At a parliamentary debate on 5 May 2017, a less than pleasant verbal exchange occurred between Mangala Samaraweera MP, the Minister of External Affairs, and the opposition benches, especially with Wimal Weerawansa MP of the Jathika Nidhahas Peramuna. The former was accusing the latter of corrupt practices during the Rajapaksa administration, providing evidence of specific cases. One such case included financial malpractice (and diplomatic misdemeanour) in relation to a foreign trip on state business. The External Affairs Minister was clearly seeking to make a political statement, and so was Weerawansa, who found an opportunity to slam Samaraweera. At one point, a statement came from the opposition benches that the incumbent government was composed of ‘ponnayas’, a highly pejorative term that implies a discriminatory and downgrading attitude towards non-cisnormativity. This term is also widely used as a homophobic slur, and this was the intention of the MP who used this word to refer to the yahapalana government.
An LGBTQI-friendly government? OR NOT?
A number of non-heterosexual politicians occupy high-profile posts in the yahapalana government. However, none of them have ever risen in the chamber to stand openly for Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI community. When President Sirisena openly affirmed “Samalingika yojanava visikalé mamai” earlier this year, each and every one of the cis gay MPs and ministers [and those in ‘even higher’ office] maintained pin-drop silence. At election campaigns and in their day-to-day lives, the majority of cis gay MPs present themselves as ‘heterosexual’ – being legally married to cis women. In sum, present-day Sri Lanka does have a segment of the political class that is non-heteronormative, but it is composed of individuals who are cautious to NEVER affirm their non-heteronormativity in public.
Samaraweera as the exception?
In this context, Samaraweera has been the exception. A cabinet minister since 1994 (with a number of interruptions in between spent in the opposition benches), Samaraweera has never sought to hide his sexual orientation behind a cis-heteronormative marriage. In 2016, under his purview, Sri Lanka made the exemplary decision of voting in favour of the appointment of the UN’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity/Expression (SOGIE) Special Expert. Sri Lanka was also the only country in the South Asian region to vote in favour of the Special Expert. This decision is extremely important, as Sri Lanka’s foreign policy apparatus has a long-standing habit of brushing SOGIE issues directly under the carpet. They did so with skill, for example, at the 2013 Commonwealth summit, making sure that no SOGIE issues were openly raised during the summit proceedings held in Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s endorsement of the SOGIE Expert is therefore a crucial and highly significant foreign policy decision, which ought to preferably mark the development of a stronger emphasis on fundamental rights, with a strong SOGIE component. That the Special Expert who was eventually appointed, Professor Vitit Muntarbhorn, is a distinguished academic and a citizen of the Kingdom of Thailand, a country with which Sri Lanka shares centuries-long ties of kinship, shared sociocultural, artistic and religious traditions, is also of tremendous significance.
Problematic elements of Yahapalana Foreign policy?
The exemplary nature of the SOGIE vote, however, does not transpire in many other foreign policy decisions of the yahapalana government. As this writer has noted in previous writing to the press, foreign policy under Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mangala Samaraweera leaves a great deal to be desired. Some aspects of foreign policy management involve a bleak understanding of strategic priorities, and a lack of thinking ‘beyond the box’ of conventional foreign policy trends of a bygone era. The effort to produce the polar opposite of the previous administration is yet another pitfall. The continuity of an external affairs budget-burden to sustain a ‘white-elephant-foreign-affairs-structure’ that Sri Lanka simply cannot afford is an issue that is largely overlooked. Deeper problems remain when negotiating the fine balance between national sovereignty, regional cooperation and global priorities, in one of the least supra-nationally integrated regions of the world.
However, and despite all these issues and more, a mere cursory glance suffices to admit the fact that the present foreign policy approach is much more disciplined and dignified than what preceded, especially during President Rajapaksa’s second mandate (2010-08/01/2015). In this sense, the Samaraweera-Wickremesinghe duo deserve a word of commendation in carrying themselves with a decedent level of decorum on the world stage.
Samaraweera’s response in Parliament, 5 May 2017
Returning to the above-mentioned parliamentary debate, Samaraweera marked himself out in an exemplary manner when the word ‘ponnaya’ was thrown at him. He immediately responded that he is happier to be a ‘ponnaya’ than a thug, thief or a murderer. The parliament of Sri Lanka, with a highly disproportionate number of cis-hetero-normative men, is an extremely homophobic and transphobic, and indeed heavily [cis and trans]misogynist place. In a context of that nature, making a statement that ‘assumes’ one’s non-hetero-normativity from the frontbench is a brave and laudable feet indeed.
On this occasion, Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI community has an obligation to commend and stand unconditionally with Samaraweera, and call upon him to continue this bold approach. The obliteration of non-hetero-normativity and non-cis-normativity from politics, international affairs, local government, public administration, diplomacy and indeed many other vital fields, is something that should no longer be tolerated [and should never have been tolerated in the first place]. No Sri Lankan citizen should have to hide their sexual orientation or gender identity to survive in active politics or, for that matter, in another profession. Being non-cisgender and/or non-heterosexual in no way deprives one of their full rights as a citizen.
Challenging homophobia and transphobia in politics and society
A great deal of work is required in challenging existing approaches to exclusionary, clientelist, homophobic and transphobic politics. In this process, the role of people’s representatives is of crucial importance. This is where Samaraweera’s interjection is important. It is significant despite the problematic nature of the wording used. As mentioned above, ‘ponnaya’ is a highly pejorative term, and is the most derogatory Sinhala wording that refers to non-cis-hetero-normativity. Another way of responding would have involved calling out the homophobia and transphobia of the opposition benches, zooming in on their resort to personal attacks (in this case on an extremely private matter, someone’s sexual orientation) when factual evidence on malpractice is exposed. This exchange also highlights the vital necessity of reformulating parliamentary regulations, best practice guidelines and sanctions against sitting MPs on the use of un-parliamentary language during debates. Use of such vocabulary should lead to consequences, including suspension from parliamentary proceedings for a significant time period and when required, court proceedings. It is necessary for the Speaker of Parliament, the Chief Whips, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, chairpersons of committees the Secretary-General of Parliament, and all other elected and administrative officials to work on a fresh strategy that ensures that homophobia and transphobia have no place in the Sri Lankan parliament. If we are to present ourselves as a responsible member of the community of states in the digital age, it goes without saying that best practice policies of this nature are simply mandatory.
Grounds to strengthen ongoing work?
As the #Pride months approach, in which the world zooms in on LGBTQI equality, dignity, visibility and justice, this incident should provide an impetus for Sri Lanka’s LGBTQI community and its allies across the board to renew, revitalise and reinvigorate the #repeal365 campaign and Queer Liberation activism, developing strong campaigns that are ‘articulated’ in fluent Sinhala and Tamil, making the activism relevant to the local context, addressing specific local challenges, and thereby grounding Queer Liberation locally, and developing a rich, local, INCLUSIVE, and high-quality strategy of ‘Sri Lankan Queer Liberation’ that would be of comparative interest to other countries in the region and beyond.
*A researcher and gender justice activist, Dr Chamindra Weerawardhana is the LGBTQI Officer of the Labour Party in Northern Ireland.