Crackdown on Tamil Commemoration: How Sri Lanka’s Use of Terrorism Law Sparks International Concern Features
Purves, M., CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
Crackdown on Tamil Commemoration: How Sri Lanka’s Use of Terrorism Law Sparks International Concern

Last week, Tamils in Sri Lanka and across the globe observed Maveerar Naal, an annual commemoration honoring fallen Tamil separatist soldiers of the Sri Lankan Civil War. In the aftermath of their observance, the Sri Lankan government conducted widespread arrests against Tamils who had participated.

By November 30, the government had arrested at least 10 Tamil civilians, apparently as reprisals for celebrating Maveerar Naal under the nation’s draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Initially enacted in 1979 as a temporary measure, the PTA became permanent in 1982. Despite promises of reform, the draconian law persists, disproportionately affecting Sri Lankans, especially minorities. It allows prolonged detention without charge, often violating international due process standards. The government’s assurances of reform have not materialized, and the PTA remains a tool for arbitrary arrests, denial of fair trial rights, and exposing detainees to the risk of torture and other human rights violations.

Sri Lankan Tamil politician Shanakiyan Rasamanickam said on social media that the 10 individuals, including a woman, a student, and a politician, were arrested in Batticaloa, located in the Eastern Province of the country, with one case involving a bakery employee arrested for selling a cake. Rasamanickam specifically recounted the arrest of one individual, an 18-year-old schoolboy named Newton Danushan, who attended Maveerar Naal “to help his father who runs the business which provided sound equipment to the memorialisation event.”  In court, Sri Lankan police stated they were looking to arrest 20 people in total.  Such unwarranted arrests by the government renewed calls for the repeal of the PTA, echoing the sentiments of many who argue that the law infringes on basic human rights.

Rasamanickam criticized what he saw as the government’s double standards in allowing certain commemorations while restricting others. He pointed out that if the Janatha Vimukthi Peramana (JVP), a communist party that led a violent insurgency in the country in 1971 and another 1987-1989, can publicly memorialize their members, then families in the Tamil-dominated North and East of the country should have the basic right to remember their loved ones who were part of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), despite their international designation as a terrorist organization.

Stanford anthropologist Dr. Sharika Thiranagama, whose mother was killed by the LTTE, criticized Maveerar Naal, arguing that the event only permits Tamils to mourn the death of fallen LTTE soldiers, not the death of Tamil civilians killed by the LTTE’s atrocities during the war.

The international community, including the United Nations Human Rights chief and several embassies in Colombo, expressed deep concern over the recent arrests under the PTA. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned the detentions, emphasizing that they contradict the government’s promised moratorium on the use of the law violating human rights obligations. The US, the UK, the European Union and Canada echoed similar sentiments, urging Sri Lanka to align its legislation with international standards.

The Sri Lankan government’s rationale for suppressing the Tamil memorialization of fallen LTTE soldiers aims to curb support for restarting a Tamil separatist insurgency.  However, if the government wants to prevent the resumption of a Tamil separatist insurgency, the way to do it is not to ban Tamil memorialization but rather to address the underlying political grievances that gave rise to the insurgency. If the legitimate grievances of the Tamils are addressed, the threat of a Tamil separatist insurgency arising would diminish.