Killing of jaffna students prompts unrest in northern Sri Lanka

Peaceful Assembly 

Tensions between students and security forces in northern Sri Lanka have considerably worsened of late. The recent killing of two students from the University of Jaffna on 10th October sparked protests across the island. Sundiraja Sulakshan and Nadarasa Gajan died after Sri Lankan security forces shot them with live ammunition when the pair failed to stop at a police barricade. The authorities excessive use of force against the two young men has come to symbolise the heavy-handed and militarised approach taken by security forces in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Since the conclusion of the civil conflict in 2009, the area has been heavily occupied by Sri Lankan security personnel. 

The killing of the the two students prompted a wave of protests and labor strikes across northern and eastern Sri Lanka, with protestors demanding justice for the victims. Latest reports from the ground note that a protest in Kilinochi has turned violent. On 25th October, security forces attempted to disperse a gathering protesting the killing of the two students. One police officer was injured in the violence.    

A civic movement in solidarity with the people of Jaffna has also sprung up in the capital Colombo. The wave of protests illustrated the power of inter-community solidarity, as signs in Tamil, Sinhala and English were held by students calling upon authorities to conduct a proper investigation into their deaths.  

A recent survey of the state of human rights in Sri Lanka over the past year by Inform Human Rights Documentation Centre notes a general decline in respect for freedom of peaceful assembly. The report documents how, in July, authorities obtained court orders to impose restrictions on a protest march by the former President and opposition politician Mahinda Rajapaksa. Security forces released a stern warning to any potential protesters, cautioning them not to violate the court order. In its report, Inform noted that: 

"Notwithstanding the fact that the Rajapaksa led march was aimed at inciting extreme Sinhala nationalist feelings and to sabotage democratic reforms of the government, their right to protest and peaceful assembly should have been respected."

On 15th August, an anti-racism rally organised by civil society organisations representing different ethnicities in central Colombo was disrupted by Sinhala Buddhist nationalist group Sinha Ley National Force (Sinhala Jathika Balamuluwa). Led by a Buddhist monk, the mob confronted the peaceful protesters and accused them of trying to alter Sri Lanka's identity. Sinhala Buddhist nationalism has been used to discriminate against ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka. Security forces who were nearby only intervened when the confrontation disrupted traffic.

On 31st August, a protest march organised by the Inter-University Student Federation (IUSF) called for the closure of the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM). SAITM, a private educational institution, has caused uproar among student groups who feel their qualifications from public educational institutions are being devalued by degrees awarded by the private establishment. The protest was met with aggression by authorities, leading to clashes and excessive force by security forces who deployed teargas and used a water cannon.