By: Rithiga Rahulotchanan
On 3rd February 2021, images of protestors in Sri Lanka wearing black headbands and clutching red and yellow flags flooded social media as demonstrators began a five-day ‘walk for justice’ across the north and east of Sri Lanka in attempt to draw attention to ongoing human rights issues on the island. Despite restrictions imposed by the government, roadblocks and police interference, the ‘Pothuvil to Polikandy’ rally (also referred to as ‘P2P’) began in the eastern Ampara district and ended in Jaffna in the Northern Province, spanning across eight districts throughout the five days.
What are demonstrators calling for?
Named after the two furthest ends of the traditional Tamil homeland, the march mobilised around demands for the United Nations and the international community to heed Tamil calls for justice and accountability, but also included key concerns of the Muslim community.
Demonstrators outlined ten key demands:
1. End land grabs and ‘Sinhalisation’.
2. End the military occupation of the Tamil homeland.
3. End the targeting of journalists and civil society activists.
4. Safeguard Tamil farmer rights.
5. Protect the rights of Tamils to remember those who died in the armed conflict.
6. Repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act.
7. End forced cremations.
8. Release Tamil political prisoners.
9. Provide answers to the families of the disappeared.
10. Raise the wages of Tamil plantation workers.
The march was endorsed by all Tamil political parties, Tamil and Muslim civil society organisations, and Muslim leaders. Prominent Tamil and Muslim politicians, including Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam, activists, students, and residents also took part in the march. The large turnout reflected widespread concern regarding the treatment of the country’s Tamil-speaking population under Rajapaksa’s government according to S.C.C. Elankovan, civil society activist and one of the organisers. He went on to state that “the government is being extremely insensitive, very unreasonable, and is shutting out any space there is for dialogue. A totalitarian government like this endangers the rights and freedoms of not just minority communities. It will also threaten the Sinhalese majority.” Elankovan also stated that he hopes “this struggle inspires people in the south to raise their voices.”
#P2P rallies were organised in countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Canada and Australia as the Tamil diaspora continue to support the struggle for justice across the globe.
Sri Lankan State Response
The campaign was met with a brutal crackdown from the Sri Lankan state, with troops and police threatening marchers, and Sri Lankan police obtaining injunctions against the protest and targeting individuals in the community. Ahead of the march, Sri Lankan magistrates across districts in the North-East issued bans and injunctions against civil society members, journalists and other individuals following pressure from Sri Lankan police:
The Mannar Magistrates Court issued an injunction from 3rd February to 6th February, against the walk, citing COVID-19 violation risks as the reason.
In Batticaloa, the magistrate court issued a court ban after the Batticaloa police requested the Kalunvanchikudy Magistrate in the Eastern Province to ban protests for 'instigating the UNHRC to act against Sri Lanka', 'turning people against the Sri Lankan Government' and for encouraging 'communal disharmony'.
Vavuniya Magistrate Court imposed a ban on demonstrations and hunger strikes planned by Tamil families of the disappeared to mark Sri Lanka's Independence Day as a day of protest. The court injunction banned all forms of protest against Sri Lanka's 73rd Independence Day and any activities that will draw attention to the upcoming United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session in Geneva from taking place from 3rd February to 6th February.
The courts also banned specific individuals, such as Jaffna mayor Visvalingam Manivannan, Tamil lawyer Sugash Kanagaratnam and Uthayan newspaper publisher Eswarapatham Saravanapavan, from protesting. Jaffna University Union members were also issued with direct orders banning them from protesting.
Sri Lanka’s Army Commander, Shavendra Silva, described the rally as “a show” ahead of the Human Rights Council session in Geneva, where Sri Lanka’s rights record were reviewed. Action would be taken on those who violated “Covid restrictions”, he said.
Coinciding with Sri Lankan Independence Day celebrations, the government has faced widespread criticism for its evidently biased enforcement of Covid-19 restrictions. TNA member, Ananthy Sasitharan, questioned the crackdown by the Sri Lankan security forces on the peaceful #P2P protest, but not protests organised by pro-government protestors. “When they celebrate Independence Day, these coronavirus restriction or social distancing measures were not a concern. When MP Dayasiri [Jayasekara] came to Jaffna, a large group of people gathered there. Coronavirus was not even mentioned there. A group of people in support of the government protested gathered outside the court. No actions were taken against them by the police citing health reasons related to the coronavirus. But several restrictions are being imposed on the grounds of COVID-19 against the democratic protest we are undertaking. This has caused great dismay amongst the [Tamil] people. If this really is “one country one law” then it must be applied to all equally. On the contrary, we believe that it is being applied to Tamils in one way and in another way to the Sinhala chauvinists.”
In an interview, Sri Lanka’s public security minister and former navy admiral, Sarath Weerasekara expressed bitter resentment towards protesters, stating that “if we had attacked this or tear gassed and arrested them, that’s what people like Sumanthiran needs," referring to the Tamil politician. “Since we had obtained court orders, now we have their photos and we have their vehicle numbers, we know who these individuals are. We can sue them and confiscate all their vehicles and put them in prison… We have already started the process. Within the next few days, we will file cases against them”.
Following Weerasekara’s statement, several Tamil politicians across the North-East were subject to repeated questioning and scrutiny over their participation in the march. In their interrogation, Mankulam police asked TNA MP Vino Noharathalingam why he had violated a court order to attend the P2P rally. In response, Noharathalingam told police that he did not receive any such court order. He told officers that he joined P2P protesters as their representative in the democratic struggle for the rights of Tamil people. Weerasekara’s strong statement is a symptom of the strong anti-Tamil sentiment embodied by the Sri Lankan government.
Why is this protest important?
After decades of oppression, this protest marks the beginning of a concerted resistance from Sri Lanka’s ‘minority’ communities. Following Rajapaksa’s election in August 2020, citizens saw the removal of the green and orange stripes from the national flag. Commonly referred to as the “token minority representation stripes”, the stripes represent the Tamil and Muslim populations on the island. Thus, the exclusion of these colours embodies Sri Lanka’s documented history of oppression against these communities and reflects the government’s accommodation, if not encouragement, of the prejudiced beliefs of the Sinhala Buddhist constituency.
Rajapaksa’s Independence Day speech also highlighted the Sinhala Buddhist regime under which Muslims and Tamils are currently living: “I am a Sinhala Buddhist leader and I will never hesitate to state so. I govern this country in accordance with Buddhist teachings. Within the Buddhist philosophic tradition of peaceful coexistence which gives respect to all religions and ethnicities”. The oppressive nature of the state was further emphasised by the national anthem being sung in Sinhalese only as the Sri Lankan flag was hoisted by war-crimes accused Rajapaksa, and the display of amended flags brandishing only a lion across the south. Sri Lanka's military parade also showcased heavy weaponry used against Tamils during the armed conflict, a clear attempt to assert the Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony.
In the face of intimidation and scare tactics by Sri Lankan security forces, protestors continued their demonstration, determined to draw attention to pressing human rights issues on the island. In solidarity with the protestors, families of the disappeared across the North-East launched hunger strikes, demanding to know the whereabouts of their forcibly disappeared loved ones. As of 21st February 2021, the families reached the 1465-day benchmark of continuous protest, with little progress in the fight for justice for the disappeared. As the Sri Lankan government continues to deny any such human rights abuses, the state response to the #P2P protests serves as an important indicator of the progress of reconciliation and accountability efforts in Sri Lanka, despite promises to international bodies to facilitate such progress.