When writing about ethno-national politics in post-war Sri Lanka, this writer has constantly sought to highlight one point – that there is such a thing called Tamil nationalism. Tamil nationalism is a given, and whether some of us like it or not, it continues to exist and in some quarters thrive. A key component of reasonable steps towards reconciliation involves understanding and acknowledging the existence of stakeholders with colliding and opposed views.
Sri Lankans who are Tamil nationalists have the right to espouse their Tamil nationalism. However, it falls upon them [in the very same way it falls upon Sinhalese nationalists], to ensure that their nationalist discourse and actions do not drift into vicious cycles of extremism. We Sri Lankans have for many decades suffered due to such chauvinistic excesses. In 2018, it is definitely time to sit back, adopt a ‘live and let live’ approach, and share the collective responsibility of challenging and containing drifts towards extremism at all levels of Sri Lankan sociopolitical life.
Ms. Maheswaran: a controversial statement?
Sadly, not many people seem to have understood the magnitude of this national necessity. The case of ex-minister The Hon. Vijayakala Maheswaran MP is a case in point. She happened to be a serving State Minister of the Government of Sri Lanka, an MP, and while holding political office, made what can be described as an extremely ill thought-out statement, in a politically charged speech at a public meeting – that the LTTE might need to be resuscitated in order to ensure the rights of women and girls in Northern Sri Lanka.
The first question to ask is, under what circumstances was this comment made?
Horrendous cases of sexual violence against women and girls?
The immediate context in which Minister Maheswaran made this comment was an extremely pathetic incident [to quote from the ex-minister’s speech] — the case of a six-year old girl who was raped and murdered. Reports of girls and women facing high levels of sexual violence frequently come from the North and East. Tamilnet, for one, published this story a few days ago:
There have been next to no news reports on the above incident in the Sri Lankan media. At this point, it is extremely important to highlight the issue at hand – violence against women and girls. The fact that such violence has taken high proportions in post-war Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka is the reality that transpires through the ex-minister’s speech. As a woman, and as an elected representative, the ex-minister has every right, and the fullest obligation to raise this issue not only at a public meeting in Jaffna, but also in the legislature and at all possible instances of government. It also needs to be reiterated that this is an issue that gets very sparse attention, which is in itself deeply problematic. If sexual violence is rife in the ex-war zone, we can forget all hopes of even a semblance of reconciliation.
State armed forces: a lingering scar?
Throughout the war years, it is no secret that the state armed forces have been somewhat regularly accused of instances of sexual violence. From Krishanthy Kumarawamy to the controversies surrounding the immediate aftermath of the war in mid-2009 [not to mention sexual abuse allegations against Sri Lanka’s UN Peacekeeping contingent in Haiti], the armed forces have been accused of sexual violence. The forces and the government have vehemently rejected such allegations. This has resulted in a head-on collision, with Tamil nationalist militants across the world accusing the state armed forces, with the forces and the government robustly and systematically rejecting all such allegations. This situation results in something even more sinister – the effective watering down – if not total absence – of an upfront, sincere and open-minded dialogue on these accusations, and problems surrounding women’s rights and exploitation in the conduct of war, and most importantly, on the role of gender justice as an absolutely primordial precondition for reconciliation.
A gender justice discourse and policy deficit in the forces?
What is woefully lacking is a robust policy within the armed forces to develop a dialogue on sexual violence. Such an initiative could also prove to be useful in enhancing gender equality across the forces, enabling female officials to access higher ranks, and strengthen a discourse on gender justice in the forces. The forces should leave no space to be accused of sexual violence against Tamil women and girls. Concrete policy, if thoughtfully implemented, will provide the forces with the ability of robustly countering bad publicity such as that of the above-mentioned Tamilnet article.
Present-day sexual violence: even beyond a military-civilian paradigm?
We certainly cannot claim that the armed forces are behind all acts of post-2009 sexual violence in the north and the east. As the heartbreaking case of the late Sivaloganathan Vithya showed, scars of an exploitative war, a highly repressive, patriarchal and misogynist caste system, socioeconomic disparities, have resulted in a culture of impunity, where everyday misogyny has transformed itself into murderous abuse and violations. The fact that violence against women has witnessed an unprecedented rise in post-war Tamil society in the North and East is a reality that Sri Lankan authorities and citizens must urgently take stock of.
Gender justice in the ex-war zone? a big deficit?
It is not unjustifiable to maintain that this issue is often categorically sidelined by the Sinhalese and Tamil political class. In other words, we have spent a decade after war’s end without having a much-needed dialogue about gender justice in the ex-warzone.
The ex-minister’s statement, the LTTE and sexual violence
It is in such a context of mass negligence that the ex-minister made her comment at a public meeting in Jaffna. The point she made was that if we were to put an end to repetitive violence against women, we may need to bring the LTTE back. The rationale behind this statement is worth attention. For all the absolutely violent atrocities it was known for, the LTTE was seldom accused of sexual violence. Its strict codes of conduct and social conservatisms were such that despite all the risks of living in under LTTE control (involving, for instance, the constant risk of violence, abductions, forcible child conscription, cold-blooded murder of Tamil people who did not toe its line and more), there is next to no evidence that the LTTE resorted to sexual violence during the war years.
Whirlwind at war’s end?
To people who lived under the LTTE’s stealth, the post-war scenario turned out to be a totally different kettle of fish. Circumstances of economic deprivation were such that high levels of sexual exploitation of women followed suit. Many vices including drugs flew in to the ex-war zone. This led to a culture of impunity at all levels. It has been amply reported in both Sinhalese and Tamil media that the ex-minister, who lamented sexual violence against women and girls was herself instrumental in providing protection to the main suspect of the brutal abuse and murder of Sivaloganathan Vithya.
Why now? Vijayakala?
Ms. Maheswaran’s speech therefore forces one to ask the inevitably ‘why now’ question.
Having used her powers to protect a sex offender of a young school girl, what prompts her to make such a statement of solidarity now? Where does the sudden awakening, if any, come from? Or was it a cautiously calculated political statement, to put herself forward as a heroine of the cause of women and girls in a polity dominated by geriatric men of the TNA, who, within their own party and in terms of public policy, are totally oblivious to anything like gender justice? This statement gives Ms. Maheswaran an unprecedented level of publicity and international attention. It gives her an opportunity to present herself as a tireless advocate, if not the only political voice that openly stands for the rights of Tamil women and girls in post-war Sri Lanka. If this were her strategy, it works, and the evidence can be seen in the loud cheers her speech received. Very soon, we are quite likely to hear her being quoted verbatim at Tiger flag-carrying Tamil nationalist protests and events across the West.
In this sense, one could even conclude that by this statement, Ms. Maheswaran has raised her political capital to a level much higher than occupying an obscure state minister position in the Joint Government.
A clear wake-up call?
This incident is one that should serve as a wakeup call to the Government of Sri Lanka, to take gender justice provision in the north and east much more seriously. A strong action plan, with immediate, medium and long-term targets, advised and spearheaded by leading gender justice activists and experts, is the most advisable way ahead. If no action is taken, there is the clear risk of a rise of extremist sentiment, anguish against the Sri Lankan state, and fine waters in which politicos can have a free ride fishing away for political advantage, à la Vijayakala Maheswaran.
Beyond vilifying Vijayakala: our collective responsibility?
Calls to suspend Ms. Maheswaran from parliament and legal action are all arguments that risk preventing policymakers from seeing the bigger picture. What matters is a concerted set of concrete steps to contain and eradicate the circumstances of violence and exploitation that prompted Ms. Maheswaran to say what she said in the first place. An incessant vilification against Ms. Maheswaran only results in giving her a great deal of undue attention and publicity, and making her a heroine in the eyes of hardline, reactionary and militant brands of Tamil nationalism. It is therefore crucial that we all collectively strive to clearly distinguish between Vijayakala and the problem-proper.
Instead, if Vijayakala and her words are to be understood as the sole problem at hand and if her vilification is to be our sole focus, we will be shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot. Big time.