Back in November 2018 when the country was still in a constitutional crisis, the former President Maithreepala Sirisena took the center stage at a rally organized by the SLPP, to jeer at his political opponents, and in doing so he made certain sordid remarks which were quite disrespectful towards the LGBTIQ+ community, while the current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was also being present at the same event. In his speech, former President Mithreepala Sirisena loathed Ranil Wickramasinghe who was recently dismissed by President Sirisena himself and referred to Wickramasinghe and his close allies as ‘butterflies’ and pursued a butterfly lifestyle’ while making it the topmost priority over all the other obligations of the government. Many LGBTIQ+ activists in the country pointed it out as a gross insensitive remark ridiculing queer people. This was a momentum that LGBTIQ+ activism in the country was forced to encounter national politics at a time when the head of the state openly disrespected LGBTIQ+ people. It is not difficult to assume the usual reception that LGBTIQ+ rights get from local folks in general but this was the first that a person in a position of immense power such as the head of the state openly displayed an explicit repulsion towards the sexual minority. The aftermath of this incident marked the juncture of LGBTIQ+ activism and democratic national political, where queer activism was forced to raise its voice and integrate itself into the forces of national politics, which is way beyond its usual purview of conducting foreign donor money-funded projects.
However the above situation did not end the popular rage or the structural discrimination against the LGBTIQ+ community, rather such discrimination and harassment started manifesting in some other forms, and the social media wave of homophobia during the quarantine was one such wave. The posts targeting community members and LGBTIQ/ human rights defenders emerged in around March 2020, and in midst of this situation, an island-wide curfew was imposed by the Sri Lankan Government in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The measures which were being taken in this context by the government severely restricted movement and access to services and community support. This has a direct bearing on the vulnerability felt by those who were targeted and the impact on their physical and emotional security, both online and offline. Similar online attacks have been used to target ethnic minorities, the results of which have been recently acknowledged in the Facebook report on the communal violence that erupted in Sri Lanka in 2018. The history and pattern of violence in Sri Lanka show us that lives are at stake. The ongoing attacks since March are no isolated accidents or the product of a single individual. They are carefully crafted to undermine the emotional and physical security of the community and its representatives.
The Sri Lankan Penal Code criminalizes same-sex sexual relations even amongst consenting adults. It, together with other regressive laws has been used to target the LGBTIQ community. The law as it stands makes it difficult and sometimes dangerous for community members to complain of threats and attacks against them to the relevant authorities. The COVID pandemic has made community members especially vulnerable, unable to access services, forced to leave their localities where they are settled even if there is a present danger, and forced to live with their families that may be unaware of their status, or openly hostile. Online targeting at this time only adds an extra burden on already affected vulnerable LGBTIQ members.
The COVID19 pandemic has provided a foil to the current regime, to further curb and restrict free expression, under the guise of COVID19 response. On the 1st of April, the Acting Inspector General of Police announced that actions be taken against anyone who points out minor shortcomings, failures, criticism, or chastises government officials and institutions engaged in dealing with COVID response. Despite international and national condemnation of the move, and legitimate questions about its legality, citizens continue to be targeted and arrested under this scheme.
The Government and its allies also use the ICCPR Act, No.56 of 2007 to target dissent. Much has been written about how a law intended to promote and protect human rights has been used to target human rights defenders and curb freedom of expression. One of the primary aims of the Act is to protect persons from speech that instigates violence and discrimination. Unfortunately, the government has failed to fulfill its actual purpose but rather has been using it as a tool of repression. However, since the enactment of this Act, not a single person who has incited violence against a minority group in Sri Lanka has been convicted under the Act; this is despite four major incidents of mob violence against the Muslim community in the past five years: Aluthgama in 2014, Gintota in 2017, Digana and Teldeniya in 2018, and Kurunegala and Gampaha in 2019. Section 3(1) of the Act, which is meant to be a shield against such incitement, has failed to achieve its principal purpose.
The implications of ICCPR Act are even more harmful and it is the selective prosecution using ICCPR to silence dissenting voices. It is now a weapon wielded by majoritarian power to suppress those who presumably offend majoritarian sensibilities. Those arrested under the act are denied bail, in a system where prolonged detention and process is punishment. A recent threatening attack against one of the most prominent human rights defenders and LGBTIQ activists, who is also an academician, was being called to arrest under the ICCPR Act in response to a social media post made by him on Facebook. It is ironic that a platform aimed to encourage free discussion, interaction and engagement is being used to target and call for the arrest of an individual who is committed to. The above threat is not just a personal attack against an individual activist. It impacts on the safety of community members and networks that he is in close contact with, particularly the ones based in Sri Lanka. Despite that, a number of young social media queer individuals quite active on various social media platforms were constantly harassed and shamed on grounds of their SOGIE (sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression). The common allegation was that these queer people are spreading homosexuality among the underage persons and converting them to homosexuality, which is completely baseless and misleading. Since the perils of sexual minority of the country have come about at a time of severe uncertainty, all that can be done is to contain and take actions which would not further provoke threatening forces.
- Neranjan Maddumage, Community Welfare and Development Fund