SRI LANKA: Crisis in the University of Jaffna — A new wave of old scenarios 

The Asian Human Rights Commission expressed grave concern over the present situation in the University of Jaffna. Most students are unable to attend lectures as the whole university is in a state of stalemate. The government has added a “national security” mood to the crisis, rather than taking it as a part of the problem in higher education in Sri Lanka. Therefore, the AHRC has identified the present crisis in the University of Jaffna as a part of the larger issue of higher education in Sri Lanka, as well as the reflection of socio-political trend in the Jaffna Peninsula.

Military deployed together with the police at Kaladdi junction, close to the University of Jaffna.

According to reliable AHRC sources there is not a single free entry point to the University without passing at least five police and army posts. Every student, academic and non-academic staff as well as visitors are highly monitored by the security forces deployed in the area. Not only are they observed from the outside, but the security forces can also enter the university premises any time, without prior notice. It was reported in the last week of November that the security forces in civilian clothing entered the student hostels without any prior notice and many students were questioned by those security forces.

In these circumstances, the situation in the University of Jaffna has become a nightmare and it highlights the real pain of militarization within the Peninsula – more than three years after the elimination of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Who is in control of Jaffna? What is happening in the area? Under what authority could the security forces, without any warrant, drag students or any other suspect and put them in cages without allowing anyone to visit them? At the beginning of this week seven of eleven students who were arrested by the police a week ago were released after interrogations. Some of them are still under detention. The situation in the university is the same, though normal routine in the university is yet to be re-started. It is reported that illegal detention, torture, and other human rights violations are frequently being committed against these students.

The Jaffna Campus of the University of Ceylon was established as the sixth campus of the University of Sri Lanka on 01 August 1974 at the Parameswara College premises at Thirunelvely, about four kilometers from Jaffna Town. The campus became an independent and autonomous university, bearing the name University of Jaffna, on January 01, 1979.1Since that time the university has become remarkably influential in the socio-political arena, not only locally, but countrywide, as well as internationally. In its short history, the University has groomed many intellectuals to take up their well-earned positions as independent thinkers in society. At the same time the University has faced tremendous difficulties from the various parties over its independence in administration. Despite this, the University has continued to be functional and presently the University of Jaffna has more than 2000 students and over 200 academic and non-academic staff members.

“University of Jaffna has been functioning in the midst of different problems to sustain its academic activities. The University has faced several ups and downs and remained to fulfill the expectations of the society,” 2 noted the newly appointed Vice Chancellor of the University, Snr. Prof. (Ms) Vasanthy Arasaratnam. However, many parties within the University who had communications with the AHRC claimed that she is just another political appointee influenced by one of the Armed-Tamil Political Parties who instill social and political fear in the area. They point to a paper at the American Society of Engineering Education which has a document from the Auditor General’s raising questions of fraud by her in purchasing. With the war and political considerations by the President in the appointment of Vice Chancellors rather than merit, the university even has suffered the indignity of a previous Vice Chancellor being seen naked with a student.

Meanwhile, leaked information from the University highlights heavy corruption during recent years. Reports confirm that many of academics had to leave the university as part of political, military and militant interference. During the conflict time there were many scholars who were directly or indirectly victimized, while some senior lecturers including Dr. Rajini Tiranagama sacrificed their lives. Rajini was a remarkable person who fought to remove blindness in the social system and perhaps she helped to open a new door to change the way of thinking among the people. “A life is a life. Whoever takes a life must be exposed independent of party feeling. We wanted to show, that in the first place, we valued life”,3 Rajini was quoted by the University Teachers for Human Rights ( J) of which Rajini also was once part and founding member.

The socio- political climate in the peninsula changed continually after the ethnic riots in 1983, though revolutionary ideas were seeded long before then. This social change was monitored by the UTHR (J) in their report issued in 1989.

“Up to the early 80’s, there was amongst a sizeable section of Tamil youth, a healthy interest in political issues accompanied by idealism. The issues were often those of social injustice, their national and internatio­nal dimensions. And quite surprisingly there was a remarkable absence of communalism which was poisoning the air in the country. But the 1983 riots and the involvement of foreign resources in the militarisation of our youth ensured that the tendency which gained ground was that of extreme nationa­lism that worshipped military success, and by its nature became intolerant. Every other political tendency felt impelled to imitate this, even at the cost of coming out second or third best. Politics died as homicidal divi­sions increased. We know well our recent history which led to a remarkable indifference to any kind of social or political effort on the part of today’s university students. Guns seemed to determine everything. In this atmosphere of disillusionment, militant groups were finding themselves obliged to strengthen themselves against each other by taking in very young persons through a variety of questionable methods.”4

The AHRC observed the situation in the area become more unsafe for social justice and freedom of ordinary citizens as the area became the main target of militarization. It has created tremendous stress among the people, and social fear is a part of daily life.

In the last three years there have been reports of a number of human rights violations including torture, arbitrary arrests on fabricated charges, illegal detentions, disappearances, extrajudicial killings and sexual abuses. Not only had human rights defenders, journalists and other social activists been victimized but a number of ordinary people also. Reliable sources who communicated with the AHRC claimed that the State Security Forces as well as the Government sponsored armed militant groups engaged in series of violent acts while the Government swept the complaints under the carpet without taking them seriously. The cumulative result of all this has now manifested itself to project an image of tension similar to the one during conflict time.

The government is justifying these acts with claims that those victims had maintained links with the LTTE and their proxy organizations. This argument was brought in to justify all actions taken by the state forces against the people in the area during post-War era. However it does not address the real problems in the area and leaves the door open wide for the entry of social disorder.

The days of the LTTE as a real terrorist threat in the country are over, and the authorities should stop interfering with the liberty of civilians on the pretext of fighting terrorism. Arresting someone simply because he or she held an office in the Vanni in a civilian capacity and had to meet persons in the LTTE in relation to his work is counterproductive and only undermines the community’s ability to rebuild by stripping it of its more accomplished and capable members. In any case, whatever information such a person could give under torture is likely to be useless gossip rather than having any relation to terrorism5

It was observed that in last few elections held by the Government using their cynical manipulations the outcomes were not in favour of the Government. The majority of the area reject Government policy. The crisis of the University of Jaffna is a manifestation of all this.

The local media reported that dozens of students were arrested under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) after being attacked for their peaceful protest against militarization and its manifestations on November 27. The arrested students were first taken to Colombo and then to Vavuniya where the TID (Terrorism Investigation Division) has a special office, more than 140 Kms away from the University. There those students were “interrogated.”

Meanwhile, the President of the Teachers’ Association of the University of Jaffna, Mr. Parameswaran Thamodaran, has told the Media that many students have abandoned their studies and some had even left the country in fear.6 Adding further, he said that during a protest against a military raid on the Jaffna University, 10 students were arrested, and six of them were released, while parents have been told that the remaining four others are being detained at the Welikanda Army camp.

The AHRC, supports and endorses the well thought out petition sent by the Members of the University Community, Jaffna to President Mahinda Rajapaksa expressing their concerns regarding the situation in the University. The petition has explained the situation in detail, including how the state forces interfered with students’ life.

Here is an excerpt from the said letter:

It began with the Army entering the students’ hostels on 27th November, ostensibly to prevent the lighting of flames. The occasion had a political association that has polarized society and the community needs space to discuss its significance and to sort out its own differences. Default on the part of the Government through continued presence of the military without tangible moves towards a political settlement, has helped the mobilisation of youthful feelings to turn it into a day of defiance, where its original association becomes less important.

Your Excellency well knows, having been in politics for several decades and in the centre of two Southern insurgencies, that the defeat of an insurgent force does not extinguish the feelings or causes that gave rise to it. Such feelings are not a police matter, but are rather to be handled as part of the political task of reconciliation and rebuilding.

We have all tried hard to make our university one that respects differences and advocates pluralism. The Army entering the halls, separating the Sinhalese from the Tamil students and showing hostility to and even threatening the latter not only undermines our efforts but has serious implications for the future.

The demonstration on the following day, 28th, was a protest against the previous day’s incident, carrying slogans that were well within the norms of democratic protest. If the students had been allowed to walk the short distance from the main entrance on Parameswara Road and reenter by the Science Faculty entrance nothing untoward would have happened. Rather than calm the situation matters were made worse by the Police physically attacking the students.

The same night a petrol bomb exploded at the Sri-TELO camp behind the University causing no physical harm to anyone. Security around the university, including by several agents in mufti, had been very tight and we find it puzzling that the perpetrators got away scot-free. Even more remarkable is that the Kopay Police were able to come up with names of four persons to arrest over the incident, which evidently no one had given them. We are confident that these students had nothing to do with bomb throwing. Two were arrested at their homes before the night was out and two were handed over by the University authorities the following day. They were all detained under the PTA and taken to Vavuniya.

There were several acts of harassment in the University by persons in mufti and the interrogation of an assistant lecturer over the phone over his casual reference to heroes’ day in response to a text query by a Sinhalese student. These reveal an attempt to tackle a political question through heavy handed intimidation. Instead of putting an end to the insanity, more followed.

On the morning of 6th December, the university administration was given, by a man who claimed to be from the TID, a list containing names of ten persons (see annexe) to be produced at the Jaffna Police Station, without any intimation of the reasons or the charges against them. The news shocked the university community and parents were distraught. One sickly mother of a student handed over the Police by the University was so upset with the University’s helplessness that she threatened to take poison.

A study of the list convinced us that all these students were wanted only because they were well known as prominent in student activities or were victims of police assault on 28th November, whose pictures featured in news reports on the internet.

The practice of the University authorities ‘handing over’ students gives rise to some questions and we are not sure of the legal situation. At the same time we realise that parents sometimes wish for the university to be involved out of fear that otherwise something dire might happen. What does concern us however is that, while complying with police requests to hand over students the University authorities fail to question the police as to the reasons and to seek speedy resolution? The situation is so bad that even lawyers are mostly afraid to represent students and ask them to seek help from the University.7

However, the government was engaged in a different political battle in the South while ignoring the cause of the problem at the University in Jaffna. It seems as if the University Grants Commission also has been turning a blind eye to all this without contributing to a solution.

The AHRC agrees with the conclusion made in the petition to the President by the Jaffna University Community.

The result is to cause considerable fear, anxiety and trauma among the students that is detrimental to the academic character of the University. More importantly dragging innocent students through police stations and police cells, as happened in the 1970s and 1980s, is frightening at the start and then hardens them and breeds contempt for the law and for the officers entrusted to uphold it. Where there should be trust and co-operation there is fear, resentment, and then defiance. Surely, we do not want the consequences of that again.8

It is a day dream if the Government think that they can win the mind of the people by spreading fear among them. Government must allow the enjoyment of the basic norms of the freedoms of ordinary life and stable peace.

As per the observations of the AHRC, terror and violence have become the foundation of social control by the Government. It has assumed arbitrary and ruthless authority to be effective. This is widespread and is reaching everyone even though it has not claimed as many lives like it did during conflict time. “Kill a chicken to scare the monkey” is a traditional saying which is being demonstrated continually by the government and its allies. In other words punish one to deter a hundred. This is the actual path that the government is walking through today in this Country.

The AHRC urges the government to facilitate harmony so students could live as students and get fulfilled intellectually and as persons – instead of restricting their freedom and damaging their future. The Government must seriously take this opportunity to heal the wounds without spreading their racial nihilistic sickness to undermine the ordinary way of life.


1.University of Jaffna, General Information:-
2.From the VC’s Desk……
3.University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) – Report No 3 – Janauary/August 1989 – Released in November 1989
4.University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) – Report No 3 – Janauary/August 1989 – Released in November 1989
5.UTHR(J), Special Report No: 34 , Date of release: 13th December 2009
6.BBC – Sinhala service –
7.Letter to the President by the Jaffna University Science Teachers’ Association, University of Jaffna, Sri Lanka