Since the Sri Lankan cabinet of ministers rejected a proposal to repeal Articles 365 and 365A of the Penal Code, a Victorian relic that violates the human rights citizens on the basis of sexual orientation, an unprecedented rise of activism can be observed. The cabinet decision, despite being a major setback for a government that describes itself as one of ‘yahapalanaya’ or good governance, has led to a large-scale public conversation on the importance of the issue. Many Sinhala newspapers have so far carried news items and features supportive of anti-discriminatory measures. Some of the most important contributions have been made in the Sinhala blogsphere, with bloggers advocating for the repeal of Victorian laws and ensuring the fundamental rights of all Sri Lankan citizens (for pertinent examples see, for instance, here, here, and here).
AS far as the state-owned media is concerned, a shallow and irresponsible tendency to sensationalise the issue can be observed. In reporting the position of the chairman of the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission on the issue (who is supportive of repealing 365), the Daily News deliberately uses the term ‘decriminalising homosexuality’. In a country where extremists are quick to use these terms as a weapon in attacking the LGBTIQ community, it would have been much more advisable for the national state-owned daily to describe the act in more accurate terms – that the Commission Chair was in favour of repealing British laws that discriminate against citizens on the basis of sexual orientation.
Several social media groups, especially one private group devoted to interactions between the LGBTIQ community and their allies, has been extremely active, with a regular series of posts and efforts to raise awareness on the issue.
The most important gesture is a public petition requesting the President, the cabinet of ministers and the government at large to track back on its cabinet decision and to repeal Articles 365 and 365A (this petition now appears in both Sinhala and Tamil). The petition also requests the government to work towards eliminating discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identities though constitutional reform. Indeed, consultations to add an equality clause to the proposed new constitution have continued for a while, and as it has been reported at international platforms, such a clause faces considerable challenges, especially from politicians with a low awareness of sexual orientation and gender identity issues.
Curbing discrimination and stigma on the basis of sexual orientation and/or gender identity is an essential element of fundamental rights provision in any legislature. The importance of such provisions has received increased international attention, with the UN HRC appointing a Special Independent Expert on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) issues. The appointee, Vitit Muntarbhorn, a law professor at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, represents a country where, despite ancient traditions of gender diversity and tolerance, widespread discrimination and exploitation persist. The Thai government, together with the Vietnamese government, are on the forefront of enacting SOGI-related protections in Southeast Asia and working towards strengthening the fundamental rights of their LGBTIQ citizens.
While the world moves forward, Sri Lanka moves backwards with none other than the Minister of Justice himself making staggeringly homophobic remarks in public.
By taking an openly homophobic stance, the government of Sri Lanka cannot afford to face neither fellow Sri Lankan citizens nor the international community (in both East and West), especially the progressive nations that are conscious of protecting the fundamental rights of their citizens. The cabinet decision is a national embarrassment. One Sri Lankan LGBTIQ rights advocate makes a timely and important suggestion, calling for a ‘robust social media campaign’.
This is a national necessity, and we request our readers worldwide to express their displeasure to the government of Sri Lanka and share their commitment to SOGI-related fundamental human rights of Sri Lankan citizens via social media, using the hashtag #Repeal365.