Sri Lankan couple expelled from a park for sitting together

These young Sri Lankans joined the protest in Colombo on Sunday. Photo: Facebook
These young Sri Lankans joined the protest in Colombo on Sunday. Photo: Facebook

If you are a young Sri Lankan couple out on a date, there is a chance you’ll be chastised or asked to leave for appearing in public with a person of the opposite sex who isn’t a relative. But after two security guards were caught on film asking a couple to leave Independence Square in the capital Colombo, young people staged a protest on Sunday. 

On March 4, Sri Lankan musician Mirshad Buckman was told off by security guards for being with his girlfriend in a public space. He posted the video online and wrote about the incident:

Me and my girlfriend were just sitting and chilling it Independence Square and these idiots came and said that it was culturally wrong for a male and female to sit together in a public space. According to these idiots we have to have a child with us to sit together in Independence Square. I urge all you lovers or couples to go there and do the same. Lets see what these idiots do.

Me and my girlfriend were just sitting and chilling at Independence square and these idiots came and said that it was...

Posted by Mirshad Buckman on Friday, 4 March 2016

Mirshad’s post spoke to young non-married Sri Lankans, many of whom have also been told off by policemen, private security guards and other citizens for similar reasons. On March 6, a group of several hundred met to protest on Independence Square.

Students protest in Independance Square on March 6, 2016. Photo posted on Facebook by Buddhi Prabodha Karunaratne

EM protest

“I’ve been told off three or four times for being out with my girlfriend”

Shehan (not his real name) attended the protests.

There isn’t a law against couples hanging out in public, it is just a societal norm that has been around for as long as I can remember. Sri Lankan culture is conservative.

I understand that if people are kissing in public, it can makes others uncomfortable so people against that do have a point. But sometimes guards and police chase off couples for no reason or all. Sometimes onlookers will go and tell guards to remove a couple who are together because they see it as indecent.

I’ve been told off by other Sri Lankans three or four times for being out and about with my girlfriend. Once, I was trying to get a bus with my girlfriend and I had my arm around her. Ladies started yelling insults at us. The situation was really disgusting. I tried to ignore them, but it was hard.

Another time, my girlfriend was confiding in me about a fight she had with her parents. She had been crying so she put her head on my shoulder. I guess people saw us and got it into their heads that we were kissing or something. They came up and told us “have you no shame? there’s a temple right there!” [Editor’s note: Other Sri Lankans interviewed said they had been told off more by security officials, often working on government contracts like those in Independence Square, then just average Sri Lankans].

Guards will sometimes cite a law against public indecency, but it is very unclear. I wouldn’t define putting my hand on my girlfriend’s shoulder as indecency! [Editor’s note: The law refers to “any person found committing any act of gross indecency, or found behaving with gross indecency, in or about any public place” but indecency is not defined. In the case in Independance Square, the guards cited a government circular released in 2011. Activists said there was no mention of their strict interpretations in the law]

Young people in Sri Lanka are more open-minded because of globalisation. That’s why we came out to protest. We want to bring that same open-mindedness to society. There were about 250 people there and it was very peaceful. There were no problems. But later, there were comments on the page and posts about the protest being unethical."

Students protest in Independance Square on March 6, 2016. Photo posted on Facebook by Buddhi Prabodha Karunaratne

"The government's openness truly shows change"

The protest quickly got attention. Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Harsha da Silva attended Sunday’s protests, on behalf of the government. He wrote on Facebook that the security guards had “all different weird interpretations of ‘decency’.”

“Today they [the security guards] argued with me that holding hands, putting a hand on the shoulder etc are indecent acts and won’t be tolerated. I reported the matter to the Prime Mininster who issued the above instructions to ensure that young people in this country can enjoy their freedom in a decent manner. This is the democracy we fought to establish in this country,” the Deputy Foreign Minister wrote on Facebook.

Reihan Stephen is a Sri Lankan journalist. He says that this successful protest reflects the changes in the country since President Maithripala Sirisena won the election in January 2015, ending nine years of rule by Mahinda Rajapaksa.

I was surprised that the Deputy Foreign Minister came and that the government was so responsive to our protest. We had many years under an oppressive government and if the protest had taken place back then, we would have faced intimidation, even if it isn’t a political protest. So the government’s openness truly shows change.

Later on Sunday, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe ordered the Culture Ministry to cancel the contract with the security company that employed the two guards.

For Shehan, who attended the protest, it was a good step but “we were protesting the culture and not the guards”.