Photo courtesy of Asian Mirror

Among the reprisals faced by prominent leaders of the people’s uprising last year were arrests, detentions, travel bans and continuing court cases. Many leaders have multiple court cases pending against them despite being released on bail. The Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) was one of the groups that mobilized large numbers to the streets and its convener, Wasantha Mudalige, was among the most prominent protest leaders last year. His detention for nearly five months under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has sparked widespread outrage, although not enough.

A nation wide signature campaign has been launched calling for Wasantha’s release. The aim is to have one thousand affidavits submitted to court from people stating that they were one of the millions of people who had been present in Colombo on July 9 and that Wasantha should be treated in the same way as any other citizen who expressed his or her peaceful dissent.

I had tried visit him last month but was turned back after staying in line. Last Monday, being the symbolic day of the 9th, I tried to visit him through the relatively new e-booking system to visit prisoners introduced by the Department of Prisons. But when I went there on January 9 with Father Rohan Silva at the pre-approved time of 3 pm, prison officials refused to allow us to proceed, saying some others had visited Wasantha in the morning. We insisted on seeing him and categorically said we would not turn back as our visit had been approved two days earlier. We asked to meet the Superintendent or a senior officer. We were asked to wait and finally informed we could see Wasantha. But at the second checkpoint, another officer refused to allow us to proceed and kept us waiting again.

Finally, we were allowed to see and talk to Wasantha in the crowded, noisy and dirty space where visitors are allowed to meet prisoners. We were not allowed to have a proper conversation but were happy to see and talk to him even briefly. He was not optimistic about a quick release. He didn’t ask anything for himself but told us the importance of continuing the struggle. He remains strong in spirit, looked determined and spoke clearly across the barrier and noise.

The Department of Prisons has been publicly advocating to use e-booking system to visit prison inmates, saying it will help to undertake visits without delay. But we spent 55 minutes at the prison, out of which only five minutes were to see and talk to Wasantha and that, too, not a proper conversation.

As in my past visits to prison, I wondered about the overcrowding, especially due to large numbers being remanded due to unwillingness to offer bail (including to Wasantha), others not being able to post bail or pay small fines for minor offences. I recalled my recent meeting with a PTA detainee who has was acquitted as not guilty by a High Court after 16 long years in prison as a suspect and accused without bail and other PTA detainees who are in prison for up to 15 years without trials being concluded.

I recalled my own detention under the PTA, about being happy just knowing people had visited despite not being allowed to see visitors (except a brief visit from my parents under watchful eyes of my captors) including many lawyers who came to visit. Despite the difficulties, it is really important to visit prisoners, especially those unjustly detained like Wasantha who had fought on behalf of all Sri Lankans.

From prison, Wasantha wrote a powerful letter addressed to the people of Sri Lanka, urging them not to bow down to government repression and economic pressure but to come out on the streets and fight for their lives and for future generations. Here are excerpts from the letter:

“We as a people are facing the most profound economic crisis we have faced in our lifetime. The country is bankrupt. The expectations of an entire society have been shattered. Especially the youth. The dreams of life have been devastated to the point of not being able to understand what will happen and what to do. Daily wage workers, plantation workers and construction workers have lost their sources of income. Farmers are unable to farm. Fishermen have not been able to find even their daily meals. Government employees and private sector employees are unable to live on the wages they get. Another aspect is that even the middle-class people who had previously built a certain standard of living in society have collapsed in the face of the crisis. In reality, a situation has been created where the middle class will be abolished.

“In the midst of all this, the existence of only a limited class has been confirmed, which plunged society into a huge economic crisis. A petty political group and a group of companies have only managed to gain profits even in the midst of the crisis…Today we are told that there is no money to allocate for education. There is no money to give for health and transportation. According to the government, the mistake is not that the rulers stole but that the children are studying. The fault is that people get sick. It is not the robbers who are punished, but the victims. Therefore, today this country has become a country where mothers commit suicide because they cannot buy their children’s school books. This has become a country where people are waiting to die, knowing they have fatal kidney disease, heart disease, cancer and no money to buy medicine. This has become a country where parents watch their children die of malnutrition. This country has become a country where university students drop out of their courses because they cannot pay the boarding fee.

“The economic and political crisis that arose was created by the political system that ruled the country for so long and by the rulers who governed that system. A crisis that was developed step by step. Therefore, the people should not be responsible for this crisis at all. The people did their best for the country, whether they had food to eat or not. When the people do that, the rulers steal the people’s assets as much as possible. This is why the traditional political system was rejected in front of the people. Since then, the hope of the people has been the struggle. The struggle in which the majority of the country’s people participated, regardless of colour, party, race or religion, introduced new dimensions to Sri Lanka’s politics. Instead of the illusion of representative democracy, the struggle allowed the people to try the sovereign power of the people. Therefore, we must win the people’s expectations in that struggle. What did the people say through the struggle? The rulers give us the money they stole from us. Companies to pay evaded taxes. Banks to recover from one who has not repaid massive loans. In 2020 alone, Rs.10,500 million bank loans defaulted. We said that we needed a program to set up a fund and provide emergency relief to the people. The executive presidency should be abolished. A new Constitution is needed to accept the power to recall representatives, the power to call referendums, and education and health as fundamental rights given to the people.

“We expected from the struggle:

  1. A society with economic equity
  2. Democratic reforms that are directly related to people’s governance
  3. A political and economic policy that is responsible for society and the environment

“To cover up their incompetence, the government has started an extensive slander campaign against the struggle. Other pro-government parties, intentionally or unintentionally, have started slandering the struggle saying that there was no leadership in the struggle, no plan for the struggle, and had no purpose etc. However, in the midst of all this, we urge people not to allow those allegations and complaints to undermine the value of the struggle. This is the most successful struggle in the history of our country that we all did together. This is just the beginning of the struggle. It is not over yet. The rulers wanted to prevent the struggle from spreading from here to the final victory. At the very beginning, the struggle brought many accomplishments to this society.

    “1. The struggle built confidence in the people’s power to appoint governments and send governments home.

     2. The struggle gave experience to this society about methods of experimenting with people’s power outside of institutions like parliament.

     3. The struggle succeeded in defeating the politics of the Rajapaksa family, who dreamed of being in power forever.

     4. It was possible to defeat the political tradition maintained by using prejudices based on religious and racial grounds.

“These are the fundamental achievements that the struggle gave us. With the foundation of these historical achievements, the year 2022 ends and the new year 2023 begins. With that experience, the struggle must be continued until a final victory is achieved. The year 2023 dawns with that message. Therefore, I request all the people of my country to choose the struggle for your right to life. Do not kneel before government repression and economic pressure. Unconditionally, come the streets in an organized manner. Let’s fight for our lives. Let’s fight for our future generations. As a student movement, we are ready to make any sacrifice for the rights of people in this country.”