The Federation of University Teachers Associations (FUTA) is appalled by the recent violence perpetrated against students and the destruction of state property, and deeply concerned by the fast deteriorating situation in the higher education sector in Sri Lanka. For over four months now medical faculty students within the state university system have boycotted lectures, and university student unions across the country, including the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF), have staged demonstrations, seeking a productive response from the government on the SAITM (South Asia Institute of Technology and Medicine) crisis and related issues. FUTA too has recently re-launched its campaign to create awareness on a host of education-related concerns, including large-scale under- enrolment of students to the university system, excessive government regulation of higher education, and the precarious position and sustainability of state-funded higher education in the county.
Yesterday (21/06/2017) an IUSF protest march, which ended with students encroaching the Ministry of Health premises, was met with a level of unconscionable violence by the police – even the Special Task Force (STF) which was specifically created to combat the threat of militant terrorism in the country was deployed against unarmed students. FUTA does not condone the increasingly confrontational protest methods adopted by students, but at the same time the gratuitously violent state response should be condemned in the strongest possible terms. These are university students and future leaders of this country – if a government which came into power on the promise of ‘yahapalanaya’ and a rainbow coalition of liberal and progressive social forces reacts in this manner to a group of students, we are forced to question whether the same government remains committed in any substantive sense to the values and ideals which brought it to power.
FUTA also observes with alarm a repetitive pattern in how the Government is responding to student protests. This is not the first student protest that was met with police brutality. In the recent past, similar student protests have been countered with excessively violent police action, even in the face of public outrage afterwards. The right to protest is enshrined in the Constitution of Sri Lanka and is a feature of any democratic society. Free health care and free education have continued to be two central pillars of Sri Lankan society since independence and therefore it is natural for stakeholders in society to react passionately when they perceive that these fundamental aspects Sri Lankan society are being threatened.
Brutal and violent repression of legitimate protest must cease immediately. Conflicts and differences of opinion should be resolved through open informed discussion, which is free of violence and intimidation. We call upon the Government to intervene now and bring about a just and fair resolution to the SAITM crisis through a consultative rather than confrontational approach. Continued indifference to this issue will only lead to mass unrest in the national university system which this country can ill-afford at any time, but more so when it is confronted by multiple social and economic issues such as the dengue epidemic and the aftermath of devastating floods and drought.
The Government must stand by its commitment to recognize the right to protest and dissent. We were led to believe that violent repression of legitimate dissent was a thing of the past, but this appears not to be so. Violence and brutality against protesting students and others by the Government must stop today, and those responsible for ordering the excessive use of force must be held accountable. FUTA demands that the crisis in higher education be addressed as an urgent priority, and that the SAITM issue which is a symptomatic example of this crisis should be resolved immediately. (FUTA Statement)