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Sharika Thiranagama

June 19th, 2023

My Sri Lanka at 75

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Sharika Thiranagama

June 19th, 2023

My Sri Lanka at 75

0 comments | 7 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

The Anti-Terrorism Act (2023) in Sri Lanka has expanded the powers of the state to arrest its citizens, already draconian and opaque under the earlier Prevention of Terrorism Act (1979). In this personal post, Sharika Thiranagama talks about how these Acts of Parliament have left deep scars in communities, who live with the wounds of the living and the dead, and her hopes for Sri Lanka as it marks 75 years of independence.     

 

In March 2023, the Sri Lankan Government proposed a replacement for its already draconian and terrifying ‘Prevention of Terrorism Act’, 1979 (PTA) — this one is called the ‘Anti-Terrorism Act’ (ATA). The ATA is, in fact, even broader in its application of terrorism than the PTA, and promises even more repression, as Ermiza Tegalexplains. As yet, it has still not been promulgated. Over the last year, the Sinhalese public has been experiencing the application of the PTA in an extensive fashion to repress protests and arrest student leaders, and further extend the workings of the paramilitary police Special Task Force (STF). However, the PTA and STF, among other security forces and provisions, have long been wielded against Tamils and Muslims in Sri Lanka. Scores of Muslims detained on spurious charges after the 2019 Easter bombings continue to languish in prisons. Tamils who have been forcibly disappeared before, and at the end of, the civil war remain in Sri Lanka’s grey zone.

My Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka I set out to write this post for, has never been absent from this grey zone. Our violence has created enormous uncertainty and trauma, propelled the many lives left behind in frozen times, and our violence has been comprehensively organised. If, 75 years ago, Sri Lanka imagined its legacy as a newly independent country but built itself as a mono-ethnic nation even as it inherited a multi-ethnic state, then 50 years ago (in the 1970s) Sri Lanka was busy beginning its career as a deeply militarised state that would come to wield violence in ever more organised chaos. This has only expanded. In the 1970s, prisoners were tortured in police and army camps, but they were sometimes also kept in prisons — registered as alive and visitable within the official system. However, soon after they began disappearing into a shadowy world of being in-between army and police camps, secret floors of the intelligence headquarters, and unidentified bodies dumped anywhere.

The 1980s saw the beginnings of the STF and, more broadly, the expansion of counter-insurgency techniques both in local areas and within specialised camps. To this day, the Sri Lankan security forces are known for specific torture techniques, and released detainees report extensive torture.  In the years of its operation, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), far from challenging this concentration of terror, emulated this in areas under its territories, bringing a strongly militarised and coercive carceral structure to areas under its control with its own judiciaries, police forces, intelligence services and torture camps.

Sri Lanka in the 1970s and 1980s was a young country. My father Dayapala, born in 1947,  one of Sri Lanka’s proud swabasha generations, educated only in Sinhalese and the first from his family and village to go to university, was 19 years old when he went to prison the first time. He rarely sits down and tells me about his life in full. Throughout our lives together, I have been gifted small stories as they appear in the course of our days. I have matched these to the silences and invisible inheritances of being raised, like so many Sri Lankans, in the midst of deep political violence.

The first time, my father had been arrested and detained for four-and-half years, most of it in solitary confinement in the prison system. We often drove by Welikada Prison smack at the roadway entrance into Colombo. My father was held there, as well as at Magazine Prison. Alongside his incarceration there, my father told me stories of being interrogated and tortured before arriving there. Without many of the details, I still know to look at Welikada straight on, as I pass it, determined not to forget. My grandmother Jane and uncle Daya visited my father in prison regularly.

The second time, my father was disappeared not into the prisons but into the police camps and cells where even locating him was impossible. This time, it was before Sri Lanka’s official hosting of the Non-Aligned Movement Summit in 1976. Left-wing activists like my father were arrested by the Sirimavo Bandaranaike Left and Communist Party alliance in power.  I wasn’t entirely sure where these places were. Once driving through Colombo, we passed by Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH) — completed in 1973, in time for Sri Lanka’s Presidency of the Non-Aligned Movement. Behind the BMICH that day, my father pointed at the CID headquarters and told me of his detention there. He had been fully disappeared, and was tortured; he did not know if he would ever see light again. My grandmother, with the help of others like Sunila Abeysekera, finally located him, proving that he existed and managed to get to see him in one of the many police cells.  My father then spent much of my early life underground, hiding from both the state and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP; lit., ‘People’s Liberation Front’), both of whom were not only engaged in bloody reprisals against each other but also assassinating Left activists like him not aligned with the JVP’s then anti-Tamil rhetoric: 60,000 or more went missing in southern Sri Lanka between 1987–1990.

My father was not finished with prison; now he became a visitor, regularly in 1982 and 1983. My Tamil aunt Nirmala Rajasingam was arrested in 1982 under the PTA for aiding the LTTE. My grandparents, A. Rajasingam and Mahilaruppiam, organised daily visits by different family members. My father and my mother Rajani were assigned their weekly day to visit. My sister Narmada’s earliest memory: Nirmala and her then husband Nithi’s abduction by the police from our house in Jaffna; mine: visiting Nirmala in prison.

The beginnings of anti-Tamil riots in 1983 began in the prisons when Sinhala prisoners were allowed to enter Tamil prisoners’ cells and kill them while prison guards stood by. The men fought for their lives, many dying and some surviving to make their own grim histories. My aunt, the only female Tamil political prisoner, was surrounded by a group of women sitting and chanting that they were out for her blood. On that occasion, she was saved by the prison guards. But in the end, after her escape from prison, the LTTE would label her a traitor as she left them after being exposed to their deeply militarised structures. We became, as so many Tamils did, considered a traitor’s family for the LTTE, our lives in abeyance. Such twists of lives are common in Sri Lanka. Sri Lankan Muslims went from intimates, to being collectively labeled traitors by the LTTE in the 1990s, and are now persecuted by the state and radical Buddhist orders since the end of the civil war in 2009.

Each decade since the 1970s has brought with them more and more lives that fail to be counted, and disappear. I write personally, but only of the stories I have a right to tell. These are a sliver of stories that crowd the memories of most Sri Lankans.

There is not a family left untouched.

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I find no place in my histories or research that does not touch this gray zone.

I am looking through the BBC archives in Reading for the Sinhala World Service. BBC Sinhala, started in 1942, was discontinued in 1976 but reinstated in 1990 when Sri Lanka was moving towards its half-century. There were so many letters on a similar theme:

On the 13th of September 1990, I received a message from the local police to go to the police station …. On the 11th of March 1991, I was transferred to Boosa detention camp. I am still here. I supported my mother, wife and two children by working as an unskilled casual labourer working in plantations …. I am 53 years old and my eyesight is failing. I cannot hear very well. I still do not know why I am here. I do not understand politics. Please read this letter in your programme and ask them at least to prosecute me. Then I will know my sentence and a date of release.

This was a listener’s letter from the Boossa Detention Camp (IAC & ACR January 1993).  Few who were incarcerated ever knew why, and for how long. While it may be that for some Sinhalese now, Boossa appears as a new name; for Tamils and Muslims, Boossa, the Gajaba Regiment, the roll of names and titles occupy deep ruptures in their lives.

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Outside the gray zone, Sri Lanka’s official prisons are equally illegitimate. Its prisons are overcrowded, badly maintained, and are largely full of those imprisoned for minor drug offences. There are no rehabilitation processes imagined, only carceral practices. Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission’s comprehensive 2018 prison study reveals that at 75, we consistently fail those who need care and incarcerate them with ease, an immense toll on the families who must struggle to sustain inmates inside.

Sri Lanka at 75 is for those who have struggled to make sure that those who have disappeared still exist.

After the end of the civil war in 2009 where thousands of Tamils were killed, more hundreds of Tamils, men women and children, were disappeared by the state and its paramilitary allies. Some were taken from internment camps; some were taken from the North and East; some were surrendered by families thinking they would be released. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) managed to board a few buses taking these detainees, and give numbers to some of them. Those numbered individuals are some of the few that could be tracked down. Some of those detained by the state for being members of the LTTE had themselves been coercively forced to join by the LTTE too. All should be found. At that point, Sri Lanka had already taken its place in the world’s rankings of the countries with the most disappeared. In 2021, it was the second on the same list.

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This is my wish for Sri Lanka at 75. I wish that, at a bare minimum, those in the gray zone can be found and released along with those in its official zones. I wish that we can dream of a better future, one in which incarceration and violence are not our shared memories. It does not have to be the way we get to know each other better. At the best, I hope for a different regime that does not terrorise Sri Lankans or use terror as it’s mean of political mobilisation. Sri Lanka at 75 is for the people who have struggled so hard to survive, and for those who are gone but not forgotten. I have not told all the stories I have, but I am filled with love for my Sri Lanka. My wish comes because of Dayapala, Nirmala and Ragavan, born before and immediately after Sri Lanka’s independence and who, though incarcerated, and their political struggles forcibly repressed, continued to fight, and, in memory of Jane, Daya, Rajani, Rajasingam, and Mahila — who are now gone.

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the views of the ‘South Asia @ LSE’ blog, the LSE South Asia Centre or the London School of Economics and Political Science. Please click here for our Comments Policy. 

This blogpost may not be reposted by anyone without prior written consent of LSE South Asia Centre; please e-mail southasia@lse.ac.uk for permission.

Banner image © Said Ali, ‘Marine Drive, Kattankudy, Sri Lanka, 2018’, Unsplash.

The ‘Sri Lanka @ 75’ logo is copyrighted by the LSE South Asia Centre, and may not be used by anyone for any purpose. It shows the national flower of Sri Lanka, the Water Lily (Nymphaeaceae), framed in a graphic design of colours derived from the national flag, and sacral architectural motifs. The logo has been designed by Oroon Das.

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About the author

Sharika Thiranagama

Dr Sharika Thiranagama is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University, and author of 'In my Mother's House: Civil War in Sri Lanka' (2011) among other publications.

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