We, the undersigned student unions, educators and scholars, strongly condemn the harassment, intimidation, arrests and abductions of student activists in Sri Lanka. The actions of the Sri Lankan Government demonstrates a blatant disregard for students’ rights, including the freedom to protest and show their dissent. We condemn the arrests of student activists Wasantha Mudalige (Convenor of the Inter University Students’ Federation, Sri Lanka), Galwewa Siridhamma himi and Hashan Jeevantha while participating in a peaceful protest in Colombo and detaining them under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). The PTA is a draconian law that allows for arbitrary arrests and detention without trial that has been used to target minority ethnic tamils and muslims and political dissidents in the past.
We are particularly concerned about the abuse of the anti-terrorism law to detain student protestors. We demand that the government stop the criminalization of dissent in this manner that represents a gross violation of the democratic rights of students and citizens of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka has stood out as an example for universal free education and students have played an integral part in safeguarding equal access to education. The targeted assault on student unions and their leadership is an attempt to undermine the collective strength of students and to hold the government accountable for policies that have plunged the country into a devastating economic crisis. As educators we are aware of the harmful repercussions the labeling of peaceful dissenters as ‘terrorists’ has on individuals and communities, particularly those from vulnerable and minority backgrounds. It is clear that the use of such draconian laws against students expressing their democratic right to dissent is not only to suppress the current mass uprising in the country for pro-people policies but is meant to crush the democratic spirit and aspirations of youth in the long term.
In recent times, we are observing the worrying trend of the use of anti-terrorism laws on student movements by “democratically” elected authoritarian leaders globally. This trend coincides with the dominant framing of education as only serving to produce docile workers for the marketplace. Within such a framing, students’ activism and active participation in political movements are made to seem antithetical to their educational goals. We reject such a narrow framing of education that has only served the interests of political elites and to maintain the status quo. It has led to the shrinking of space for political debates and suppression of intellectual freedoms within educational institutions and to the disintegration of democracy itself. In these turbulent times, it is heartening to witness the re-emergence of student movements demonstrating their unwavering resistance to authoritarian rule. We affirm the statement by the Federation of University Teachers’ Association in Sri Lanka that there can be no education without democracy.
We extend our solidarity to the student movement in Sri Lanka as they struggle to achieve meaningful systemic change amidst a debilitating economic collapse. We support the call of the Inter University Students’ Federation to immediately release the students who are being detained under the PTA, enforce a moratorium on the use of the draconian anti-terrorism law, repeal the PTA and stop state repression of the student movement.