Sri Lanka police’s Terrorism Investigation Division (TID) on Friday arrested the Mayor of Jaffna for allegedly promoting the LTTE’s ideology, in the choice of uniforms for an environment task force of the local municipal council.
The move has drawn wide condemnation, including from the country’s Tamil polity and civil society. Late on Friday, the Jaffna Magistrate’s Court released him on bail, on a surety bond, amid a growing backlash.
In the early hours of Friday, police arrested the Jaffna Mayor Viswalingam Manivannan, in connection with the municipal body assigning light blue coloured uniforms to a newly set-up team tasked with monitoring environmental violations.
Police likened their uniform to that worn by the “police force” run by the LTTE in areas that the rebel outfit controlled during the civil war.
Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana said “promoting” symbols associated with the LTTE, including uniforms, was an offence under Sri Lanka’s Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), a law that activists deem draconian, and have been campaigning to repeal.
Last month, the government expanded the ambit of the PTA, allowing the detention of anyone suspected of causing “acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony”. Authorities had indicated that the Mayor would be detained and charged under the PTA, but subsequently, the charges were framed under Sri Lanka’s penal code.
Jaffna parliamentarian and senior lawyer M.A. Sumanthiran, with a team of 25 lawyers, appeared for Mr. Manivannan. “We made submissions that the LTTE police force has not been there for over a decade, and that the government is seeing a ghost behind every bush,” he said.
Mr. Manivannan’s detention had triggered strong, critical reactions from within and outside Sri Lanka on social media. “We condemn the unjustifiable arrest of the Mayor of Jaffna Viswalingam Manivannan by the TID purportedly in connection with “the revival of the LTTE”. Most ludicrous claim, given that he only authorised a uniform that is very similar to the Traffic Wardens of the Colombo MC,” the Tamil National Alliance said in a tweet, pointing to law enforcement authorities’ apparent double standards.
The Tamil National People’s Front said it “unreservedly condemns” the arrest of Mr. Manivannan by the TID and called for his immediate release. “The severe racial and political insecurities of this regime have reached such heights that a steady path towards fascism is inevitable,” its leaders and Jaffna district parliamentarian G.G. Ponnambalam said.
Jaffna legislator and former Chief Minister of the Northern Provincial Council C.V. Wigneswaran said the arrest was based on “racism and fascism”.
Writing on the development, political commentator and former diplomat Dayan Jayatilleke, a senior adviser to the Leader of Opposition, said “Myanmarisation may be under way” in Sri Lanka. “The arrest of the Jaffna Mayor over a non-violent alleged offence, actually a procedural or regulatory one if at all, gives the signal that there will be no autonomous space for the minorities even at the level of the smallest unit, namely the municipality, let alone the province,” he said.
Colombo-based NGO Centre for Policy Alternatives said it was “deeply troubling” to see the government resort to criminal legislation such as the PTA, in order to stamp its authority over decentralised government entities and to detain an elected official on “tenuous grounds”.
It further pointed to “deeply problematic” use of the PTA over decades to detain individuals for prolonged periods of time without charge and with limited due process safe