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Sri Lanka: Women’s Insecurity in the North and East
Sri Lanka: Women’s Insecurity in the North and East
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
Report 217 / Asia

Sri Lanka: Women’s Insecurity in the North and East

Women in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil-speaking north and east are facing a desperate lack of security in the aftermath of the long civil war.

Executive Summary

Women in Sri Lanka’s predominantly Tamil-speaking north and east are facing a desperate lack of security in the aftermath of the long civil war. Today many still live in fear of violence from various sources. Those who fall victim to it have little means of redress. Women’s economic security is precarious, and their physical mobility is limited. The heavily militarised and centralised control of the north and east – with almost exclusively male, Sinhalese security forces – raises particular problems for women there in terms of their safety, sense of security and ability to access assistance. They have little control over their lives and no reliable institutions to turn to. The government has mostly dismissed women’s security issues and exacerbated fears, especially in the north and east. The international community has failed to appreciate and respond effectively to the challenges faced by women and girls in the former war zone. A concerted and immediate effort to empower and protect them is needed.

Thirty years of civil war between the government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has resulted in tens of thousands of female-headed households in the north and east. Families throughout those areas experienced many waves of conflict, displacement and militarisation. In the war’s final stages in 2008 and 2009, hundreds of thousands of civilians in the northern Vanni region endured serial displacements and months of being shelled by the government and held hostage by the LTTE, after which they were herded into closed government camps. Most lost nearly all possessions and multiple family members, many of whom are still missing or detained as suspected LTTE cadres. When families eventually returned to villages, homes and land had been destroyed or taken over by the military. There was less physical destruction in the east, which was retaken by the government in 2007, but those communities have also suffered and now live under the tight grip of the military and central government.

These events have left women and girls vulnerable at multiple levels. In the Vanni in particular, their housing is inadequate, and they have limited means of transportation and employment opportunities. Many do not have sufficient funds to feed their families, let alone to care for those who were maimed or disabled in the war. The continuing search for the missing and the struggle to maintain relations with the detained are further strains. Children’s education was severely disrupted for years, and many are only slowly returning to school. The trauma of the war, especially the final months in 2009, is evident in every family. The conflict has badly damaged the social fabric.

The consequences for women and girls have been severe. There have been alarming incidents of gender-based violence, including domestic violence within the Tamil community, in part fuelled by rising alcohol use by men. Many women have been forced into prostitution or coercive sexual relationships. Some have also been trafficked within the country and abroad. Pregnancies among teenagers have increased. Fear of abuse has further restricted women’s movement and impinged on education and employment opportunities. The fact that women must rely on the military for everyday needs not only puts them at greater risk of gender-based violence, but also prevents them from building their own capacity within communities. The island-wide spate of attacks on women by individuals labelled “grease yakas (devils)”, which reached the north and east in August and into September 2011, and the lack of serious response by the security forces (except to brutally crack-down on protesters across the north and east, and especially in Jaffna), exposed the near-complete collapse of trust in law enforcement.

Militarisation and the government’s refusal to devolve power or restore local civilian administration in the north and east have directly contributed to this complex societal distress, which comes on the heels of the collapse of the repressive regime run by the LTTE. Over decades, the Tigers created an elaborate coercive structure around which people organised their lives. The absence of this structure has left many adrift. While this has had some important positive consequences, including for women, the devastation of the final year of war and the replacement of the LTTE in effect by the military and its proxies negate the gains for these communities. The experience and perception of pervasive insecurity are having profound harmful effects on women’s lives.

Instead of recognising these vulnerabilities and taking steps to protect women and girls, the government has largely ignored them. The heavily militarised and centralised systems of control in the north and east exclude most residents, but especially women, from decisions that affect their security. While there are some female civilian officials and some programs nominally directed at women, all activities occur within a male, Sinhalese, military structure. The government has constrained access for international humanitarian organisations and even more so for local civil society. The vision of security the government has pursued is a masculine, militarised one. Human security is lacking.

The current situation in the north and east comes in the wake of serious accusations of sexual violence by the military against Tamil women at the end of the war and in the months thereafter. There is credible evidence to support some of these accusations. Yet cultural stigma, decades of impunity, and the government’s refusal to allow any independent investigation of the end of the war and its aftermath make it impossible to determine the full extent of misconduct. In a well-known rape case in the north in June 2010, criminal prosecution has been pending for eighteen months against four soldiers following concerted pressure from local women’s groups. But this is a striking exception.

The government’s overwhelming response to allegations of sexual violence has been to reject them, as it has done with video footage that shows what appears to be Sinhalese soldiers making sexual comments while handling the dead, naked bodies of female suspected LTTE fighters, some of whom have their hands bound. The long-awaited report of the government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was delivered to the president on 20 November 2011 and released to the public on 16 December. Among its recommendations is one that the government initiate yet another “independent investigation” into the footage, which officials repeatedly have said was “faked”. Another government assessment of it now – without a complementary international one focused on alleged sexual violence – risks further feeding Tamil fears of such violence and the exploitation of those fears by some diaspora activists.

The international response to women’s insecurity has been unnecessarily muted. Not only have Sri Lanka’s international partners, including the United Nations, failed to speak out publicly and clearly about threats to women and allegations of abuse, but they have agreed to work within militarised structures that have amplified vulnerability and reduced transparency. Unless they do more to demand changes to those structures and to target funding and assistance at initiatives that can help protect and empower women, their engagement will be ineffectual, at best.

Colombo/Brussels, 20 December 2011

 

A supporter of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), former secretary to the Ministry of Defence and presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, holds election posters at the party's election office in Biyagama, in the outskirts of the capital Colombo. AFP/ISHARA S. KODIKARA
Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past

Sri Lanka’s powerful Rajapaksa family appears to be making a political comeback, and presidential front runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a troubled, violent history with Tamils and Muslims. These groups and others worry Gotobaya’s election will leave them more vulnerable, and threatens fragile democratic progress after decades of war.

As Sri Lankans head to the polls to elect a new president on 16 November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands as the widely acknowledged front runner. As defence secretary during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade-long presidency ending in 2015, he was a leading figure in a government that many minority Tamils and Muslims, as well as opposition politicians, blame for terrible political violence and repression. During that period, dozens of journalists were killed or forced into exile, prominent Tamil politicians were murdered, and thousands of Sri Lankans were forcibly disappeared; no one has since been held accountable for those crimes. Gotabaya is expected to name his brother prime minister, as Mahinda is constitutionally term-limited from seeking the presidency. The last Rajapaksa administration became increasingly authoritarian over its tenure, and the family’s political reprise would likely to bring more of the same.

Gotabaya’s main challenger is Sajith Premadasa, the standard bearer for the United National Party (UNP), headed by current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Premadasa is currently Cabinet Minister for Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs. Although Premadasa is more popular with average voters than the aloof prime minister, private polling, the largely pro-Rajapaksa media, and past voting patterns all suggest that Premadasa is the underdog. Although widely seen as having run a strong campaign so far, Premadasa is also competing against smaller party candidates who could take a significant block of the anti-Rajapaksa vote.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order that appeal to many ethnic majority Sinhalese, especially in the wake of ISIS-inspired bombings last Easter that left more than 250 dead and at least 500 wounded. He announced his candidacy within days of those attacks, seizing the opportunity to position himself as the nation’s protector. Promising to eliminate all forms of terrorism, he has argued (with little evidence) that the government’s arrest of key intelligence operatives based on allegations of abductions and murders weakened security and paved the way for the Easter attacks.

Gotabaya has emphasised his central role as defence secretary in the 2009 military victory over the Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist organisation that fought for a Tamil homeland in the country’s north east for more than 30 years. Promising voters technocratic, military-style governance, led by professionals rather than politicians, Gotabaya also draws on middle class voters’ appreciation of the redevelopment projects he spearheaded as head of the Urban Development Agency and the general impression that he “gets things done”, albeit ruthlessly at times. Gotabaya has pledged that his government will instil “discipline”, and argued forcefully that love of country is more important than individual rights and that security is paramount.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists. They worry electing Gotabaya, a strong Sinhala nationalist, would deepen already serious divides among the country’s ethnic communities and threaten its recent modest democratic gains. Sri Lanka’s Muslims are among those most fearful of a Gotabaya presidency. They worry about his support for militant Buddhist groups that attacked Muslims with impunity in 2013 and 2014, when Gotabaya was in charge of the police and army. Evidence that politicians from the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP) were involved in anti-Muslim violence in March 2018 and May 2019 has strengthened these fears, as has the backing of prominent nationalist monks promoting anti-Muslim attitudes for Gotabaya’s candidacy.

Posters of presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa next to rubble from burned-out Muslim-owned shops in Minuwangoda, Sri Lanka. CRISISGROUP/Alan Keenan

Gotabaya has always denied any links with militant Buddhists, and along with others in the SLPP has courted Muslim voters. Although some Muslim businessmen back Gotabaya hoping for business-friendly governance, most Muslims are expected to maintain their traditional support for the UNP. Many worry, however, that this will make their community vulnerable to retribution if Gotabaya wins. In a widely circulated video, Gotabaya’s personal lawyer and a prominent Muslim member of the SLPP articulated the bind in which many Muslims find themselves: telling his Muslim audience that Gotabaya is certain to win, he then asked them how they were likely to fare if Muslims were not seen to have supported him. When one audience member chuckles nervously and says they would get a “massive thrashing”, the lawyer laughs along, agrees and says Muslims would be wise to support Gotabaya to avoid increased harassment and even violent retribution. Smaller pro-Rajapaksa Tamil parties in the multi-ethnic north and east have appealed to Tamils to vote for Gotabaya in order to protect themselves against the perceived threat of Muslim extremism and economic power.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win. Under the Rajapaksas’ watch, thousands of Tamils disappeared in the final years of war – including hundreds who surrendered to the army on the last day of fighting in May 2009 and were never seen again. When asked at a 15 October press conference about their fate and how he would respond to the continued appeals of their families for the truth about what happened to them, Gotabaya denied anyone was unaccounted for after surrendering. When pressed, Gotabaya asserted there was no point in looking to the past and said he was running to be “the president of the future Sri Lanka”. At the same press conference, Gotabaya announced he would not recognise or honour commitments on post-war accountability and reconciliation the current government made to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015.

For Tamils especially, but also Sinhalese and Muslim victims, being asked to forget is both painful and impossible. The current government’s failure to investigate or press the army to provide answers about the disappeared has kept families’ wounds fresh. The Office of Missing Persons, established in 2018 to fulfil a government’s pledge to the UN, is still struggling to become effective. The police and army, whose assistance is necessary to establish the truth, will likely continue to resist the Office’s work under any scenario. Many expect Gotabaya will formally dismantle the Office of Missing Persons should he be elected.

The last five years represent a lost opportunity to help Sri Lanka recover from the war that ended a decade ago. The broad, multi-ethnic and multiparty coalition that came to power in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 promised to strengthen the rule of law and tackle the culture of impunity engendered by the nation’s long history of political violence. They restored a degree of independence to the police and judiciary, and journalists as well as civil society activists have made the most of their increased freedom. Chances for more lasting reforms, however, and for prosecutions of the many high-profile cases of corruption, murder and disappearances during the Rajapaksa period, were frittered away in partisan battles between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The government’s failure to make decisive changes has left Sri Lanka’s citizens – and its still-fragile institutions – at risk.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past. His election manifesto contains some positive proposals – including the creation of an independent prosecutor – but his career has not suggested a deep commitment to accountability or reconciliation. His popularity derives from his single-minded focus on the many housing developments his ministry has built and the sense that he cares about average and poor Sri Lankans. During the campaign, he has attempted to match Gotabaya with vows to “eradicate terrorism” and impose the death penalty on drug dealers. Despite this posture and widespread disappointment with the UNP-led government among minority voters and democratic activists, many of them see a Premadasa victory as essential to keeping open Sri Lanka’s fragile space for dissent and pluralism. With the backing of the main Tamil and Muslim parties, Premadasa has also challenged Gotabaya on the crimes and abuses committed during the Rajapaksa years, warning voters of the risks a new Rajapaksa government would carry.

Whether Gotabaya or Premadasa wins this next election, building the independent institutions needed to end impunity will be essential to ensuring lasting peace in Sri Lanka. For external supporters of human rights and democratic freedoms in Sri Lanka, their main leverage will be found in Sri Lanka’s need for help from the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral and bilateral agencies with its struggling economy and dangerously high foreign debt. Vulnerable human rights defenders and opposition politicians will also need political support from outside the country as they continue their quest for truth and justice for past atrocities.

This article first appeared in The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute