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CHAPTER ELEVEN - PART IV - UNIVERSITY STUDENTS

The universities remained closed for almost three years beginning from July 1987; however, a large number of university students had also disappeared during this period.

In response to the complaints made by affected parents and student unions against the large-scale arrests of university students, the government appointed in May 1989 a monitoring committee to look into those complaints and to provide welfare facilities to detained students. This committee known as the "Ad-hoc Committee to Monitor Arrest, Custody & Release of University Students" functioned under the Chairmanship of Justice O.S.M. Seneviratna ; Mr. Lal Liyanarachchi, the Additional Secretary/UGC, acted as its Secretary. According to a position report prepared by this Committee, 294 university students had disappeared by October 1990 (they belong to the universities of Peradeniya, Colombo, Sri Jayewardenepura, Kelaniya, Moratuwa, and Ruhuna). By this time, 208 students were also in custody , and 342 had been released.

Our Commission requested all the universities to provide us with information regarding missing students. We also wrote to student Unions of all the universities, and the Peradeniya University Student Union had sent us a list of names of students missing from that university. According to the information received from the universities (except from the Jaffna University and the Eastern University). the number of disappeared students is estimated at 246.

We also tried to make contact with the parents by writing to them at the addresses given by the Universities (some addresses were incomplete). 38 letters were returned undelivered. It may be that the addresses were incorrect or may be that the parents have changed their residence. In seven cases, parents informed the Commission that their children are alive, It should also be mentioned that among the complaints received by the Commission in respect of disappeared university students, we found 24 new cases which were not mentioned in the university lists. Accordingly, the number of missing students is in the range of 263 (246-07 = 239 + 24 = 263).

This lower figure (compared to 294 as reported by the monitoring Committee) may be due to the fact that some students who alleged to have disappeared were found later. The figures given by various universities were based on the information given to them by parents and relatives (some may have not reported at all), and therefore, the above number should not be treated as complete or conclusive.

The breakdown of this number according to universities is as follows:

Peradeniya 60
Colombo 32
Sri Jayewrdenepura 63
Kelaniya 41
Moratuwa 13
Ruhuna 51
Open University 03

Total

263

The discipline-wise distribution is as follows :

Medical, Dental, and Veterinary 45
Engineering (including N.D.T. Students) 26
Science 34
Agriculture 07
Law 06
Arts (Social Sciences and Humanities) 93
Commerce and Management 29
(Faculty not Specified) 23
Total 263

What is striking from the above figures is the fact that the phenomenon of student disappearances figured in all the faculties, and even the "prestigious" faculties were badly affected by the political crisis during this period.

It should be noted that only a part of the above-mentioned cases were reported to this Commission as it covers only Western Southern, and Sabaragamuwa provinces. Others may have been reported to the other two Commissions. This Commissions has received complaints in respect of 129 disappearances of university students, of them, 26 are in respect of undergraduate Bikkhus.

TABLE 1

Involuntary Removals of University Students Classified According to the Date of the Incident

  1988 1989 1990 1991 - 1996
January - 1 5 -
February - 2 1 -
March - 3 3 -
April 1 1 - -
May - - - -
June - 1 - -
July - 4 3 -
August 1 16 - -
September 1 24 - -
October - 15 1 -
November - 11 - -
December 1 25 - -
Exact month not known 3 4 1 -
Total 8 107 14 0

TOTAL = 129

*This is in respect of disappeared students only.

As mentioned elsewhere in this report (see Chapter Three), 60% of the total number of disappearances from the western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces took place between August 1989 and January 1990 - the worst period of the crisis. As table 1 above show, 96 out of 129 university students had also disappeared during the same period. This accounts for nearly 75% of the disappearances in respect of university students reported to this Commission.

Alleged Perpetrator :

1. Agents of the state/paramilitary groups in collaboration with them = 98
2. Subversives = 01
3. Unknown = 29
4. Others = 01

TOTAL = 129

We found that most of the parents who came before the Commission were not in a position to reveal much information about the political activities of their children. From the available evidence, however, several observations can be made as to the causes for their disappearances.

University students belonged to a high-risk category at this time. According to Professor Arjuna Aluvihare, former Vice-Chancellor of the Peradeniya University, some students when arrested had even tried to hide their university identity by giving false information through fear. During this period, the word "university students" carried a certain stigma. Mr. Lal Liyanarachchi, Secretary of the Monitoring Committee, had made the following observation in his position paper dated October 26, 1990: "No charges have been framed against most of the students in custody. Most of the other suspects in custody who get to rehabilitation camps later get released and go home after a few months of rehabilitation. But the university students are even denied that consolation due to the mere fact that they attended universities." Parents were also deeply concerned about the safety of their children who happened to be university students. A father told the Commission that after the disappearance of his son, he decided not to send his daughter to the university even though she had also been selected.

Why did the university students become a target group during this period? In order to understand this aspect, one has to look at the situation which prevailed in the universities in the 1980's.

The politicisation of university students is not an unusual phenomenon ; however, the majority of the student population was not politically active. Some students were politically involved not necessarily because they were JVP sympathizers but because there were several common issues supported by student groups of different political persuasions. In the early 1980's they protested against the White Paper on Education. In the mid-1980's they were involved with the protest campaign against the North Colombo Private Medical College. University students (including undergraduate Bikkhus) played an active role in the protest campaign against the 1987 Indo-Lanka Peace Accord, and the Provincial Council Bill.

It should be acknowledged that a certain section of the undergraduate population played a prominent role in JVP politics. The Samajavadi Shishya Sangamaya (Socialist Students Union or the SSU) was a JVP union active in university politics. The SSU operated not only at the university level but also at district level to organize student activities in the country. University leadership was also important in the functioning of the Jathika Shishya Madyastanaya, an organization set up in mid-1988 to coordinate the activities among school children.

By 1987 the JVP dominated the Inter-University Student Federation (I.U.S.F.), and other student groups such as the Independent Student Union (ISU) and the SLFP group had withdrawn from it. It should be noted that within the student movement, there were groups against the JVP. In fact, there were violent clashes between the JVP group and the ISU.

The I.U.S.F. became so closely associated with the JVP that it was the representatives of the I.U.S.F. who had participated on behalf of the JVP in the negotiations with the seven-party alliance in late 1988 on the issue of the presidential election.

Among the cases inquired by us, there were several medical students who got involved in politics beginning with the North Colombo Medical College issue. There were also several students who were either members or the supporters of the IUSF. Three students (from the faculties of Medicine, Veterinary Science, and Engineering) had been arrested for allegedly making an attempt on the life of Mr. Ranjan Wijeraatna, Minister of State for Defence, and they were also shown on national television. In an answer to a question in parliament about their whereabouts, Mr. Wijeratna later announced that the suspects were taken to the jungles of Embilipitiya in an operation to trace a hidden cache of arms and two suspects had escaped from custody and two others were dead. In still another incident, another student (Engineering) worked under Mr. Richard de Soyza (a human rights journalist who was abducted and killed later) at Inter Press Services Ltd., as the universities were closed and on his way to work, he was abducted by some unknown persons.

There were also certain other factors which were responsible for student disappearances. As the universities remained closed for almost three years beginning from July 1987, students returned home, and were subjected to the vagaries of their local areas. Giving evidence before the Commission, several parents insisted that their children were not at all politically involved, but their personal enemies had sent petitions to security forces implicating them in JVP activities. As we found out in the course of our hearings, this was a very common phenomenon during this period. We were struck by the fact that it was not always the political activities of the victims that caused their disappearances during this period. People tried to make use of the anarchy in the existing situation to settle their personal grudges and private jealousies by providing false information about their enemies. Several parents said that their families were very poor, and the villagers became very jealous when their children entered the university. In one case, the disappeared student was the only person in that area who could enter the university. In another case, a mother said that people were envious of her family because four of her children could enter the university within four consecutive years. In some cases, It was not the students but their parents who were actively involved in opposition politics, but young people became more vulnerable to political revenge.

For a discussion on the impact of the disappearances on affected families, see the Section "Lost Hopes and Shattered Dreams" in Chapter Twelve.

Posted on 1999-01-01



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