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Sri Lanka: Wickremesinghe targets students

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Having replaced Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President, Ranil Wickremesinghe has unleashed a wave of repression against the mass movement that forced Rajapaksa from office.

Hundreds of people are being arrested daily, many on charges under the Public Property Act which denies them bail for a week. Worse still, three leaders of the Inter-University Student Federation, Wasantha Mudalige, Galwewa Siridhamma and Hashan Jeevantha, who played a prominent role in the protest movement, have been detained under the country's notorious Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows for detention without trial for up to a year.

A further 16 students, also arrested at a demonstration on August 18, were later released, but only on bail of 500,000 rupees (some US$1,400).

The attempt to present protest demonstrations as a form of terrorism is clearly intended to intimidate the hundreds of thousands who took part in the mass movement against the Rajapaksa regime.

It has already been condemned by Amnesty International, whose South Asia Director, Yamini Mishra, said, "This is a testament to how the authorities are unwilling to withstand any form of criticism and are systematically stifling dissenting voices. This is against Sri Lanka’s international human rights obligations, especially the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly”.

The UN's Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Mary Lawlor, described Wickremesinghe's decision to sign an initial 90-day detention order against Mudalige and his comrades as "a dark day for Sri Lanka".

Wickremesinghe's actions prove very clearly a fundamental political lesson; replacing one president with another, without any change in the key institutions of the state, cannot resolve the crisis facing the country. The call for new elections, while understandable given the new president's lack of any mandate to govern, is also no solution - only Wickremesinghe himself can dissolve parliament and call an election!

The Frontline Socialist Party, to which the IUSF is affiliated, has raised the call for "people's struggle committees" across the island and many in the protest movement have also called for "People's Councils" to give a democratic basis for a new constitution. These obviously express a justified rejection of the existing political system but, nonetheless, they are too vague and potentially misleading.

The "people" includes all citizens, as if all citizens had a common interest, but they do not. The "people" includes those classes of the population who have the wealth and the connections to make sure they get what they want. Socialists in the movement need to argue for class-based committees or councils, most importantly workers' and farmers' and fishers' committees and, in time, councils.

Only class organisations can draw up the demands that make clear the needs of their members - which are absolutely not the same as the needs of the employers, the corporations, the banks and, behind all of them, the IMF and the other international institutions. Socialists who understand the need for class organisations need to organise themselves into a political party, a workers' party worthy of the name, within which to draw up the key demands for resolving the crisis.

There is a growing pressure for a complete change, a democratic change, in Sri Lanka and socialists should certainly support that - by calling for a Constituent Assembly whose election should be overseen by the workers' and farmers' mass organisations, not the repressive apparatus of the existing state.

The movement in Sri Lanka also needs, and certainly deserves, support and solidarity from around the world, including protests at Sri Lanka's embassies, demands on governments to call for release of all political prisoners and solidarity messages, and funds, in the first place to the IUSF.