Sri Lanka: International trade unions calls for immediate release of arrested teachers, students activists

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Solidarity for Sri Lanka’s education rights campaigners detained and intimidated for resisting militarisation of higher education is gathering momentum, JDS Lanka reported. 

Five leading activists including three from the country’s largest undergraduate’s association arbitrarily arrested following their protest actions have been held in detention without charges for nearly two months. Four of them, including a female political activist Koshila Hansamali Perera was infected with Covid19 while in detention.

Inter-University Students Federation (IUSF) leaders Wasantha Mudalige, president of Sri Jayawardanapura University Students Union Amila Sandeepa and Heshan Harshana of Rajarata University, as well as Chameera Koswatta, are also held in remand prison.

‘End the crackdown’

International trade union bodies have called for the immediate release of all arrested trade unionists, teachers and student activists in Sri Lanka.

JDS Lanka highlights their call comes as a top-level European Union delegation concluded their visit to the island to assess the possibility of granting preferential access to the European market. The facility known as GSP+ is conditional on Sri Lanka advancing human and labour rights, good governance and working towards sustainable development.

All the major New Zealand education unions have jointly urged the “Government of Sri Lanka to end the crackdown on students, teachers and trade unionists protesting the General Sir John Kotelawala National Defence University Bill.”

The statement signed by New Zealand’s Tertiary Education Union (TEU), Post Primary Teachers Association, Educational Institute Te Riu Roa and Independent Schools Education Association (ISEA) refers to threats against academics Mahim Mendis and Aminda Lakmal, who are leading activists of the Federation of University Teachers’ Associations (FUTA).

Citing the arrest of the General Secretary of the Ceylon Teachers Union (CTU) Joseph Stalin in July, the statement has noted that ‘number of international union federations had already spoken out against the series of arrests of union activists.’

In July, due to international outcry, Sri Lanka was forced to release Joseph Stalin of the CTU and several other trade unionists detained in a remote military camp in the north of the island for opposing the militarization of higher education.

‘Release activists’

Meanwhile, a parallel statement issued by several Australian trade unions, socialists and councilors have demanded the Sri Lankan government to ‘put an immediate stop to the hounding of trade unions demanding a solution to 24-year- long unresolved salary anomalies.’

“We demand the immediate release of arrested activists, drop charges and end the crackdown on trade unionists, academics and student activists who are protesting the militarization of higher education (KNDU Bill) ” the statement added.

Australia Asia Worker Links (AAWL), Workers Solidarity, ASF – International Workers’ Association, Socialist Alliance, Victorian Socialists, Yarra City Councillor Stephen Jolly, Moreland City Councillor Sue Bolton and Maribyrnong Councillor Jorge Jorquera have signed the appeal from Australia.

The President of Sri Lanka National Principals Union Mohan Weerasinghe and Independent Education Employees Union member Sirini De Silva who were questioned at the CID headquarters in Colombo on 22 September has also been highlighted in the statement released by the NZ trade unions.

However, there is a fear among trade unionists and education rights activists of the resurgence of an imminent crackdown as the minister for public security had been constantly threatening ‘tough action” against teachers on strike.

“As public security minister, I have said at the cabinet meeting too that we mustn’t be soft [on these protests]. We have to take tough measures,” retired Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekara told on a televised programme on Thursday (30).

The next day, CTU leader Joseph Stalin challenged the minister to reveal what he plans to do.

“We want to know what these tough measures are. He is making these statements when there is a European Union (EU) delegation in the country.”

In June, the EU parliament adopted a resolution calling on the EU commission to withdraw Sri Lanka’s preferential trade access to EU markets, which is the biggest market for its apparel industry, threatening to end a trade concession worth over 500 million US dollars.

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