Brian Senewiratne, Sexual Violence Against Tamils In Sri Lanka

By Charles Ponnuthurai Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

I’ve never met the author (hereafter sometimes referred to as BS), a medical doctor long settled in Australia, but have heard of his reputation as a human-rights campaigner fighting against discrimination and injustice, be they based on ‘race’, religion, caste or skin-colour. Among the recognition he has received is the Canadian Genocide Educators Award (2008). On 13 January 1898 Émile Zola published an open letter to the President of France accusing him of ‘racism’ and injustice in the case of Dreyfus, a member of the small Jewish community. Zola’s ringing J’accuse! is now a common generic expression of outrage and accusation against those who use power unjustly and cruelly. Sexual Violence can be seen as a Sri Lankan “I accuse”, and is dedicated to those who “have no voice, no land, no life and no hope”. (Words within quotation marks, unless otherwise stated, are from this book.) The crime of Tamils is to have been born Tamil, writes BS, and now they are treated as the “spoils of war”. Usually, a war ends when one side surrenders but, sometimes, the aggression continues into (so-called) peace time. Genocide is of two kinds, the second being gradual and relentless, less dramatic, unnoticed by outsiders and, finally, more pernicious (BS). For the accusations he levels, Dr Senewiratnerelies, among others, on international publications (including the much-respected medical journal, The Lancet) and, as a medical doctor, on his own examination of some of the victims in Australia.

brian-senewiratne-sexual-violence-against-tamils-in-sri-lankaThough the title focuses on rape, this most despicable of crimes is placed within a wider context of violence and injustice. The picture Dr Senewiratne presents is of an entire civilian population helpless against those who have power and enjoy full immunity. Land is forcibly grabbed to build security camps, holiday resorts and farms. Those being settled in the North and East are the very people who have perpetrated crimes: their contempt and brutality continue. Street names are changed from Tamil to Sinhala. The education of Tamil children is “being conducted by Sinhalese (almost all of them former military people) who have no expertise in teaching and even less knowledge of Tamil or Tamil culture” (BS). The military and the police control all aspects of life in the North and East: they have to be informed even if a funeral or a wedding is being organised (BS). Sexual harassment has led to girls dropping out of school, particularly in rural areas: the harassment includes lewd comments and soldiers exposing themselves. By way of contrast, the author cites a report by Sarvodayawritten when the LTTE controlled territory: women in these areas felt safe to walk by themselves even late in the night. By all accounts, when it came to sexual mores, the LTTE were puritans.

Given the crude and unrestrained nature of the armed forces and the police; given the utter helplessness of the civilian population for whom they have the utmost contempt; given that they are not called to account, Dr Brian Senewiratne charges that rape in the North and East has “epidemic proportions”. Rape occurs in the large number of army and navy “camps that have opened all over the North and East”; in police stations, in camps for internally-displaced persons, in interrogation centres and in Tamil homes many of which are bereft of men. Through fear of further sexual torture; an awareness that justice will not be done; through a sense of shame, most victims remain silent. I will spare readers the details of sexual torture and abject humiliation inflicted: they must read Sexual Violence for themselves. Some of the material is there in the Human Rights Watch publication, ‘We Will Teach You a Lesson: Sexual Violence against Tamils by Sri Lankan Security Forces’, 2013: see Sarvan, ‘Colombo Telegraph’, 3 April 2015. See also, A Still Unfinished War: Sri Lanka’s Survivors of Torture and Sexual Violence, 2009 – 2015, International Truth & Justice Project, reviewed by me in ‘Colombo Telegraph’, 11 August 2015. If by “beasts” we mean animals, then to describe such behaviour as “bestial” would be an injustice to animals. (A student of mine once pointed out that the word “inhumane” needs examination since it implies that human beings are by nature humane.)

The trauma resulting from deliberate sexual humiliation, torture and rape of this nature is life-long. Most victims are permanently injured, crippled, both mentally and emotionally, if not also physically. “There is not the slightest doubt that there is an increase in psychiatric problems … of men and women being unable to cope with the escalating violation of their human rights”, and despairing of the future. “Disturbingly, there are reports that the military has refused to allow psychiatric counselling” adds Dr Senewiratne. Prem Nivasa(House of Love), in Moratuwa, a suburb of Colombo, was an orphanage for destitute and unwed pregnant women run by Sister Mary Elizer, an Indian nun belonging to the Missionaries of Charity founded by Mother Theresa. “On 26 November 2011, acting on one single anonymous telephone call”, Sister Mary was arrested and charged with child trafficking. If those who run places of succour in the Sinhalese south face such problems, “it is an even more difficult and dangerous operation in the Tamil North and East under the heel of the Sinhalese military” (BS).

The author quotes the response of Rajiva Wijesinha when asked by a foreign journalist about the rape of detainees: “We received a report that a soldier went into a tent at 11pm and came out at 3am. It could have been sex for pleasure, it could have been sex for favours, or it could have been a discussion on Ancient Greek philosophy, we don’t know.” Without contempt there can be no callous cruelty of this nature. The contempt here is aimed at the soldier and, far more, at the helpless, hapless, victim. In turn, contempt towards another implies a sense of one’s own superiority, and here the speaker indirectly points to his having read Greek philosophy (though, evidently, it has had no practical, positive, impact on him). This may cause disappointment but not surprise because one can study and teach lofty literary texts; be suave in manner but crude and cruel in nature, lacking the imagination which leads to empathy. No doubt, such an example calls into question the value of the Humanities. Dickens and Kipling did not escape the infections of their times, nor did Eliot remain uncontaminated by anti-Semitism. The “lofty” philosopher, Martin Heidegger, was an unrepentant Nazi. As a child, Anita Lasker-Wallfisch was sent to a Nazi extermination camp but was spared when it was discovered that she was a cellist: the commander of the women’s camp, Maria Mandl, a brutal woman known as ‘the Beast’, loved classical music. The notorious Dr Josef Mengele, ‘the Angel of Death’, conducted medical experiments on human beings at Auschwitz, experiments which included attempts to change eye-colour by injecting chemicals into the eyes of living subjects. The learned doctor was particularly interested in carrying out scientific experiments on children, identical twins, some of whom called him “Uncle” because he was kind to them – initially. After a macabre day’s work of scientific inquiry and investigation, suave, cultured and cultivated Mengele would demand that classical music be played for him by little Anita. Evidently not seeing any irony, one of his favourite pieces of music was Träumerei” (Dreaming), a hauntingly beautiful piece from Schumann’s suite, ‘Scenes from Childhood’! (New Statesman, 30 October – 5 November 2015, pages 29 – 30). But this is not the place to discuss the value and effectiveness of the Humanities, including Literature and the high Arts.

Many expatriate Tamils visiting the Island enjoy themselves like other tourists: beaches and scenic sights; hotels and restaurants, socialising and shopping. When those who did visit the North and East are asked about the plight of the people, they reply that “the roads are excellent and there is prosperity everywhere”, and that the people “seemed happy enough” (Senewiratne). Somewhat similarly, the percentage of the hundreds of thousands of diaspora Tamils worldwide who remember and care is very small, though the Tamil diaspora generally is accused of lying and creating trouble. Most diaspora Tamils are either struggling to survive (in material, if not also in mental and emotional, terms) or are preoccupied with enjoying new-found freedoms and opportunity: they have, to use that glib phrase, “moved on”.

Unless there is a fundamental change in attitude and conduct, Dr Brian Senewiratne states that the Tamils “will be reduced to non-people who merely exist”: see the report (19 October 2016) of the Swiss-based ‘Society for Threatened Peoples’ appended below. As I used to suggest to students, there are three qualitative levels of protest. The first is where someone protests because she or her group is victimised. This is natural, understandable and to be expected. The second, higher, level is where we show concern for a group with whom we have no personal connection and, what is more, nothing to gain. This is disinterested (not to be confused with “uninterested”) help. The third and highest level of protest is when there is a situation of oppression and exploitation by the group to which we belong. Being part of the group, we stand to profit and yet we protest. One thinks of those who opposed apartheid in South Africa though, being white, they stood to gain in status, power and privilege. There are Israelis today who work against the treatment meted out to the Palestinians. Similarly, Sri Lanka has produced Sinhalese individuals who oppose the treatment of Tamils because they are motivated by high principle and broad compassion: treat all others as you yourself would like to be treated. These Sinhalese see Tamils as fully equal fellow citizens and human beings. They criticise because they care; they criticise because they love their country, and want it to change for the better. But such Sinhalese face incomprehension (“anti-Sinhalese”), even hatred, and are branded as traitors. I quote words from Neville Jayaweera’s tribute to Adrian Wijemanne: “He was ostracised by his former colleagues and even close relations frowned on him… I believe that what motivated Wijemanne was a total dedication to justice and righteousness as he saw it”. He espoused the Tamil cause “because he believed that it was the right thing to do, whatever the cost, and expediency and opportunism never stained his motives. He simply loathed injustice and oppression per se, by whomever perpetrated, not only in Sri Lanka, but wherever it manifested itself in the world, and he spoke up unequivocally on the side of the Bosnians, the Palestinians and the Checknyans… Wijemanne held very strong views on the subject of terror and terrorism. While condemning terror, he also refused to draw a distinction between state terror and non-state terror. Terror is terror by whomsoever inflicted, and he held that state terror was in fact more reprehensible because it cloaked evil in the vestments of legality and legitimacy… more often than not, it is the state that casts the first stone and that non-state terror is invariably a last-resort response by an underclass to sustained and systematic provocation by the state.”

Dr Brian Senewiratne is also a Sinhalese: indeed, I am led to believe that he is related to some prominent individuals in Sri Lanka. Though there is “widespread apathy rather than a sense of outrage among civilians, at all levels, in Sri Lanka” (BS), it is still hoped that rather than the easy, knee-jerk, reaction of denial and personal abuse, Senewiratne’s “accusations” will be examined honestly and thoroughly. The apathetic and the uninterested – be they Sinhalese or Tamil – make themselves complicit in crime and “sin”.


The Society for Threatened Peoples Switzerland (STP) published today together with their Sri Lankan partners National Fisheries Solidarity Movement (NAFSO) their report “Under the Military´s Shadow – Local Communities and Militarization on the Jaffna Peninsula”. The report indicates that the military on the Jaffna Peninsula in the North of Sri Lanka is systematically violating the human rights even seven years after the end of the war. The military grabbed land unlawfully and denied the access to sea and land for local farmers and fishers. Several Thousands still live in “Internally Displaced People” (IDP) camps where the standard of living is not adequate for families. The STP recommends that the “Government of Sri Lanka” (GoSL) returns the occupied land to their traditional owners.

STP and NAFSO reviewed the impact of the militarization on the local population on the Jaffna Peninsula. The region remains highly-militarized. The military presence has not reduced since the end of the war. The military surveils, intimidates and harasses the local population, activists and NGO staff. Over 25 years ago, the military occupied large areas of land. Consequently, the former inhabitants lost their access to land and sea. The Ocean Grabbing of the military has destroyed the livelihood of the former inhabitants. Furthermore, the commercial activities of the military, like tourism and agriculture, deprive local communities of an important income source.

Situation in IDP Camps and the resettlement process

Even though the war ended seven years ago, tens of thousands of people are still internally displaced on the Jaffna Peninsula. Several thousand of them continue to live in IDP Camps, where the precarious living conditions are not adequate for families, particularly women-headed families. Currently the GoSL is releasing some areas of occupied land. Some parts will, however, remain occupied. The government is resettling IDPs on the released land. Some of the IDPs were resettled on their traditional land where fishing and farming is possible. The other resettlement areas, where people were resettled without their consent, are mostly unsuitable for agriculture and fishing. Therefore, they cannot develop their traditional livelihood.

Demilitarize the Jaffna Peninsula

The STP and NAFSO urge the GoSL to reduce the military presence, to cease the surveillance of local population and order the military to end all of their commercial activities. Furthermore, the government is urged to release all occupied areas to their traditional owners and consult the IDPs on the resettlement process. The STP and NAFSO also recommend that the government support resettling IDPs to develop their traditional livelihood and provide them with sufficient basic facilities such as drinking water, electricity and sanitary facilities and ensure access to schools and health facilities. For women-headed households in particular, an adequate standard of living free from hunger and malnutrition needs to be ensured by the government.

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