Ideology Behind Military Rape in ‘United Sri Lanka’

Posted in Politics, War by Karthick RM on March 7, 2012

The pathology of the Sri Lankan army in the episode of Mullivaikaal would have been all too obvious to those who watched the Channel 4 video on ‘Killing Fields’ in Sri Lanka released last year – a phenomena that Tamils have been exposed to for decades, but now on prime time. While the zeal that the soldiers in the 99% Sinhala military showed in executing bound prisoners of war shocked audiences world over, many were unprepared for their drive and ‘call of duty’ in dealing with captured Tamil women – as shown in the scenes in the C4 video where Sinhala soldiers vividly describe the naked bodies of Tamil women combatants whom they had sexually abused before executing with words that would make a pornographer blush.

But what is the rationale behind these ‘excesses’? Is there an ideology behind this or is it just yet another crime committed during a counterinsurgency war?

Those who followed what happened after the release of the documentary would be familiar with the crass sexist, gender-insensitive remarks made by Defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa on one of the female war witnesses who appeared in the video. While observers looked at it as the rant of a paranoid, what was missed was that same sentiments, if not worse, were expressed by the Singapore based Sri Lankan ‘counterinsurgency expert’ Rohan Gunaratna in one of his lectures on ‘Defeating the LTTE on foreign soil’ recently.[i] The gentleman, who has a few books printed in respectable publishing houses to his credit, instead of addressing the allegations of war-crimes and genocide placed by some prominent Eelam Tamil women war witnesses, was more interested in commenting about their looks and personal lives. An intimidation tactic? Or does an ideology lie behind this?

To paraphrase Mao, the best weapons the oppressed could use are framed by the enemy. Very well then.

The Sri Lankan liberal website Groundviews had a few days back published an article titled ‘History after the war: Challenges for Post War Reconciliation’.[ii] The author Dr. Dewasiri, a Sri Lankan academic, raises some interesting points regarding the dominant ideology in the ‘united island’.

1. In the Sinhala-Buddhist ideology the unitariness of Sri Lanka is not based on modern premises, but on a belief that this has been so for ages.

2. The ‘Tamil North’ in the island is a place to be conquered and occupied.

3. The military defeat of the LTTE, which had put a checkmate to this Sinhala conquest ever since its inception and the concomitant Sri Lankan military presence in the Tamil homelands alone was not enough. Tamils had to be de-nationalized and the Sinhala-Buddhist presence had to be increased in the North and East of the island.

That the author fails to deduce and state from this the genocidal intent of the Sinhala apparatus leading to Mullivaikaal, the protracted nature of the genocide of the Eelam Tamils aimed to culminate at a moment of complete Sinhalization, and the ethico-political need to support the demand for Tamil Eelam, is of course not his fault. A liberal academic, this is as far as he can go.

But his admission of the desire of Sinhala nationalist ideology for the conquest of Tamil lands gives us hints to the problem at hand.

Classic aggressive colonization of a land always imagines and equates conquest of land with control of that land’s women. While in action it usually works out in different forms – enslavement, rape, prostitution etc. in the level of discourse, it works as desire for seduction and possession of the native. From Said on to Chinua Achebe, a variety of postcolonial scholars have written on such ideological functions of colonial literary canons. The narration of ‘white man seducing and possessing the native and living together happily ever after’ has always been accompanied in real life by a most brutal pillage of the land of the natives, which it masks in romance.

Consider this personal narrative of a Sinhala gentleman married to a Tamil woman published on Groundviews.[iii] At surface level, it seems to ooze with sexuality and sentimentality. But as one goes towards the end, the theme is clear. Through an idealization of his relationship with his partner, the idea of ‘they’ existing as a distinct nation is dismissed and only ‘us’ is upheld as ideal. There is no guilt on the fact that over 100,000 of the nation of his ‘Other’ was killed fighting for a separate state by the government he pays taxes to. Only a frustration that despite her willingness to be as Sri Lankan as the Sinhalese, there is still discrimination. The desire for his partner becomes transposed through his narration onto a desire for a united Sri Lanka, which incidentally practices structural genocide against the Other nation.

The cynical multiculturalist argument – ‘Oh, they are not so much different from US after all. And they try to be like US too. So why cant we all just be US?’ To use an argument that Zizek used in his dissection of Avatar, beneath the politically correct words of this narrator, an array of brutal racist motifs exist. For his plea is only for those who are willing to be part of ‘us’. An Isaipriya, who would have never been part of ‘them’, was raped and killed. Along with hundreds like her.

Then, the logic of the soldier who believes that by raping a Tamil woman he is inflicting a blow on Tamil nation/culture is precisely the practical reflection of the logic of the Sinhala male who believes that by his wooing of the Tamil woman, the unitary state of Sri Lanka is possible/preserved.

(Does this mean that love cannot exist between individuals of the two nations? The author would never suggest that. But, if this ‘love’ translates into a discourse, a narration that justifies/upholds/masks an oppressive structure, it ceases to be an emotion. It becomes political. Moreover, in the time of Genocide even love, especially love, is a political act.)

A more obvious example would be the Sri Lankan High Commissioner for Australia, Admiral Samarasinge (himself an individual accused of war crimes) stating to Australian parliamentarians about the success of reconciliation in the island by giving the case of a “recent marriage which had taken place between a Sri Lankan soldier and a former LTTE combatant.”[iv] Meaning is this. The wedding of a Sinhala soldier, emblematic of all that is ‘good’ in Sri Lankan society, to a Tamil Tiger combatant, emblematic of all that is ‘evil’ in Tamil society, shows that the island is finally one. A symbolic conquest par excellence of the hated/desired Other.

Frantz Fanon in his brilliant analysis of the role of Algerian women in resistance in the article ‘Algeria Unveiled’ notes how the colonizer viewed the veil as an impediment to his penetrative gaze, his desire to possess the feminine body of the colonized. “The European faced with an Algerian woman wants to see. He reacts in an aggressive way before the limitation of his perception. Frustration and aggressiveness, here too, evolve apace.”

Tamil Women's Power through the Barrel of a Gun

The ‘veil’ in this case is, of course, the Tiger uniform. The female cadre is a revolutionary subject militantly fighting the objectification of the Tamil feminine body by Sinhala patriarchy, creating history on the field through herself, by virtue of her uniform and her weapon. Considering that the women combatant of the LTTE often outshined their male comrades in inflicting crushing defeats on the Lankan army, her body and her uniform were symbolic of castration of the patriarch-par-excellence.

To the army man, the body of the female combatant and the uniform that veils it is unchartered territory, a mysterious locus of his neurotic-pathological desire and hatred, a symbolic challenge to his masculinity. So when the Tigers were militarily defeated, he had to unveil the inaccessible, he had to prove his masculine credentials; he had to reassert the supremacy of Sinhala patriarchy. At the risk of sounding cold, the sexual abuse of Tamil women cadres was expected. The very nature of Sinhala militarist-colonization of Tamil territory seeks to feminize the Tamil body-politic and penetrate it. The rape of the women who resist this penetration at both subjective and symbolic levels then needs to be seen not as case of individual pathology alone, but also as a systemic necessity.

‘Taraki’ Sivaram, the iconic senior editor of TamilNet who was assassinated by Sri Lanka, had observed that “One of the things that a regime of terror expects is the total submission of women to the regime of terror. Basically the regime of terror expects women to be sex slaves.” Submission needn’t be rape alone, though the threat of rape is always there. It needs simply to be the acceptance of the authority (legal, extra-legal, social) of the Sinhala patriarch and his symbolic figure. Dr. Dewasiri’s article talks about Sinhala-Buddhist ‘pilgrims’ flocking to Jaffna and about this being a politico-ideological act. But it has no mention of the proliferation of brothels in the city and the general profile of its customers. Nor does it mention Sri Lankan brokers from the south trafficking economically disadvantaged Tamil women from their homeland to other parts of the island, and sometimes, even outside the island. Nor the fact some of the commanders of the occupying army have advised the soldiers to ‘fall in love and marry’ the women, if possible that is.

To sum it up, sexual violence/attention that Eelam Tamil women face in their homelands is not an act of aberration committed by the Sri Lankan armed forces occupying Tamil Eelam, but is an inherent necessity of a neanderthalic Sinhala nationalism that wishes complete conquest of Tamil Eelam’s geography and concurrently views the body of the Tamil woman as a landscape of its desire, as an object if possessed will ensure the state’s unitary structure.

It is then obvious, as quite some Eelam Tamil feminists have pointed out, that the liberation of Eelam Tamil women is impossible without the liberation and complete decolonization of Tamil Eelam.

Women’s Day wishes.

[i] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gCpARMjv6AU&feature=youtu.be

[ii] http://groundviews.org/2012/02/25/history-after-the-war-challenges-for-post-war-reconciliation/

[iii] http://groundviews.org/2010/05/22/living-with-the-other-in-post-war-sri-lanka/

[iv] http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/03/02/news32.asp

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  1. Prem Kumaresh said, on March 11, 2012 at 3:04 am

    The Gory Murder of Isai Priya, who was said to be a Famous and Beautiful LTTE Radio Broadcaster and her Mutilated Body Exposed was already made Public in many Portals including Tamil Net .
    I am concerned about the Response from the Sinhala Media in General and international Media Persons in Particular . ( read Mr. Padraig Colman Columnist of Le Monde Diplomatique, a Popular French Left Wing! Magazine ) .
    Justification of the Murder can be seen from the Remarks of Sinhala Think Tanks! , SLA Ex Service Personnel and So Called SL Tamil Intellectuals and Cultured Elitists ( who seem to have Grudges with the LTTE and / or who are SL Government Supporters, mostly Wealthy Business Communities who need Government Patronage to Support their Business Interests and Catholic Christians migrated and Settled in SL Main Stream from Coastal Tamil Nadu , Indian Diplomats and Congress Party Cadres who have the Grudges due to Rajiv’s Assassination – which happened as fell in to the Trap of SL Politicians by sending IPKF while actually he should have moved the Matter to a Multi-National Forum like that of a SAARC or UNO ) .
    The First Point they often choose is Tit for Tat . LTTE bombed their way to establish a Self Ruled Regime killing Politicians using Human Bombs along with so many Innocent People standing by. They killed their Own Brothers who have Difference of Opinions ( which started from 1985 Overseas Street Fights in T.Nagar, Madras and up to Karuna changing side). They Recruited Child Soldiers . Used Civilians as Human Shields They Attacked Muslims and Killed Innocent Children in Play Grounds and forced Mass Evictions out of their Villages ( which started from Emergence of Fully Covered Muslim youth called THALAI ATTIKAL who have betrayed and Identified Tigers to SL Army due to Threat and Safe Passage Assurances from SL Army and thereby dividing the Tamils in two . The List Goes On …. Similarly , The Response is : We planned a War without witness , Cluster Bombed our Way to eradicate them even if it was known then that Scores of Innocent Civilians will be Killed , We Knowingly Bombed the Hospitals as the Wounded Tigers might be treated there, even it meant that Civilians as well as Medical Practitioners might be Killed along with, Made a Strategic Mistake by Declaring a NO FIRE ZONE where the Tigers moved in with the Heavy Artillery Weapons prompting the SL Air Force to respond Finally Killed all the Surrendered Tigers along with Christian Missionaries as Ordered from the Top so as to leave a Trail of the Hierarchy and Still now Keeping Scores of Tigers in Un Declared Places and Fenced off the War Victims in Barbed Wire and Shutting the World from War Field evidences like Mass Graves and Tonnes of Human Bones and Remains , while on the Other Hand trying to Decompose it and erase the Evidences using Communist! China’s Prisoners .
    These are Evidences of No Intensions in bringing the Minorities in to the Main Stream but Attempts to Impose Supremacy of State by War and the Same has Happened with an Imposed Peace on Victor’s Dictum rather than Peaceful Co-Existence . Now , The Victims are still penalised and for one reason or the Other , There are No Attempts to Fix the Responsibility and Impose the Accountability, attend the Sufferers by the SL Nation or the Permit for Charity Organisations to address the Issue and above all White washing the Carnage as Response to LTTE and even in this Case Justifying one SL Army Ex-Service men saying that the Soldiers were 19-20 Years Old and happen to see this for the First Time and hence have behaved like that!!.
    As it was said : All is Fair in War and Love / The Victor gets the Spoils ( may be Never to use it but to spoil it further ) .
    My Case is about the Treatment of Women and Sexual Violence in General and LTTE’s Attitude in Particular . The Below Words from Karen E.Young , Professor of Political Science, American Society of Sharjah in response to the Driving Ban Imposed on Saudi Women : Here are Excerpts : Qte : Women and Girls Raped in 1994 Rwandan Genocide are between 2,50,000 / 5,00,000 . Some 20,000 / 50,000 Women raped during 5 Months in 1992 Bosnia Conflict. During the Same Period and after that 30% to 50% Women Raped by Serbian Forces . In Sierra Leone at least 50,000 were Rape Victims during 1991 to 2000 . In Iraq, 400 Women and Girls as young as 8 were Raped in the first Month of War in 2003. Allegations on Libyan Military under Gaddafi’s directions for Mass Rape are seen recently . Similar Evidences from Peru, Kashmir and Sri Lanka is as devastating.
    But there is Variance. Some Civil Wars and Revolutions do not Include systematic persecutions of violence against Women . And we must ask why and How the limitation of Violence against women might help a Future reconciliation process that include their Voices . One Example of this Variance is the Absence of Sexual Violence in the Tamil Tigers forced Displacement of Tens of Thousands of Muslims from Jaffna Peninsula in 1990. The SL Army’s Record is Otherwise. Also, In El Salvador’s Civil War systematic Violence against Women were Rare. When it did Occur it was almost always carried out by State Forces rather than the Revolutionaries . The Revolutionaries made a Political Calculation : Terrorising a Population with Rape is NOT Effective when you want long term reliable Intelligence from them or to rule them in Future. These Cases beg the Question : Why do some Societies choose to fight thru’ Political Conflicts differently ? . Polical Systems that see Women’s Rights as Human Rights are those with respect at their Core , respect for Integrity of the Body, for the Individuality of Mind, The Sanctity of Family .
    UN QTE : While Sincerely Thanking Karen for her Clean Shot on Women’s Right by Exemplifying Character , Let me leave this as a Reply showing our way of Dealing Women and Family to the World.

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