful struggle.

Police have confirmed that Mudalige, as well as Convener of the Inter-University Bhikku (Buddhist monks) Federation (IUBF) Galwewa Siridhamma Thero, and a member of the Kelaniya University Students’ Union Hashantha Jawantha Gunathilake were detained.

To date, police have arrested about 130 protesters, including activists directly involved in the peaceful movement, which started on 9 April in front of the president’s office in Colombo near the Galle Face area where protesters erected tents. The protest came to be known as the GotaGoGama Aragalaya after the slogan “Gota Go Gama” (Gota, go home).

Police say the three student leaders were detained to investigate whether they acted in a manner that caused the general public to be incited and-or they endeavoured to commit acts of violence during the struggle.

The police said in a statement they also want to investigate whether students incited and provoked the general public to gather and forcibly enter the private residence of then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and whether they committed the offence of ‘mischief’ by setting fire to the private residence while damaging private and public properties “with the ultimate view of overthrowing the lawfully elected government”, a crime that may be investigated in terms of the PTA.

In unprecedented scenes in May, anti-government protesters set fire to and damaged the residences of at least 100 politicians, including over 70 parliamentarians.

One of the residences of former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was also torched. More than 80 vehicles, including buses that transported pro-government protesters, were either set on fire or damaged. Police arrested over 3,300 people during the May unrest.

On 9 July thousands of protesters travelling to the capital stormed the residence of then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, occupying rooms and swimming in the pool.

Draconian laws

Nalinda Jayatissa, a member of the opposition National People’s Power (NPP) political party, said the government of current president Ranil Wickremesinghe, who replaced the ousted Rajapaksa on 20 July, was launching repression against those who contributed to the struggle to oust Rajapaksa.

The Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA) said in a statement: “Three students are apparently held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has been consistently used by successive governments to arbitrarily detain and target political dissidents and minority rights and activist groups. Today, they are targeting our students with these draconian laws.

“Under the PTA provisions, the state can hold these students without producing them in court for months. This suppression selectively targets specific people and groups, revealing a classist character. It appears to have the broad aim of criminalising dissent and legitimate democratic action, all of which is totally unacceptable.”

Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s South Asia director, said: “Using a draconian anti-terror law to crack down on protesters is a new low for the Sri Lankan government. This weaponising of an already highly criticised law, which should be repealed immediately, is a testament to how the authorities are unwilling to withstand any form of criticism and are systematically stifling dissenting voices.

“This is against Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations, especially the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” she said, adding: “The PTA has a long history of abuse in Sri Lanka, and this development shows precisely why both local and international actors have been calling for its repeal. Time and time again, the act has been used as a tool to silence government critics, journalists and minorities.”

Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said: “President Wickremesinghe’s use of anti-terrorism legislation to lock up people peacefully calling for reform sends a chilling message to Sri Lankans that rights won’t get priority during his administration.”

Wickremesinghe said he initially appreciated the youth’s struggle but said violent protesters took over later.

The president said in Colombo on 6 September: “Frontline groups started turning violent from within the struggle. Eventually, the youth left the struggle and the violent protesters took charge. Between July 9 and 13 they stopped state governance and attempted to take over parliament.

“When they did not succeed, the struggle too faded. Due to the bad side of the struggle, even the good that came about was forgotten. Yet, despite the end of the struggle, the aspirations of the youth are not lost. These will be taken forward.”

The government indicated last month that it would replace the PTA with a new security act that would nevertheless include some elements of the PTA.

Fears of student union ban

Student groups in Sri Lanka are in an uproar, fearing the government wants to ban their unions by labelling them terrorist organisations.

“The government is trying to label the IUSF a terrorist organisation. Inter-University Students’ Federation is not a terrorist organisation,” IUSF member Pokunuwita Piyasoma Thero told University World News. “There is no way the government can stop our journey by slapping terrorist labels on us like this. We will continue the fight and struggle to free our comrades.”

Heshan Harshana, chairman of the Students’ Union at Rajarata University, said: “There is a conspiracy to ban the Inter-University Students’ Federation in the near future.”

According to Harshana, “the arrest and interrogation [of student leaders] was done in a planned and conspiratorial manner. They call the IUSF a ‘gang’”.

“If Ranil Wickremesinghe and Gotabaya Rajapaksa think it will be possible to stop the activities of our movement through repression, we say that will not happen,” Harshana told University World News.

Patali Champika Ranawaka, leader of the 43 Brigade, a newly formed political movement, said Sri Lanka had been discredited internationally by investigating IUSF without any evidence of its involvement in terrorist activities.

Sustained protest action

Students have launched a broad-based movement with trade unions, civil organisations, artists and university lecturers to free all detained activists.

Parallel to that, IUSF representatives started visiting diplomatic offices and foreign missions in Sri Lanka, handing over letters asking them to intervene to force the Sri Lankan government to release the detained students.

IUSF said it had informed the diplomatic missions of the United States, United Kingdom, European Union, Switzerland, Norway, France and Australia to exert “the maximum possible influence” on the Sri Lankan government at the Human Rights Council session in Geneva in the coming days.

IUSF also held several rounds of talks with Sri Lanka’s main political parties on countering what they called the “anti-democratic repressive programme” of the current government, including the controversial use of the PTA.

In addition to the protests currently taking place in front of universities, students plan massive future protest marches in the capital.

Buddhist student monks are planning to join other university students in the new wave of protests after IUBF Convener Thero was arrested and detained, with plans for a protest march in Colombo on 8 September to demand that the government release Thero and other student leaders.

Another event will be held this week in Colombo in honour of activists who joined the Aragalaya struggle and to push for the release of those detained. It will also commemorate those activists who died on 9 May when Rajapaksa supporters attacked protesters and destroyed tents.

Nine people including a parliamentarian from the ruling party died in the ensuing violence and at least 250 were injured.

Activists said police used “excessive force” to disrupt peaceful student protests.

UN calls for national dialogue

A report released on 6 September by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said detaining the three student leaders under the PTA was an “alarming development” and called on the Sri Lankan government to immediately end reliance on draconian security laws and crackdowns on peaceful protests.

Sri Lanka’s new government should embark on a national dialogue to advance human rights and reconciliation, the UN report urges, calling for accountability and deeper institutional reforms to prevent a recurrence of past violations.

“While the security forces recently showed considerable restraint in response to mass protests, the government has since taken a harder line approach, arresting some student leaders under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and violently suppressing peaceful protests. A heavily militarised environment and culture of surveillance also continue in the north and east of the country,” OHCHR said in a statement.

Sri Lanka’s government has informed the OHCHR it plans to table a new counter-terrorism act to replace the PTA. A number of other draft laws to regulate cyber-security in the digital space, including an Online Safety Bill to “combat online falsehood and manipulation”, are also in preparation.

The OHCHR report calls on Sri Lanka to ensure that new legislation to replace the PTA and proposed laws on digital security “fully comply with Sri Lanka’s international law obligations”.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s return

Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled first to the Maldives, then to Singapore and finally to Thailand, but returned to Sri Lanka on 2 September. He has not indicated an intention to return to active politics.

Although many people actively pushed for the removal of Rajapaksa as president, they did not protest his return. However, on social media many have blamed him for dragging the country into an economic crisis, saying he should be held accountable and legal action should be taken.

While the IUSF received a lot of support from the public during the GotaGoGama Galle Face struggle, support is gradually decreasing. Political commentators say this may be due to some extent to recent government concessions such as reducing electricity power cuts, some alleviation of the cooking gas shortage and a reduction in fuel queues through a rationing system.