Sri Lankan university students are intensifying their fight against the arrest and detention of students and activists during and after weeks of protests over the country’s economic crisis which led to the unseating of the country’s former president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who resigned on 14 July, a day after fleeing the country.
Students launched a new wave of protests calling for the release of three student activists detained by police in Colombo on 18 August under the country’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which allows up to a year’s detention without trial.
The arrests included Wasantha Mudalige, the leader of the Inter-University Students’ Federation (IUSF), the country’s largest and most powerful student union, which played a key role in the protests, organising a campaign of peaceful struggle.
Police have confirmed that Mudalige, as well as Convener of the Inter-University Bhikku (Buddhist monks) Federation (IUBF) Galwewa Siridhamma Thero, and a member of the Kelaniya University Students’ Union Hashantha Jawantha Gunathilake were detained.
To date, police have arrested about 130 protesters, including activists directly involved in the peaceful movement, which started on 9 April in front of the president’s office in Colombo near the Galle Face area where protesters erected tents. The protest came to be known as the GotaGoGama Aragalaya after the slogan “Gota Go Gama” (Gota, go home).
Police say the three student leaders were detained to investigate whether they acted in a manner that caused the general public to be incited and-or they endeavoured to commit acts of violence during the struggle.
The police said in a statement they also want to investigate whether students incited and provoked the general public to gather and forcibly enter the private residence of then prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and whether they committed the offence of ‘mischief’ by setting fire to the private residence while damaging private and public properties “with the ultimate view of overthrowing the lawfully elected government”, a crime that may be investigated in terms of the PTA.
In unprecedented scenes in May, anti-government protesters set fire to and damaged the residences of at least 100 politicians, including over 70 parliamentarians.
One of the residences of former prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was also torched. More than 80 vehicles, including buses that transported pro-government protesters, were either set on fire or damaged. Police arrested over 3,300 people during the May unrest.
On 9 July thousands of protesters travelling to the capital stormed the residence of then president Gotabaya Rajapaksa, occupying rooms and swimming in the pool.