The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has called on the Sri Lankan government to ensure the security forces rigorously enforce a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse. She spoke after a visit to the former conflict areas, where there are huge numbers of women whose husbands are in detention, and widows living in a highly militarized area and vulnerable to sexual harassment.
During Sri Lanka’s twenty-six year civil war, more than 70,000 lives were lost and hundreds of thousands displaced. The LTTE are a militant organisation, who fought the government for an independent Tamil state. The war was brought to an end in May 2009 when the Sri Lankan army defeated the Tamil Tigers.
On this tropical island of serendipity that slips off India like a tear drop, and is set to host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting this November, I found the casualness of rape has become just one part of this country’s post conflict culture. Many of the men and women I met may have survived the war. But they live defeated.
The influx of construction workers from different ethnic communities brought in to work on building projects has contributed to a new wave of harassment of vulnerable impoverished Tamil women. As an outsider it’s noticeable that local charity workers now refer to incidents of rape in the former conflict areas very casually – where once it was almost taboo.
There are frequent reports in the area of men in “dark clothes” or members of the security forces paying regular visits to women’s homes and temporary shelters. It’s become common practice for single women to ask male friends and relatives to stay overnight in rural areas that lack proper locks and secure doors to prevent intruders.
I heard of a case of one mother desperately alternating between her son’s friends for protection, and casually speaking of a trend of young girls being taken into the bushes in the jungle to be raped. Poverty has also turned some women to prostitution, which was unthinkable in this area during the war.
rape has become just one part of this country’s post conflict culture
One Vishvamadu rape case, where a returning internally displaced mother was raped by four military men, has been pending for judgement since June 2010 and repeatedly postponed for some reason or other by the Court. After 15 months under military surveillance, alongside the other 300,000 Vanni Internationally Displaced Persons in the Sri Lankan government’s Manik farm camp, her family were returned back to a heavily militarized Mullaitheevu district on 2nd June 2010. Here the victim was sexually assaulted by military personnel, and offered money to stay silent.
Recently there have been several complaints in the North and East of Judicial Medical Officers refusing to provide medical reports in cases of sexual violence, especially when perpetrated by men in uniform. As part of a statement handed over to Navi Pillai in Jaffna, one Women’s network reports of credible evidence that military men keep raping returning women who are single, sometimes physically challenged and vulnerable.
There are several such cases where women who were raped, tortured and even murdered by security personnel, are unable to come forward due to threat of violence, abduction and the long delay in getting any form of justice.
The Governments estimates 86,000 war widows live in the war torn Northern Provinces, although local NGOs believe the figure is even larger. Whilst money is being spent on showcase construction projects like highways, and the ‘beautification’ project in Colombo, many female survivors of a war still live in abject poverty and physical insecurity.
It’s not just the sheer struggle to feed their children; years after the guns fell silent, many women still exist in limbo, not knowing if their spouses and children are alive or dead. They are simply calling on the government to tell them if their husbands, sons and daughters are officially registered as dead, or alive in detention centres. One woman’s missing husband was forcibly recruited by the rebels, and was subsequently arrested by the Army in April 2009. Another woman told me she hasn’t seen her daughter since the Tamil Tigers took her in 2005.
Added to the cocktail of poverty, raw grief and on-going abuse is the lingering atmosphere of fear and surveillance in former rebel areas. I was told at least 300 Montessori school teachers have been offered 17,000 to 38,000 Sri Lankan rupees per month, to act as informants and compile reports on the activities of their neighbours. The appointments were made by the Civil Defence Department of the Sri Lankan military, rather than the relevant civilian administration bodies.
many women still exist in limbo, not knowing if their spouses are alive or dead
Denounced in August by Pillay, as an increasingly authoritarian state, Sri Lanka’s power structure is underpinned by a strong majoritarian ideology of militarisation, and the military presence is more than evident. In August this year three unarmed demonstrators, asking for sanitised water, were killed and shot in Weliweriya by the Sri Lankan army.
The militarisation of a state poised to become the future head of the Commonwealth, poses an uncomfortable threat to the idea, the vision, and the notion of Sri Lanka as a multi-ethnic, multi-formal functioning democracy. In the run up to September’s Northern Council elections there were repeated acts of violence, disruption of Tamil National Alliance (TNA) meetings, and the burning of the printing press of the Tamil language daily newspaper Uthayan in Jaffna.
It is a paradox; at one level Sri Lanka’s government today is one of the strongest states the country has had, and at another level one of the most insecure. The military has affectively taken over civilian government in the North and East, and is quite clearly now becoming the most important actor in terms of the institution in the country, because it has sponsorship right within the heart of the regime. Taking education as an example; every University entrant has to do a leadership orientation course. Security on campus is run largely by the military and school Principals are inducted into the cadet core and given military training.
Then you have the military taking land away from civilians. I spoke with citizens in the North who complain the Government are taking their land, and relinquishing it to service personnel for cultivation, or moving in Sinhalese civilians with the intention of altering the demographic composition of the electorate. Whilst the government may assert the Tamils in the North have been ‘rehabilitated’, the reality is closer to ‘relocated.’ The military presence is complex. You may not see the camps of two years ago, but you will see the shops. Little tea shops dotted along the A9 highway are run by the military and the signs are in Sinhala. You will also see the emergence of Buddhist statues in predominantly Hindu or Muslim areas.
Journalists in Sri Lanka who defy the prescribed lines of state censorship risk never getting back behind it. The local media are reluctant to criticise the defence establishment because of the various attacks on media institutions. During the war the media went into self-censorship mode and it hasn’t quite been able to get out of it. The media barely scratch the surface of what is actually happening in the North and East. Whilst they are able to levy criticism against of governance issues in the South, self-censorship stops real reporting of the most sensitive areas.
Why, then, do some journalists still speak out and resist silence? “Why does a bird fly?” Replies one journalist and campaigner for media freedom, who himself sought three months self-exposed exile in the United States. Brave resisters refuse to be strangled into submission, and will write under pseudo names or in international publications. Human Rights defenders continue to put their lives on the line to document abuses, and lawyers work pro bono.
I sit with the formidable wife and son of the missing journalist, Prageeth Eknaligoda, who didn’t come home from work on January 24, 2010. I am shown his old sketches, and am told their husband and father was his own person; his work continuously critical of the Government. Prageeth was working on an investigation into the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Sri Lankan military during the war. After three years, I asked Prageeth’s son what they were still tirelessly campaigning against the regime for. “The same thing we were asking for three years ago,” he replies, “our father.”
Back in England I spoke to a Sinhalese man who was forcibly trained by the Tamil Tigers and compelled to do non-combat work for the LTTE, before being tortured, detained and imprisoned by the Sri Lankan government, for two years without charge or trail. Some of the Ex- LTTE cadres I met refuse to accept the crimes committed against their own people during the war; the children forcibly recruited to fight, and the young men conscripted into their ranks. Middle class, English speaking Sinhalese in the South are detached from the grievances felt in the North- the families in Jaffna who have been living in temporary accommodation for twenty three years, or the women in bright saris, who are conspiring in the shadows of spies and just asking to know where their children are.
The law of the land wasn’t strong enough to protect Sri Lanka’s Chief Justice. Lawyers leading the anti-impeachment campaign of Shirani Bandaranayake, in January this year, reiterated to me how the impeachment was a ‘shoddy’ and ‘illegal’ example of the collapse of law and order in Sri Lanka. Two leaked Commonwealth reports commissioned by Commonwealth Secretary General, Kamalesh Sharma, concluded that the Sri Lankan Governments’ decision to ignore the rulings of the Supreme Court were unconstitutional and ‘sowing the seeds of anarchy.’ These reports and their findings were withheld from CMAG and other member states.
Sri Lanka has a history of contested identities; the President himself has a past as a Human Rights defender. Mahinda Rajapaksa, a man who was caught smuggling out information on Human Rights abuses committed by the former government, has now become a perpetrator of the crimes he had formally dedicated his life to contending. I met many of the Presidents’ former colleagues, who having worked with him on disappearance cases at the United Nations in Geneva, now unwearyingly campaign against him.
In Colombo you can sense the elements of Myanmar’s anti-Muslim sentiment sweeping the island. This is a government that requires an ‘other’ to consolidate its hold on power and its first priority is to ensure that it retains that control over the Sinhalese Buddhist constituency. They also need to have a kind National Security State to maintain power, so the Rajapaksa regime is in constant defence of the majority Sinhala Buddhist majority identity. Whether levied against the LTTE, the International community, the Christian evangelists or Muslims. The government are ‘defenders of the faith.’