Sexual Violence and Sri Lankan State Sovereignty | Jessica Devi Chandrashekar
January 19, 2010, 2:45 pm
Filed under: Indian Subcontinent

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13 January 2010

Source: YU Free Press

What has taken place in Sri Lanka this year marks a historical turning point. The liberation struggle against the Sri Lankan occupation of the homeland of the Tamil people is at a stand still and has suffered a debilitating blow. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group formed to fight for the rights, recognition, and freedom of the Tamil people and homeland (Tamil Eelam), had previously controlled areas of the North and East of the island now under occupation of the Sri Lankan state. The Sri Lankan state has moved hundreds of thousands of troops into the region and continues to hold 250, 000 Tamil people in concentration camps. Tamil people are terrorized and humiliated by the government as it proceeds to build settlements on Tamil owned land and take over the homes and businesses of people who fled the fighting in what can only be described as the violent colonization of Eelam.

Historically, the island that is now called Sri Lanka was comprised of three kingdoms. The Tamil kingdom was located in the North and East of the island and during Dutch and Portuguese colonialism, the three kingdom structure was maintained. Only during British colonial rule were the three autonomous kingdoms amalgamated into a single state with a centralized government. During the transition from colonial rule to ‘independence’ in 1948, state power was transferred to the majority Singhalese population. Successive governments since 1948 have institutionalized policies which reify the power and rights of the Singhalese. Here we see that the dominance of the Sri Lankan state over Tamil people is a move that continues colonial rule.

The current situation is the culmination of 500 years of colonialism and 61 years of institutionalized state racism. Since 1948 the Sri Lankan state has systematically marginalized and dehumanized Tamil people, to the point where a national liberation struggle became necessary. It was clear that for a Tamil, being treated as human was not possible in the state of Sri Lanka.

The struggle for Eelam presents a fundamental questioning of the legitimacy of Sri Lanka’s borders, the sovereignty of the state, and essentially, challenges the historical ‘truth’ upon which Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan national subject’s world is constructed.

In order to manage the anxieties precipitated by the resistance of Tamil people, the Sri Lankan state asserts and enforces its national sovereignty most violently on the bodies of Tamil women through sexual violence and torture. This is made explicit by the violence inflicted against Tamil women who fled the war zone earlier this year and the daily violence endured by women who are Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) and are currently being held in government run concentration camps. As the LTTE controlled land was reduced to a narrow strip of beach, the people who were caught in the fighting, all Tamil, were forced to flee to government controlled land in hopes that they would be allowed to return home once the fighting ceased.

This, however, was not the case. Thurka, an elderly Tamil woman whose experience of fleeing the war zone was documented by the Centre for War Victims and Human Rights, describes the flee: “It’s a miracle that we escaped from it all…we had to cross a lagoon with neck deep water, the lagoon was not such earlier, it’s because it has large craters in it due to the heavy bombing. As we passed the lagoon, Senthuran, my son, who can swim directed me to cross over and went again to get his wife and kid. I saw many people losing their ‘sarram,’ it was floating in the water…the owner to it probably drowned or hadn’t even realized they have lost it. The walking journey to the camp was devastating…I crossed so many dead bodies. I walked endlessly for hours, we even got lost. I am diabetic. I was so thirsty…didn’t have any clean water to drink. I didn’t think I will make it. At one point I had even got up and told Senthuran to walk away with his family but he did not let me go. Throughout our journey, the shelling and bombing never stopped, so it was a miracle we didn’t get hit…somehow God is punishing me to witness it all.”

Tamil women who fled the fighting were subjected to sexual violence prior to being forced into concentration camps. In one instance, 130 Tamil women fleeing the war zone were captured by the Sri Lankan army and raped.

In February, two young girls who had been raped by soldiers were forced into one of the concentration camps. Once they arrived, they killed themselves. A mother of a three month old child from the same camp was taken out of the camp by soldiers for ‘questioning.’ She has not returned and is presumed dead.

Earlier this year it was reported that 300 pregnant Tamil IDP women were forcibly given abortions and then sterilized.

Tamil women who are hospitalized because they had been raped and tortured are frequently abducted from hospitals by security forces.

A doctor who worked in a hospital in Vavuniya reported he had an entire ward full of Tamil women who had been raped by Sri Lankan forces as they fled the war zone.

Women who are being held in female-only camps are at greater risk of being raped. One woman who was held in such a camp reported that women were taken outside of the camp, one by one, to be questioned about their connections to the LTTE. During these interviews, the women are assaulted, humiliated and subjected to sexual violence.

In July an aid worker who works in one of the camps provided evidence that government officials were running a prostitution racket out of one of the concentration camps.

Last month, a 53 year old woman was taken into custody without a warrant. She was threatened, harassed and then forcibly stripped. She was released without any charges ever being pressed.

Women held in the concentration camps have limited or no mobility at all. While everyone held in the camps is heavily guarded by the military personnel who patrol the camps, women are at added risk of being sexually assaulted. Bodily care becomes impossible. Women hardly bathe. Their options are to bathe in public spaces where they are visible to everyone in the camp or to bathe in a secluded area where they are harassed by military and put at risk of sexual violence.

That this violence is possible is indicative of the fabric of the Sri Lankan state and the narrative that has been institutionalized as its national history and identity. In this script, the Tamil people are non-humans and their non-humanity is maintained by the construction of the Tamil woman’s body as inherently rapeable. The rapability of Tamil women is sanctioned by law through an internationally notorious system of impunity. The violators of Tamil women’s bodies are the state, and the state, by its very construction, is simultaneously above the law and the upholder of the law. Thus, when a Tamil woman is gang-raped at a check point by the military, not only does she not have any legal avenues because she is not recognized as human by the law and the law serves only those whose humanity is recognized by the state, but the violation of her body is also legalized as a necessary act or performance by the state to re-assert and re-inscribe the division between citizen-human and non-citizen-non-human.

Rape has historically been used as a tool to strengthen ongoing colonialism by degrading the bodies of women, and is as such an essential act the Sri Lankan state must perform in order to maintain itself. The nation-state as an institution that has emerged through modernity, colonialism, imperialism, and anti-colonial nationalism is inherently heteropatriarchal. Rape functions as a performance of state sovereignty as it asserts its power by re-organizing itself through who belongs to the nation according to a heteropatriarchal hierarchy. This heteropatriarchal hierarchy institutionalizes a channel through which national subjects are able to express their national belonging through various manifestations of power and violence. The systematic rape of Tamil women by chauvinistic agents of the Sri Lankan state is an example of this.

The use of rape is significant in that it collapses public and private spaces in a very particular way. We can revisit the example of women IDPs being unable to bathe. The threat of being raped creates an atmosphere of extreme fear where a Tamil woman literally has no space to feel and be safe. The state makes its power known by repossessing private or domestic spaces where some humanity might have otherwise been claimed.

Sexual violence is one of the ways through which the Sri Lankan state makes the occupation of Eelam an embodied experience. It is a weapon of terror that reinforces the Sri Lankan state’s occupation of Tamil bodies and therefore the occupation of the historic homeland of the Tamil people. Thus, sexual violence enables occupation through the body where land and history are seized, violently torn apart, and re-assembled into a Buddhist Singhalese heteropatriarchal state where national borders erase the existence of an entire people.

The systemic rape and threat of sexual violence against Tamil women in Sri Lanka is a technique of genocide employed by the state without having to immediately kill each Tamil body. The aim is to kill the Tamil people’s will to resist, desire for a recognized homeland and self-determination. Therefore, the violation of Tamil women’s bodies is a direct violation of the Tamil people’s land.

Furthermore, when a nation is imagined through gendered concepts such as mother tongue and mother land, the torture of Tamil women through sexual violence works to not only destroy the imagined nation by reducing Tamil women into ‘incapacitated’ bodies, it also functions to destroy the particular cultural memory and history that is passed on from generation to generation by women.

Essentially, sexual violence forces the Tamil people in Sri Lanka to bear witness to the destruction of their world and their humanity. The mass rapes that occurred as Tamils fled the war zone, the continual threat of sexual violence against women in the concentration camps, and the militarized daily life of Tamil women whose land is occupied by a fascist state all constitute acts of genocide.

Although the Sri Lankan state continually asserts such horrific violences against Tamil lives as if they were non-humans, I want to finish with a quote by writer Toni Morrison that more accurately speaks to the humanity and resilience of Tamil women: “You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. ‘Floods’ is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.”

Likewise, the Sri Lankan state will never be successful in erasing the memory of the Tamil people or their will to ‘get back to where they were.’ The separation of the Tamil people from their land is not possible. No amount of sexual violence will break the will of Tamil women to fight for their right to walk on their land with dignity and pride.

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