An Echelon Media Company
Monday November 28th, 2022

LGBTQI activists in Sri Lanka welcome major court decision amid urgent need for reform

ECONOMYNEXT – In what LBGTQI activists in Sri Lanka are calling a welcome win in a country where harassment of the community at the hands of law enforcement is not uncommon, the Court of Appeal on Wednesday (08) granted leave to proceed for a writ petition filed against the police over a widely condemned homophobic training session.

The petition was filed by Equal Ground, a nonprofit organisation promoting LGBTQI rights in Sri Lanka, and other civil society activists, against the Inspector General of Police, the Deputy Inspector General of Police of the Kandy range, and the trainer in question who had presented herself as a counsellor, over alleged violation of the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI) people in the island nation.

A video recording of the said training programme went viral on social media in August 2021 in which the purported counsellor was seen openly making homophobic remarks to a packed audience of policemen and women. The offending video, which was shared on Twitter on August 02, showed the woman posing the question “Would you like your child to be a victim of a homosexual?” to which the audience replied “no” in unison.

The trainer is heard advising the police officers against the union of same sex couples, adding that the members of the audience would not have been born had their parents been gay. She also claimed that governments in Sri Lanka had been toppled over their stance on homosexuality, possibly referring to the previous Yahapalana administration which had at least one openly gay cabinet minister within its ranks.

A spokesperson for EQUAL GROUND told EconomyNext on Friday (10) that the NGO was hoping for a verdict prohibiting such training programmes in the future.

“What we are seeking is for the court to issue a writ of prohibition against the police from conducting similar programmes, trainings and seminars that discriminates, vilifies and are derogatory against the LGBTIQ community,” attorney-at-law Lasanthika Hettiarachchi who represents the organization said.

“That’s the relief we are asking for and nothing else.”

The case is now at the merit stage, according to Hettiarachchi, at which point a court grants ‘leave to proceed’. The court has also ordered to issue notice to the respondents in the case, Hettiarachchi said.

According to Hettiarachchi, most LGBQTI persons in Sri Lanka who are victims of harassment do not file fundamental rights petitions because they have not yet come out to their own families. Victims are unlikely to go to the police due to this and also on the likelihood of being harassed by the police itself.

“This fear is one main reason why the community members don’t file cases against the police,” she said.

Human Rights Watch has noted that police in Sri Lanka have carried out many arrests of LGBTQI people, sometimes employing violence.

“Among the 61 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people interviewed for a 2016 Human Rights Watch report, 16 had experienced physical or sexual assault, including rape, by the police,” an HRW report published in October 2020 said.

This writ petition by the activists against the police and the trainer is the first of its nature to be heard in Sri Lankan courts.

“So even for us knowing the history, knowing how difficult it is for the community to deal with the police; the fact that a Sri Lankan court is taking up the case and acknowledging that there is a need for the case to be heard is a win for the whole community,” Hettiarachchi said.

Though Equal Ground is not certain what the outcome will be, the organisation sees it as “progress so far”.

“When we filed the case, we thought that even if the case is not heard, or the judgment is not in favour or does not prohibit the police from conducting similar training, if we just get past the ‘leave to proceed’ stage, it will be progress for us,” said Hettiarachchi.

Archaic laws

Sri Lanka follows an archaic set of laws and rules set by the British in matters of sexuality, according to legal experts. Chief among these are Sections 365 and 365A of the Penal Code that prohibit “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” and “gross indecency between persons”, which rights groups including Human Rights Watch have said is “commonly understood in Sri Lanka to criminalise same-sex relations between consenting adults, including in private spaces.”

“The larger society doesn’t seem to know what the laws are in the first place,” said Hettiarachchi.

Human Rights Watch has also documented that other laws, including a vaguely worded Vagrancy Law and a penal code provision banning “cheating by personation,” are also used to target transgender and gender non-conforming people for arrest.

“If you ask most people about it, they do not know if it is legal or not to be gay in Sri Lanka,” said the lawyer, adding that society at large remains uneducated on what acts amount to an offence and what doesn’t.

“I think legal literacy is very low, especially when it comes to certain myths about the community.”

In terms of reforms, progress has been slow at best.

Soon after the training video went viral, a cabinet spokesman said the government was still undecided on LGBTQI rights, but the matter is under discussion and representations have been made by various quarters.

Related: LGBTQ rights: Sri Lanka still undecided, says govt in response to homophobic police video

According to Hettiarachchi, one of the progressive steps taken is a Gender Recognition Certificate that was introduced in 2016 that trans-gender persons may apply in order to legally change their gender whether or not they have undergone a medical transformation.

Activists have long called for robust reform. In the wake of the police video, the Sri Lanka College of Psychiatrists urged authorities to amend article 365.

“This archaic law should be abolished and homosexuality decriminalised in Sri Lanka,” the psychiatrists’ body said in a statement condemning the video and pointing out that homosexuality is not a mental illness.

Related: Sri Lanka College of Psychiatrists says homosexuality no illness, calls for decriminalisation

Hettiarachchi said, other than the Gender Recognition Certificate, there has not been any substantial progress in the area.

However, she did note recent remarks attributed to President Gotabaya and Justice Minister Ali Sabry that she said were progress in their acknowledgement of the community and their rights.

“The first step would be to decriminalize same-sex sexual activities in the penal code,” said Hettiarachchi.

However, the lawyer does not see this happening anytime soon as any real reform can only take place in the legislature and the law cannot be challenged in court. “It needs to go through parliament to be changed,” she said.

At a lower level, she said, there are issues the community faces that can be changed, mainly with the police and the criminal justice system.

“One would be to sensitise and educate the police about the law of the country because either they are not aware or they are abusing the law,” said Hettiarachchi.

There are cases in which gay persons have been raided and arrested for being in the same hotel room and were subjected to anal examinations to determine if they had had sexual intercourse before the police arrived at the scene.

“Even according to the Penal Code, you cannot arrest a person for being gay and carry out tests to check if they were involved in sexual activity; but this is what’s happening in the country,” said Hettiarachchi.

“Basically, this is an abuse of law so the first step will be to educate the police and reduce arbitrary arrests and harassment for the community,” she said. (Colombo/Dec11/2021)

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment

Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Anwar: Not Malaysia’s Mandela, but something more

ECONOMYNEXT – Something extraordinary happened in Malaysia this week. After a bitterly fought general election with no clear winner, the King had the wisdom and the courage to appoint Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as Malaysia’s 10th Prime Minister.

To those observing from the outside, it was a remarkable sight. So, one can only imagine the gravity of the moment from the point of view of Malaysia’s new Prime Minister.

Anwar Ibrahim travelled to Istana Negara for the ceremony on Thursday from Sungai Long with his wife, the accomplished and independently remarkable Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, who for 24 years, has taken her husband’s crusade against corruption and bigotry in Malaysia and made it her own. When Anwar was imprisoned, she stood in for him and embodied his cause with an authenticity and ferocity that saw her become Malaysia’s first ever female opposition leader.

When they arrived at the ceremony, one of the many dignitaries assembled for Anwar’s swearing in was Malaysia’s Chief Justice, Tun Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, the first woman to hold that office, who herself has long stood out as a judge with little patience for corruption or abuse of power. Whether in the 1MDB appeals or in holding firm against other powerful special interests, she has embodied the kind of judicial independence for which Anwar has fought.

As Anwar, the Prime Minister in waiting, took the instrument of his appointment into his hand and began reciting his oaths, he must have felt the weight of every word he swore of the pledge he has long dreamt of taking. Perhaps no Malaysian politician has distinguished himself on the world stage as Anwar did as Malaysia’s finance minister between 1991 and 1998.

His outstanding performance in transforming the Malaysian economy and navigating the perils of the 1997 financial crisis, while lauded across the globe, threatened entrenched interests, leading not just to his sacking and repeated imprisonment, but to a systematic 24-year long campaign to tear him down, destroy his name, and vanquish the causes of good governance and egalitarianism that he stood for. It was a campaign that was almost comical in its corruption.

Beginning in September 1998, every time it ever looked like Anwar was raising his head and might score a major political victory, either an arrest, a court ruling, gerrymandering or some other element of state machinery interceded to intercept him and keep him from power.

His multiple imprisonments on what the world agrees are trumped up charges are well known, as is the black eye bestowed on him by the fists of Malaysia’s chief of police. However, it is often forgotten that his Pakatan Rakyat won a 51.4% majority of the popular vote at GE13 in 2013, “losing” the election in practice only because of the first past the post electoral system by which the votes were apportioned. Whatever else Malaysia’s elite entrenched special interests disagreed about, they all seemed to agree on one thing: stopping Anwar at all costs.

Most of those who sacrificed their conscience and integrity over the years to keep Anwar down are now out of the spotlight, shunned by the electorate, recognized for their crimes by the judiciary, or cast aside by their political handlers once their utility expired. None were present in the corridors of power at the royal ceremony last Thursday to witness the totality of their failure.

It was heartening to see the local markets react to Anwar’s appointment with the biggest rally they have shown in two years, and to see the world market respond through the Ringit seeing its best day in the currency market since 2016. As Anwar prioritizes tackling the skyrocketing cost of living for ordinary Malaysians in the backdrop of a looming global recession, these signals of confidence are a promising sign.

As he begins to combat poverty while forming his cabinet and steering a fragile coalition, the new Prime Minister will have to grapple with bringing about good governance, combatting corruption and ensuring judicial independence. With corruption as deep-rooted as Anwar himself has charged, he should expect and be prepared to combat the fiercest opposition and subterfuge. To those who live on graft, this is not just a matter of policy. They stand to lose everything, their livelihood and their liberty, if he succeeds.

It is difficult to argue against anti-corruption initiatives or transparency in government, so his opponents will try, as they did throughout his time in the opposition, to paint Anwar as an outsider, unpatriotic, anti-Malay, anti-Islam. It will be up to Anwar and those around him to ensure that from the bully pulpit of the Prime Minister’s office, he can show a larger swath of Malaysians who he is and unite them.

Anwar has the most essential quality of a unifying politician, in that he is a “we” politician and not a “me” politician. Notwithstanding the formidable cult of personality that has been built around him, he is quick to redirect any personal praise or flattery by sharing credit with others and putting them in the spotlight and doing so with a humility and sincerity that endears him to other leaders.

While Anwar Ibrahim is fond of calling himself a ‘village boy’ due to his affection for the simplest pleasures of life, there is nothing simple about his pedigree. He was born with UMNO in his blood, with an UMNO parliamentarian for a father and political organizer for a mother. He is accused of being anti-Malay for his egalitarian politics, even though his entire undergraduate education was devoted to the study of Malay culture, history and literature. The idea that he would oppose the legitimate interests of Malays is unthinkable.

So it is important that he succeed as Prime Minister where he failed as a candidate, in persuading more Malay people that they have nothing to fear from him. In fact, their interests are better served by a level playing field that would enable them to thrive and compete not just in the shelter of the cosy, subsidized affirmative action bubbles that other parties have tried to woo them with, but in the world at large.

Anwar’s in-depth study of the Bible does not make him any less devout a Muslim, but a stronger, more confident one. An unapologetic ally of the Palestinian people, Anwar’s opposition to the suffering imposed by Israelis on Palestinians is only sharpened, not blunted, by his assertion of Israel’s right to exist. He is confident in who he is. Even torture, and years spent in the darkest depths of solitary confinement in a gruesome prison cell were not able to make him waver in his values or political principles.

It is already evident that Anwar’s appointment has raised Malaysia’s standing in the world. Several governments who either vocally or privately protested the way he was treated over the last quarter century have responded to his appointment with a new vigor and eagerness to engage with Malaysia and deepen political and economic ties with the country. Anwar demonstrated in opposition that he has a gift for advocating for Malaysia on the world stage. As Prime Minister, this is a gift that will serve him in good stead.

Wherever they sit on the political spectrum, no Malaysian could deny the sincerity that Anwar brought to his first press conference on Thursday following his appointment. He means to do the job, and do it well, responding thoughtfully and obediently to the King’s direction to form a unity government. He has clearly taken to heart the words of the monarch that “those who won did not win everything, and those who lost did not lose everything.”

The lesson in that message for every politician is that Malaysians are sick and tired of political knife fighting, of “moves”, from Kajang moves to Sheraton moves. No doubt some confederacy of politicians are already plotting the next creative ‘move’ to bring Anwar down, but they may find themselves outmatched by history.

Pundits have quipped that Anwar’s journey this week was one of “prison to palace”, forgetting that he earned that particular honor on 16 May 2018, when he was released from prison and had to deal with the dizzying experience of being driven directly to the palace for an audience with then Yang di-Pertuan Agong Muhammad V. He has been dubbed Malaysia’s “Nelson Mandela” as both men were imprisoned for their politics and came to power soon after. But such reductions do little service to Anwar, whose time in prison, as horrific as it was, is not what defines him or best qualifies him to govern Malaysia in such perilous times.

Prime Minister Anwar was born Malay and has always been a devout Muslim. Unlike the African Mandela in white apartheid South Africa, Anwar was born to power. And he was not directly elected to his office by a clear majority as Mandela was, but instead, Anwar was appointed Prime Minister after no one won a majority. He is not Malaysia’s Mandela, or Malaysia’s Barack Obama. But history has examples more fitting of Anwar’s pedigree, principles and intellect.

There was another politician once, who, like Anwar, had the privilege of sailing into politics through an established political party. That politician too, like Anwar, was from the majority community, but over time grew to vocally oppose discriminatory policies and helped form a new political party. That politician too, like Anwar, was an accomplished orator and compelling communicator. And he did not directly win nomination for the American presidency in May 1860. Instead, he was selected following much debate after no candidate secured a clear majority. And just like Anwar will have to do in the coming days, President Abraham Lincoln had to assemble a broad coalition, a team of rivals, to get his country through the most perilous of times.

Prime Minister Anwar shares other qualities with America’s most revered President. Lincoln too was known for having little patience for pettiness, and to extend a hand of friendship to sworn rivals. The American President’s devotion to his children was also legendary. Anwar rarely responds to questions about his ordeal in prison without sharing his anguish that his five daughters and only son had to endure in watching their father suffer and be persecuted.

Having either taught or studied at schools of the calibre of Oxford, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, an astute student of history such as Prime Minister Anwar has no doubt already drawn some of these parallels and knows how to take the right pages out of Lincoln’s book to thread the political needle and form a stable government. As a battle-tested politician, there is little doubt that if any Malaysian can rise to the challenge and hold together a team of rivals, it is Anwar Ibrahim.

For Anwar to truly succeed, he will have to transform Malaysian politics and bring about the paradigm shift in Malaysia’s political culture that his supporters have rallied behind for so long. Anwar may be the first Malaysian Prime Minister since independence who does not plan to leave behind a legacy for his children of titles, property, monuments or fortunes.

Anwar’s own oldest daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar, in her congratulatory message to her father, said that the legacy she expects to be left for the next generation is not a material one, but one of “ideals, principles and values that cannot be bought or sold.” Over the last 24-years, Anwar, his family, his party, and their supporters have braved unimaginable odds to take this simple message to Malaysians.

Whatever policy compromises Anwar may have to make to assemble a stable coalition government, he, like Lincoln, will be defined by whether he is able to remain true to his core principles while governing effectively. After so many years of struggle, so many years of trying to awaken Malaysians to the future that could await them if they unleashed the potential of all Malaysians and empowered grassroots industries and businesses to thrive, Anwar will finally get a chance to show them through deeds instead of words.

Continue Reading

Sri Lanka contemplating law to limit grace period offered to state university students

File photo of IUSF protest

ECONOMYNEXT —  Sri Lanka plans to introduce legislation limiting the grace period offered to undergraduate students at state universities to complete their degree to no more than one and a half years, an official said as student unions cried foul.

State Minister of Higher Education Suren Raghavan told reporters on Monday November 28 that said discussions will be held with university students and student leaders in this regard, even as the Inter University Student Federation (IUSF) expressed vehement opposition to the move.

“Some students who were selected to the degree programme, are doing anything but the degree,” the state minister said.

If the proposal becomes law, students following three-year and four-year undergraduate programmes at state universities will be able to take only up to four-and-a-half and six-and-a-half years respectively to finish their studies.

Raghavan said the grace period is generally offered to students who need more time to complete their degree due to health reasons, problems at home or social issues in the country at large.

“We will discuss this with students and student leaders. I think the time given is sufficient,” he said.

IUSF Acting Convenor Terance Rodrigo was quoted by a daily English-langauge newspaper as saying that the student body is holding internal discussions on their position on the government decision but it is already of the view that the move is an attempt to stifle the political activism of student unions.

The IUSF played a leading role in Sri Lanka’s youth-led Aragalaya protests that ousted ex President Gotabaya Rajapaksa over his and his government’s handling of the worst currency crisis in decades.

IUSF convenor Wasantha Mudalige is currently in detention after being arrested under provisions in the controversial Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Mudalige has been an undergraduate student for nearly a decade, with his politics and student activism purportedly getting in the way of his education.

Incumbent President Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has been criticised by human rights defenders and opposition lawmakers for an alleged crackdown on the Aragalaya protests, insinuated in a speech in parliament last week that Mudalige is no university student as he has still hasn’t finished his studies.

Wickremesinghe is not alone in this sentiment, however. Critics of the IUSF and even some sympathisers have spoken critically of what they call Mudalige’s “state-funded overstay”. Others, however, have defended him and other student leaders as those doing important and necessary work by fighting in the trenches to protect and uphold the people’s rights. (Colombo/Nov28/2022)

Continue Reading

Sri Lanka shares end at two-week high; turnover highest since Oct 13

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka shares closed at a two-week high and the market generated the highest turnover over six-weeks on Monday on speculation interest rates fall in line with the inflation and Expolanka’s expansion plans, brokers said.

The market witnessed a turnover of 2.4 billion rupees, slighty less than this year’s daily average turnover of 2.9 billion rupees. This is the highest turnover generated since October 13.

“Bourse commenced the week on a positive note and continued to see strength for the second consecutive day as investors speculate interest rates to continue to fall in line with inflation in the upcoming months,” First Capital Market Research said in it’s daily note.

“Moreover, bullish sentiment continued on EXPO since last week following the announcement of a possible acquisition of logistic companies.”

Central bank governor said the market rates should eventually ease despite the fears of a domestic debt restructuring as inflation falls, increased liquidity in dollar markets, and the inter-bank liquidity improves.

The main All Share Price Index (ASPI) closed 1.99 percent or 161.88 points higher at 8,309.94, highest index gain in since November 14.

Previously analysts said the market is moving in a bull-trap with short-lived buying and selling sentiments because investors are not confident in market sustainability.

In the past sessions, the index continued to fall on the speculation of a local debt restructuring although no proper decision has been taken so far.

State Minister for Finance Shehan Semasinghe told parliament during the budget debate on Wednesday that Sri Lanka will continue to pay its domestic loans and no local debt restructuring has been discussed.

The budget saw policies that will increase the cost of doing business across the board, but relieve the government from depending on excess money printing, analysts say.

The market saw a foreign outflow of 146,403 rupees, bucking an inflow trend in the last eight straight sessions.

The total net foreign inflow stood at 18.29 billion rupees so far for this year.

The more liquid index S&P SL20 closed 2.94 percent or 74.58 points higher at 2,612.76.

The ASPI has fallen 3.3 percent so far in November after losing 13.4 percent in October.

It has lost 32 percent year-to-date after being one of the world’s best stock markets with an 80 percent return last year when large volumes of money were printed.

Expolanka pushed the index up to close at 11.6 percent to 182.3 rupees.

Other top gainers were Browns Investment gained 19.6 percent to close at 6.10 rupees and LOLC gained 8.2 percent to close at 368.3 rupees.(Colombo/Nov28/2022)

Continue Reading