On 20 May, Jaffna came to a standstill, with the shops being shut and black flags raised in memory of Vidya Sivaloganathan, the 17-year-old A-level student brutally gang raped and murdered. This came alongside the biggest public demonstrations in Sri Lanka’s north in recent years. Vidya was found the day after her parents filed a missing persons report and a subsequent search was launched in Pugudutheevu. Her body was in a dishevelled state with her hands and legs tied to a tree log using her school tie, and her mouth was stuffed with a rag.
The finding of the body sparked anger that spread in the form of rage across the island. Students from schools across the north and east showed their rage starting with the students from Vidya’s school. From the Kytes island, this sense of solidarity spread to Jaffna, Killinochi and Batticaloa, including students from Muslim girls’ schools, taking to the streets. They were protesting to condemn the brutal act and to demand that the culprits be brought to book.
As a consequence, nine suspects were arrested, one of whom was arrested in Wellawatha as he was about to return to Switzerland following his holiday in Sri Lanka. The day that the suspects were brought before the Jaffna magistrates court saw an unprecedented number of protesters on the streets of the city. They showed a lot of rage and emotion, with some asking the shops to shut down and come and join the protest. Some demanded that the suspects be handed over to them to receive a brutal punishment.
What began as a largely peaceful protest turned violent as state forces fired tear gas at the protesters and fired gunshots in the air. This was a huge overreaction to the throwing of stones at the court windows. This antagonised the protesters, who defended themselves against the police. The result was that more than 120 people were arrested – protesters and bystanders. Some are still in police jails. Five policemen were wounded and prison vans that were parked at the court were set on fire.
Demonstrations in Jaffna have now been banned, with arrest on the spot being issued to anyone protesting – a total denial of democratic rights. Meanwhile, peaceful protests have been taking place widely in the eastern province and in the south, where the public registered their condolences on this horrific rape and murder
So, why did this case spark so much anger, unlike other similar incidents that are on the rise in Sri Lanka in recent years? The public outcry expressed the fear that the criminals will get away without prosecution. And this fear is just, knowing Sri Lanka’s reputation that such crimes often go unpunished.
In the north and east, in particular Punudutheevu, which has the highest cases of rape, there are several influential factors. From a depopulated area, where over 50% of its inhabitants live outside the country, to the high tourist traffic to Nainatheevu, spaced out houses, high militarisation and the presence of active state paramilitary groups, the population is at greater risk, women in particular. Crimes committed with impunity are greater due to these factors – and to the inability or lack of will to trace the perpetrators.
When the crime was reported the police had initially disregarded the complaint by the parents. They said it was a family feud. However, they soon had to change their position due to the pressure they were under. This highlights the complete lack of police accountability to the local population. In fact, they are seen as part of an occupying force, not even speaking the language of local people.
There are reports that the ex-president, Mahinda Rajapakse, is trying to use the situation to whip up further chauvinism, claiming that there is a risk of the rise of the ‘terrorism’. There is also wide speculation about Rajapakse’s possible links to the groups that disrupted the protest, to cause trouble in order to justify the police intervention and militarisation.
Some people say that the protests were initially allowed by Maithripala Sirisena’s government as a stunt just before the elections to show that he allows more freedom of speech. However, his government has now banned the right to protest and to freedom of expression.
The objectification of women is a huge issue in Sri Lanka, as in all developing countries – and around the world. However, the problems are further enhanced by the militarisation in the north and east of Lanka, and by the land grab. Tamils are treated as second-class citizens, with no real rights, and crimes against them can be committed with impunity. The vulnerability of women to attack is also worsened by the lack of social and public services, the lack of good housing and of future prospects.
Tamil Solidarity stands with the protesters and strongly condemns crimes of sexual violence. We welcome the mass expression of rage and strong sense of solidarity across the island.
- An end to violence against women – and for fully funded support services for women
- The immediate release of all those arrested in the protests
- Police accountability to local people – and an end to police and state violence
- An end to the militarisation and land-grab
- A mass house-building programme and for decent education, training and jobs
- The right to protest
- The freedom of speech and freedom to organise
- Full workers’ and democratic rights