Student protests and GMOA strikes
By Umesh Moramudali
Last week, thousands of university students stormed the Health Ministry demanding the government to abolish the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine (SAITM). This resulted in a clash as the Police and the Special Task Force (STF) was deployed to disperse students. The decision of the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) to go on strike was a sudden move which was announced after 90 student- protesters were hospitalized following the clash.
In the recent past, there have been many strikes launched by the GMOA, most of them were based on the demand to nationalize the SAITM. Although the response of the government was very slow, certain decisions were taken by the Higher Education Ministry in relation to SAITM such as decisions to nationalize the Neville Fernando Teaching Hospital (NFTH), requesting SAITM to stop recruiting students and so on. However, neither the GMOA nor the Inter University Students’ Federation (IUSF) which are the force behind the anti-SAITM protests, were satisfied by any of the actions taken by the government. The students continued to protest and doctors resorted to strikes without compromise.
In the aftermath of the incident, the Convener of the IUSF, Lahiru Weerasekara was arrested and remanded until 5 July along with two other student activists. Ceylon Today spoke to Ryan Jayalath, Convener of the Medical Faculty Student Active Committee.
Jayalath stressed that there exists a military rule at present and the government is trying to suppress students and protect SAITM, which is a fraudulent institution. He added, so far three student-activists have been arrested and as per the information received there are plans to arrest more student leaders and weaken the struggle against SAITM.
Meanwhile, commenting on Wednesday’s incident where thousands of university students broke into the Health Ministry and clashed with the Police, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said, the Frontline Socialist Party (FSP) was behind the incident.
“They wanted to get one of the students killed. There is no reason to invade the Health Ministry, damage property and clash with Police if they just wanted to protest,” he said.
However, Jayalath who is a major organizer of anti-SAITM protests claim that these protests are not politically motivated and not backed by any party.
“This is a struggle of the people. Not a struggle of only university students. As Senaratne said we do not want a dead body. Yet, it implies that the government is willing to kill one of the protesters. How fair and democratic is that?” he questioned from the government.
Accordingly, the IUSF lodged a complaint with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) against the brutal attack carried out by the STF. Jayalath claims that they went to the Health Ministry on public day and the Minister was not there to meet him.
Accordingly, nearly 90 students were injured and are being treated at the National Hospital, Colombo.
The Health Ministry claimed that the protestors had damaged property worth around Rs 1 million. Minister Senaratne claimed that this was an act of violence and not the way to express opinions.
The GMOA in response to the attack against the university students and the failure of the government to provide solutions to the crisis regarding SAITM launched a strike on Thursday. GMOA General Secretary, Dr. Naveen de Soysa, told the media that in addition to the strike in Government hospitals, members of the GMOA also kept away from private practice as well.
According to Dr. Soysa, the GMOA demands include the Attorney General informing the Court about the lack of standards for teaching at SAITM, gazetting the minimum standards required for medical education and the nationalization of SAITM. However, after the discussions with the President the strike was called.
The GMOA said that despite the countrywide strike, emergency services in all hospitals continued. The strike also spared children, maternity and, cancer hospitals and kidney patients.
Doctors were also at hand to treat patients with fever, to identify those who are diagnosed with dengue and to provide treatment accordingly.
“We will ensure that not a single patient’s life will be lost due to our strike action,” stressed Dr. Soysa.
Dr. Soysa added, they are willing to have discussions with the President and the Prime Minister, but not with Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne, who they claim was justifying the fraudulent acts of SAITM and attempting to give it legal recognition.
However, Ryan Jayalath assured the continuation of struggle against SAITM and claimed the movement will become more powerful.