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Oct 22, 2016

"Sexual Violence & Impunity" in (Sinhala Buddhist) Sri Lanka

Some Thoughts on "The Search for Justice: The Sri Lanka Papers" (2015, published by Zubaan, New Delhi; Editors –Kumari Jayawardena & Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena) - by Kusal Perera

Essayists – Chulani Kodikara & Sarala Emanuel, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena and Kirsty Anantharajah, (the late) Priya Thangarajah, Farzana Haniffa, Rohini Mohan and Sivamohan Sumathy. Introduction, (Sri Lanka volume) by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena & Jeannine Guthrie

It is a frightening picture that is drawn on a full canvas by several probing essays in "The Search for Justice: The Sri Lankan Papers", edited by reputed academic thinkers Kumari Jayawardene and Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena and forming part of a regional series on Sexual Violence & Impunity in South Asia.

The editors have used poetry and special narratives translated from Tamil to give more depth and direction to the core message underscored in the volume. All essayists are given credit in regard to insightful contributions that provokes a dialogue on a less spoken of subject in Sri Lanka. I should note here, Sivamohan Sumathy's contribution beyond her own essay with translations and Chulani Kodikara's interview with Prashanti Mahindaratne who, in 1996 led the investigations on the Krishanthi Kumaraswamy gang rape and murder with thoughtful insights on prosecuting the rape and murder of women within a savage war.

The major focus in this collection of essays is on sexual violence and the issue of impunity in the context of (the now concluded) war. The book, as a collection of well written essays, brings into discussion more serious issues that venture beyond the brutality of war crimes. Thus, the essays look at the mind sets and capacities of the law enforcement agencies, investigators and the judiciary as a whole. What is there in actual fact is far more than what is usually discussed. It is certainly underlines a more cruel reality than the illusions that society generally prefers to live with.

These reflections are particularly apt given that crimes and violence against women are now on the increase across the region. As noted by Urvashi Butalia, Laxmi Murthy and Navsharan Singh who wrote the "Introduction" to why this regional series was contemplated in the first place, mass (sexual) violence is a particularly terrible facet of this regional upsurge. While questioning the impotence of societies in other South Asian countries in facing up to sexual violence and impunity, they pose a very pertinent question for us Sri Lankans."Why", they ask, "has the end of 25 years of violent conflict in Sri Lanka in May 2009 not resulted in an open and frank discussion about sexual violence as a weapon of war?"

Though this is no excuse for us in Sri Lanka to ignore the issue of "sexual violence as a weapon of war" and impunity, I doubt if such discussions have even begun in other societies where mass destruction has occurred (and is occurring) due to raging armed conflicts. The answer(s) to the question "why", I believe, can only be searched for in the domain of the dominant "social culture". For it is the dominant culture over long decades that fashions and decides social attitudes, perceptions and social values which leads to such brutalities.

In Sri Lanka the dominant culture, (the political "South" argues) is the "Sinhala Buddhist" culture. For racist political reasons, Sinhala Buddhist ideology has been turned into a "supremacist" social ideology that was war driven over the past decades. The State, that no longer dry and ideologically dead apparatus, was also turned into a dominant Sinhala State. Thus the Sinhala Buddhist culture is taken as "The Sri Lankan Culture" within which the State lives and acts.

This Sinhala Buddhist culture is very much alive even in elite urban life in a heavily competitive consumer society that pre-determines life in the Sinhala South. Screaming consumerism in a free and open economy has provided a new commercialised platform for Buddhist rituals in an urban society with a sophisticated and novel "ashram" cult, meditation classes, yoga sessions and even TV channels conducting sponsored sermons all through the week. All of this further uneasily cements Sinhala Buddhist attitudes, perceptions and social values that once were part of mere ordinary life without political dynamics at play.

The question one may now ask is, "what has that got to do with the issue of sexual violence and impunity that this volume of collected essays examines from different perspectives"? The essayists have all authoritatively examined sordid patterns of sexual violence and impunity. But the link nevertheless is as to how the Sinhala Buddhist culture nurtures all what has been highlighted as "violence" and "impunity" in this collection of essays. A "supremacist culture" in daily life has thus created the social basis for collective sexual violence and impunity.

Sexual violence in Sinhala Buddhist life goes as accepted and natural, day in day out. It happens everywhere, it is seen everywhere and is simply ignored every time while we go about our daily life. Most cruelty, most brutality around us, are not taken and perceived as "violence" against the "other", always the "weaker" and the suppressed. Most often, that violence is justified and interpreted within Buddhist perceptions and interpretations.

This may seem very trivial in relation to sexual violence in this society, but how do you react to a beggar woman carrying an infant in a traffic junction under a scorching sun in the afternoon or to starving pups and kittens thrown away on roadsides? How do you react to innocent birds crowded into cages and sold in pet shops? The Sinhala Buddhist mindset has answers to such cruelty and violence around them. It is "Karma"; the good and the bad brought over from previous birth that has to be lived through this birth. Or the other answer again is that those who resort to such cruelty will have to pay for all those "sins" in their next birth. So you go about your daily life with perhaps only a sigh.

Over a year ago I read the semi fictional novel "Amma" (Mother) written by popular Sinhala tuition master and politician Upul Shantha Sannasgala. Probably exaggerated, he describes at length his mother's tortured agonising life. He relates how she was mercilessly beaten by their father who came home drunk on most nights. He narrates how pots and pans were thrown on the ground by their drunken father leading to hungry and scary nights. Their mother he says, was not allowed to go to the temple, even on a full moon poya day. She lived through that life uncomplainingly and she gave birth to 09 children from this wedlock to the man who treated her so. How does she reconcile her life with all that violence? She, like most Sinhala Buddhist wives, takes it as her "fate". So does the community around her. "Domestic violence" is justified thus to this day in this Sinhala Buddhist society, left to be discussed only in middle class urban circles.

So is it with children who are termed "duds" in the classroom by school teachers. They cannot be salvaged for it is their "fate". In the Sinhala South, every tragedy, every violent crime, all cruelty can be explained in terms of "past karma" or in terms of future "karma" that the perpetrator will have to bear with. In short, crime, violence, cruelty and natural or manmade tragedies are what the victims have brought for them from their previous birth or what the perpetrators will carry to their next birth.And life in this birth can go on, regardless.

What happens to a society that interprets all crimes and tragedies, all violence and cruelty within a supremacist social ideology and allows governance and State structures to fall in line with that dominant theme? We live with such a ugly reality. It is from that society that the military, the armed forces and the police are recruited. It is from that society that policy and law makers are groomed. It is from such a society that public opinion is sought on any issue and the people's representatives are elected. And worst, it is the same Sinhala supremacist society that campaigned for war which now decides how the fallout from that savage war should be investigated.

This volume provides a very serious opening to a discourse on sexual violence and impunity in Sri Lanka, perhaps for the first time. But what I missed is a discussion on this "dominant social culture" aspect in our ‘Sinhala society.’ What I also missed out in this collection of essays is the way out, alternate approaches in how such growing violence against women, young girls and children can be effectively challenged, arrested and society made safe for all.

A society cannot be waiting for a Godot with answers. A society has to work towards a final answer, while attending to immediate issues as well. For permanent long term answers I believe the beginning is within our education system that needs complete demolition and rebuilding anew.

At least, where the minimum is concerned, what if we start demanding for police stations exclusively staffed with women officers, one in every district? This is different to merely having ‘women’s units’ in dominantly male police stations that have not proved to be of much use. Dedicated police stations staffed with women officers, trained in investigations and prosecution, could perhaps answer some of the issues and provide a degree of safety and create confidence in victims.

The good thing in this collection of essays is that it provokes such a dialogue for alternate solutions.

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