Despite an end to its decades long civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka is still battling to reconcile its people and reunite its nation. Tensions remain high as the government is accused of numerous civil rights violations against the minority Tamil and Muslim populations. In the midst of a crippling economic recession, the country is facing both economic and political crises.
Among the most prominent of these accusations is the charge that the government has used a broadly overreaching law, known as the Prevention of Terrorism Act, to persecute and harass citizens—especially minority groups. In December of 2021, numerous civil society groups called for the repeal of this law so that the nation can begin to heal from decades of religious and ethnic tension.
The law was originally passed in 1979 to allow the government to more effectively combat the separatist group known as the Tamil Tigers, which had waged war against the state. Yet, despite the conclusion of the civil war, use of the law persists. However, the law is now mostly used to silence dissent and unjustly imprison members of minority groups who have no concrete ties to terrorism.
Continued civil rights violations are not the only disturbing trend seen in Sri Lanka. The executive branch has become increasingly powerful since the onset of the civil war. Before the start of the civil war in 1983, a new constitution was instituted which gave unparalleled power to the executive branch. The new constitution eroded democratic checks and balances under the pretext of a need for strong leadership during a period of civil unrest, further allowing the executive branch to infringe upon civil rights of citizens unimpeded.
Concentration of power in the executive branch, as well as persecution of minority groups, has led to a state which does not represent all Sri Lankan populations – in reality only the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority. A democracy of this nature is not a true democracy, as it does not represent all the people’s interests equally. Until the abolishment of this law, and the restoration of the civil rights of all citizens, it will be impossible for legitimate democracy to prevail in Sri Lanka.
Democratic backsliding will continue unless changes are made – with one prominent Sri Lankan journalist Victor Ivan even warning that the country is on the verge of anarchy. Ivan has stated that journalists do not even attempt to challenge the president in press conferences, and corruption is widespread in government. Both charges further indite the perilous state of affairs in Sri Lanka.
The constant use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act has led to a culture of fear in Sri Lanka and a pervasive lack of accountability toward the government. Further complicating matters, many regard the government as having committed war crimes during the civil war against the Tamil Tigers. The law allows broad power to the state to accuse dissenters of arbitrary crimes and has led to the imprisonment and prosecution of journalists. With no institutional or societal checks on the government, civil rights violations have continued to run rampant and war crimes have gone unpunished.
Despite being the oldest democracy in Asia, Sri Lanka is perhaps one of the weakest. The country has always placed a strong emphasis of the importance of enfranchisement of all people, yet the law is distinctly discriminatory. In a country which has an overwhelming Sinhalese majority (75%), Sinhalese nationalism has been exploited in political campaigns -inflaming ethnic tensions and decaying trust in the government’s ability to mend democratic issues.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act has numerous parallels in the international landscape. The most notable international example is the Patriot Act, which was passed in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Initially well received, the act allowed the government broad powers to better combat terrorism. However, it facilitated extensive overreach on the part of the executive branch and tacitly allowed the violation of constitutional rights.
Eventually, under heavy fire from civil rights groups, the Patriot Act was allowed to expire in 2019. In contrast, the weak power of civil society in Sri Lanka has allowed the Prevention of Terrorism Act to continue nearly unchecked. In the past 3 years, nearly 600 people were detained under the law. While America has struggled with democratic backsliding itself, the power of media to educate citizens and check government power led to an outcome which upheld democratic institutions. In Sri Lanka, the risks of government criticism are simply too great and the government simply too powerful.
However, despite the embattled state of Sri Lankan democracy, all hope is not lost. The current government has committed to the reform of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the reinstatement of term limits indicates that the government is attempting to decrease the power share of the executive branch and make an (albeit weak) effort to reconcile civil rights improprieties. Unfortunately, until the law is fully repealed, democracy cannot truly heal in Sri Lanka.