WMC Women Under Siege Conflict Report: Sri Lanka (2013)
Despite Sri Lanka’s 26-year civil war being declared over in May 2009, scholars continue to describe the post-conflict state of the country as “fragmented.” With an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 citizens killed, according to the United Nations, and an unknown number raped and sexually tortured during the ethnic clashes, whole sectors of Sri Lankan society were left in pieces: civil society, ethnic groups, food supplies, and media outlets, to name a few.
Starting in 1983, the country’s civil war was rooted in ethnic tensions between the Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the mainly Hindu Tamil-speaking minority. Sinhala nationalism gained power once the country gained independence from Britain. As the BBC reports, Tamils in the post-colonial period lobbied for self-rule—a separate, independent state called Tamil Eelam—while the Sinhala majority, previously marginalized by the British ruling powers, fought to crush them. In July of 1983—what is now called “Black July”—Tamil rebels killed members of the military; race riots broke out in retaliation, and between 400 to 3,000 Tamils were estimated to have been killed in just one week, according to the BBC.
The official conflict came in stages, with three separate “Eelam wars” from the Tamil Tigers’ perspective. By the war’s end, the Sinhalese government became known for its use of mass murder and its tactic of using rape and sexualized torture as a weapon. Charu Lata Hogg, a scholar who penned a groundbreaking Human Rights Watch report released in February 2013, told WMC’s Women Under Siege that the use of rape as a tactic likely peaked right after the war ended.
But what sets Sri Lanka’s conflict apart from many others is that sexualized violence was not used by all sides. While government, paramilitary, and rebel forces all violated human rights, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), or the Tamil Tigers, successfully trained their fighters not to rape, according to multiple sources. The LTTE, famous for suicide bombings, ethnic cleansing, displacement, forced recruitment of child soldiers, and murder, reportedly did not use sexualized violence as a weapon.
Adding to Sri Lanka’s instability during intervals of brutal ethnic conflict was a tsunami that devastated the nation in 2004 and killed more than 30,000 Sri Lankan citizens, according to Jason Enia, a scholar at the University of Southern California. In the aftermath, as Naomi Klein writes in The Shock Doctrine and as Sri Lankan activists report, the Sri Lankan government and foreign investors took advantage of the post-disaster chaos to build a glittery tourism destination where fishing communities had previously existed.
In his 2012 book The Cage: The Fight for Sri Lanka and the Last Days of the Tamil Tigers, Gordon Weiss, a journalist, former aid worker, and former UN spokesman, writes: “Under the guise of development, the Sri Lankan government is indeed using its army to control the economy of Tamil-majority areas, and to change the demography. Rather than justifiable security precautions and policing, its writ is characterized by disappearances, sexual violence, and a menacing presence to enforce a programme of exploitation.”
But reports of sexualized violence in Sri Lanka are hard to investigate, according to experts who spoke to WMC’s Women Under Siege. Local activists say that organizations are forced to seek permission from a presidential task force to work on issues of sexualized violence, which means that most organizations are thus prevented from working on the issue at all. The sources say that several researchers are working to interview and organize survivors furtively, without permission from the authorities.
We spoke to one Sri Lankan activist, whom we’ll call “SP” to protect her safety. SP, who is also a community organizer, conducts research on the forbidden topic of state-sponsored sexualized violence. She told us that in early 2013, an intelligence officer surprised her at her home and questioned her about her research. SP, along with other, U.S.-based activists who frequently travel to the region, said that any mention of their organizations, let alone their names, would put them in great danger because their work is de facto illegal. She said that other researchers or activists who have documented state-sponsored violence have been attacked by members of the military, and that female activists in particular are sometimes targeted with sexualized violence.
The Sri Lankan government has also cowed the local media into silence, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Many journalists have said they practice self-censorship out of fear for their lives. The country is one of the worst in the world for deadly, anti-press violence, CPJ research shows, and is ranked fourth on the organization’s Impunity Index, which “calculates unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of each country’s population.”
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