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SRI LANKA: New wave of student protests

Dinesh De Alwis – Buddhist student monks have joined thousands of other university students in a new wave of protests to hit Sri Lanka in recent weeks, forcing the temporary closure of at least two major universities this week and widespread disruption of classes.

Student monks at the seminary Buddha Shrawaka Bhikku University in North Central province staged a protest on 11 January, adding to a spate of demonstrations in universities that involved thousands of students in different parts of the country.

Notably, there have been protests at Sri Jayewardenepura University in Colombo and Rajarata University in North Central province. Both have been closed by the authorities since 8 January to stem the unrest.

Student activists claim that the protests were provoked by the government in order to push a controversial private universities bill through parliament, taking advantage of university closures as students would be unable to gather for large protests.

Sri Lanka’s Marxist JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna) party agreed, saying that the government had deliberately sowed disruption. In a statement this week, the JVP accused the government of trying to “create an environment that was conducive to the establishment of private universities by creating a crisis in state universities”.

Higher Education Ministry Secretary Sunil Jayantha Nawaratne insisted that the government was trying to resolve the crisis. He said a special committee had been appointed that would “find the root causes and suggest the solutions to continue studies without problems”.

Higher Education Minister SB Dissanayake is scheduled to meet officials and students of Sri Jayewardenepura University by 14 January to discuss measures to reopen the university as soon as possible.

On Tuesday a magistrate’s court ordered police to remove all students from Sri Jayewardenepura’s premises. The students, who had been protesting there since the closing of the institution on 8 January, left peacefully.

However, in another escalation parents began protests on Wednesday in front of Rajarata University calling for its reopening by the authorities.

Student anger is still simmering over the bill, which they say heralds the end of free higher education in the country. Students arrested during protests over the bill last year and in 2010 are still awaiting trial.

In the latest wave of unrest, students are among other things demanding the lifting of suspensions on the more than 100 students arrested since November for alleged involvement in protests and taking part in banned student unions.

The ministry outlawed 33 student unions including eight major student councils in December, ostensibly for so-called ‘ragging’ or ritual bullying of new students, which is forbidden.

Although students have been restive for two months, the latest eruption was sparked by a bomb blast at Sri Jayewardenepura University carried out by an unidentified group on 5 January, which damaged the symbolically significant Student Heroes Memorial statue dedicated to students killed in previous uprisings.

Angry students, demanding the removal of Vice-chancellor NLA Karunarathne, claimed that he and other officials were behind the attack and called on them to admit responsibility.

“The vice-chancellor and his supporters carried out the blast,” Buddhist monk student leader Kamburugamuwe Gnanissara Thero claimed, expressing a widely-held but unproven view among students. “They say this statue is not important. No one has been arrested yet for the attack,” he said.

The JVP has said people “with a political agenda” have been given leadership positions in some state universities.

The influential Inter University Student Federation, which is affiliated to the JVP, also laid the blame for the bombing at the door of the authorities. Convener Sanjeewa Bandara told University World News: “The vice-chancellor said several days ago that the statue should be removed. We will continue our fight till the v-c steps down.”

While the government blames the JVP for seeding dissent in universities, where it still has a following, unrest has grown outside the main JVP strongholds.

Last week the ministry announced that student monks about to begin studies at two Buddhist colleges, Homagama Pali and the Buddhasravaka Dharma faculty at Anuradhapura, would join other students in so-called ‘leadership training’ carried out at military facilities and opposed by students.

Some 500 students are to begin studies at the two Buddhist universities.

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