The President of Sri Lanka is under fire from the country’s LGBT+ community, after he made remarks that have been deemed homophobic.
Sri Lanka leader Maithripala Sirisena has come under fire for the comments he made at a rally on Monday (November 5).
Sirisena, who recently led a plot to oust the country’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, attacked the PM in a speech.
The president accused Wickremesinghe of rejecting national values for a “butterfly life,” and claimed that his decisions were led by a “butterfly caucus.”
The Sinhala-language phrase used by the leader, “samanala rela,” was described by Sri Lankan LGBT+ group Equal Ground as a “derogatory term alluding to minority sexual orientations.”
LGBT+ campaigners staged a protest in Colombo in the wake of the comments embracing the pejorative label, carrying signs that read “butterfly power” and “butterfly votes count.”
“The world can be changed, not by violence, but by the sound of a thousand butterfly wings rising for peace, justice and respect.”
Rosanna Flamer-Caldera of Equal Ground has described the leader as “pathetic,” and hit out at the president’s “insidious references degrading the LGBTIQ community.”
LGBT+ groups in the region joined together to issue a statement as the “Butterflies for Democracy” coalition.
It states: “The ‘First Citizen’ of our country has resorted to using the term ‘Butterfly’, a derogatory term alluding to minority sexual orientations.
“He has done [that] to hurt, shame and insult his political opponents and the LGBTIQ+ community as a whole, in order to protect his waning popularity and to justify his anti-democratic acts. We stand here today in protest to the aforesaid act and in support of the continued protest by civil society to the ongoing attack on our democracy.”
The group added: “We, as the ‘Butterfly’ community, vehemently condemn this ongoing conspiracy which is anti-democratic and power-hungry.
“We believe that human rights are protected in a democratic society. We ‘the butterflies’ will keep on fighting to protect it.
“The world can be changed, not by violence, but by the sound of a thousand butterfly wings rising for peace, justice and respect. Therefore, we shall be the Butterflies for Democracy. Every single insult and attack against us is an encouragement for us to continue our struggle.”
‘Butterfly’ community hits back at Sri Lanka leader Maithripala Sirisena
More than 200 LGBT+ people have also signed an open letter published in the Colombo Telegraph newspaper on Tuesday (November 6) accusing the president of “openly promoting homophobia.”
The letter read: “This statement makes it clear that President Sirisena has absolutely no notion or commitment whatsoever for the fundamental rights and human dignity of all Sri Lankans.
“It is particularly disappointing coming from a president elected on the votes of many members of the Sri Lankan LGBTQI+ community who saw his candidacy as a respite from the rampant homophobia of the preceding Rajapaksa presidency.”
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The letter notes the dire situation for LGBT+ people in the country, where homosexuality is still technically illegal under a Colonial-era penal code.
“Had the UNF actually been led by an LGBTQI+ agenda, Sections 365 and 365A of the Sri Lankan Penal Code would by now be repealed, and equality irrespective of Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity, Expression and/or Sex Characteristics would have been enshrined in the Constitution,” the document read.
It concluded with a condemnation and an appeal: “We condemn his use of homophobia to amuse his political gallery. By trivialising homophobia in this fashion, President Sirisena should be held responsible for any homophobic incidents that Sri Lankan citizens may experience in the coming days.
“We call upon all Sri Lankans who respect the fundamental rights of each and every Sri Lankan for equality, justice and dignity to join with us in categorically condemning President Sirisena’s homophobia and public incitement of homophobic hatred.”
Following the letter’s publication, a government spokesperson has claimed the president’s remarks were “not against any community,” according to local news outlet The Morning.
Gay sex is still a crime in Sri Lanka
In November 2017, the government confirmed that it planned to decriminalise homosexuality, which was illegal under Article 365 of the Sri Lankan Penal Code.
Deputy Solicitor General Nerin Pulle assured the UN’s Human Rights Council that the government was committed to reforming Sri Lanka’s penal code to ensure that it meets international human rights standards.
Pulle said: “Despite social, political and cultural challenges that remain with respect to reforming law, Sri Lanka remains committed to law reform and guaranteeing non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity.”
Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court has previously concluded that the penal code provision banning gay sex should not be enforced, writing that “consensual sex between adults should not be policed by the state nor should it be grounds for criminalisation.”