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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’s Presidential Election Brings Back a Polarising Wartime Figure
Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election Brings Back a Polarising Wartime Figure
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

 

Sri Lanka's new president Gotabaya Rajapaksa speaks after taking oath of office during his swearing-in ceremony at the Ruwanwelisaya temple in Anuradhapura on November 18, 2019. AFP/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi
Q&A / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Presidential Election Brings Back a Polarising Wartime Figure

Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s decisive victory in Sri Lanka’s presidential election reflects voters’ concerns over security, poor economic prospects and ineffective governance – but also indicates the country’s dangerous ethnic polarisation. Many worry that Rajapaksa, a Sinhalese nationalist, will energise anti-Muslim campaigning and further alienate the Tamil community.

What happened?

On 16 November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa – who served as defence secretary during the final phase of Sri Lanka’s brutal civil war – won a decisive victory in Sri Lanka’s presidential election.

Although Rajapaksa’s victory was not a surprise, the margin of his win exceeded expectations among many analysts. The candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and brother of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, Gotabaya (who, like Mahinda, is widely known by his first name) captured 52.25 per cent of the vote. His main rival, Sajith Premadasa, candidate of the ruling United National Party (UNP), came in second with 42 per cent.

Gotabaya is a polarising figure in Sri Lanka.

Gotabaya, who has been linked to atrocities committed at the end of the war, is a polarising figure in Sri Lanka, and Saturday’s vote revealed sharp divisions in the electorate along ethnic lines. Although both candidates were from the ethnic majority Sinhalese community, Rajapaksa, who ran a strongly Sinhala nationalist campaign, was the outsize winner among the Sinhalese, securing such a huge majority that he needed few if any votes from ethnic Tamil or Muslim voters. By contrast, overwhelming majorities of Muslim and Tamil voters – who together make up roughly a quarter of the population – cast their ballots for Premadasa.

Of the record 35 candidates on the ballot, two who seemed positioned to command enough votes to affect the outcome did less well than expected. Anura Kumara Dissanayake, leader of the left-wing Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, won only 3.16 per cent of the vote, and former army commander Mahesh Senanayake, running as the candidate of a new, civil society-backed political party, won less than half a per cent.

The presidential campaign was one of Sri Lanka’s most peaceful, with only a handful of violent incidents. One concern highlighted by Election Commissioner Mahinda Deshapriya was the unprecedented amount of “fake news” spread on social media and in mainstream media outlets as well. Most of the disinformation targeted Premadasa’s campaign, including a particularly damaging story reported by pro-Rajapaksa outlets during the final days claiming Premadasa had signed a secret pact with the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance, in exchange for its support.

What accounts for Gotabaya’s decisive victory?

Voters’ security concerns, Sinhalese ethno-nationalism, Sri Lanka’s economic straits, the current government’s infighting and the SLPP’s organisational strength were the main factors driving Gotabaya’s victory.

Although Premadasa had a credible shot at winning, Gotabaya was widely seen as the front runner from the start. Backed by his brother Mahinda, who remains popular among Sinhalese voters but was constitutionally prevented from running for another term, Gotabaya faced in Premadasa an opponent who was a senior minister in an unpopular, divided and ineffective government.

Tapping into widespread feelings of anger and vulnerability stemming from the government’s failure to prevent the devastating ISIS-inspired Easter Sunday attacks on Christian churches and hotels – notwithstanding advance warnings from the Indian government – Gotabaya put a promise to deliver “security” and “eradicate terrorism” at the centre of his campaign.

The combination of Gotabaya’s pledge to prioritise security and his ethno-nationalist message resonated especially with the many Sinhala voters.

The combination of Gotabaya’s pledge to prioritise security and his ethno-nationalist message resonated especially with the many Sinhala voters who remember the key role he played as defence secretary in the 2009 military victory over the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or Tamil Tigers. Gotabaya enjoyed the active support of influential Buddhist monks who have long promoted the idea that Tamils and Muslims threaten Sri Lanka’s Sinhala Buddhist character – a sentiment that has increased among Sinhalese since the Easter bombings. Given the Rajapaksa family’s popularity among Sinhalese voters, Premadasa needed overwhelming support from Muslims and Tamils to have any chance at victory, a reality that led the SLPP to argue that a Premadasa presidency would be hostage to minority interests.

The governing UNP’s unpopularity also gave Gotabaya a big boost. With economic growth rates weak and debt repayment obligations high, the UNP government has had little revenue with which to deliver significant benefits to poor and middle-income Sri Lankans. The sharp fall in tourism following the Easter bombings added to the difficulty that large numbers of Sri Lankans have had making ends meet.

Moreover, under the UNP, government policymaking, including on economic issues, was confused and often contradictory. The increasingly toxic relationship between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe exacerbated the government’s ineffectiveness. In October 2018, Sirisena attempted to remove Wickremesinghe as prime minister and replace him with Mahinda Rajapaksa, a move that courts ruled unconstitutional but that helped cement an impression of chaos in the country’s governing ranks. Premadasa proved unable to separate himself clearly enough from the government’s unpopularity.

The SLPP’s strong island-wide organisation also benefited Gotabaya. The Rajapaksas and their supporters built up the party methodically since forming it in 2016 to be the political vehicle for the Rajapaksa family’s return to power. Big wins in the February 2018 local government elections strengthened the party at the grassroots level. Unlike Gotabaya, who had carefully laid the foundation of his campaign over the previous two years, Premadasa was named the UNP candidate just days before the campaign began, after a bitter struggle with party leader and prime minister Wickremesinghe. From that point on, the Premadasa campaign was playing catch-up while holding a weaker hand than Gotabaya, with flimsier party organisation and less funding and media support (most private media are owned by Rajapaksa allies and backed Gotabaya strongly, and more than a few outlets spread disinformation on his behalf).

What is the Rajapaksa family’s return to power likely to mean for Sri Lanka’s longstanding ethnic tensions?

The strongly Sinhala nationalist character of Gotabaya’s campaign, his reliance for the win almost entirely on votes from Sinhalese, and his brother’s policies during his ten years in office (2005-2015) all suggest that persistent ethnic and religious tensions – which increased following the Easter bombings – could dangerously sharpen under Gotabaya’s presidency.

Many fear that the new political landscape will bring renewed energy to the long-running campaign of anti-Muslim hate speech, violence and economic boycotts led by militant groups claiming to defend Buddhism. These groups first flourished under the Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency in 2013 and 2014, when they received support from the police and military intelligence, then under Gotabaya’s control as defence secretary. Anti-Muslim campaigning waned in the first year after the Rajapaksas left office in early 2015 but ultimately grew even more violent, with eyewitness and video evidence indicating the involvement of members of their SLPP party in attacks on mosques and Muslim businesses and homes in March 2018 and in the aftermath of the Easter bombings in May 2019. Gotabaya has always denied any support for militant Buddhist groups, but he is widely seen by Muslims as hostile to their community’s economic and social well-being. The strong support that Muslim voters and political leadership gave Premadasa leads many to worry that the community will now be targeted for its perceived disloyalty. Post-election attacks on a mosque in the southern city of Galle and a surge in anti-Muslim hate speech on social media since the results were announced have already bolstered these concerns.

Gotabaya has indicated little interest in helping heal the bitter ethnic divisions that endure in the wake of the country’s civil war.

Gotabaya has indicated little interest in helping heal the bitter ethnic divisions that endure in the wake of the country’s devastating 26-year civil war, which pitted the government against an insurgency led by the Tamil Tigers and left 100,000-150,000 people dead. Grievances and political marginalisation of Tamils gave rise to decades of inter-ethnic violence that included abuses and rights violations by both government and Tamil Tiger forces. Throughout the war and in its aftermath, Gotabaya has opposed reforms that would address Tamil concerns, including ones that would decentralise power and give the Tamils greater control over their own affairs. Both he and the SLPP denounced efforts by the outgoing UNP-led government to draft a new constitution that would move in this direction by, among other things, expanding the powers of the provinces, arguing that such changes threaten national security and the Buddhist and unitary nature of the state.

The risk of renewed Tamil militancy is very low, however, given the destruction of the Tamil Tigers and their support base and the enormous number of troops still stationed in the north, where the Tamil population is concentrated, ten years after the end of the war. Surveillance of northern Tamils is extensive, with military intelligence informers reportedly placed in every village. The Rajapaksas and the SLPP have denounced even the modest reduction in the military’s footprint in the north that occurred since the change of government in 2015, claiming that it endangers national security; and they are unlikely to relax further the military’s presence in Tamil-majority areas. Tensions are likely to simmer nonetheless. The presidential election coincided with the 1,000th day of continuous protests by Tamil widows and family members seeking information about the fate of loved ones who disappeared during the war, many of them after surrendering to the army.

What are likely to be Gotabaya’s first political moves as president?

Gotabaya has stated publicly that the popular Mahinda will soon join the country’s leadership as prime minister. UNP leader Wickremesinghe remains in the post for now, but his ability to hold on to the parliamentary majority needed to remain in office is eroding. Within hours of the final voting results’ release, key UNP ministers announced their resignation. The UNP may decide to support parliament’s dissolution in the coming days or weeks, which would set the stage for a general election, in order to avoid large numbers of its parliamentarians crossing over to the SLPP and backing Mahinda as prime minister. Under the constitution, the president himself cannot dissolve parliament until it has sat for four and a half years, a threshold that will be reached in mid-February.

Gotabaya may also try to strengthen presidential powers.

Gotabaya may also try to strengthen presidential powers. Just hours after Gotabaya was declared the winner, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who serves in parliament and is head of the SLPP, issued a statement criticising the constitution’s Nineteenth Amendment, which the Sri Lankan parliament passed just after Mahinda lost the presidency in 2015 and that reduced the powers of the office. The amendment strengthened the prime minister’s role, re-established a two-term limit on the presidency, and reinforced independent commissions on human rights, police, the judiciary and civil services. Many welcomed the end of the all-powerful executive presidency. Others have argued that the Nineteenth Amendment, by dividing executive powers between the president and prime minister, produced weak and confused government. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s statement hinted strongly that the SLPP would push for parliament to revoke the amendment and re-concentrate powers in the presidency.

Should a strong presidential system be re-established, there will be reason to worry that it will come at the expense of the margin of independence that the judiciary and police have gained since 2015. Even in the absence of constitutional changes, there is little chance of progress in the numerous criminal cases pending in the courts against Gotabaya and other members of the Rajapaksa family and their close associates. Mahinda has sought to delegitimise these as politically-motivated “persecution and harassment”. The dozens of high-profile cases of political assassinations, abductions, disappearances and attacks on journalists that took place under the earlier Rajapaksa administration, which the police have been investigating with relative vigour since 2015, are certain to go nowhere or be dropped.

What are the implications of Gotabaya’s presidency for relations with international institutions and countries with which it has key economic and security ties?

The Rajapaksa family’s return to power and their strongly Sinhala nationalist agenda pose major challenges to efforts by certain countries and international bodies to support post-war reconciliation and accountability. These are goals that the outgoing UNP government notionally supported but for which it failed to build a strong domestic constituency. For his part, Gotabaya has made it clear that his government will turn its back on commitments that Sri Lanka previously made in relation to the UN Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) 2015 resolution on reconciliation and accountability, which the UNP-led government co-sponsored. The resolution called for numerous reforms designed to address Sri Lanka’s violent past, including the establishment of four transitional justice institutions. The UNP government viewed two of these – a truth-seeking commission and a special court to investigate and prosecute alleged international crimes during the war – as too controversial to establish. The two institutions that did get off the ground – the Office of Missing Persons and the Office of Reparations – are likely to be weakened or even dismantled under Gotabaya. It is unclear whether the new government will encourage the passage of a new resolution at the UNHRC repudiating the 2015 resolution, or wait for the current resolution to expire in March 2021 and seek to block any efforts to renew it. Either way, UNHRC member states that have been part of the push for reconciliation and accountability should work to keep the council engaged on the core concerns addressed in the 2015 resolution and to maintain close oversight of Sri Lanka’s human rights record.

India, Japan and Western governments will all be concerned at the prospect that the Rajapaksas will strengthen relations with China.

India, Japan and Western governments will all be concerned at the prospect that the Rajapaksas will strengthen relations with China, which during the election made clear of its preference for Gotabaya and the SLPP. Economic and political ties between Sri Lanka and China grew during Mahinda’s presidency; the Chinese-built and now Chinese-leased port in Hambantota is a flagship example. China’s competitors’ worries that the port could eventually be used for Chinese military purposes are certain to increase now that the Rajapaksas are back in power. Gotabaya’s government should not be expected to move quickly or decisively in that direction, however, preferring instead to maintain balanced relations with all of Sri Lanka’s donors and trading partners. The Rajapaksas are probably hoping that they can use their closer ties with Beijing to leverage continued economic support from other governments fearful of “losing” Sri Lanka to China.