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Protestors and Those Who Plan to Suppress Them in Sri Lanka

Protestors and Those Who Plan to Suppress Them in Sri Lanka

The government of Sri Lanka published its proposed Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) on 17 March 2023. If adopted, it would replace the old Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) of 1971. The PTA was invoked mainly to deal with the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) terrorism in north Sri Lanka. After the war was over, the government came under pressure from sections of the international community, including the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), to repeal the PTA and replace it with a new law that conforms to international standards in countering terrorism. 

The word terrorism came into the Sri Lankan political vocabulary in 1971 when I was a teenager. A group of educated, yet rebellious youth led an insurrection in 1971 against the corrupt rulers and the declining living conditions of the poor. Then the government used emergency laws to curb the uprising. This group is also alleged to have led the 1988-89 violent acts. The PTA Bill of 1971 was used to curb that. 

The new ATA bill purports to do away with the provisions of the PTA that were considered in violation of international human rights law. Instead, the new Bill places the power to make detention orders in the hands of a Deputy Inspector General of Police, a power which under the PTA was held by the Minister of Defense. Critiques including the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) have already raised objections to the provisions of ATA. The danger of the new bill is that any ordinary citizen, living in Sri Lanka or abroad, who criticizes any element of the government under the freedom of expression right can now be considered a terrorist by the new and very loose definition of terrorism in the ATA. Under this definition, any citizen who is politically conscious or active can be labeled as a terrorist and arrested by the rulers. The proposed Anti-Terrorism Act would empower the authorities to systematically violate fundamental human rights, Human Rights Watch said. “The proposed counterterrorism law would permit the Sri Lankan government to continue to use draconian measures to silence peaceful critics and target minorities,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government’s crackdown on dissent and misuse of existing counterterrorism laws to arbitrarily detain protesters highlights the obvious risk of abuse.”

In an interview given to the BBC, Sri Lankan Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe who drafted the bill claimed that the new bill was developed after studying counter-terrorism laws of the countries such as the United States, India, the United Kingdom, and Germany.  The International Conference of Jurists (ICJ), however, says that the newly proposed anti-terrorism legislation, if adopted as currently formulated, will give rise to a panoply of human rights violations, as much as the PTA was open to misuse. The Minister’s defense of the bill seems to be based on the provision that the magistrates can intervene if there are any wrong accusations. This claim is ridiculous given that Sri Lanka has no independent judiciary or transparent law and order as most judges and law enforcement officials are in the pockets of powerful politicians. 

The ATT has some new features as well. It contains what the rulers learned from the recent people’s uprising (known as Aragalaya in Sri Lanka) that led to the demise of the then President Gotabaya Rajapakse. Aragalaya took place when the Sri Lankan civilians took to the streets in droves in March 2022, semi-organized, to protest the corrupt rulers and their devastating policies. The government brutally attacked them together with the journalists and banned all social media, and unconstitutionally imposed a 72-hour curfew and emergency law. The US Ambassador to Sri Lanka, Julie Chung tweeted that Sri Lankans have a right to protest peacefully. Under the ATA, the president now has the power to label the internet and new technology-based campaigns, social media, and democratic activism that were crucial during the Aragalaya as terrorist activities. The new act refers to the presidential powers in 42 places compared to just 11 places in the PTA. 

Despite all these concerns, the public, both urban and rural, have no real understanding of what the ATA entails. They are of the opinion that the ATA applies only to the ‘terrorists’ in a traditional sense such as those who bomb places etc., and not to them. But under the ATA, anyone can now be considered a terrorist except for the rulers of the country. For instance, some ministers claim that if you call a corrupt politician a corrupt politician, you will be considered a terrorist. Some other ministers have openly threatened the protestors by saying that they have enough water in the ‘Beira Lake’ (a place that played a significant role during the Aragalaya), and enough tear gas canisters bought using the borrowed money. These threats need to be highlighted and publicly debated. The current discussion on the subject is limited to a few news conferences by the opponents, some news articles based on expert reviews, and international dissent. 

While President Biden and Vice President Harris trot the world emphasizing the importance of global democracy, the corrupt Sri Lankan rulers who are emboldened by the recent IMF loan they secured are trying to kill democracy in Sri Lanka for good. The US ambassador to Sri Lanka should express her concerns about the danger of the proposed act just like the European Commission and Human Rights Watch have already done.  The USA could easily influence the Sri Lankan government as Sri Lanka  depends on the IMF. 

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