Groundviews

‘National security’ in post-war Sri Lanka: Women’s (In) security in the North

Photo from Hear My VOICE: Jalajakumari Selvarasa ~ “I could often feel the nostalgia”

Resurrecting the ‘undead Tiger’[1] to secure the citizen: How the situation of women belie the dominant security narrative

‘The world should appreciate our successful anti-terrorist effort. But today we are being hounded by those who turned a blind eye to LTTE atrocities over the years, particularly its widespread use of child combatants in war against the security forces. Children are no longer at the risk of being abducted on their way to school or back. Girls are no longer forced to wear suicide jackets and throw themselves at military and civilian targets.’- President Mahinda Rajapakse in an interview to The Island, 18 April 2011.

‘We should not have to feel afraid. We should have the freedom to travel freely without fear.’-woman from Vadamaraatchi in Northern Sri Lanka

The state of emergency remains in place nearly two years after the end of the war. It is renewed every month in parliament with the government, as Tisaranee Gunasekera says, resurrecting the ‘undead Tiger’ to justify its renewal. Even following the end of the war, national security laws continue to impact adversely on the lives of the citizens of Sri Lanka, with the Tamils bearing the brunt of it. Tamil women, particularly in the North, whose lives have been altered considerably by these laws, live within a space that the majority of the population does not know exists; their voices silenced and their stories unheard.

The dominant security narrative constructed by the government gives pride of place to the military and continued militarization of the country in general, and the North in particular, and ignores the security concerns of these women, which in most instances challenge the government narrative, sometimes even unwittingly. For instance, women who make interventions to seek answers from the state about the death and disappearances of their family members, which it has consistently denied, are viewed by the state as engaging in deliberate efforts to tarnish the image of the country and derail government efforts to construct a narrative that portrays Sri Lanka as a peaceful, democratic country which after 30 years of conflict is on its way to economic growth and greatness. These women are therefore viewed as threats by the government.

Women in the North consider the presence of the military as the primary cause of insecurity, with women of the Vanni feeling this more acutely than those in Jaffna. Since many communities in the Vanni tend to be female-headed due to the death, disappearance or detention under the Emergency Regulations or the Prevention of Terrorism Act of the male family member (s), the lack of male presence in homes only serves to increase this sense. According to many women who had previously lived in the Vanni, they felt more secure there prior to the end of the war. The feelings of insecurity seem to be related to fears for physical security, due to living in a heavily militarized environment without any male members of the family, and the presence of the army, which they view as alien and speaks a language they do not understand. The presence of the military leads women to make a conscious effort to limit movements out of their homes and communities. These self-imposed restrictions impact adversely on their ability to access livelihood options and education opportunities. Many Vanni inhabitants who had returned to the Vanni in the past year, and those who have returned to Jaffna, had originally moved to the Vanni as they felt their children were vulnerable to arrest and disappearance by the armed forces in the Jaffna peninsula. Women in the Vanni express their anguish and anger about forced recruitment, particularly of children, by the LTTE and speak of the suffering they experienced during the last stages of the war due to being held as human shields by the LTTE. Yet, despite that, the fact women feel they were safer when the Vanni was under the control of the LTTE only illustrates the great physical and economic insecurities they currently face.

The sense of insecurity felt by women is exacerbated by the numerous informal forms of surveillance and monitoring that are implemented by the security forces. The fear generated by these activities also leads the community to suspect anyone who has any contact with the army. For instance, those, such as alleged former combatants who go to the Civil Affairs Office (CAO) or the army point to report and sign-in, are viewed with suspicion and fear by the community which thinks they could act as informants for the army. Further, it has been reported that those who work for the CAO in some capacity, either formal or informal, use their connections to escape the legal and social consequences of their actions. For example, women who challenged the second marriage of, or demanded maintenance from their husbands, were threatened to withdraw their complaints and prevented from seeking legal assistance by the men using their links with the army or with the local CAO.

Although women in the North lack space to express their concerns openly, once again this is most intensely felt in the Vanni. Several reports from women, community groups, activists and non-governmental organisations working in the Vanni illustrate the strictures laid down by the army to regulate communal gatherings. For instance, prior notification has to be given to the army of any meeting or workshop that is held, with the policy being that in the case of a workshop or a formal meeting that had the participation of persons living outside the Vanni, even when notification was provided army officers attended the meeting and observed the proceedings, while they attended smaller community gatherings, such as women’s societies and savings groups, only if the organisers failed to provide prior notification.

The impact of economic insecurity on the ability of women to access remedies

‘Tamil lawyers are afraid to get involved (in PTA/ER cases); they are afraid they will be stamped as pro-LTTE. Women’s access to legal representation is therefore limited’- lawyer.

A large number of conflict affected women have no independent means of income as they have relied economically on male family members. Therefore, following the death, disappearance or detention of the male family member, these women have been deprived of their sole means of income and are struggling to meet their daily basic household needs. Some rely on immediate or extended family or engage in day labour for which they receive Rs.300, while others supply food to the local eatery or shop or are involved in cottage industries, such as weaving. As the women are not part of a formal mechanism, such as a co-operative, their incomes are subject to the vagaries of their personal situation, such as ill-health.

Women whose family members are in detention or in a rehabilitation centre face great difficulties visiting them due to the lack of a permanent income. Although the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) provides a travel allowance to families of those held in detention centres, including rehabilitation centres, only families of persons who were registered by the ICRC are able to access the allowance. Hence, while the families of those who were registered at rehabilitation centres by the ICRC before it was denied access to the centres in July 2009 benefit from this service, families of those who were sent to the centres after this period are unable to claim travel assistance. This means that a woman in the Northern Province who earns Rs.300 by engaging in day labour will not be able to travel to a rehabilitation centre in Welikanda in the North Central Province to visit her husband. If she does, she would have to borrow money which places her further in debt. In addition, since most women prefer to travel with a companion as they do not feel safe travelling alone, they also have to meet the costs of the second person. Since November 2010, when the government requested ICRC to close its operations in the North and operate solely from Colombo, women from the North have to spend limited resources travelling to the ICRC office outside the North to receive the allowance. Depending on the place of origin the cost of such travel might be considerably more than the allowance they obtain.

Further, these women have no information regarding the plight of their family members other than the fact the person is either in detention or being held at a rehabilitation centre. Because women, particularly those in the Vanni, often have no knowledge about how to access legal services to even obtain information regarding the detained person’s legal status, they, like their detained family members, inhabit a legal black hole. Women often learn their family member has been transferred from one detention centre to another, or from a rehabilitation centre to another, or from a rehabilitation centre to a detention centre or vice versa, only when they visit the rehabilitation/detention centre. Hence, they are forced to expend not only time and energy, but also precious resources, thereby increasing their economic insecurity

The long arm of the national security regime: Monitoring & surveillance in the North

‘Everyone knows the former combatants will be monitored. People stay away from us as they are afraid they might get into trouble’- alleged former combatant

There are numerous unofficial processes, made possible by the sweeping powers given to the military and law enforcement officials by the national security laws and the resultant climate and culture of impunity, which impact adversely on the lives of women.

One such process is the registration of civilians by the army that was being implemented in Jaffna and Kilinochchi. This process was not implemented in all parts of the North nor was uniform procedure used in every area. In some communities in Kayts, only displaced persons from the Vanni were summoned to a meeting with the army at which they were registered. In Thenmaraatchi not all houses were registered. Initially, the army visited only some houses and obtained personal details related to the inhabitants. During the registration process at least one officer who spoke Tamil was present but a female army officer was never present. Questions were asked in Tamil and the answers written in Sinhala in a CR exercise book. The questions asked were also not uniform in all parts of the North. While households in Thenmaraatchi were asked what can be termed ‘usual’[2] questions such as number of persons in the family, date of birth, national identity card numbers, and place of occupation, persons in the Vanni were even asked about the sanitation facilities in the houses, i.e. do you have a toilet in your house? Some households in Thenmaraatchi that were registered were given a token with a number written on it and were told that it was their house number. The community understood this to mean that only persons under suspicion were issued the said token.

In Thenmaraatchi, houses were visited a second time, but once again there does not appear to be a system as even houses that were not visited the first time were approached the second time and asked whether their names were on the registration list. This list reportedly was in English and contained mainly names of displaced persons from the Vanni. If the inhabitants said their names were not on the list the army merely went away. As mentioned above, when the army undertook a re-registration process in the Vanni in February 2011 they asked what the households required to rebuild their lives and all requests were written down. In some instances the army also gave a number written on a piece of paper to persons, which they were required to hold close to their chest, and used the mobile phone to photograph them. Despite the Attorney-General giving an undertaking to the Supreme Court on 3 March 2011, when the fundamental rights petition filed by Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarians seeking the termination of registration was heard, that the registration of persons in Jaffna and Killinochchi districts would be stopped forthwith, people in Killinochchi were still being registered on 6 March. Women felt that the army was using registration as an excuse to pay frequent visits to the homes with no male inhabitants. All these factors coupled with the night patrols undertaken by the army worsen the vulnerability of these women.

In addition to being subject to scrutiny by the state, the families of those who were disappeared, detained or killed were stigmatized and shunned by the community due to fear. For instance, families of those who were killed or disappeared during 2006-2008 felt stigmatized and targeted at the time, and feared they would be identified as a family that supported the LTTE. These families were shunned by the community due to fear they were under surveillance by the army. At present, people who were displaced from the Vanni face the same fate in Jaffna. In an effort to safeguard themselves from what appeared to be a return to violence in the Northern peninsula in early 2011, whenever people were abducted or killed, the community would say that the victims were persons who had come from the Vanni. Therefore, in the Jaffna peninsula those from the Vanni are sometimes looked upon as problems, since they are thought to have brought with them from the Vanni to Jaffna, more security checks and an increased army presence.

The impact of the lack of redress mechanisms on women

‘If only they would respect Tamils as humans’an alleged former combatant expressing her frustration about spending months and considerable funds trying to access services at a government department in Colombo.

Despite lacking faith in official structures, such as the Human Rights Commission, women continue to lodge complaints and submit appeals because they feel there are no other means of redress.

The inability to access services at government departments in the South due to language difficulties is an additional factor that increases the insecurity of Tamil women from the North. For instance, if a woman who has recently been released from a rehabilitation centre has to travel to Colombo for the purpose of accessing services at a government office, she would have a family member or friend accompany her to Colombo due to concerns about travelling alone and also an interpreter if she and her family member/friend do not speak Sinhala, since government officials in the South invariably do not speak Tamil. In addition to travel costs and accommodation for three persons she also has to pay the interpreter Rs.1,500 to Rs. 2,000 for interpretation at each site/office.

Women’s struggles to define their own identities:  The importance of women’s oral history

The ‘(culture) has been ruined by the LTTE. There is this 19 year old girl in one of the IDP camps; she has had seven children! Every year she got pregnant because then the LTTE would not take her away to fight. And, they don’t even know the father’…We don’t want to publicize all this, although I did mention it in one of my speeches’- President Mahinda Rajapakse in an interview with N.Ram, The Hindu, 8 July 2009

At present, there is little space for women to tell their stories or write their histories. Instead, several actors engage in the process of appropriating their voices and constructing a history of women’s experience of the war. These narratives, which are not founded on the voices of women, disregard, or are unaware of, or insensitive to the losses women have suffered and the fluid and complex realities within which they struggle to live with dignity. Hence, these narratives in some cases, are constructed by those who function solely within certain ideological or political frameworks and though well-intentioned, do not speak of the issues that most concern women. In other instances, the supposed ‘concerns of women’ are used in purely politically opportunistic ways. In this context, recording women’s voices takes on a new imperative as it would contribute towards recording and institutionalizing knowledge and thereby a history of the conflict and displacement. It has been argued that a ‘sufficient time has to lapse and even a new generation emerge before critical questions can be asked that will vitiate the ‘historical void that had been created in the social ability to convey and listen to testimony’.[3] Narratives of women contradict this as it appears that women are desperate to be heard. Feminist scholarship has highlighted the importance of oral history which challenges the pre-eminence given to the textual record. For the Tamil women, particularly those most affected by the war, i.e. displaced women and alleged former combatants, oral narratives are the only means at their disposal to record their experiences, trauma and survival mechanisms. Both the state and the LTTE have appropriated written/textual history. Hence these women have no space within the dominant narrative to place their stories on record, as part of historical record. We have to confront and challenge the silence of women in the dominant narrative of conflict and displacement as ‘The “not telling” of the story serves as a perpetuation of its tyranny’, which has the potential to provoke deep distortions in memory and the organization of everyday life later on, the fact that these are narratives which cannot be heard and cannot be witnessed to is what constitutes a ‘mortal death blow to the survivor’.[4]


[1] The phrase used by Tisaranee Gunasekera in Re-defining patriotism as unquestioning loyalty to the ruling Rajapakse family, Transcurrents, 12 March 2011 at http://transcurrents.com/tc/2011/03/redefining_patriotism_as_unque.html

[2] Since Tamils in all parts of the country have been registered by the army or the police several times over the past decade there are some questions which have been asked every time, most often basic personal information.

[3] Jelin quoted in Neloufer de Mel, ‘The Promise of the Archive Memory, Testimony and the Archive’, Militarizing Sri Lanka: Popular Culture, Memory and Narrative in the Armed Conflict, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2007, p.248.

[4] Dori Lamb quoted in Elizabeth Jelin, State Repression and the Labors of Memory, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London, 2003, p. 63, 65 cited in De Mel (2007:255).