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An emotive issue needs a solution, not an overreaction


Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Saturday, 4 February 2017 00:00


By Freida de Silva

Stalling a little bit on the gay rights issue was taken to be a kidney punch by Sri Lankan civil society, and at the time of writing it appears that many of its vocal leaders are taking this turn of events personally. For those who have been tuned-out, it was reported this week that the Cabinet of Ministers had decided against amending longstanding Penal Code Provisions that criminalise homosexuality.

Keep people guessing and do not play into hands of the enemy. If that core principle of principled politics is not understood by Sri Lankan civil society, its movers should learn a thing or two perhaps, by reading up on the strategies of civil rights activists, such as Martin Luther King Jr.

As far as this writer understands it, the Penal Code provisions criminalising homosexual activity would not be overturned, decided the Cabinet this week, and the lapsed and moribund legislation enacted by the British colonial power therefore would be allowed to remain in its lapsed and moribund form. The recent Cabinet decision is not exactly a symbolic victory for Paul and his boyfriend Premalal, but if a symbolic victory is to be had, hasn’t it got to be worth that symbolic little bit of, er, symbolism?

However, this writer is certain that the regime would work towards dismantling the criminalisation of homosexuality when its decision makers are certain that they would no longer be playing into the hands of the enemy.

Who is enemy as we can understand? Is it the leadership of the Sinhala Buddhist majority community that Premalal and Paul, and every other thinking person thinks, is dangerously close to propelling the nation towards a resurgence of Rajapaksaism?

Hardly. If the Sinhala Buddhist brains trusts, or the Maha Sanga, were intolerant of gays in the times of the Buddhist Kings of the Mahawamsa, there would have been no need for a Victorian era British Colonial Government to criminalise homosexuality with codified law, would there?

Arguably, there has been a latent, or at least a plainly hidden semblance of homosexuality historically occurring in Buddhist temples and monasteries, and this fact may signify a tribute to the Buddhist monks, who have never taken umbrage at the mention of this fact, in our literary canon.

The above assertion is not a myth passed on by oral tradition, but rather what’s closer to the truth as far as ancient Buddhist Sri Lankan attitudes to homosexuality are concerned.

Take the following quote from a scholarly text on the subject: 

‘Homosexuality had existed in and been recognised as a type of sexuality by all Buddhist cultures as it has everywhere else. While it has usually been regarded with a mixture of disapproval, derision or sometimes sympathy, it has rarely been subject to severe social or legal restrictions. The traditional legal codes of neither Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos or Cambodia criminalised homosexuality. Same-sex attraction is frequently mentioned in Chinese and Japanese documents but rarely if ever gets a mention in south and south-east Asian history until the 19th century.’ (Source: Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition of China, Bret Hinsch 1992; and The Love of the Samurai: A Thousand Years of Japanese Homosexuality, by Tsuneo Watanabe, 1972.)

No Buddhist monk, or any Anagarika, either in history or the present time, ever wanted a gay couple burnt at the stake. But some Buddhist politicians do, and for reasons that have nothing to do with the Buddhist canon, or gay lifestyles.

These politicians own the symbolism with regard to the acceptance of gay lifestyles in this country, or at least they think they do. 

They would give the President, the Prime Minister and his Cabinet hell if this progressive piece of legislation is passed at this time, and for what gain would the Government insist on decriminalising homosexuality at this precise historical conjuncture, when no gay person has been prosecuted under the law, in the legally recorded remembered past in this country?

The progressive legislation to make homosexuality statutorily legal, would be passed under the watch of this Government one day. But the strategic decision would be to do it at a time when the political opposition cannot make a meal of that fact; that’s when ‘progressive’ as a term would acquire its real meaning as there would be general regression in terms the policy makers’ ability to be in power, and carry out reform in a meaningful, practical and manageable fashion, if legislation is strategically mistimed.


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