Sunday, August 01, 2010

Accusations and Agitations; University students up their game

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By Roel Raymond | The Sunday Leader

On July 23, reports that Ruhuna University student Susantha Anura Bandara had succumbed to head injuries following an assault by police were made public, followed by mass pandemonium, as university students gathered to protest against what they charged was another act of police brutality.
The Incident

On June 16, a section of students from the Ruhuna campus engaged in preparing for ‘Student Hero’s Day’ were attacked by outside elements, prompting a protest the following day (17th), against administrative officials without whose permission, they say, entrance to the campus premises is prohibited.

The students also took the opportunity to push administrative officials to make allowance for the future establishment of hostel accommodation within the campus premises as a) the current hostel was situated about 2km away from the campus premises and b) they were being continuously harassed on their way to and from.

Following the protest on the 18th, university administrative officials had decided to temporarily close down the Ruhuna Campus, asking the students to gather their belongings from the hostel in Medawatte and go back home until further notice.

Police escorts were sent with the students to the hostel premises – in order to stave of further outside attacks – but in a surprise turn of events, once inside the hostel premises, police had allegedly blocked off the hostel gate with a police bus and attacked the students with batons, chairs and poles.

Susantha Anura Bandara

A third year student of the Faculty of Natural Sciences and Social Sciences (D.O.B 10.11.1985), Susantha was taller than most of his colleagues, which is why, it is hazarded, he was hit harder on the back of his head, causing subsequent internal bleeding.

Following the attack, Susantha had left with six of his friends to Ampara where he stayed over at a friend’s place and then traveled the next morning to his home town of Buttala. After having a shower that morning however, Susantha had vomited and gone with his mother, to the Buttala Hospital.

Susantha’s condition however took a turn for the worse. He fell unconscious for one and a half days, and was thereafter taken to the Diyathalawa Hospital and admitted to the Intensive Care Unit for four days before finally being taken to the Buttala National Hospital where he underwent several MRI scans.

Speaking to The Sunday Leader, Convener, Inter University Students Federation Udul Premaratne said that Susantha’s mother had tried unsuccessfully to lodge a complaint at several police stations regarding the attack on her son by the police and his subsequent illness but had been turned away.

Her entry and Susantha’s statement had finally been accepted on July 8 by the Badulla Hospital Police, Premaratne said, following pressure from doctors, who had insisted that an entry be made because of the condition Susantha was in.

On July 23, over one month after the incident at the Ruhuna University, Susantha Anura Bandara passed away while at the Badulla National Hospital.

The Police And The ‘Bassa’ Myth

Following student agitations and protests after Susantha’s death, Inspector General of Police Mahinda Balasuriya refuted student accusations that the police attack was the reason for his death, saying – at a press conference called at Police Headquarters – that the boy had died of ‘natural causes’ and not because of an impact to the head.

The next day however, Premaratne said, Balasuriya had retracted his statement, bringing in the name of Susantha’s colleague “Bassa’’, saying that initial investigations had proved that Susantha had died from injuries inflicted on him by ‘Bassa,’ or Basnayake.

Bakka, Premaratne said, was a friend of Susantha’s. In order to allay his mother’s fears and tears following a particularly bad bout of vomiting after the attack, Susantha had said that it wasn’t the police that had hit him so badly, but his friend Bakka.
Susantha’s mother, Premaratne said, had mentioned this, together with a number of other details to the police, but says that the ‘Bassa’’ story was what had been grabbed by the police and leaked to the media.

The Evidence Against The Police

The IUSF says they have evidence against the police and its attack on the students.
Over 100 students who had been inside the hostel premises in Medawatte at the time of the police attack have testified to the incident. Additionally, Premaratne said, area residents and town’s folk also were witnesses as they had both heard and seen the pandemonium caused by the police, who had in some cases chased students as far as the Matara town.

In addition to this, the IUSF website ( carries video interviews of Susantha’s friends who visited him at the Badulla hospital, where he had told them that he was sick as a result of the beating he received by the police. Premaratne also said that a media briefing had been called following the attack (20th), where mention had been made of Susantha who was in hospital at the time.

IUSF Questions The Police

The IUSF, Premaratne said had a number of questions they wished to ask of the police. First, he asked, why the police had failed to conduct any inquiry into the incident that took place at the Ruhuna University, in spite of a police entry being made in that regard, citing the police officers that had been identified and involved in the attack against the students (OIC of the Matara Police Sampath Mahinda Caldera, and Police Officers Gamini Jayaratne, Ranjith Padmasiri and Damayantha Wijey Shri.)

Next, he asked, why the Inspector General of Police, in spite of setting up hotlines, fax machines and making a promise when he entered office that the police force would be ‘close to the people’ (mahajanayata sameepa polisiyak) was covering up the misdeeds, misbehaviour and brutal indiscipline of the police officers and also stating that he had ‘’not received’’ the police entry made by the Ruhuna students regarding the attack.

Citing the Angulana and Bambalapitiya cases, Premaratne also drew attention to the fact that had the people of Angulana not stood up against the police and had there been no video evidence of the youth drowning at Bambalapitiya, the police would have covered up both cases saying that the two boys from Angulana were from the “underworld’’ and that the youth had accidentally drowned.

Premaratne also asked why the police were attempting to intimidate students by tearing down posters they had pasted regarding Susantha’s death and by assaulting and arresting university students that had engaged in the pasting of posters. The Inspector General has become a Government Spokesman, he ridiculed, and the police force “Government Goats’’.

The Public Outcry

The university students have promised to continue unabated the protests against police brutality, until the perpetrators are brought to justice. Massive protests have been organised in both Matara and Colombo and leaflets are being distributed explaining the circumstances of Susantha’s death, Premaratne said. The IUSF in addition will file a Fundamental Rights petition with regard to the case and make moves to meet with the Human Rights Commission, in order to bring as much publicity as possible to the deteriorating role of the police in today’s society.

Also Guilty

While the police can be, and are being blamed for the death of Ruhuna student Susantha Anura Bandara, the issue at the heart of the agitations and protest by the students has been against university officials/administrators and the Minister of Higher Education S.B. Dissanayake. On June 24, medical students from the Allied Health Sciences also took to the streets outside the Ministry of Higher Education, protesting a decision made by Minister S.B Dissanayake to reduce the four year period of their degree by a whole year, thus making it, as the students termed it, another useless degree. July 16 saw students of the Higher National Diploma in Engineering outside the Ministry of Higher Education, protesting the alleged misappropriation of a gift of funds amounting to 21.9 million euros by the Director General of the Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technologic Engineering (SLIATE) under whose purview the HNDE falls. On July 19 the Inter University Students Federation, in a letter to Minister S.B Dissanayake challenged him to an open debate before the public, accusing him of making moves to privatise the universities and thus make them inaccessible to the majority.

© The Sunday Leader

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