Sri Lankan doctors strike to demand university's closure

By BHARATHA MALLAWARACHIHealth CareAssociated Press

State hospitals in Sri Lanka were paralyzed Friday as doctors went on strike to demand that a private medical university be shut down, saying it could jeopardize health care standards in the island nation.

The strike affected thousands of people as state-run hospitals were unable to provide outpatient treatment or perform routine surgeries. Doctors were still treating patients needing emergency or critical care, as well as children and pregnant women. Cancer hospitals and kidney disease treatment units were also still operating.

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Thilak Prasanna, a retired government employee, said he had to return home without undergoing a minor stomach operation at a government hospital on the outskirt of Colombo.

"Why should we suffer for something which is beyond our control? They should sort these things through discussions," he said.

The private South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine has been at the center of controversy since its establishment in 2008. It is the only private university training medical students in Sri Lanka.

Students at state-run schools and government doctors say the private school does not meet the country's educational standards, which the private school denies. Doctors and students also say the existence of the private school could jeopardize the country's decades-long tradition of offering health care and education for free.

On Wednesday, students from state-run universities stormed the Health Ministry to demand the private university be abolished, and were met by police who swung batons and used tear gas and water cannons. Dozens of students were injured.

Doctors at state-run hospitals urged the government to take action against those who ordered the police crackdown. They vowed to continue their strike until the government complied with their demands, according to Dr. Haritha Aluthge, spokesman for the Government Medical Officers Association.

Students from the South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine's first graduating class have been embroiled in a legal battle to be allowed to practice medicine, after the government denied them certification as doctors.

Another private medical university that opened in the 1980s also sparked student protests, leading the government to purchase it.