2017 was a year of protests in Sri Lanka. Across the island, grassroots agitations have been conducted to protest a broad range of issues, from war related injustices such as enforced disappearances, military occupied land, and political prisoners; to socio-economic issues such as contract labour, and privatisation of medical education. Memorialisation events for Tamils killed in the war, amidst varying degrees of repression also marked increasing resistance and defiance by Tamils affected by war, violence and injustice.
2017 was the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration’s third year in power, with small steps being made to achieve the some of the Yahapalanaya government’s 2015 election promises, such as the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) act and the appointment of an RTI commission; finalizing the legal framework to establish an Office of Missing Persons and some releases of military occupied civilian lands in the North.
The government has also sought to increase dialogue and engagement with HRDs and civil society organisations through processes such as the UN’s Universal Periodic Review and adhocly on other issues, including related to some of the protests mentioned above. Many of the dialogues didn’t contribute to changes on the ground. The lack of genuine commitment to resolve grievances is also indicated by insistence of some protesters to continue protests till results were obtained, while continuing to engage in repeated dialogues. Much of the findings and recommendations of the 2016 government appointed Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms seems to have been ignored, with no formal and substantial government response for more than 16 months. Overall, consultations appear to be tokenistic ticking the box exercises, with findings and recommendations ignored, and not even acknowledged. A prominent exception appears to be the findings of the 2016 Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reform which consisted mainly of civil society activists, academics and lawyers, who conducted consultation with grassroots communities to determine a national consensus for the constitution reform, being reflected in the Sub Committee and Steering Committee reports of the Constitutional Assembly (Parliament), though there is no indication of much of this will make it to a final draft for a new constitution.
Repression of dissent continued alongside these dialogues and consultations. 2017 marked the first high profile exile of a human rights defender, when Colombo based human rights lawyer Lakshan Dias was forced to temporarily leave the country when threatened by then Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakse for speaking out against attacks on Evangelical Christian groups. 2017 also saw two notable incidents of abduction in the South: the first being the abduction of a Trade Union leader leading a protest on workers rights; and the second being the attempted abduction of a university student activist protesting against the establishment of Private Medical Colleges. In May 2017, a court order was issued to an activist Catholic priest in Mullaitivu in an attempt to stop an event on May 18, memorialising those killed in the last stages of the war in 2009. Court orders have also been used to suppress protests by workers and student activists in and around Colombo. Following anti-garbage dumping protests by Colombo residents in the aftermath of the collapse of the Meethotamulla garbage dump, President Sirisena approved a gazette declaring disposal of garbage an essential service, which essentially criminalized vulnerable communities attempting to resist dumping of harmful and toxic substances near their homes.
While older, more explicit methods of containing dissent such as assaults, threats, intimidation, detention, interrogation, surveillance remained, there has also been an increasing reliance on court orders to pre-emptively shut down protests and other organised dissenting activities. Below are six cases from across the country, indicating trends in repression of dissent on variety of rights and social justice issues in the country.