Throughout Sri Lanka and even in Colombo people must always consider the risk of being in the wrong place at wrong time. When the Government killed a top LTTE leader on Nov 2, 2007 a couple of Fridays ago everyone’s consideration of risks rose immediately to the surface of social discourse. While LTTE attacks have not historically targeted foreign or Sri Lankan civilians in Colombo, every ordinary person understood the unpredictable risk of becoming a collateral casualty when the LTTE took its expected retaliation against government or military targets. As a result, friends advise me to avoid traveling unnecessarily, while they anticipated staying at home for the weekend. People from all walks of life curtailed some social activities such as going to meet friends, but various errands must still be run and legs need to be stretched, so life persists and does not grind to a halt so easily. As a Sri Lankan friend here reminded me “We are very familiar with these risks. We have lived with them for a long time.” As with many people he speaks from experience; last year he passed through a street where not two minutes later a suicide bomber targeted a government motorcade and detonated herself.
Militant attacks are not the only risks that lie buried in the course of everyday life. The many security checkpoints could also horribly interrupt life with physical harassment or arbitrary detention, particularly for anyone with Tamil ethnicity. The transparent government suspicion attributed to all people sharing Tamil heritage acquires its official form in the laws requiring Tamil Sri Lankans, but not Sinhalese Sri Lankans, to register with the police station nearest to wherever they live. This registration includes providing proof of homeownership, or being accompanied by a landlord who agrees to takes personal responsibility for the registrant. Proof of registration should be carried at all time and many Tamil Sri Lankans cautiously avoid traveling alone at night when they might be stopped on a deserted street by suspicious soldiers or police.
Unfortunately the risk of harassment does not attach solely to travel on highways and city streets. Individuals, especially women, can also be afraid to live alone due to the possibility of police and military searches of private homes. Under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) which the legislature first enacted in 1979 and current Emergency Regulations (ER) established by presidential decree, the search of anyone and anywhere may be conducted without warning or warrant if support by any degree of terrorism suspicion harbored by security personnel. This registration is a fact of life for every Tamil Sri Lankan, yet it rarely comes up in conversation and when it does voices instinctively become hushed. And while the whole of Sri Lankan society knows well the force of the PTA and ER, any political criticism of these laws seem to be muted among lawmakers who might be more concerned with appearing soft on terrorism. I have lived and worked in countries with draconic security regimes but still when I first heard of this registration and the ever-present specter of warrantless home searches, I remained almost in disbelief until I had confirmed it with several independent sources.
Although the political conflict continues to escalate militarily in the North and East, with no dramatic LTTE reprisals or Government raids materializing these past few weeks in Colombo, people return to moving about and continuing life as normal, with these normal restrictions and risks.
Posted By Adam Nord (Sri Lanka)
Posted Nov 18th, 2007