Sri Lanka: Restive Minorities – Analysis

No Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE)-linked fatality was recorded through 2021. A single LTTE-linked fatality was recorded on July 8, 2020, when a former LTTE ‘intelligence agent,’ Thangarasa Thevanesan (43), sustained burn injuries when a crude bomb exploded accidentally in his house located at the Puliyadi Junction in Kilinochchi District of Northern Province on July 3, and later succumbed to his injuries. The last Security Force fatality in an LTTE-linked incident was reported on April 10, 2014, when four people, including an Army Lance Corporal and three LTTE cadres, were killed in a clash between SFs and LTTE cadres in the Nadunkarni area of Vavuniya District. The last civilian fatality was reported on September 1, 2009, when a child was killed and another two were wounded in an explosion in the Achchaweli area of Jaffna District.

The Government, meanwhile, continued to crack down on the remnants of the LTTE in 2021. According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 25 former LTTE cadres and sympathizers were arrested across the country. There were four such arrests in 2020. Since the end of war on May 20, 2009, at least 371 former LTTE cadres and sympathizers have been arrested.

However, demonstrations and protests by Tamils have become a regular feature, as efforts of ethnic reconciliation and trust-building have seen no progress. On May 18, 2021, a group of lawmakers from the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) marked ‘Tamil Genocide Day’ at the Sri Lankan Parliament complex in Colombo, before a parliamentary session was due to take place. ‘Tamil Genocide Day’ is to commemorate the tens of thousands of Tamil civilians killed at the hands of the Sri Lankan state 12 years ago. On July 24, 2021, demonstrations were carried out across the country’s North-East to mark the 38th anniversary of ‘Black July’ – the anti-Tamil pogrom of July 24-29, 1983, in Sri Lanka – paying tribute to the thousands of Tamils who lost their lives then. Most recently, on February 4, 2022, Tamil families of the ‘disappeared’ and activists hoisted black flags in Mullaitivu and Jaffna Districts. The protesters called for an international inquiry into the ‘Tamil genocide,’ justice for the families of the disappeared and the unconditional release of political prisoners.

Meanwhile, the nationwide crackdown on the Islamist group, National Thawheed Jamaath (NTJ), which was responsible for the Easter Sunday suicide bomb attacks on April 21, 2019, in which 259 people were killed and another 500 were injured, continued through 2021. 19 NTJ cadres were arrested across the country in 2021. There were 11 such arrests in 2020 and 294 in 2019. Separately, 12 persons were arrested from different places for spreading the extremist ideology of the Islamic State (IS).

The 27th report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team of the United Nations (UN), released on February 3, 2021, confirmed that IS had followers in Sri Lanka. The report said that the ‘Voice of Hind,’ the only regional IS English-language outlet, started in early 2020 and published regularly thereafter, had followers in Sri Lanka.

On August 11, 2021, the Government disclosed that it had filed 23,270 charges against 25 people in connection with the Easter Sunday attacks. The charges framed under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), 1979, included, inter alia, conspiring to murder, aiding and abetting, collecting arms and ammunition, and attempted murder. On August 31, 2021, a special three-member panel of judges was appointed to hear the Easter Sunday attacks case. Colombo High Court Judge Damith Thotawatte is the presiding judge, and the panel also comprises Judges Amal Ranaraja and Navaratne Marasinghe. The Easter Sunday attack trial began on November 22, 2021. The trial of the 25 accused was adjourned until March 2021 to give time for the indictments to be translated to Tamil, which the majority of the accused speak. The trial was also adjourned to provide time for some of the accused who could not afford to get lawyers in November, to acquire legal representation.

While the state’s counter-terrorism initiatives have been enormously successful, there is widespread criticism of the PTA both within and outside the country. Demanding the Government to repeal the PTA, a signature campaign was launched in Kilinochchi District on February 5, 2022. Meanwhile, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) on February 1, 2022, demanded that the Sri Lankan Government repeal the ‘draconian’ PTA. Likewise, Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report “In a Legal Black Hole” released on February 7, 2022, criticized Sri Lanka’s PTA. The 59-page report slammed Sri Lanka’s use of PTA, detailing allegations of how it had been used to detain Tamils and Muslims and suppress civil society on the island. The report notes, “Twelve years since the end of the war the government is still targeting Tamils but also using the PTA against Muslims, particularly since 2019.” It also argued that the Government’s proposed amendments to the PTA would still leave it far short of international standards.

The Bill to amend PTA was tabled in Parliament on February 10, 2022. The Bill includes provisions, inter alia, that a detention order issued by the Defence Minister under PTA shall be final and shall not be called in question in any proceedings or in any court of law, except by a fundamental rights petition in the Supreme Court. This is the same as under the law as it currently exists, except that the maximum duration of detention orders would be reduced from 18 to 12 months. The Amendment Bill does not provide a definition of terrorism, as called for by UN experts, to help prevent PTA’s widespread misuse. Furthermore, the Bill does not remove the authority from officials to move and keep a suspect in ‘any place for the purpose of interrogation,’ which has allegedly repeatedly been used to facilitate torture and increases the risk of enforced disappearance. Earlier, on September 9, 2021, in a joint communication, seven UN Special Rapporteurs recommended a review of PTA, to bring its provisions in line with international human rights standards.

On June 4, 2021, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued a gazette notice naming the Counter Terrorism Investigation Unit (CTIU) as a place of detention. The notification was issued under Section 9 of the PTA, which refers to the detention of suspects arrested under the Act, and empowers CTIU to use its facility to detain such suspects.

On October 26, 2021, another extraordinary gazette notification was issued by the President to constitute and empower a Presidential Task Force for ‘One Country, One Law,’ chaired by Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) General Secretary Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, to recommend legal reforms. Expressing their concerns over President Rajapaksa’s decision to appoint Gnanasara, a convicted extremist monk, to head the task force, the ICJ tweeted, on October 27, 2021, “The appointment as Chairperson of a person imprisoned for contempt of court and known to be openly violent and racist, calls into question the intent behind these appointments.” Gnanasara was previously found guilty on two counts and sentenced to six months in prison for threatening the wife of Prageeth Eknaligoda, a critic of the then Government in 2010. He was released from prison following a presidential pardon.

Meanwhile, in its World Report 2022 released on January 13, 2022, HRW claimed that the Sri Lankan Government in 2021 suppressed minority communities, harassed activists, and undermined democratic institutions. It alleged that President Rajapaksa failed to carry out legal reforms promised to its international partners and blocked accountability for grave violations, including past war crimes; that the Government has disregarded its own pledges of reform and continued to target minority Tamils and Muslims; that the Government uses the PTA and policies that threaten religious freedom and minority land rights.

Separately, Fabian Salvioli, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence, told the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva on September 16, 2021, that Sri Lanka had witnessed a ‘profound deterioration’ in the human rights situation over the preceding 18 months. On March 23, 2021, UNHRC adopted a resolution entitled “Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka” after 22 members out of 47 voted in favour of the resolution at the 46th Session in Geneva. 11 members, including China and Russia, voted against the resolution while 14 countries, including India and Japan, abstained. The resolution stated that developments over the preceding year had fundamentally changed the environment for advancing reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, eroded democratic checks and balances and the civic space, and permitted the resurfacing of a dangerous exclusionary and majoritarian discourse.

Through 2021, the Sri Lankan Government, made remarkable efforts to thwart threats from a small number of surviving LTTE sympathisers and from the presently dormant Islamist radical formations. However, policy reversals on several issues by the present Government are likely to further disrupt the tentative reconciliation process in the country. Already, there are rising concerns among the Tamils, who have resorted to mass protests on many occasions.