Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Sri Lanka still holds on to archaic anti-gay law

By Ranga Jayasuriya | Lakbima News

Sri Lanka is among 41 countries out of 54 member nations of the Commonwealth that impose discriminatory laws against homosexuals. British Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that countries that discriminate minorities, including homosexuals would stand to lose British aid unless they make the necessary reforms to such laws.

Would Sri Lanka lose finances through British aid? Not much. After all, British aid to Sri Lanka has been minuscule in recent years. The Department for International Development (DFID) which controls Britain’s £ 7 .46 billion aid budget ended its bilateral programmes in the country after Sri Lanka graduated to a middle income nation in 2005.

The total UK donor assistance received by Sri Lanka for the period of 2008-2009 was £ 3.5 million, inconsequential compared to Chinese aid, which amounted to $1.2 billion in 2009 alone.

The Department for International Development continues to fund a conflict prevention programme in Sri Lanka during 2010- 2011 at a cost of £ 2 million.

There had been a slight increase in British humanitarian assistance since the end of the war in May 2009. Britain committed £13.5 million for a ‘crash’ return programme of the IDPs, which again, is largely symbolic and dwarfed by India’s $ 500 million donor package to help rebuilding and resettlement in the North- East.

Research into the efficacy of economic sanctions to make policy changes in states reveal that they work well when used against friends – and fail when used against enemy nations, which explains why UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq turned to be ineffective. Sanctions imposed bilaterally are effective only when the nation that was slapped with sanctions is economically dependent on the other. As far as the extent of British economic aid is concerned, Britain doesn’t wield a carrot big enough to compel Sri Lanka to reform its archaic law that criminalizes homosexuality.

Homosexuality is illegal in Sri Lanka under Section 365A of the Penal Code and technically punishable by a jail term of up to 10 years.

Observation hit the nail

Until 1995, the law, a vestige of colonial sodomy law was applicable only for men. However, the Chandrika Kumaratunga government amended the law to gender neutralize, thereby criminalizing both men and women. And we had openly gay cabinet ministers at that time who exerted influence in the Kumaratunga administration. They could have repealed the law; instead they opted to continue with it.

However, despite the existence of the law, there had been no prosecution of homosexuals reported from Sri Lanka in 50 years.

Richard Ammon, a foreigner writing to Global Gays, a gay information website, sums up his impression about the status of homosexuals in Sri Lanka:

“To be sure, many LGBT citizens live in closeted misery but more recently voices of equality and respect have become louder. Being traditionally Buddhist there is little fear of overt homophobic violence yet archaic colonialist anti-gay laws still apply.”

He opines: “In actuality, the ease or distress of lesbigay people in Sri Lanka is very much a function of their class. Although there is little overt class distinction in this country compared to India’s sharp castes, in Sri Lanka, money, education and family status do matter. These create distinct qualities of life for queer folks as well in this island nation of 20 million people.”

The extent of homophobia in the Sri Lankan society is often disputed. Ammon’s observations, in fact, hit the nail. While Sri Lanka was “liberal” enough to have an openly gay foreign minister and not so open prime ministers in the recent past, the country may not be equally congenial to gays and lesbians of the lower segments of the society, who are routinely harassed and discriminated against at the hands of law enforcement agencies and employers, et al.

Media also culpable of promoting homophobia

There is a relatively active gay and lesbian scene confined to Colombo’s upper class, which organize regular events and conduct networking for its members. However, grassroots activism is limited, owning to the conservative nature of society.

Sometimes, the media itself is culpable of promoting homophobia. Recently, a local Sinhala language weekly newspaper published a series of bigoted articles which bordered hate crime, and implicitly encouraged violence against homosexuals.

In the political front, there is an acknowledgement that the archaic sodomy law needs to be repealed. But, who will bell the cat is the question. There are monks, Catholic Church and conservative political organizations which could spoil any move to repeal the colonial law. Stakes would be high, should the opponents of gay rights played the morality card, which could strike a cord in the conservative local populace. (That’s not a dilemma confined to this part of the world. Homosexuals in the US military had to put up with a ludicrous “ Don’t ask, Don’t tell” policy until Barack Obama repealed it this year.)

Sherman de Rose, the executive director of Companions on a Journey, earlier told this newspaper that the issue of decriminalizing homosexuality has not been recently pursued by gay rights activists.

“I have met (Presidents) Mahinda Rajapaksa, Chandrika Kumaratunga, (Prime Minister) Ranil Wickremesinghe. This issue didn’t come up. But all these political leaders accepted that we were part of this country and we should have equal respect that other people have.”

“We don’t want special laws, or to be victimized because of our sexual orientation. We want to live just like all other citizens in this country do,” he said.

Recently, prime minister D.M Jayaratna offered to talk to gay rights campaigners who demanded equal rights after a New Delhi High Court knocked down a similar colonial-era law to decriminalize consensual homosexual sex.

The legal prosecution of homosexuals because of their sexual orientation is unheard of Sri Lanka. However, Equal Ground, a non profit organization which campaigns for human and political rights for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in Sri Lanka, earlier reported that a Sri Lankan who sought asylum in the US based on gender discrimination in his home country has been granted asylum there. Equal Grounds, quoted an email set by a person identified as Sam (a pseudonym), who said: “I am very happy to inform you that I was granted my gay asylum in the USA. As I know, I am the 3rd person who was granted gay asylum in USA.”

Decriminalizing homosexuality is not in the priority list of the Sri Lankan political establishment which is faced with a worse existential threat, i.e. allegations of war crimes, alleged to have been committed in the final phase of the conflict.

But, a liberal homosexual law, if enacted, could partly help rebrand the country’s image as an open and accommodating place for all communities. That would, in fact, better position Sri Lanka to fight allegations of human rights violations, and also help our leaders to travel abroad with that much more respect.

Lakbima News

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