Human rights defenders, journalists, families of the disappeared and people remembering their dead are continually being harassed and monitored by intelligence services, military and police in the North.
Although the war ended over 13 years ago, the military and police were allocated a large proportion of the country’s budget revenue in 2023, receiving Rs. 539 billion. In contrast, the health sector was given Rs. 322 billion and education Rs. 232 billion.
Sri Lanka has the 17th largest military in the world. As a percentage of GDP, it spends nearly 2% on military expenses, a very high amount for a country that does have an external security threat.
With its huge defence budget, there are unlimited resources to intimidate and harass human rights defenders throughout the country and particularly in the North, where the spectre of a revived LTTE is used to continually question and threaten those fighting for their rights be it over land, environmental destruction, memorialising the dead or just trying to live an ordinary life under the most trying of circumstances.
Several reports of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) have warned that the militarisation of government functions was undermining democratic institutions and expressed concern about the lack of security sector reforms and demilitarisation, urging the government to reduce military presence in the North and East. It is clear that these recommendations are unheeded. In Vavuniya, police stations have sprung up across the area, often manned by corrupt and abusive officers who victimise the very people they are supposed to protect.
“The police use violence but people are too scared to report it. No one questions it or goes to the Human Right Commission. The policemen are involved in doing business or supporting business people who smuggle drugs and alcohol,” said a human rights activist in Vavuniya who did not want to be named.
Already distraught and traumatised, families of the disappeared face surveillance, questioning, intimidation and unannounced visits by intelligence officers and the police to their homes at any time of the night or day. In many cases, the women being harassed are the same ones who attend protests, voice demands for international intervention to resolve the question of the disappeared and insist on remembering their lost relatives.
“The CID comes and takes photos when we go for protests. They come to our houses and ask questions. Once we die, there will be no one to continue the search because our other children are scared for their own families, they don’t want to get into trouble,” according to Nandasamy Manoranjitha, whose only son went out to buy biscuits in 2009 and never returned.
Arrests are still being made under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Some people have been released without charge after many years in detention. Others who went for rehabilitation are arrested for having a suspicious phone number or looking after someone else’s bag.
“Former LTTE members and those who have been released from prison are continually observed and kept under surveillance. They can’t go to other districts for jobs. After rehabilitation, we have to look after them because they are not given any assistance from the government,” said the human rights activist who provides legal aid and other help to former LTTE fighters in Vavuniya. Many of those released from prison, she said, had been subject to torture so their bodies were weak and unfit for labour; they looked 25 years older than they were. Their families were broken and they had no way back into society. Women were especially affected.
“Women ex-combatants still face serious security risks, including sexual abuse and extortion, including by security forces and others. The High Commissioner fears that without fundamental security-sector reforms and de-militarization of the North and the East, this pervasive culture of surveillance and oppressive environment for the people in these areas will continue,” the OHCHR report said.
When ex combatant Nalini (not her real name) left for India for three months, intelligence officers came to her home in Mullaitivu looking for her and questioning her family. When she returned they visited her parents’ home regularly, making her fearful for her safety and that of her young daughter. The neighbours started making comments. The family appealed to the military and now they go to the Grama Sevaka to check on Nalini.
Based in Mullaitivu, photojournalist Kumanan Kanapathippillai is a veteran when it comes to harassment and intimidation by intelligence officers. He has been threatened with arrest many times and beaten up while exposing a sand mafia story. He refuses to produce his identity card unless it is required at checkpoints or high security zones. He knows his movements are always monitored so they know where he is.
“I don’t do this work for money. I do it because there are many human rights violations taking place and if I don’t expose them, the people have no voice. Many journalists don’t want to take these risks and avoid covering issues involving the forces,” said Kumanan, adding that while the enforcement of the PTA was a new phenomenon in the south, in the north it was commonplace.
“If I go beyond the limit there are two possibilities – I will be arrested under the PTA or there will be an accident,” he said, adding that once he settles down, it would be difficult to continue his work in the same way.
For trilingual Peter Chellian the thought of repercussions because of his activism is not a deterrent. “I am not scared to speak out because I have no children, no parents, no brother. Most people can’t defend themselves because there is a language problem; they can’t argue so they are sent away with some lie. People come to me because they know I can help them,” he said.
A farmer who owns paddy fields, Peter is now in a battle with the military for the return of three acres they have absorbed into the Gotabaya Camp in Mullaitivu. He took up protesting against the incursion of Indian fishermen into Sri Lankan waters but the police dismantled the protest tent.
This week Peter is preparing to commemorate the death of his brother, an LTTE fighter, who died during the war. Last year he was arrested while attending the ceremonies. “I told them I am not remembering the LTTE but I am remembering my brother,” he said. Peter was given bail and the case is ongoing. He was also summoned to the police station for questioning over clearing the memorial ground for commemoration ceremonies later this week.