By Thiyagaraja Waradas –
I and a few other representatives belonging to the LGBTIQ+ of Sri Lanka were invited by the JVP (Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna – Peoples Liberation Front) to participate at a public dialogue on the role of intellectuals in democracy in Sri Lanka yesterday (12th of November 2018). JVP has six MPs in the parliament and been part of two insurrections in the country. A party that is largely based on rural, educated Sinhalese vote base is on the move to include larger issues which are not championed by major parties such as the UNP and SLFP.
Recognizing LGBTIQ+ Community
This was the first time that representatives of LGBTIQ+ communities in Sri Lanka have been invited by a political party to join a high level public political dialogue. This invitation came in a situation where LGBTIQ+ community has been demonised and deliberately ignored by the major political parties such as the SLFP and the UNP.
This stance of maintaining a studied silence and deliberately ignoring rights of sexual minorities in Sri Lanka was put in the spotlight with the recent success in decriminalization of non-heterosexual relations in India. The then Minister of Justice, Thalatha Athukorala, claimed in an interview of Ceylon Today news paper that they are yet to receive a formal request to decriminalize. However a subsequent request made by LGBTIQ+ community activists to meet the Minister of Justice and as well as the Chairwoman of the Parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on Women and Gender Dr Thusitha Wijemanna to discuss these issues went completely ignored.
It is in this local context, the invitation to the LGBTIQ+ community by the JVP is of great significance, as it came in a situation where Sri Lankan LGBTIQ+ community was being publicly demonized by President Maithripala Sirisena of the SLFP during his speech in a mega rally on the 5th of November, 2018. President’s homophobic remarks were met with fierce criticism from diverse segments of the society. With the JVP’s progressive stance against discrimination of LGBTIQ+ community in contrast to the homophobic stance of SLFP and UNP, it is a good starting point for a party which attempts to address constituencies who have been historically oppressed.
Call for a broader democratic progressive alliance:
The event was organized by the JVP under the theme of ‘Intellectuals for Democracy’. The event was well attended by many of our colleagues from the universities, professionals such as doctors, lawyers, activists, public servants and the clergy. The entire hall at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute was full leaving only standing room for late attendees. The major call that echoed through all the speeches was to stand and join hands for a broader democratic coalition against authoritarian moves of President Sirisena. Such a broad platform would entails representation of different progressive rights and interests of the larger society. It has been highlighted that producing a counter narrative to overcome the dominant Sinhala Buddhist nationalism is a major challenge for mainstreaming and eventual victory of a political strategy based on democracy. Despite these challenges, party leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, invited all interested parties to join hands for democracy and highlighted the role of intellectuals in fulfilling that mandate.
JVP’s Position on LGBTIQ+ Community
At the discussion session of the event, a person raised the question of the official position of the JVP about discrimination against LGBTIQ+ community in Sri Lanka. In his reply to the question, Anura Kumara Dissanayake explicitly stated that the JVP stands for equal rights as every individuals are equal humans. His statement says,
“Sexual orientation is a private matter of an individual. We may have different divisions in our society, based on language, religion, culture. But as JVP we believe all of these communities including LGBTIQ+ communities have equal rights and equal recognition. Our position on LGBTIQ+ community is that. We are humans before any divisions based on our sexual orientation, sexual preferences, language, culture and religion. We approach all issues based on the idea that we are all humans. Therefore, we are a movement for equal rights.”
This is a remarkable statement coming from a major political party in the struggle against discrimination of LGBTIQ+ community in Sri Lanka. It was the first time in the political history of Sri Lanka that a party leader publicly expressed his party’s support for equal rights which would eliminate the discrimination against LGBTIQ+ community. The leaders’ remarks were welcomed with a big round of applause from the audience. I was stunned to hear and witness the historic momentum in our struggle for eliminating discrimination against LGBTIQ+ community in Sri Lanka.
A beginning of a Sri Lankan approach:
A party that was once subject to heavy criticism by civil society for homophobic remarks made by one of the MPs Dr Nalinda Jayatissa, has now become the only party in Sri Lanka that has openly come out with a position for eliminating discrimination against LGBTIQ+ community. It is a sign that a home grown and locally grounded path for LGBTIQ+ rights is finally taking shape. JVP is a party that is largely based on rural educated masses and now making inroads in to urban civil society voters with a centre-left political orientation indicates that ‘left’ political approach as the only viable path for Sri Lanka LGBTIQ+ community to win their rights. It is an approach not funded by foreign money but by commitment and passion of grass root activists engaged in progressive politics locally. It is an approach where class, language, caste, cultures and ethnicity intersect with LGBTIQ+ identities. This markedly contrasts with the studied silence and sometimes outright hostility towards LGBTIQ+ rights by other mainstream parties in Sri Lanka. Finally I left with the hope that that the democratic forum that was taking shape under the leadership of JVP could be a viable way forward for eliminating the discrimination against LGBTIQ+ community in Sri Lanka.
*Thiyagaraja Waradas is a LGTBIQ+ rights activist and a lecturer at the department of International relations of the University of Colombo. He is also a Commonwealth Scholar at the University of Bath, U.K.