It’s been over a year since Maithripala Sirisena assumed the presidency, although much about daily life in Sri Lanka’s war-torn Northern Province remains the same. “There’s a reduced number of troops on the road,” says Shalin Uthayarasa, a journalist. “We’re experiencing a temporary respite in repression.” Uthayarasa goes on to mention that his two previous points apply to ordinary people, but aren’t relevant for journalists or human rights activists, who continue to face threats (or worse) from state security personnel. “I’m sure they [the Sri Lanka Army] haven’t reduced troop numbers,” he tells me.
Uthayarasa provides an important and unique perspective. From 2011-2013, he was attacked four times by the Sri Lanka Army as a result of his work as a journalist. Years later, he’s still undergoing physical therapy for the injuries that he’s suffered. As he tells me this I look more closely at the scar on his forehead, a lasting reminder of government repression.
In the Northern Province, community members have been speaking up more, as there is more space to publicly criticize the government. There’s also been modest progress regarding freedom of movement and the military’s intervention into civilian life. “The repression that was there under Mahinda [Rajapaksa] has ended, but the basic issues are all the same,” Uthayarasa says. He tells me that he’s referring to land issues (including the military’s continued occupation of civilian land), the government’s refusal to release Tamil political prisoners and ongoing militarization. “The military may be less visible, but they’re still there.” Relatedly, the surveillance of civilians remains an issue too.