Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa [NGR], the President of Sri Lanka placed in that role by powerful commercial and media interests, recently published a tweet – on equality! Some Sri Lankans who have built reputations as advocates for the rights of citizens who face systemic institutional discrimination, such as LGBTQI+ citizens, have taken to sing praises of NGR.
That rights advocates fail to grasp the futility of such inanities is beyond belief. However, if one takes a cautious glance at Lankan society at large, progressive citizens praising fascists does not come as a surprise.
Sri Lanka is home to rights advocacy lobbies that are replete with blind spots. The large majority of ‘feminist’ collectives and supposedly progressive entities that stand for women’s rights and increased representation of women in public life, for example, are very highly cisnormative and very largely cis-heteronormative, Sinhala women-heavy, upper and upper-middle class cis women-heavy spaces. They are also very ableist spaces. The large majority of these spaces are very highly averse towards non-cis women, intersex women and cis/non-cis/intersex women from marginalised socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds. These spaces are, in truth, struck in a place of second-wave feminism of yesteryear. Occasional efforts to fake otherwise inevitably water down to all but hollow ventures.
Gender-based hierarchies in LGBTQI+ activist spaces?
Some Lankan LGBTQI+ spaces, run especially by cis gay men, are among the most transphobic spaces this writer has come across. In these spaces, cis gay menfolk assume a place of command, and act from a place of such uptightness that they reproduce cis-het power structures and hierarchies that would make a discerning rights activist cringe. These are hierarchies of cis-gay male superiority, above cis/trans women, and people of other gender identities and sex characteristics. In their view, trans people, especially trans women, are the bottom of the pile. In these spaces, most cis gay men categorically refuse to see a trans person as a full-fledged human being, let alone a citizen with equal rights who stands on an equal footing with them. A considerable majority of Lankan cis gay men in such spaces, be it HIV prevention work or LGBTQI+ activism of the left, assume that they can ‘use’ cis queer women, and to a larger extent trans [straight and queer] women, to their advantage. They fail to see trans men as men. Once again, tokenistic gestures that we often see in these spaces are beyond futile. Such gestures are intended at inflating cis gay male egos and presenting them as saviours, if not driving forces in LGBTQI+ rights work. These spaces are never short of uptight postures of coming up with very mediocre discourses with the apparent intent of appealing to, and not excessively ruffling the ‘mainstream’ – which are, in reality, beyond meaningless. In most cases, the only time one notices a slight semblance of willingness to engage in a more equal rights-focused and consistent body of work is when the aforementioned cis-gay-male overlords seek to interact with and lure philanthropic funders.
When LGBTQI+ spaces are led by cis women, they sometimes end up becoming extremely transmisogynist spaces. True that some such spaces have histories of providing space for trans people – indeed, one has to make a display of a certain level of inclusivity to sustain a steady flow of philanthropic funding. However, in most cases, the bitter reality is that these spaces are exclusively focused on biopolitics and exclusionary attitudes. Just like their cis gay male counterparts, some cis women are also engaged in pointless attempts to present themselves as supposedly inclusive and cosmopolitan, whereas in truth, they are all but cis-normative ideologues of a 2nd wave yesteryear.
This writer recently received a screenshot from a dear friend. It contained a message sent by a leading Sri Lankan LGBTQI+ rights activist, calling for a gathering of [I quote] “cisgender Lesbian, Bisexual and queer women to talk on many things that affects [sic] us Queer Women and…how we can assist our sisters in rural areas, the fun things we can do together etc.!” [unquote]. If this happened to be a message from one of the above-mentioned so-called feminist collectives stuck in ideas of yesteryear, it may not have caused the slightest stir, as this is precisely how such spaces generally function. However, in this specific case, the fact that it comes from a top-level and highly-regarded figure in a leading and well-funded LGBTQI+ rights organisation in Sri Lanka says something about where Sri Lanka still is, when it comes to dominant forms of LGBTQI+ advocacy. Does this screenshot come as a surprise? In the book this writer has read, it certainly does not. When people espouse a certain restrictive worldview beyond which they fail to see much, such restrictive attitudes are normal, and to be expected. Whether the said individuals themselves belong to minority or a demographic that faces systemic challenges is beside the point. A pleasant surprise, for its part, would have been a call for an intersectionally sharper and advanced, women-of-colour and indigenous feminist-inspired, call for collective reflection and action amongst a diversity of women, in a logic of liberation.
In order to discuss “assisting” [and not ‘empowering’] women in rural areas, only a certain demographic of cis women is invited. This cannot be justified as an effort to create a safe space for women’s organising. Instead, what transpires here is a clear inclination to practice exclusionary politics, and work form a very narrowly construed, biopolitics-centric and archaic worldview. Indeed, this kind of approach is the biggest barrier to the development of meaningful intersectional feminist advocacy that is well and truly intended at working towards socioeconomic justice and the empowerment of the most marginalised women in our society. Had such a message been sent out by an activist of similar standing in a country with advanced rights discourses, it would be grounds pursue funding withdrawals, donor distancing, board resignations, calls for stronger awareness-raising campaigns, calls for management resignations and restructuring, and a great deal of public condemnation that would adversely impact those who made such a statement and their organisation. Not in the land like no other!
The Silver Lining: Younger Generation
The fact that quite a few women [of a multitude of SOGIESC], especially younger women, who received or came across the above-mentioned message were extremely appalled and irate about its content is proof of the one and only silver lining; indeed, the only hope for Sri Lanka to move towards light at the end of the tunnel is the new generation of our youth. As opposed to the dinosaurs in the rights advocacy lobby [from ‘left’ to ‘right’ via ‘centre-right’, north to south, 2nd wave feminist to LGBTQI+], this younger generation of Lankans is politically savvy, intersectionally-informed and critically-minded. They understand what it means and takes to engage in processes of [un]learning and drawing comparative insights from progressive women-of-colour-led and indigenous feminist movements worldwide. Lankan citizens of this generation are thoroughly unprepared to tolerate the high number of abject inanities that are sometimes flouted as ‘rights advocacy’ or ‘activism’.
As this writer has highlighted elsewhere, consequences of a failed Victorian system of education and systems that reinforce social conservatisms are such that the large majority of Sri Lankans suffer with a major problem of ‘intersectional bankruptcy’. This is visible in all aspects of public life. Not even the supposedly ‘woke’ are exempt from this problem. This is because critical thinking, counter-intuitive reflections on vital issues, and a preparedness to get off one’s proverbial high horse and explore a multitude of perspectives, and incentives to engage in unlearning processes are not ingrained in the ways in which most Lankans are ‘trained’ in schools, universities, workplaces, activist spaces, expatriate spaces and elsewhere. This intersectional bankruptcy often leads to the most ludicrous perspectives. To cite but one recent example, when the vice presidency of the [settler-colonial state built on Turtle Island that is widely known as the] United States of America went to a black woman for the first time in that settler-colonial state’s history, many Sri Lankans, including some supposedly ‘woke’ people, drifted into amnesic diatribes of how proud they happened to be of the late Sirima Bandaranaike, in a [beyond twisted] spirit of “we did it long before they did!”.
Sirima was a wealthy, upper class aristocratic lady who was ushered into politics after her husband’s assassination, whose role in politics had all to do with clientelist and feudal tendencies in Lankan politics, and strictly speaking nothing whatsoever to do with the upliftment of women in politics. Drawing the right comparative lessons from the rise of Vice President Kamala Harris [promoting minority women’s representation in politics, challenging and dismantling hetero-patriarchal conservatisms in politics, and dismantling the multiple glass ceilings faced by women entering politics, to name but a few] was of absolutely no interest. A constructive-cum-stringent and highly warranted critique of Harris’s policies in her previous roles of power [which were in particular repressive towards underprivileged black people] has also been absent.
In such a country, leading rights advocates with considerable media clout and influence praising President NR does not come as a surprise.
The presidential token-tweet
President NR’s Tweet mentioned at the beginning of this article, needless to say, was a petty, immature and incredibly disgusting attempt at appealing to a scrutinising international community, as Sri Lanka comes at the forefront of the agenda at the March 2021 UN HRC session [a link to the tweet is not provided here, in order to help save readers’ time…]. After months of causing irreparable pain to citizens of the Islamic confession over the issue of allowing burials of the dead, a gazette was released in the 11th hour, permitting such burials. The question the discerning rights activist/advocate needs to ask is, who is the NR regime trying to fool? Tokenistic drivel of this nature can and should only attract the fiery wrath, contempt and utter ridicule of all well-meaning Lankan citizens, as well as of responsible members of the community of states, and supranational institutions.
Call a spade by its name?
The NR regime is a militarising, neoconservative and outright fascist venture.
The wise words of AITMC’s Mahua Moitra MP, that the Modi Sarkar has established for itself a moto of ‘brutality over morality’, applies 100% to Sri Lanka’s NR regime. Indeed, the NR regime’s functional dynamics increasingly resemble the current “‘गुंडा सरकार” in Delhi – headed by an absolute fascist who is now engaged in a futile attempt to imitate ‘Tagore’. The more the NR regime continuously falls into the deep trenches of the Chinese debt trap, the more it continues to follow the Chinese Communist Party’s repressive model of draconian rule. Stuck between Chinese and Indian power dynamics, it cannot be stressed enough that the NR regime lacks a [much needed] coherent and mature foreign policy. It has instead reduced itself to a state of dancing to Beijing’s tune, and further tainting its [already shattered] image before the international community.
The NR regime is taking Sri Lanka in the direction of present-day Myanmar. Days prior to the UN HRC session, in yet another cheap attempt – this time to lure the OIC – the NR regime hosted Imran Khan, yet another puppet just like NR, largely placed in his current role by the same vested ‘belt-and-road’ international interests, in his case with the approbation of the Pakistani military. To quote Dr Shashi Tharoor, India is a state with an army, and Pakistan, for its part, is an army with a state. Unless a strong, intersectionally-savvy citizenry and leadership takes the lead, the current fascist military regime in Colombo is straight on the path to transforming Sri Lanka – hitherto a state with an army – into an army with a state apparatus. The Nandasena regime is going about this in the most ruthless and hideous manner, disregarding the international community, making fun of and weakening human rights mechanisms, and inciting ethno-religious hatred. In other words, it is no exaggeration to state that the NR regime comports itself like the quintessential playground bully.
Praising the guy at the top of such a destructive regime over a ‘tweet’ is an act of incredible callousness. It also needs to be clearly highlighted that no human rights activist – especially in the area of SOGIESC rights – ought to explore ways of luring the NR regime. Any such attempts only water down to ridiculously pinkwashing drifts. Human rights advocates praising Nandasena even a ‘tad bit’, – and irrespective of the grounds on which such eulogies are uttered – cannot avoid reducing themselves to the sorry state of direct or indirect endorsers of fascism.
Caution, therefore, is highly recommended.
*The writer writes in a strictly personal capacity. The views expressed in this article do NOT represent the views of any other individual, organisation, natural or juridical person.