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The political culture in Sri Lanka is misogynist - Ambika Satkunanathan


15 July 2020 12:01 am - 19     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


  • We must acknowledge torture is a problem

  •  Laws alone cannot achieve social change

  •  Media should not sexualize and infantilize women

  •  Nationalism has the power to empower as well as to enslave



The normalization of violence in Sri Lanka is a deep seated social problem, says Ambika Satkunanathan, who is a lawyer and human rights advocate on the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) National List for the upcoming parliamentary polls. A former member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) and chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, Satkunanathan has campaigned for gender equality, social justice and peace. She spoke to Daily Mirror on several issues including police violence, women’s rights and nationalism. Excerpts:

 Q  How serious is police violence and torture in Sri Lanka? And what systemic and structural changes are needed to counter it?

Police violence is systemic, spans successive governments and has been identified as such by the Supreme Court (SC), the HRCSL and civil society. In 1995, the SC noted Fundamental Rights (FR) violations by the police were continuing even 18 years after the 1978 Constitution, which contains protections against torture. The reason for police impunity is the immunity enjoyed by those who commit such violations. This immunity creates the belief they can use violence and  never be held accountable. 
We must address the root causes of police brutality. First, we must acknowledge torture is a problem, and not deny it. Secondly, we must hold perpetrators accountable. The 30-year war impacted how we view violence and people became numb to violence to cope with their daily lives. Violence has hence been normalized. 

 Q  Sri Lanka enacted the ‘Convention against Torture Act’ in 1994. Why are such laws so ineffective?

Laws alone cannot achieve social change. Addressing police violence requires reviewing basic police structures and practices, and making them public. We must design preventive, remedial and accountability measures and involve sociologists, criminologists and psychologists in the process. We must invest in communities to address the drivers of crime. For example, increasing job opportunities, preventing homelessness, moving non-violent offenders away from prisons and into rehabilitation, and crafting community responses to non-violent offences and decriminalizing them. 
Promising safety through criminalization, imprisonment and the threat of violence, makes us all more insecure and unsafe.

 Q  The threat of violence is often not seen as a form of violence. How does this contribute to the normalization of violence?

The threat of violence creates fear which society believes will deter ‘bad people’ from committing crimes. Even with children, the threat of violence  - a smack or some sort of physical punishment - is used to discipline them in the belief it will prevent them from further mischief. But instead doesn’t it teach children it’s alright to use violence to achieve outcomes? Doesn’t it make it acceptable in their minds to hit another child in the classroom or push them in the playground? 
Disturbingly, I have found people who have no problem with violence being used against those they believe are ‘bad’. This is of course subjective and shaped by each one’s beliefs and prejudice. It is viewed as violence only when they personally experience it, or when used against those viewed as ‘good’ or ‘innocent’, like the 14-year-old autistic boy from Aluthgama. But if a drug trafficker is tortured, how many would be outraged? 
The selective acceptance of violence normalizes it in our psyche and practice, making society more violent. How this acceptance is entrenched in our psyche is evident in our everyday dealings with each other. Also, when institutions deny remedies to citizens, violence is seen as a means of dispute resolution and accountability. People stoning or setting fire to vehicles in a road accident is an example of them thinking it is normal to engage in violence, which they believe is a means of holding someone accountable. 

 Q  You have also pointed to the police being a masculine and hierarchical institution, and how that contributes to the culture of violence. Isn’t this true of many other Sri Lankan institutions too? 

Yes, very much so. We are a patriarchal society. We pay lip service to women’s equality but treat women in a paternalistic way, as if they don’t know what is good for them. Often, women are not allowed to make life decisions for themselves, and are restricted by rules and practices. Women that challenge these are labelled as having ‘bad moral character’ or being ‘too western’ and so on.
Equality and equal treatment before the law are enshrined in our Constitution, but are often not observed in practice. So the patriarchal nature of society is embedded in the processes and culture of organisations, leading to institutional structures and procedures discriminating against women. For example, there are no cadre positions for women in the Senior DIG and DIG positions in the Police Department, which several women police officers have challenged via FR petitions. 

 Q  What is your take on attempts to improve women’s political participation in Sri Lanka? For example, allocating a 25% quota for women at the 2018 Local Government elections. How effective are such affirmative action measures?

Much more needs to be done in addition to affirmative action measures. Quotas alone cannot increase women’s political participation and representation. Even though women play an important role campaigning and mobilizing support for political parties, they are left out of party decision making and ignored as potential candidates. Furthermore, the political culture in Sri Lanka is misogynist, and women are subject to vicious and scurrilous attacks which are aimed at demeaning them. Addressing this requires changing social attitudes and the media following ethical practices.

 Q  What ethical practices should the media follow in this regard? 

The media should only report verified news and avoid gossip, rumours and fake news. They should stop using sexist, derogatory and judgmental language when referring to women. Stop sexualizing and infantilizing women. Move away from ‘manels’ and have women on talk shows and discussion panels. Have more women in decision-making positions in the media with the power to actually make decisions. 

 Q  The President has empowered the security forces to maintain public order under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO). His predecessor did the same, and people have come to accept it. How do you view this?

In a democracy maintaining law and order is not the function of the military. The PSO provides for this only in times of emergency. When done routinely, it normalizes the exception and militarizes the process of maintaining law and order. This creates space for rights violations and contributes to the overall militarization of society. 

 Q  You are on the TNA National List. Some see politics and nationalism as a harmful combination, some see it in a more positive light. How do you see it?

Historically, Tamil nationalism is a defensive nationalism that emerged in response to Sinhala nationalism. It was based on demands for equal rights in language, education, land settlement, and the right to have a voice in governance through power sharing between the centre and areas where Tamils were a majority, and the right to be free from discrimination or violence.

In Sri Lanka the concept of ‘nation’ is equated with secession. This is a misrepresentation, as illustrated by the late Dr Neelan Tiruchelvam. He says communities, like Tamils, perceive themselves not merely as a numerical minority but a nationality, with a collective identity and rights linked to it. This perception is compounded by oppressive state actions, which can push communities away from a secular idea of themselves and towards a more fundamental identity.

When the state failed to address the demands of the peaceful Tamil movement for rights, it evolved into an armed struggle, based on militant nationalism. This also led to violence against Sinhala civilians, internal violence, and deepened rifts between Tamils and Muslims due to the forced eviction of Muslims from the North and violence against them. 

This shows how nationalism, which under colonialism was anti-imperialist, can become a nationalism constructed on the ‘other’ rather than common citizenship. The tragedy of such nationalism is it makes ‘enemies’ of even allies. Dr Tiruchelvam, was viewed as traitor by many in the Sinhala community for advocating a peaceful, federal solution to the ethnic conflict that addressed legitimate Tamil demands and aspirations. Concurrently, he was viewed as an enemy by the LTTE and sections of the Tamil community for working with the state on constitutional reform, and paid with his life. Hence, this form of nationalism has the power to empower as well as to enslave.

Addressing Tamil nationalist claims requires dealing with the root causes of the ethnic conflict. It requires us to stop being afraid of devolution and falling prey to false equations of it to secession. It requires any constitutional arrangement to respond to the collective perception of the Tamils who see themselves as a nation, which is linked to having a majority territorial presence in certain areas with a distinct history. As Dr Tiruchelvam has stated, there are constitutional arrangements in multi-ethnic societies that preserve unity, while also preserving the collective identity and rights of ethnic groups within a political framework.

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  Comments - 19

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  • Front Door Wednesday, 15 July 2020 02:23 AM

    Neelan Tiruchelvam's father Murugesu Tiruchelvam could not even have one of the 5 temples in Lanka recited in ancient Hindu hymns sung by saints, the Koneswaram Temple precincts declared as a Sacred Area when the latter was Minister of Local Government. I rest my case on that. Time will tell if Sumanthiran's coat tail will make you a second tier MP - called National List MP - a farcically contrived method to get people into SL Parliament through the back door.

    rss Wednesday, 15 July 2020 09:16 AM

    Have you ever condemn shelling on hospitals and refugee camps or war crimes? If not, you title is nothing to do with human right. Does TNA support or collaborate any suspected war criminals?

    Karikalan Navaratnam Wednesday, 15 July 2020 09:37 AM

    Ms. Ambika Satkunanathan, I don't know you from Adam; but I hear you are on TNA National List - a fresh face to politics. Welcome. You sound quite articulate, genuine and convincing. I wonder - how come you are associated with a treacherous fly-by-night outfit , the TNA! Anyway, Good luck.

    Thillaiampalam Sritharan Wednesday, 15 July 2020 11:30 AM

    Krikalan I like your welcome statement. I am Sritharanfrom Boston, now in Los Angeles for short time, would like to contact you kindly reply to my email .

    N V Jen Wednesday, 15 July 2020 12:44 PM

    Hello Mr. Navaratnam, you mean LTTE was not treacherous considering the fact that they accepted Rs. 1000 Million to prevent North East from voting

    M A Dam Thursday, 16 July 2020 11:12 PM

    You mean from Eve? BTW you have the illustrious Karikala Cholan's name. He built the oldest anicut known as Kallanai (or Grand Anicut) in the world using elephants to place massive rock boulders to impound the waters of the Kaveri River, the fourth oldest dam in the world built around 100 BC, the oldest still in operation. Also, to answer your question about TNA and Ms. Satkunanathan, you seem to be oblivious to how she was being promoted by M. A. Sumanthiran.

    Aboosalih Uwais Wednesday, 15 July 2020 11:11 AM

    Ms.Ambika, your participation in politics will be an impetus for women longing for empowerment of women in society. Issues inherent in Sri Lankan women be exposed to create an atmosphere where women's voice could be heard. Welcome to politics.

    Manil De Mel Wednesday, 15 July 2020 11:59 AM

    Ms Ambika Satkunanathan very impressed with your views. The intellectual and academic community in Sri Lanka what ever religion or race they belong to share the same opinion. Please start a national movement under the banner "we are all Sri Lankans and we love this country" and you can be assured of my support and blessing of a lot of people in this country

    Rienzzie Kern Wednesday, 15 July 2020 05:10 PM

    Very amateurish piece. This is probably true of the 1960’s. She forgets Sri Lanka has the first woman Prime Minister in the world and a woman executive President. She has an interesting choice of words and a disposition that everything is wrong. You can’t do human rights and then be an active member of a racist political party. I have much respect for Dr. Thiruchelvam she in no way represents him.

    Praviinaa Raviraj Wednesday, 15 July 2020 08:52 PM

    Well articulated but are you failing to understand and note that constitutional reforms have proven to be baseless and not possible under any regime of this nation. Also Simply wondering as an HR advocate what has been made possible in the last decade post end of war to instill rights in the victims of war and infact how the war ceased at the end!

    Just Society Thursday, 16 July 2020 02:46 AM

    Ambika Satkunanathan, so happy to see the emergence of a rationale person. You are smart and with right stuff in the analytical territory and thank you for coming into politics. Yes , everywhere politics is indeed difficult for women. But the brain power should be utilized for the for best of the country. Correct; "Tamil nationalism is a defensive nationalism that emerged in response to Sinhala nationalism." Trust if your strength will make a small dent in the intelligentsia. See such a nice person like Gihan doesn't know that he is inevitably immersed and soaked in his sphere of nationalism and he is only looking at the other side. Best wishes. Regarding KN comment, please do forgive this former TULF person who had recently returned from Canada after a long sojourn and he has no reason to know you and, incidentally, do ignore his comments as well.

    Fauzi Sally Thursday, 16 July 2020 12:55 PM

    Ethnic values should be confined to places of worship and to one's lifestyle and not in a country's politics. I hope that this will help to develop every citizen in a nation. Economics taught this to me. Religion has a place and it should be confined to our day to day life in social interaction rather than in other occasion.

    sach Thursday, 16 July 2020 02:45 PM

    While I do agree extreme Sinhala nationalism had played its role in Sri Lanka politics and caused the decline of the country, it is no way the single reason. Sinhala nationalism was always a result of the Tamil supremacism which came from TN with its dravidian movements. People like G.G.Ponnambalam were flag bearers of Tamil supremacism. Since she identifies her as a human rights activist, I wonder why she is joining a party like TNA which was an LTTE proxy. To this date TNA has not distanced itself or condemned or acknowledged any of the crimes LTTE had committed

    Thinker Thursday, 16 July 2020 06:52 PM

    Ms Ambika Satkunanathan, it was a pleasure to read your answers t the questions. The problem you will face is that the Sinhala government and Sinhala people . They live under an illusion that SL belongs to them and not to the Tamil speaking people as well. They wish to hide the two language, two religion, two different culture and two different ethnicities. Thus two areas in one country. UK even though same language, culture, religion etc has four areas under the Unitd Kingdom. Until and unless this basic fact is understood by the Sinhala , enlightening them the history of SL before British amalgamated th Tamil and Sinhala kingdom there is not going to be a political solution. Looking forward for you to be with TNA. We respect and proud about your level of Education..

    Prem Nalin Friday, 17 July 2020 08:54 AM


    Neville Gunasekara Friday, 17 July 2020 01:18 PM

    Well. well. Nmmadals know better and well placed to judge their own clans.

    Ravi Peiris Saturday, 18 July 2020 11:34 AM

    Police duties are complicated and stressful. The police officers work in field do not get a proper rest. They are deployed for 12 hour duty turn and he has only another 12 hours to travel, sleep and attend to home mattes. This system has to be change for them to work happily. Another thing is to to change the judicial system where as cases should heard within a short period and also a system to convict culprits easily. Police has to go out of the way even it cannot be justified to maintain law and order as most of the time cases get delay and large number of suspects who commit crimes are acquitted as the system to prove a case is complicated. Fully agree with the all other matters.

    Vadivelu Yogaratnam Saturday, 18 July 2020 06:18 PM

    Be careful love of what u speak they will shut your mouth, don't forget what happened to passed journalist when tried to speak the truth what's happening to the country.

    Therese Perera Friday, 31 July 2020 12:14 PM

    Welcome Ambika! you bring a refreshing voice of integrity into our bedeviled politics

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