Sri Lanka: A Troubling Spate of Arrests Across the Northern and Eastern Provinces

A recent spate of arrests across Sri Lanka’s Tamil-dominated Northern and Eastern Provinces is cause for serious concern. It’s been more than fifteen months since Mahinda Rajapaksa was thrown out of power, yet the island nation’s state security personnel (the vast majority of whom are ethnic Sinhalese) don’t seem to have stopped their discriminatory ways.

People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (PEARL), a non-profit organization, has released a press statement about these arrests. Here’s part of that statement:

PEARL is deeply concerned by Sri Lanka’s latest arrest and detention under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of Subramaniyam Sivakaran, a Tamil activist and journalist from the North-East. Sivakaran was arrested in Mannar by the Terrorism Investigation Department on Wednesday, April 27. The arrest came days after he publicly criticized the PTA and the continued detention of Tamils under the Act.

Abductions and arrests of many Tamils across the North-East, although commonplace for decades, have been greatly increasing in recent weeks. The Sri Lankan state continues to deploy its notorious “White Vans” to abduct Tamils, who in some cases later turn up in police or military custody. Although the current government recognized the flawed nature of the PTA and pledged to review and repeal it, the law remains in force and security forces continue to use it to detain Tamils. The existence and application of the PTA also facilitates abuses in custody, like torture and sexual violence.

Unfortunately, when it comes to daily life in the war-torn north and east, Sri Lanka’s yet to fully turn the page on the heightened authoritarianism that plagued Rajapaksa’s decade in power. The ongoing problems — including sustained militarization, sexual violence and the military’s continued occupation of civilian land — reveal that the current coalition government remains either unwilling or unable to finally reach out to the Tamil community and begin healing the wounds of war.

Frankly, these dubious arrests under the guise of “national security” are eerily reminiscent of Rajapaksa’s reign. It’s time for international actors to rethink what Sri Lanka’s “democratic change” actually means and what might happen next. More specifically, the moment for the Barack Obama administration to speak frankly — with a strong and clear voice — about the ongoing human rights violations across the country’s north and east is long overdue. Continuing to gloss over the facts on the ground would encourage further repression.

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