Sri Lankan students battle against privatisation of the universities – Report by Inter University Students Federation, Sri Lanka

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Banner of the Inter University Students Federation on a protest against the ‘Kotelawala Act’

UDARA Sandaruwan, Acting Convenor of the Inter University Students Federation has issued an appeal to trade unions and human rights organisations of the world to oppose the repression of the student and trade union leaders by the Sri Lankan government.

He states: ‘There has been serious opposition to the “Kotelawala Act” that was presented by the government on privatising and militarising the free education system.

‘This act was submitted to the parliament on 26th March 2021.

‘The Kotelawala Act leads to the destruction of the free education system prevailing on the Island by giving the opportunity to create private universities and private schools.

‘A large scale, serious militarisation is taking place by this Act.

‘The opposition to the Kotelawala Act has been mounted and continued by the university students, university lecturers, trade unions, organisations of artists including various public organisations.

‘Also, some government parties were opposed.

‘These protests were led by the “Inter University Students Federation” and the “Students and Mass Movement for Free Education”.

‘The government started their suppression by continuing the abduction of the university lecturers and leaders of the above mentioned organisations, and the imprisonment of the students and trade union leaders, and threatening relatives of the leaders and students.

‘Students and trade union leaders have been arrested on charges of failing to obtain bail. Three university students including the convener of Inter University Students Federation have been infected with the Covid-19 virus inside the prisons. Serious suspicions have been raised as to whether there was a conspiracy to assassinate the students’ leaders by deliberately exposing them to the epidemic.

‘Accordingly, students leaders who have stood up for the rights of free education have been threatened by  the Sri Lankan Government.

‘We do request you to oppose this serious suppression as human rights organisations and international  organisations.

‘Thank you.

‘On behalf of the Students and Mass Movement for free education.’

The Report states that: According to this Bill, the administration board of the said university will be empowered to establish other universities, campuses, colleges anywhere in the country under this name.

It would also be entitled to be affiliated to other local as well as foreign universities, this would result in the private universities being established and functioning under the Companies Act, as well as those functioning on an unofficial and irregular basis becoming affiliated to the Kotelawala Defence University, thereby furthering the process of privatisation of education, removing all hindrances which presently exist for privatising education.

In addition to removing all obstacles to the privatisation of education, a plan for militarisation of education also comes to the fore through this Bill.

This would establish a military administration structure which is more powerful than the University Grants Commission, which has been regulating the state universities under the universities Act of 1978.

Universities established under the proposed Act would be under the Ministry of Defence.

The proposed military structure would function independently from the universities Act and the University Grants Commission.

Accordingly, all academic and non-academic decisions and powers related to the network of universities affiliated to the Kotelawala Defence University would be taken by the proposed military structure which is specified in the Bill.

The Inter Universities Student Federation, the Students and Mass Movement for Free Education have been involved in opposing the privatisation and militarisation of education through the Sir John Kotelawala Defence University Bill from the time that it was in the process of being drafted.

The mass fight has intensified to a new level at this time where the government is trying to push the Bill through parliament.

Protests have been taking place on a national level as well as provincial levels from the time the Bill received cabinet approval.

On 6th August 2021, the government had planned again to get the Bill passed by parliament.

The Inter Universities Student Federation, Student and the Mass Movement for Free Education had organised a protest march, which started from the Rajagiriya Ayurveda Round to the parliament entrance.

About 500 individuals participated in the protest, with protest placards, banners and flags.

A ‘coffin’ made of regiform was also set on fire in the protest.

At that point in time, the police had blocked the entrance road to parliament by placing barriers which were pushed out of the way by the student and mass activists.

The protest was peacefully dispersed after protesting for about two hours.

From the moment the protest ended, the police have been pursuing the student and mass leaders of the protest movement.

The police have forcibly entered the homes and offices of the activists and also waylaid some.

There have been abductions, threats etc., after the protest of 3rd August 2021.

Among the mass arrests was student activist Koshila Hansamali Perera who was was arrested at her home, on 13th August by a group of seven, five of which were dressed as girls.

Chameera Koswatte of the Workers’ Struggle Centre was arrested at his home in the Weliweriya area.

A group of police had gone to his home at around 6pm on 3rd August 2021 but he was not home. They came again around 10pm and arrested him.

Amila Sandeepa who is the president of the General Student Association of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura was abducted on 5th August 2021 near the University of Sri Jayewardenepura between 2.30 and 3pm.

He was about to join the protest against the Kotelawala Defence University Bill organised by the Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) on 5th August 2021 but was abducted in front of the university by a group of persons dressed in civil individuals who came in an unmarked van.

The information received was that he was being held at the Mirihan Police Station, but a group of university teachers including Harini Amarasuriya, Member of Parliament, had gone to the Mirihana police station and inquired and had been told that he wasn’t there.

Later it was revealed that he had been held at the Thalangama Police Station and he was produced before the Magistrate’s Court of Kaduwela on 6/8/2021 and remanded till 11th August 2021.

Wasantha Mudalige Wasantha Mudalige who is the convenor of the Inter Universities Students Federation was abducted at a police barrier in the Borupana area of Rathmalana around 3am on 6th August 2021 as he was returning after participating in a television programme at Sirasa TV held in the night of 5th August 2021.

He was travelling in a three-wheeler when he was stopped at the police barrier and handcuffed.

Wasantha, Amila and Chameera tested positive for Covid-19 whilst being in Remand Custody.

Wasantha Mudalige, is the convenor of the Inter University Students Federation-President of the University of Jayawardhenapura Students Union.

Chameera was arrested on 3rd August, Amila on 5th August and Wasantha was arrested on 6th August, 2021.

When all three of them were initially subjected to PCR and Rapid Antigen Tests they tested negative.

However, when subsequent PCR tests were performed after around 20 days it was reported that all of them tested positive for Covid-19.

Therefore it is clear that all of them had in fact been exposed to and tested positive for Covid-19 while being in detention in remand prison.

These facts demonstrate a larger and most serious issue where it becomes apparent that the state machinery allegedly has intentionally exposed these members of alternative political views to health risks with a latent intent of frustrating their political activism.

There were many more people arrested, raided and dealt with in the same fashion during the protest against the ‘Kotelawala Act’.

The report concludes:

‘We, the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF) deeply call upon the international community to stand against the repressive and undemocratic acts conducted by the current government of Sri Lanka which violate the fundamental and human rights, especially the rights of freedom of expression, freedom from unlawful detention and to respect the rights which are recognised universally as well as the constitution of Sri Lanka.’

Send all messages and support to:

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Address – Inter University Student Federation, Student Union, University of Sri Jayewardhanepure, Gangodawila, Nugegoda, Sri Lanka.