The illegitimate government led by Ranil Wickremasinghe continues to resort to State violence in suppressing peaceful protests with impunity. On 08 March the State used brutal police force to disperse a peaceful protest march led by the Inter University Students Federation (IUSF), even invading the University of Colombo to do so.
The Police was not content to disperse the protesting students using tear gas and water cannons, but also forcibly entered the University of Colombo premises without any lawful authorization and indiscriminately and arbitrarily attacked students who were in the university, some of whom had taken no part in the protest march, thereby blatantly disregarding any semblance of respect for the rule of law. Students, academics and other bystanders were gratuitously targeted during this unprecedented and vicious attack carried out within the premise of an university. The conduct of the Police is a deliberate and flagrant violation of university autonomy — a cherished principle upon which our university system has been built, and which has been upheld by successive regimes in the past.
Not chastened by the fact that such state terror resulted in the death of one person who was attacked within the university premises, the Police continued to target protesters outside the University of Kelaniya on the 09th of March as well.
The Federation of University Teachers Association (FUTA) vehemently condemns the ruthless and unprovoked behavior exhibited by the Police in attacking students. The perpetrators of these cowardly and unlawful acts, as well as those whose orders were being followed by these perpetrators, must be punished to the fullest extent of the law.
The right to peaceful assembly and association is a fundamental right of all citizens, which is well recognized by the supreme law of our land. The country has witnessed a systematic assault on these very rights during the past few months, ever since Ranil Wickremasinghe was “elected” President by Parliament in July 2022. The Government has adopted an illegal zero-tolerance policy towards any organized protest march and has repeatedly used violence, in the extreme, in dispersing street demonstrations. University students, trade unions, including FUTA, and even major political parties have been subjected to this inhuman repression in the recent past.
Peaceful demonstrations have been an integral part of our democracy ever since the country obtained independence. Citizens of this country have exercised their right to dissent through collective demonstrations whenever they were dissatisfied with government policies. These demonstrations took different forms, from street marches to pada-yathras or janagoshas that lasted for days. The conduct of the current regime to impose an absolute ban on any mass demonstration is without precedent in our history, without merit within the law, and, moreover, it contravenes the fundamental values of a democratic society.
We are living in times where ruthless and unjust economic reforms are imposed on the masses. The lower- and middle-income populations in the country are disproportionately burdened due to the so-called austerity measures the Government has imposed on them. Arbitrary and unfair increase of taxes, the escalation of electricity and fuel prices due to the removal of subsidies, again disproportionately affecting the poor, high interest rates, and the suspension of state expenditure, have severely impacted the livelihoods of millions of citizens. These measures are imposed by a President who was never elected through a popular mandate. To make matters worse, the President also refuses to conduct elections that are legally due, and therefore continues to govern without the consent of the governed.
This tendency of rising political authoritarianism accompanied by a harsh economic austerity that is oriented towards a neoliberal ideology poses a fundamental threat to the democratic fabric of this country. Prohibiting demonstrations, attacking protestors, illegally preventing elections, the use of repressive laws to restrict trade union activities, are all part and parcel of a larger authoritarian drive that should be vigorously and steadfastly challenged.
FUTA calls upon all citizens, organizations and forces that value democracy and basic civil liberties to oppose the illegitimate and inhuman conduct of this government. We wish to warn the Government that as the trade union federation representing the academic community in the country, FUTA will stand in solidarity with the people to the very end in order to defeat all such acts of state terror and injustice.
We recognize that in attacking peaceful protesters the Government is demonstrating the fact that it feels threatened by our voices and collective strength. They fear the inevitable triumph of justice over brute force. We are not afraid, nor will we back down. Hence, this use of the Police as a weapon in the Government’s arsenal of terror must stop immediately. Impunity and utter callousness of this kind must be halted both by legal challenges and public outrage. FUTA pledges its commitment to stand up and fight against an illegitimate government’s illegal agenda, and seeks the public’s continued support to ensure victory.