The political culture in Sri Lanka is misogynist
Posted on July 22nd, 2020

Ambika Satkunanathan

  • We must acknowledge torture is a problem
  •  Laws alone cannot achieve social change
  •  Media should not sexualize and infantilize women
  •  Nationalism has the power to empower as well as to enslave

The normalization of violence in Sri Lanka is a deep seated social problem, says Ambika Satkunanathan, who is a lawyer and human rights advocate on the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) National List for the upcoming parliamentary polls. A former member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) and chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, Satkunanathan has campaigned for gender equality, social justice and peace. She spoke to Daily Mirror on several issues including police violence, women’s rights and nationalism. Excerpts:

 Q  How serious is police violence and torture in Sri Lanka? And what systemic and structural changes are needed to counter it?

Police violence is systemic, spans successive governments and has been identified as such by the Supreme Court (SC), the HRCSL and civil society. In 1995, the SC noted Fundamental Rights (FR) violations by the police were continuing even 18 years after the 1978 Constitution, which contains protections against torture. The reason for police impunity is the immunity enjoyed by those who commit such violations. This immunity creates the belief they can use violence and  never be held accountable. 
We must address the root causes of police brutality. First, we must acknowledge torture is a problem, and not deny it. Secondly, we must hold perpetrators accountable. The 30-year war impacted how we view violence and people became numb to violence to cope with their daily lives. Violence has hence been normalized. 

 Q  Sri Lanka enacted the ‘Convention against Torture Act’ in 1994. Why are such laws so ineffective?

Laws alone cannot achieve social change. Addressing police violence requires reviewing basic police structures and practices, and making them public. We must design preventive, remedial and accountability measures and involve sociologists, criminologists and psychologists in the process. We must invest in communities to address the drivers of crime. For example, increasing job opportunities, preventing homelessness, moving non-violent offenders away from prisons and into rehabilitation, and crafting community responses to non-violent offences and decriminalizing them. 
Promising safety through criminalization, imprisonment and the threat of violence, makes us all more insecure and unsafe.

 Q  The threat of violence is often not seen as a form of violence. How does this contribute to the normalization of violence?

The threat of violence creates fear which society believes will deter ‘bad people’ from committing crimes. Even with children, the threat of violence  – a smack or some sort of physical punishment – is used to discipline them in the belief it will prevent them from further mischief. But instead doesn’t it teach children it’s alright to use violence to achieve outcomes? Doesn’t it make it acceptable in their minds to hit another child in the classroom or push them in the playground? 
Disturbingly, I have found people who have no problem with violence being used against those they believe are ‘bad’. This is of course subjective and shaped by each one’s beliefs and prejudice. It is viewed as violence only when they personally experience it, or when used against those viewed as ‘good’ or ‘innocent’, like the 14-year-old autistic boy from Aluthgama. But if a drug trafficker is tortured, how many would be outraged? 
The selective acceptance of violence normalizes it in our psyche and practice, making society more violent. How this acceptance is entrenched in our psyche is evident in our everyday dealings with each other. Also, when institutions deny remedies to citizens, violence is seen as a means of dispute resolution and accountability. People stoning or setting fire to vehicles in a road accident is an example of them thinking it is normal to engage in violence, which they believe is a means of holding someone accountable. 

 Q  You have also pointed to the police being a masculine and hierarchical institution, and how that contributes to the culture of violence. Isn’t this true of many other Sri Lankan institutions too? 

Yes, very much so. We are a patriarchal society. We pay lip service to women’s equality but treat women in a paternalistic way, as if they don’t know what is good for them. Often, women are not allowed to make life decisions for themselves, and are restricted by rules and practices. Women that challenge these are labelled as having ‘bad moral character’ or being ‘too western’ and so on.
Equality and equal treatment before the law are enshrined in our Constitution, but are often not observed in practice. So the patriarchal nature of society is embedded in the processes and culture of organisations, leading to institutional structures and procedures discriminating against women. For example, there are no cadre positions for women in the Senior DIG and DIG positions in the Police Department, which several women police officers have challenged via FR petitions. 

 Q  What is your take on attempts to improve women’s political participation in Sri Lanka? For example, allocating a 25% quota for women at the 2018 Local Government elections. How effective are such affirmative action measures?

Much more needs to be done in addition to affirmative action measures. Quotas alone cannot increase women’s political participation and representation. Even though women play an important role campaigning and mobilizing support for political parties, they are left out of party decision making and ignored as potential candidates. Furthermore, the political culture in Sri Lanka is misogynist, and women are subject to vicious and scurrilous attacks which are aimed at demeaning them. Addressing this requires changing social attitudes and the media following ethical practices.

 Q  What ethical practices should the media follow in this regard? 

The media should only report verified news and avoid gossip, rumours and fake news. They should stop using sexist, derogatory and judgmental language when referring to women. Stop sexualizing and infantilizing women. Move away from ‘manels’ and have women on talk shows and discussion panels. Have more women in decision-making positions in the media with the power to actually make decisions. 

 Q  The President has empowered the security forces to maintain public order under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO). His predecessor did the same, and people have come to accept it. How do you view this?

In a democracy maintaining law and order is not the function of the military. The PSO provides for this only in times of emergency. When done routinely, it normalizes the exception and militarizes the process of maintaining law and order. This creates space for rights violations and contributes to the overall militarization of society. 

 Q  You are on the TNA National List. Some see politics and nationalism as a harmful combination, some see it in a more positive light. How do you see it?

Historically, Tamil nationalism is a defensive nationalism that emerged in response to Sinhala nationalism. It was based on demands for equal rights in language, education, land settlement, and the right to have a voice in governance through power sharing between the centre and areas where Tamils were a majority, and the right to be free from discrimination or violence.

In Sri Lanka the concept of ‘nation’ is equated with secession. This is a misrepresentation, as illustrated by the late Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam. He says communities, like Tamils, perceive themselves not merely as a numerical minority but a nationality, with a collective identity and rights linked to it. This perception is compounded by oppressive state actions, which can push communities away from a secular idea of themselves and towards a more fundamental identity.

When the state failed to address the demands of the peaceful Tamil movement for rights, it evolved into an armed struggle, based on militant nationalism. This also led to violence against Sinhala civilians, internal violence, and deepened rifts between Tamils and Muslims due to the forced eviction of Muslims from the North and violence against them. 

This shows how nationalism, which under colonialism was anti-imperialist, can become a nationalism constructed on the ‘other’ rather than common citizenship. The tragedy of such nationalism is it makes ‘enemies’ of even allies. Dr Tiruchelvam, was viewed as traitor by many in the Sinhala community for advocating a peaceful, federal solution to the ethnic conflict that addressed legitimate Tamil demands and aspirations. Concurrently, he was viewed as an enemy by the LTTE and sections of the Tamil community for working with the state on constitutional reform, and paid with his life. Hence, this form of nationalism has the power to empower as well as to enslave.
Addressing Tamil nationalist claims requires dealing with the root causes of the ethnic conflict. It requires us to stop being afraid of devolution and falling prey to false equations of it to secession. It requires any constitutional arrangement to respond to the collective perception of the Tamils who see themselves as a nation, which is linked to having a majority territorial presence in certain areas with a distinct history. As Dr Tiruchelvam has stated, there are constitutional arrangements in multi-ethnic societies that preserve unity, while also preserving the collective identity and rights of ethnic groups within a political framework.

Media Terrorism- Not Again?

Palitha Senanayake

The article carried by the Ceylon Daily Mirror on 15th July under the title ‘Sri Lankan Political Culture is Misogynist’,  composed by Gehan de Chickera  with a Q & A session with M/s Ambika Sathkunanathan  deserves  a response as its highly inappropriate contents make partisan and baseless allegation against the Sri Lankan society at large with unfair insinuations.  

To start with, it is difficult for us to justify when this lady calls our political society ‘Misogynistic’; whether she   is referring to the Sri Lankan society that is 75 % Sinhalese or to the Tamil or the Indian societies. As for the Sinhalese society, it is a well-known fact that it is a matriarchal society.  It is the mother that is held in high esteem in the Sinhala family even though the father enjoys the traditional ‘Head of family’ status.  Mother is more emotionally close to the children and therefore often has the power to be the director and the conciliator of family matters. Even the father acknowledges the mother’s role as the provider of meals, the keeper of the house and finally as the link between the father and children.  Therefore, it is unrealistic and also unethical to discount the role of women who invariably would be mothers,  in the Sri Lankan  society, judging merely by the numbers that make representation in a political body.   Politics in Sri Lanka, in the current context of things, is not a very suitable profession for women as it has turned out to be too physical and self- seeking. Thus, even though these representative bodies may be made of more men, it is difficult to envisage a situation where men in these bodies would decide to endanger the position of their wives, mothers or daughters in their political articulations. In India however, where a woman who cannot bear a male heir is considered of no value, and where a young girl gets raped every half an hour, the situation could be different.  On the other hand, if the writer deems political representation to be the primary indicator of gender equality we must not forget that Sri Lanka produced the first woman Prime Minister of the world back in 1960!

The inappropriateness in that article however is that, when a journalist decides to pick a personality to air views on such a broad spectrum, he/she should a personality with some balance and also should be representative of the Sri Lankan society. The irony is that this journalist has picked this lady who represents a racial party that acknowledged the LTTE as the ‘sole representative of the Tamils’ to articulate her views on VIOLENCE!  Have we forgotten that the LTTE was named the ‘most ruthless and organized terrorist organization’ in the world?

 If she was asked to speak about the Tamil society or the hackneyed ‘Tamil grievances’ or ‘Tamil aspirations’, then there is hardly an issue because we know that Tamil politicians still peddle the racial line even after it has caused all that devastation to the Tamil society in particular and to the Sri Lankan society in general.   The issue however is that, what right does she have to pass judgment on  institutionalized violence in the Sri Lankan society when she represents the party that has backed the most violent terrorism, the world ever knew?

This journalist Gehan De Chikera seemed to be having an axe to grind with the police as he seemed keen to elicit some criticism against police violence from the interviewee.  No civilized person would condone violence, specially police violence, in a society. The reality however, is that the police naturally get brutalize to the extent the society, at large, is brutalized in a particular country. For instance when some Muslims carried out the Easter attack it is natural that a few innocent Muslims also may get affected due to they being Muslims. Thus, the more treacherous the society is, the more violent the law enforcement would be in enforcing the law.  In a country like New Zealand where violence is unheard of, the police too could be unheard of. Yet what could we expect in a country like Sri Lanka where the most violent terror group was entertained and justified by the majority of its political leaders, due either to, their crass political opportunism or sheer asinine subservience to the west?

This lady maintains that  ‘Historically, Tamil nationalism is a defensive nationalism that emerged in response to Sinhala nationalism’. This statement indicates that either she does not know the history of Tamil politics in this country or that she is trying to distort the history as many Tamil propagandist have done over the years. It was in 1931 that Ponnambalam  Arunachalam  resigned from the Ceylon National Congress where he was the President  and formed the Tamil Congress, the first communal political party in this country declaring ‘Tamil culture to be the cradle of world civilization’.  It should also be mentioned that when the Donomore reforms proposed to grant the Universal Franchise to Ceylon  in 1931, it was this Tamil Congress that opposed the move on the grounds that ‘one man one vote system is unfair’ as the Sinhalese were in the majority and hence it would result in the Government being taken over by the Sinhalese. Then again in 1945, when the non- fee levying education was proposed to the whole country it was the Tamil Congress and the Catholic Church that canvassed against the proposal to the extent of unseating the then Education Minister from his Parliamentary seat of Mathugama.  Therefore, Tamil Nationalism has been offensive from the day colonialists decided to end their occupation in this country and to maintain that it is defensive is to distort the facts to suit the present context of things. 

Another enigmatic statement the article attributes to this lady is that, ‘late Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam  said communities, like Tamils, perceive themselves, not merely as a numerical minority but a nationality, with a collective identity and rights linked to it’. This again is untenable because the concept of the ‘nation’, as understood the world over, is the body of all the people in a particular country. The Oxford Dictionary also says that, ‘A person’s citizenship in a country is about the sense of nationhood’.   We have a world body called the United Nations and that has only 196 member nations. On the other hand if every community in every country is to call itself a ‘nation’ then there would have been about 1000 members in the UNO with India alone accounting for about 100 ‘nations’. Therefore such theories and interpretations only depict nationalism, in its hubristic form that refuses to assimilate in to the mainstream of the country you live.

This lady is also said to be a ‘human rights activist’. This appears to be a paradoxical position because when Mr Sambanthan, the current TNA leader, declared that, ‘The LTTE is the sole representative of Tamils’ he made all the Tamils in to terrorists. Not just terrorists but the ‘most ruthless and organized terrorists’. In such a context it is indeed paradoxical that Mr Samabanthan and his TNA could also become human rights activists in no time. Are we talking about the ‘human rights’ of terrorists or does human rights activism have a symbiotic relationship with terrorism?

The reality in the international today is that when you say that you are a ‘Human rights activist’ you are essentially a politician because human rights today have become a mere political tool devoid of any human value. It is those that call themselves ‘Human rights crusaders of the world’ that is bombing Afganisthan, Syria and Yemen today. It is when you wish to violate human life that you adorned yourself with the title ‘human rights activist’.

The long and short of this whole scenario is that certain journalist like Gehan De Chikera is trying to portray Tamil politicians now as ‘human rights crusaders’ so that they could continue to denigrate the Sri Lankan state as a human rights violator. Now they expect the people to have forgotten how the LTTE took away the right to life of about 80,000 Sri Lankans over a period of 35 years. It was this same Sri Lankan English media, with journalist like Gehan Perera who justified all that killings stating that the Tamils had a ‘cause’ and that they were discriminated against. They pointed to July 83 as the ‘cause’ of LTTE violence when July 83 was only the effect of LTTE terrorism since 1975. The truth is that, by July 83 the LTTE had killed 42 policemen, 13 bank employees,8 politicians, 13 army offices and 21 civilians. The English media has some powerful writers and most of these English writers, being Christians, had a common cause with Tamils. This was because the Christians, just as the Tamils, were the privileged class under the British and hence it was their duty to prevent this country from being taken over by the majority.

If you kill one, you become a murderer but if you kill 80,000 you are a ‘crusader with a cause’. Thus, the Sri Lankan English media is responsible in no small measure for the terrorism this country underwent for 35years killing almost 100,000 people with an economic loss of about 20 billion US $. We always knew that Prabhkaran was a criminal who liked to act like a cowboy shooting people and to thrill himself with real life action, but it was the media that made him ‘a freedom fighter’, and a ‘Crusader of Peace’. They demonized the SL army and said that ‘War is not a solution’ and allowed Prabhakaran to thrive. They even went to the extent of calling the attempts to censure the LTTE as ‘anti peace’. Despite all that advocacy, how we attained peace  is now history.

However, with this type of articles, it now appears that the media is making an attempt to project the same Tamil politicians who backed the LTTE to be human rights activists and make the violation of human rights the ‘continuing cause’ of a future conflict. We know that ‘The Daily Mirror’ has an anti- Sinhala Buddhist agenda and that all newspapers do have some agenda, in keeping with the wishes of the newspaper owners. Therefore, if Mr Ranjith Wijewardena and Mr Ruwan Wijewardene opts to have an anti- majority view, a reader may not question it, but the issue however is when we try to make terrorist in to human rights crusaders overnight the media could be promoting crimes in the name of ‘human rights’ and demonizing those that try to prevent such crimes as ‘Human rights violators’. Please remember that if we run in to a war situation again the resulting indiscriminate violence will not be a respecter of a particular religion or a race!   

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