Two weeks ago, the cabinet of ministers in Sri Lanka rejected a provision included in the draft human rights action plan that suggested taking prompt steps to prevent discrimination on the basis of a citizen’s sexual orientation. On 25 January 2017, the President of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, generally regarded in the West as ‘pro-Western’, if not a ‘friend of the West’ than his predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, openly admitted at a public event that it was he who personally ‘binned’ the provision, as well as yet another provision that called for the legalisation of sex work.
What is required?
In the Sri Lankan context, taking measures to prevent discrimination against a citizen’s sexual orientation primarily involves repealing Article 365 of the Penal Code, imposed upon the ‘Ceylonese’ under British colonial rule in the 19th century. In order to ensure adequate legal protections, this needs to be followed by an ‘equality clause’ added to the Constitution, which explicitly states that the fundamental rights of citizens are protected, irrespective of sexual orientation and gender identity. A consultation on this matter, for an equality clause to be included in the proposal ‘new’ constitution – in itself a long shot – has been under way. The President’s homophobia, now out in the open, is a clear sign that under the Sirisena government, the prospects for the passage of such an equality clause (in the present constitution or a in a new constitution) are very bleak.
Understanding the presidential reaction?
What makes Sirisena, Sri Lanka’s first citizen, opt to deny the basic fundamental rights to his fellow citizens on the basis of their sexual orientation? The reasoning behind this can be narrowed down to social conservatism, lack of understanding, and a staggering unfamiliarity with global developments in human rights provision with regards to sexual orientation and gender identity, including in many countries in the South and Southeast Asian region with which Sri Lanka shares strong cultural ties and links of kinship. Next time Sirisena is invited to ‘token-hang out’ with Western leaders at international platforms, his hosts would need considerable rethinking, except if his host is a homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic and blatantly racist politico such as the newly elected president of the part of Turtle Island we know as the USA.
The politics of LGBTIQ equality: Sri Lankan style
There is, however, another explanation to Sirisena’s reaction. He is using LGBTIQ equality for his power-political advantage. Within his government, he collides head-on with his main coalition partner, Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP. That party includes a number of LGB people in very senior positions, and is generally perceived, inside and outside Sri Lanka, as most amenable towards LGBTIQ rights. Indeed, whenever a cis-LGB MP (of the UNP) raises any matter in Parliament, opposition MPs often pass horrifically homophobic remarks. These MPs know that their homophobia and transphobia enables them to ‘sell themselves’ to a socially conservative and chauvinistic suburban and rural (and in some cases urban) electorate.
The broader picture of political tensions?
Sirisena’s public comments on LGBTIQ equality were followed by a comment on another deeply divisive issue in the joint government – that of the Central Bank bond scam, for which the UNP leadership is held liable. Sirisena visibly deploys this issue for his political advantage, to distinguish himself as someone who would not hesitate to take action against large-scale corruption. It is also a display of authority ‘above’ Ranil Wickremesinghe, who clearly enjoys more visibility, recognition and popularity on the international scene than Sirisena.
It is also an effort to demonstrate to his own political party that Sirisena is in control, and give the impression that Sirisena will not let the UNP have the final word. Given the political machinations of the ‘Rajapaksa camp’, such public affirmations of authority can also be understood as an effort to demonstrate Sirisena’s position of leadership, that he is in control, and that he represents a substantive challenge to Rajapaksa’s mobilisation within his own political fold, and to Wickremesinghe, who assumes that he is the de facto leader of Sri Lanka.
Homophobia as a pawn in a political game?
In other words, Sirisena’s homophobia is deployed as a tool in his efforts to face his current political challenges. The calculation is that a progressive stance on citizens’ human rights on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation would hinder Sirisena’s prospects within his own political persuasion and serve to weaken his position in his party and also in government. The UNP, for its part, appears to play the game it has mastered since the granting of Dominion Status in 1948 – that of sailing in the direction of the wind, and making maximum political capital out of any scenario.
This has led to a situation in which, despite the presence of many LGB people in high office, the UNP prefers to ‘play it safe’ locally, and avoid any extremist, homophobic, transphobic and chauvinistic backlash coming its way. In terms of political strategy, the UNP has managed the situation in a way that ensures, in the eyes of the local LGBTIQ community and human rights activists, Western governments, aid agencies and international organisations (including the UN) that Sirisena is to be blamed for the human rights stalemate with regards to gender identity and sexual orientation. This strategy also momentarily enables the UNP to persuade the homophobic and transphobic segments of its local electorate that it will not implement laws that go against their conservatisms.
Unfortunately for Sirisena, he appears to have fallen in to the UNP’s trap, by earning a strong reputation as a homophobic and transphobic politico from the rural hinterland. This adds up to the negative international reputation acquired especially by openly opposing probes into atrocities committed under the Rajapaksa regime that involve military personnel. The Rajapaksa camp deploys Sirisena’s unpopularity in the suburban and rural Sinhala vote base to its benefit. In the end, Sirisena risks being cornered by both the lobby that elected him and also by the pro-Rajapaksa side of his own party.
A Matter of Political Survival?
It is clear that the Wickremesinghe and Sirisena camps are both preparing for the next presidential and general elections. While the UNP wants to abolish the executive presidency through a new constitution and cement its power base (by creating a powerful prime ministerial position, guaranteeing Ranil Wickremesinghe’s political survival until he retires from politics), the latter is intent upon maintaining the presidency. In his party’s pro-Sirisena camp, there is a strong emphasis that Sirisena should maintain the presidency and stand for the next presidential election. Pro-Rajapaksa elements in Sirisena’s political fold categorically oppose the new constitution initiative, bringing up the age-old argument that it challenges the (British-imposed) unitary nature of the Sri Lankan state. This argument only implies a very low understanding of Sri Lanka’s pre-colonial structures of governance, and an unwillingness to work towards decolonizing constitutionalism. However, it needs to be reiterated that the proposed new constitution does NOT involve a step forward on such a progressive and home-grown path. Instead, it is an effort by a neoliberal, uncritically and submissively pro-Western urban political elite minority to reinforce their power base. In that process, the new constitution risks raising ethnonational tensions, to say the least.
LGBIQ citizens at the receiving end?
In this interminable tug of war, it is the citizenry that suffers, especially the citizens, who, like this writer, do not fall into the (very largely Western colonial-imposed) ‘cisnorms’ and ‘heteronorms’ that have been erroneously appropriated as ‘Sri Lankan values. As far as the LGBTIQ community is concerned, (and as this writer has argued elsewhere) the priority ought to be a decolonizing, home-grown approach to the consolidation of equality and justice (and NOT the blind following of Western templates or discourses, which appears to be the preference of quite a few Sri Lankan LGBTIQ organisations and activists). The fact that our fundamental tenet of national cultural identity lies in the Buddhist principles of tolerance, respect and equality is far from being understood in all segments of Sri Lankan society. Sri Lanka today is a case in point of how the myopia of a political class results in denying citizens their basic and inalienable fundamental rights.
*The writer is a Visiting Research Fellow at Queen’s University Belfast and a board member of the Irish Feminist Network.