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Sexual Violence in Conflict: Sri Lanka

This case note is a part of our series of case notes that document the occurrence of sexual violence in violent conflict. The case note contains explicit mentions of different forms of sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.

Image credit MartijL / CC-BY-SA-3.0-nl


Background of the conflict

Sri Lanka, a country whose name translates to “resplendent island,” continues to be haunted by its dark past filled with war and destruction. The conflict between the two ethnic groups of the land, the Tamils and the Sinhalese dates back to the middle ages when the Cholas from India arrived as merchants and invaders. Besides religious and linguistic differences, the two groups engaged in power struggles to gain control of the terrain; hence, creating hostility between the Tamils and Sinhalese (Sri Lanka, 2021; Anandakugan, 2020).


Tensions increased upon the arrival of the British as they displayed increased partiality towards the Tamils by providing them with greater professional opportunities in global trade and presenting them with higher authoritative positions in the government. This created sentiments of separation and subjugation amongst the Sinhalese community (Sri Lanka, 2021; Anandakugan, 2020).


After Sri Lanka regained independence from the British, the Sinhalese who constituted majority of the Sri Lankan population secured control of the government. As a result, Tamils were marginalized through laws like the “Sinhala Only Act,” which recognized the language Sinhala as the sole national language of the country, and methods of standardization which provided Sinhalese students with superior educational opportunities. Though these legislations were passed to reclaim the lost pride of the Sinhalese community during the British rule, the Tamils began to feel discriminated due to lack of pedagogic and employment opportunities for their community (Anandakugan, 2020).


In 1976, the disenfranchised Tamils formed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group that aimed to regain the supremacy and pride they once held by forming a separate state for the Tamils in the North and East. Thus began the civil war in 1983 between the Sinhalese and the Tamils of Sri Lanka, which lasted nearly three decades and ended in 2009 (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, 2021; Anandakugan, 2020).


Systemic targeting through sexual violence

As horrific and violent as war habitually is, the Sri Lankan conflict was no different. It involved the use of torture and systematic targeting of detainees through sexual violence (Anandakugan, 2020). Existing anecdotal and medical evidence verifies that the Sri Lankan government used sexual violence to methodically target the Tamil population during the final years of the war and after. Conversely, there are no accounts suggesting that the LTTE implemented the use of sexual violence to target the Sinhalese. Reports indicate that the LTTE adhered to strict punishment for offenders who committed sexually violent acts (Traunmuller, Kijewski, & Freitag, 2017).


The Sri Lankan government perpetrated torture and violence on civilians based on the assumption that the victim or a family member of the victim had cooperated with the LTTE. Reports state that once taken into custody, no Tamil man, woman, or child escaped sexual brutality (Traunmuller, Kijewski, & Freitag, 2017). Men who were displaced during the war were at a higher risk of facing sexual violence and a significant number of Tamil men suffered carnal abuse during the end and after the war (Traunmuller, Kijewski, & Freitag, 2017; Sri Lanka: Rape of Tamil detainees, 2013). Research suggests that males sexually abuse other men to impose their superiority and effeminize [A1] the male victim, causing a breakdown of their willpower (Traunmuller, Kijewski, & Freitag, 2017). Women were made to engage in sexual acts in exchange for assistance, shelter, or food at displacement camps (Traunmuller, Kijewski, & Freitag, 2017). They were also subjected to humiliation, mutilation of body parts, rapes, forced birth control, and impregnation (UPR Submission: Sri Lanka, 2017).


Tamil nationals were picked up by anonymous men from displacement camps, checkpoints, or airports and were taken to official or secret detention centers (Traunmuller, Kijewski, & Freitag, 2017; Sri Lanka: Rape of Tamil detainees, 2013). These men were later identified as being a part of the Terrorism Investigation Department (TID), Criminal Investigation Department (CID), military intelligence and police force (Sri Lanka: Rape of Tamil detainees, 2013). Government officials used various forms of abuse and torture during interrogation, including molestation, rape, rape using sharp objects, insertion of sharp objects into genitals, application of chili powder to sensitive areas, asphyxiation, and administering electric shocks to victims. During these interrogation periods, victims reported having no access to legal counsel, doctors, or family. Victims were allowed to unofficially escape these centers after he or she signed a confession stating their involvement with the LTTE, followed by a bribe given by the victim’s family (Traunmuller, Kijewski, & Freitag, 2017; Sri Lanka: Rape of Tamil detainees, 2013). Till date, no medical or psychological services have been provided to these survivors and no trials or convictions have occurred, questioning the government officials of Sri Lanka. If truth be told, the Sri Lankan government has dismissed these claims as false or pro-LTTE advertising (Sri Lanka: Rape of Tamil detainees, 2013).


Unfortunately, cases of sexual violence have been underreported due to various factors. Victims consider topics surrounding sexual violence to be shameful and fear being stigmatized. The socio-cultural ideals in Sri Lanka require women to be pure and virtuous by not engaging in sexual activity before marriage. There is greater underreporting of such cases amongst men because of cultural impediments associated with masculinity and legal obstructions surrounding homosexuality being a criminal offence in Sri Lanka. Moreover, the perpetrators of these horrendous acts currently hold political power and victims fear retaliation (Traunmuller, Kijewski, & Freitag, 2017; Sri Lanka: Rape of Tamil detainees, 2013).


Basis of sexual violence

The collapse of social structure, norms, and mutual respect for others is always a consequence of war and detrimental behavior takes its place. Men residing in a patriarchal society gain more incentives by asserting themselves on the assumed weaker gender: women. The perpetrators and conspirers of sexual violence hold political power in Sri Lanka, resulting in poor investigation procedures and legal obstructions to justice for victims (Traunmuller, Kijewski, & Freitag, 2017).


The war caused enormous damage comprising mass murder of civilians and assassination of important political leaders, leading to immense hatred towards the opposing Tamils. Sexual violence was not only used as a strategy to discourage collaborations with the LTTE, force confessions, and humiliate suspects, but also as a method to take revenge and instill fear amongst the Tamil population (Traunmuller, Kijewski, & Freitag, 2017; Sri Lanka: Rape of Tamil detainees, 2013).


References

Anandakugan, N. (2020, August 31). The Sri Lankan war and its history, revisted in 2020. https://hir.harvard.edu/sri-lankan-civil-war/

Association Le Pont. (2017, March 29). UPR submission: Sri Lanka. https://uprdoc.ohchr.org/uprweb/downloadfile.aspx?filename=4591&file=EnglishTranslation

Human Rights Watch. (2013, February 26). Sri Lanka: Rape of Tamil detainees. https://www.hrw.org/news/2013/02/26/sri-lanka-rape-tamil-detainees#

Human Rights Watch. (2013, February 26). We will teach you a lesson. https://www.hrw.org/report/2013/02/26/we-will-teach-you-lesson/sexual-violence-against-tamils-sri-lankan-security-forces

Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. (2021, January 30). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberation_Tigers_of_Tamil_Eelam

Sri Lanka. (2021, January 28). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sri_Lanka#Ancient_Sri_Lanka

Traunmuller, R., Kijewski, S., & Freitag, M. (2017, March 20). The silent victims of wartime sexual violence: Evidence from a list experiment in Sri Lanka. https://ssrn.com/abstract=2937943

[A1]I removed ‘homosexualize’ as it isn’t possible to change anyone’s sexual orientation. Documented by Rasika Sundaram

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