Despite ongoing international criticism over its treatment of Tamil civilians, Sri Lanka has allowed almost all of the land border crossings between its north and south to reopen. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe opened the crossings to international travelers again this week.
The land border had been closed since December 26, 2011, after the government asserted that the end of the civil war signaled the need to shut down international crossings and that national security interests took precedence over international travel. The army had been preventing more than 2,000 North and East Indian nationals from entering the country.
A public outcry had gathered ahead of the reopening. More than 30,000 residents and activists marched in the capital, Colombo, on Friday to call for the reopening of the southern border. In addition, hundreds of Indian business owners, tourists and Indians living in Sri Lanka gathered at the Ampara international airport to greet their elected representatives on Tuesday.
The Sri Lankan government had planned to re-open land border crossings in early December. The New Delhi government came out strongly against its reopening. Indian Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar told Sri Lankan politicians on Dec. 18 that India would not reopen its border with Sri Lanka. According to NDTV, the public anger in the border area was palpable. Local leaders expressed their concerns on Facebook and Twitter.
The reopening now underlines the government’s changing mindset toward its Tamil minority in the wake of the fighting that ended in 2009. Between 2009 and mid-2016, the average number of deaths among civilians in the civil war that resulted in a separatist rebellion diminished significantly, from 10,387 per month to 3,451, then to a miniscule 73 in 2017, according to the United Nations.
The Tamil population is now estimated to be about 15 percent of the population in Sri Lanka. Nearly 3 million people of Tamil ethnicity live in the North and East, and political leaders have said that the new constitution would be filed soon to make amends for the 1980s and the discrimination against the Tamil minority.
Because of international criticism, the government on Sunday announced reforms to its controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act. Changes include changing the way the state is defined, allowing for the prosecution of foreign terrorists and enabling civilians to be tried in court for crimes committed by the army.
“The Prosecution of foreign terrorist elements and treating civilians as witnesses is something positive that the government has acknowledged and rectified,” said Vivek Velu, executive director of Washington-based Alliance for the Empowerment of Civil Society, a non-profit that advocates for peace and security in Sri Lanka.
The opposition also criticized the government for deporting hundreds of Tamils from Australia and Canada. An estimated 280 Tamils from Australia were returned to Sri Lanka as political refugees in late 2016 after a Sri Lankan Supreme Court decision. A court ruled in November 2017 that it could not be an effective deterrent to deter dissidents from continuing their activities in Sri Lanka. Canadian embassy officials also intervened on behalf of some Tamils from Ottawa.
“This trend is very worrying. If this goes on, this could ultimately lead to a breakdown of law and order and violence against Tamils. Even before the Land Border reopening, there were warnings from human rights groups in Sri Lanka that violence was likely as a result of the increasing state measures,” Velu said.
“We want to see the government acting in a manner which is consistent with the language they have used in public, which is that it would release human rights activists who have been arrested and ensure that there is not harassment of human rights activists and the release of Tamils who have been deported,” he said.
Sri Lanka is further boosting its defense in the war on terror. Earlier this week, Sri Lanka’s parliament passed legislation allowing the detention of suspected terrorists without trial for more than 72 hours. The ban on early dissolution of the elected government still stands as well.