(The brutal gang rape and murder of 18 year old schoolgirl Vidya Sivaloganathan in the Northern Island of Pungudutheevu has resulted in widespread revulsion and condemnations. It has drawn attention to the burning issue of sexual violence against women in general and Tamil women in particular. This is a recurring phenomenon with different dimensions. There was a time during the war between the Sri Lankan armed forces and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam(LTTE) where many instances of sexual violence against Tamil women were allegedly committed by members of the armed forces. In most instances the alleged perpetrators got away with impunity. It is in that context that I am re-posting an article I wrote fourteen years ago for “The Sunday Leader”. It was published on July 8th 2001 under the heading” Sexual Violence Against Tamil Women”………..DBSJ)
Eleven minority community political parties in Sri Lanka called for a protest demonstration held on Friday, 6 July 2001. Five of these parties represent the Sri Lankan Tamils and another five the Tamils of Indian descent while the eleventh is a Muslim Party. The objective of these parties in organizing this demonstration is to protest and draw attention to the disturbing rise of sexual violence against Tamil speaking women by personnel attached to the Armed Forces, Police and Para Military Outfits. Even though the political parties concerned are by no means the premier representative organizations of the people they claim to serve, the call for a protest was however enthusiastically received due to the serious timeliness of the issue at hand.
As a result, the protest was a near total success in the North and East with shops remaining closed, Schools being empty and transport at a standstill. The undergrads and senior students in the N- E spearheaded the campaign though few of them support the parties that called for it. The Hill Country saw Plantation workers keeping away from work for two hours and holding protest meetings. Black flags dotted the estate landscape. In Colombo there was a lunch hour demonstration. Several shops and businesses remained closed for a short period. According to a spokesperson from a Tamil political party, the protest was an overwhelming success because of popular people support.
The phenomenon of Tamil women being sexually assaulted by defence personnel “claiming to fight and uphold the unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka” is nothing new. Complaints and protests have been raised in various foras. Several International Organizations, Tamil Politicians and Newspapers have highlighted these happenings very often. Although the 1996-98 period saw a lot of such incidents being reported, 1999 and 2000 had registered an all time low. This does not necessarily mean that such violence had ceased but was nevertheless, an indicator that it was on the decline. Some even attributed it to the intensive Human Rights Education being imparted to the Defence Personnel. This complacent mood however was shattered by events of the past week when the spectre of sexual assaults on Tamil women was resurrected again in Colombo.
The protest campaign was triggered off by a horrible incident on June 24 at a checkpoint in Maradana. A 28-year-old Tamil woman of Indian origin from Badulla was working as cashier at a hotel in Fort. The mother of two was staying at a lodge in Maradana. After work she walked home passing through the checkpoint manned by Police and Army personnel. Her address and name was noted by the cops and allowed to pass. Later the Policemen went to her residence in the night and forced her under threat of arrest, to come to the checkpoint. Since the current security situation enables Security Personnel to wield unlimited power over any Tamil suspect, the woman reluctantly agreed. She was gang raped by the cops and soldiers. She was warned under threat of death to keep quiet. The victim however told the lodge owner who took her to the Maradana Police who to their credit took immediate action. Three Army and three Police personnel have been arrested.
The revulsion felt by all decent people of the country at the incident was great. An incident related by a Sunday Newspaper illustrates this mindset. A 103 bus plying between Fort and Borella through Maradana had pulled up at this checkpoint. Someone in the vehicle had shouted out “this is the place where they gang-raped that woman”. The passengers had spontaneously shouted derisively and hooted in typical Lankan fashion at those manning that checkpoint. Although the personnel stationed there had nothing to do with the deplorable incident, the men had hung their heads shamefacedly and retreated to their hut. The 11 party call for a protest was sparked off by this, but extended in general, to the entire phenomenon of Tamil women being the targets of sexual violence over the past years.
The list posted at the end of this article about sexual offences allegedly perpetrated against Tamil women[i] by members of the Armed Forces and Police is compiled from news reports in the Tamil language newspapers and from additional particulars supplied by Human Rights Organizations engaged in gender issues.The list is neither representative nor exhaustive. it is crucial to note that these incidents are only the tip of the iceberg because several incidents have been suppressed by the authorities while a vast number of cases have not been reported to the authorities or organizations concerned about such violations.
This reluctance to reveal details of such instances is due to fear of reprisals and social ostracism. Most perpetrators of sexual offences are from the Police, Armed Forces or para-militaries. Therefore, victims are mortally afraid of the consequences if and when complaints are made. The cultural traditions of the community are yet to evolve an acceptance and accommodativeness of such violations. Hence, the suffering in silence. Despite these shortcomings the list does serve as an index to gauge the scope and scale of this terrible phenomenon.
The list given below provides an insight into this unceasing problem. The report submitted to the UN Commission on Human Rights early this year by the UN Special Rapporteur on “violence against women, its causes and consequences” highlights the cases of violence against women in times of armed conflict on a country by country basis. A relevant extract is “The Sri Lankan Security Forces have continued to commit serious human rights abuses, sexual violence, in the context of the 17 year armed conflict against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Sri Lankan Police have also repeatedly committed rape and other sexual abuse in the course of the fighting”.
Tamil women have in the North and East generally borne the brunt of these sexual assaults. There have been however some instances of Tamil speaking Muslim women also being victimised. A Muslim woman from Ottamavadi was raped in front of her husband by Soldiers. Two other documented cases are from Eravur. A 28 year old woman, Noor Lebbai Sithie Umma was raped and murdered by an armed para -Military group affiliated to the army. Likewise Ali Muhammath Athabia of Eravur was tortured and sexually assaulted in front of her daughters by members of an armed group.
While several incidents of sexual violence against Tamil women have gone unreported for obvious reasons, the details of many reported ones too have not been revealed. Many of the assaults perpetrated against women of the North and East have not received any publicity. But some incidents have received wide publicity Internationally though, not enough national coverage particularly in the Sinhala and English newspapers. Some of the better known incidents relate to Krishanthy Kumaraswamy of Kaithady , Rajini Velauthapillai of Urumpirai. Koneswari Murugesapillai of Amparai Central Camp Colony , Ida Carmelita of Pallimunai, Mannar, Saravanabavaan Sarathambal of Pungudutheevu etc. In all these cases, the victims were killed after being sexually violated. The most gruesome was that of Koneswari where a grenade was exploded inside her vagina after being raped and killed, to remove all traces of the sexual offence.
Tortured in custody
There have been other incidents reported where mercifully the victims have not been killed. One particular incident was that of Nagamany Yogalingam Vijitha who was arrested in Trincomalee and brought to Negombo. She was tortured horribly in custody. After ten months of incarceration, she was released on bail after the intervention of a Human Rights Organization. After a brief trial she was released on the grounds of insufficient evidence. A court summons was issued to the Officer-in-Charge of the Negombo Police Station who is yet to present himself in court over this matter.
Another incident that attracted notice was the case of two women Sivamani and Vijikala arrested in Uppukulam, Mannar by the Counter Subversive Unit and the Navy. They were allegedly raped by personnel belonging to both. When the incident came to light the Navy issued a controversial press release absolving their men of any complicity. The identification parade however disproved this claim. Although persons allegedly involved in the incident were arrested, the judicial process itself is painfully slow. Moreover the case is to be heard in Anuradhapura because the accused fear to go to Mannar courts.
The pattern of sexual assaults prevalent in the North and East came to Colombo in a big way this year(2001). Two women, Siva rajani and Vimaladevi lodged at Haig Road , Bambalapitiya were detained and sexually assaulted by the Police in May. It is alleged that the Lodge Management was also involved in this shameful incident and had connived and collaborated in the offence. Initially there was some understandable reluctance by the victims to state as to what exactly had happened to them. At the same time, efforts were taken by top Police Officers to distort and underplay the incident. The victims however revealed more details, when the case was taken up at the Mount Lavinia Courts on Thursday.
This incident sent shock waves to the Tamils in Colombo that the wolf was at the door. Sexual violence against Tamil women by those in authority was no longer a phenomenon of the North and East alone. It was prevalent in the metropolis too. Then came the Maradana incident. Concern, anxiety and resentment over this state of affairs increased in leaps and bounds. The Tamil parties functioning essentially in Colombo had to be sensitive to the pressure emanating from the [ Colombo ] community. The protest demonstration followed.
While politicizing the issue from a Tamil perspective in its utilitarian value in the short term, the larger implications of the issue should not be lost sight of.
Lack of concern.
Although the victims are Tamil women, the issue cannot be confined to ethnic terms alone. The issue at stake is that of sexual assaults and violence against women in general. Unfortunately there seems to be a lack of concern among mainstream Human Rights Organizations and Feminist Activists on this. The universal outrage and condemnation felt and exercised over the Krishanthy Kumaraswamy issue seems to be absent now.
Whatever the reasons for this, the organizations concern should review and revise their stance. Allowing Tamil political parties to depict the problem as a “Tamil” problem alone would not help to eliminate the menace.
It is important for Tamils to realise that demonising the Sinhala people on the whole for this tragic situation would not be very helpful in the long run. This phenomenon of sexual violence in war situations is not restricted to Sri Lanka alone. It is not a unique attribute to the predominantly “Sinhala” Armed Forces or Police either.
Violence against women under similar circumstances is a worldwide phenomenon. UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, Radhika Coomaraswamy states in her latest report to the UN Human Rights Commission “Violence against women during wartime continues to involve horrendous crimes that must shock the conscience of humanity. Despite the significant progress that has been made in recent years to strengthen legal prohibitions against rapes and other sexual violence, women and girls throughout the world continue to be the victims of unimaginable brutality”.
There is also the possibility that this type of violence against women would be confined to Tamil women alone in the future. Even as the problem moved from the North – East to Colombo there is no ruling out the possibility of it transcending ethnicity in due course.
There was an incident some months ago that focused attention on this possibility. The Police – Airforce checkpoint at Slave Island pounced on a woman who they suspected was a Tamil suicide bomber. They forced her to strip in broad daylight in the middle of the road. Subsequently it was discovered that she was a Sinhala woman from Ibbagamuwa in Kurunegala.
Luckily for the strip search goons, the woman was of a rural background and therefore had no influence. Therefore, the monstrous action went unpenalised, though there was some criticism. This was silenced through a “masculinist manouevre”; the woman was a “sex worker” it was alleged. Another version was that she was a lunatic.
The idea was to “de-personize” her and “malign” her from a patriarchal perspective and undermine her. By doing thus, the issue of her rights being violated was deflected. The gravity of the offence was reduced. Interestingly the lunatics were those who sought to strip a suspected suicide bomber without adequate precaution. Another point is what the situation would have been had that woman been ethnically a Tamil instead of Sinhala? But the point here is that even non-Tamil women could be victimised in the future.
Incidentally, the assertion that the woman from Ibbagamuwa was a woman of loose morals has its parallel in other instances in Tamil areas too. Koneswari, Ida Carmelita, Sarathambal , Vijikala and Siva mani were all slandered wrongfully as “prostitutes” by those who violated their rights in a horrible manner. It was as if that assertion, even if a fact, gave these khakied offenders a right to violate the rights of these victimised women.
The continuing pattern of sexual violence against Tamil women persists because of the climate of virtual impunity that prevails. Apart from the solitary Krishanthy Kumaraswamy case, there has not been any other instance of the alleged offenders being meted out justice though there are some judicial inquiries on, they are being conducted in a manner that indicates justice would never be done. Cases are transferred out of the original jurisdiction in favour of the accused.
This however places a great burden on the living victims or those giving evidence on their behalf. What happens also is that as cases get protracted the will to seek justice gets enfeebled. The system seems designed to help the alleged offenders rather than the hapless victims.
The Police being asked to investigate cases is another farce. ‘Birds of a Khakied Feather stick together.’ The arrested persons are released on bail after a short spell. The cases keep dragging. Evidence is unavailable. People cannot be identified. Most alleged offenders are merely transferred and not interdicted pending inquiry.
Another aspect ignored is the gender sensitivity of the issue. Investigating male officers do not possess the required sensitivity and also share an unwritten bond with the accused fellow male officers. Justice is delayed and by extension this justice is denied. The credibility of the Judicial System in cases of this type is so low that few people expect any justice at all. Even the solitary exception of Krishanthy is now perceived as a ruse by the government to make an example of a showcase case and enhance its reputation.
This climate of impunity therefore encourages more and more persons to abuse their authority and indulge in sexual violations. The government is perceived as increasingly unwilling or unable to address this problem. Most high-ranking officers of the Armed forces and Police are fully conscious of the indiscipline amidst sections of the rank and file. There is however no incentive to check this tendency in a meaningful way.
The fact that the despicable acts of some vermin tarnishes the image of the entire Force is realised, yet fails to register. The only way out is to introduce the principle of superior or command responsibility. There is a possibility that if commanding officers are held responsible for the Human Rights Violations of their subordinates, then greater care and responsibility would be exercised to maintain discipline.
There is also a need to be more aware of global trends in the field of evolving jurisprudence in the area of Human Rights Violations in general and violence against women in particular. The International community has begun developing precise standards for rapes and gender crimes of violence. These can be classified as war crimes, crimes against humanity and even as components of genocide. This applies to women being tortured or subject to inhuman and degrading treatment too.
There are numerous instances of Tamil women being tortured and being meted out degrading treatment in custody. The recent furore over General Janaka Perera’s appointment in Canberra suggests that there is growing International awareness of the way in which the war against the LTTE is being fought in Sri Lanka. So these offenders should realise that a day of reckoning with International consequences cannot be ruled out in the future.
The International tribunals set up to investigate the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have also created important precedents over the issue of prosecuting wartime sexual violence. The state is becoming held increasingly responsible. The cases and convictions against Dusko Tadic, Tihomir Blaskic, Bazim Delic, and Anto Furundzija of countries belonging to the former Yugoslavia have through case law advanced the cause of women vicimised in war situations. The Foca case concerning eight Bosnian Serbs is likely to be another path-breaker as the accused are charged with crimes against humanity for a widespread or systematic campaign of sexual violence against women. The Rwanda example of the Jean-Paul Akayesu conviction has established for the first time, that acts of sexual violence can be prosecuted as constituent elements of a genocidal campaign.
The approval in Rome on July 17, 1998 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court has, is another milestone. This statute has specifically defined rapes and other gender based violence as constituent acts of crime against humanity and war crimes. The Rome statute also addresses structural issues including the need to hire judges and prosecutors with special expertise on violence against women and children and the establishment of a victim and witness unit. These are “critical if the court is to function as progressive mechanism for justice for victims of gender based violence”.
Likewise, the government needs to revise and revamp the existing structure if it wants justice done in the case of sexual offences by Police and Armed force personnel against women. It is clear that the current system is structurally and functionally incapable of meting out justice fully. Just as the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act was incorporated on the grounds that special powers and laws were required to combat the menace of “terrorism”, new initiatives are needed to control and curb the tendency of Security Forces committing sexual assaults on people they are supposed to protect like the saying about the ‘fence devouring the crops.’ The phenomenon of sexual violence against Tamil women by those in authority can be checked only through an exhibition of political will by the state. That is if it has one.
A Sample Catalogue of Incidents of Abuse 1996 -2001
11.05.96 Displaced unknown Woman at Kodikamam was raped and killed by unknown soldiers
19.05.96 Sri Ranjani (18), Puvaneswari (36) and Rajeswari (38) Sarasaalai by unknown soldiers. Rajeswari was Sri Ranjani’s mother and Puvaneswaris sister.
19.05.96 Woman (Name undisclosed)-Colombothurai-Armed forces
07-04.96 (45) woman-Thiyavettuvaan-Soldiers
01.05.96 Pushpamalar (22)-Kachchaai-Soldiers
09.08.96 K.Baleswari-Kerudaavil-Armed Forces
07.09.96 Krishanthi Kumarasamy (18)-Kaithady – Soldiers stationed at Chemmani search point. (Tried and sentenced)
08. 09.96 Vasuki-Jaffna-Six Soldiers (area unknown)
10.09.96 55-year-old woman-Thirunelvely in Jaffna-Soldiers (area unknown)
11.09.96 Thanaletchumi (17)-Kiliveddy in Mutur-Armed forces
Oct 1996 Letchumipillai-Trincomalee-Armed forces
Nov 1996 Young Girl in Vavuniya-Armed forces.
03.11. 96 Kanapathipillai Sornamma (35) Pattiyachcholai in Kalkudah-Army stationed in Kalkudah
12.11.96 S.Thenuka (Ten Years) Pathaimeni in Atchuvely-Armed forces
31.12.96 S. Siva sothy-Mandoor-Special Task Force at Mandoor.
Dec 96 P. Vanitha-Mayilambaaveli Housing Scheme-Army stationed at Mayilambaavely
09.01.97 S.Navamani P. Jeyanthi (22) and K.Mekala (16)-Thiyavettuvaan-Defence Personnel at Valaichenai Paper Factory Camp. Jeyanthi and Mekala were Navamani’s daughters.
Mar. 1997 Woman Worker at Kalliankaadu garment factory-Kalladi Road Batticaloa-PLOTE (Mohan Group)
17.03.97 V. Rasamma (39) and V.Vasantha (28) at Mayilambaavely by soldiers stationed there. Both were sisters.
17.05.97 Murugesapillai Koneswari (35)-Amparai Central Camp Colony-Central Camp Police .
19.05.97 Kirubadevi (37)-Madduvil North-Soldiers
17.07.97 Vijayarani (17)-Araly-soldiers
05.08.97 Sinnappu Pakkiyam-(37)-Maavadivembu-Armed Forces at Maavadivembu
19.08.97 S Rajini-Vipulananda Street, Valaichenai-Army at Harbour.
05.09.97 Bala ndhi (Six years)-Atchuvely-Soldiers
12.09.97 Rajan i Velauthapillai (23)-Urumpirai North-Soldiers in Kondavil
16.10.97 Thanganayaki (49)-Amparai-Home Guards
28.10.97 (40) woman-Manthikai-(Soldiers)
12.07.97 K.Chandrakala (20)-Alvai. Soldiers
06.11.97 Shyamala (17)-Pallai-Soldiers
25.12.97 K. Amutha-Vidathaltheevu, Mannar-(Police)
27.12.97 Savari Madelleine (31)-Sorikkalmunai-5 division-Sorikkalmunai (STF)
16.03.98 S. Selvarani (28)-Meesaalai-(Soldiers)
15.04.98 P. Ajanthanaa (17)-Ariyaalai-(Police)
07.05.98 Mentally Retarded woman (36) Nochchikkulam, Mannar-(Armed Forces)
22.06.98 K.Ragini (23)-Panichchankerni-(Army at Panichchankerni).
16.07. 98 N. Bhavani (46) Thirunelvely, Jaffna-(Soldiers)
11.07. 99 Ida Carmelita-Pallimunai in Mannar-(Soldiers from Pallimunai Detachment)
17.12.99 N. Vijayalatchumi (19)-Kalmadu, Valaichenai-Tamil ParaMilitary Group in East.
28.12.99 Saravanabavaan Sarathambal ( 20)-Punkudutheevu, 10th division-Naval personnel
21.06.00 Nagalingam Yogalingam Vijitha-Negombo-tortured and assaulted in custody by Negumbo Police
01.02.01 T. Ananthy (28 )-Chettipaalaiam-(Special task force)
19.03. 01 S. Sivamani (22)-Uppukulam, Mannar-Counter Subversive Unit and Navy.
19.03. 2001 – N. Vijikala (22)-Uppukulam, Mannar-(CSU and Navy)
19.05.01 Siva rajani-Haig Rd , Bambalapitiya-Alleged Sexual assault by Police and Lodge Management.
19.05. 2001 Vimalathevi-Haig Road, Bambalapitiya-Alleged sexual assault by Police and Lodge Management.
24.06.01 28-year-old mother of two-at Maradana checkpoint – Alleged gang rape by Police and Army
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at email@example.com