Ceylon Teachers’ Union (CTU)’s secretary, Joseph Stalin and 15 other union members who were arrested and kept at the Keppapulavu Air Force camp, were released on Friday morning following mounting condemnation of their detention.
The 16 union members were arrested on Thursday 8th July 2021 in Colombo, for demonstrating against the widely criticised Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill and were forcibly detained at the Keppapulavu Air Force camp quarantine centre for 14 days.
“They forcibly brought us here after we were set free by the court. We were detained in this camp for eight days. We were detained unfairly. On the 11th, our PCR tests came negative yet we were still kept here. This is an unlawful act and a serious violation of freedom of expression,” said Stalin. Despite receiving bail from court, the 16 members were forced to quarantine at the centre.
However, Stalin insisted that he and his union member’s fight against the bill would continue despite being detained. Protests and letters condemning the union members unlawful detention were seen across the island.
“We clearly say that we would continue our actions. We will protest this unlawful arrest. We know that many stood up for us. We invite all those people to join us to take the struggle forward,” he said.
In response to the protests against the confinement of the members at the quarantine centre, there was increased Sri Lankan military presence outside the camp. Whilst in detention, the union members complained that they were not getting treated well and that the food and water quality was very poor. Therefore people who went to deliver food and relief packages, were subject to intense harassment and intimidation at several roadblocks on the way to the quarantine centre.
A protest condemning the illegal arrest of Joseph Stalin and his fellow union members was held in front of Jaffna Central Bus Stand on Friday morning - on the day of their release.
Demonstrators came to protest against the potential militarisation and privatisation of education that the KNDU Bill seeks to introduce. Tamil politicians such as parliamentarians and Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF)’s leader, Gajendrakumar Ponnambalam and general secretary, Selvarajah Kajendran joined other locals, teachers and union representatives to oppose the bill.
The Vavuniya branch of the CTU branded the suppression against the demonstrations as “anti-democratic”, strongly condemned the union members’ detention and urged for their immediate release. Teachers who joined insisted they will boycott and suspend online lessons until the members were released. Subsequently, the teachers suspended their teaching for over five days.
Former Northern Provincial Council member Durairasa Ravikaran emphasised the harmful effects and impact across the Tamil homeland that militarisation has brought. Ominous about the bill, he then highlighted the dangers of further militarisation from the bill would cause. “The [Sri Lankan Ministry of Defence] will have full power to suppress any protests that occurs within universities. They can dictate what is right and wrong. This will spell the end of free education. The government has been handing more and more power to the military. This is both dangerous and ridiculous,” he said.
Ravikaran also underlined the heavy condemnation and protests against the bill, especially in the North-East, with numerous protests and statements condemning the bill in the last few days. He questioned why Sri Lanka’s President Gotabaya Rajapaksa could say that these protests against are a “massive injustice for the future generations of the country. Is militarisation and ending free education a policy that would serve the future generations?,” he asked.
“The general secretary of the Ceylon Teachers’ Union secretary was arrested for protesting against the bill. This has now raised questions by those in the South such as whether this country really is democratic and whether peaceful demonstrations are allowed,” he added.
The bill has been criticised for multiple reasons, such as prohibiting the formation of student unions, extending the power and influence of the Ministry of Defence and spearheading profit-making as the sole purpose.