Sri Lankan students protest closing universities
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Sri Lankan students protest closing universities

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — About 2,000 Sri Lankan university students blocked traffic as they shouted slogans outside the capital’s main railroad station Friday to protest a government decision to close state universities during a summit of leaders from Commonwealth countries next week.

University authorities announced Wednesday that a one-week vacation would be given to students during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, which will be held Nov. 12-17 in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. They asked students to move out from dormitories, saying they need to be renovated.

The convener of the University Students’ Federation, Sanjeewa Bandara, condemned the decision, saying the move was aimed at restricting students from staging protests during the summit.

“This decision has been taken without any justifiable basis. The government fears that student protests may erupt against this useless summit, damaging the government’s so-called image,” Bandara said at the demonstration, adding that “the summit is an utter waste of public money and will not benefit the people.”

The Commonwealth is a loose association of 54 members, mostly former British colonies, and the leadership summit is biennial.

The decision to hold the summit in Colombo has come under severe criticism from some countries and human rights groups, who blame Sri Lanka for failing to address abuses that occurred during the country’s long civil war. They also say Sri Lanka has failed to ensure reconciliation in the aftermath of the quarter century war, which ended in 2009 when government troops defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels, who fought to create a separate state for ethnic minority Tamils.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has announced that he will not attend the summit due to human rights concerns, and has threatened to cut off funding to the Commonwealth group. Harper has accused Sri Lanka of failing to uphold the Commonwealth’s core values.

Sri Lanka has rejected Harper’s comments, saying “he has his own political obligations.”

Australia and Britain have pushed for engagement with Sri Lanka rather than isolating it and have encouraged countries to participate in the summit.