Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Sri Lanka: The surreal politics of ‘grease devils’

By Dr. Kumar David | South Asian Analysis Group

A large number of areas outside the big cities of Sri Lanka have been gripped for the last one month by a most extraordinary panic verging on mass hysteria. The localities of Akaraipattu, Ampara, Puttalam, Kandy, Baticaloa, Kurunegala, Kinya, Trincomalee, Badulla, Nawalapitiya, Muthur and many more have been affected. The police force is on heightened alert, troops have been deployed (though this may be counterproductive as I will explain), accusations and counter accusations are traded and the government is scrambling to salvage what’s left of its reputation. The worst affected are areas of Muslim concentration though there is as yet no explanation, rational or irrational, why this should be so. Police brass dismiss talk of ‘grease devils’ (GD) as pure myth and fantasy, President Rajapakse says there is a plot to destabilise his government and the Defence Secretary has put mosques in affected areas under military protection.

First the story line before comments and analysis. Remember the Ninja terror that gripped East Timor in Indonesia in 2002 when strange creatures in black skin-suits (actually killers planted by the Indonesian military) spread terror in the populace? Well the parallel is not far wrong except that Lanka’s villagers do not invoke the supernatural to explain the manifestation. It is true, as the police chief explains that from time to time there have always been unexplained attacks on women and unsolved break-ins, but what started off the current hysterics on a big scale was the rape and murder of five women, about a month ago at Kahawatte, to satisfy a grudge borne by an army officer. Though the two low level operatives were apprehended it did nothing to quell the proliferation of incidents and the spread of panic to an ever increasing number of rural areas. It is hard to make an accurate estimate, but skimming through the newspapers it seems that there have been well over 25 to 30 incidents in the last four weeks.

Proliferation of incidents

Though there have been more incidents in Muslim areas than elsewhere, there is no known communal angle to the occurrences (many victims have been Sinhalese women, homes and villages) and it is not clear why Muslim areas are being targeted more frequently. A senior security officer in a public company has described to me the mood of panic in the Muslim populated Eastern Province outside the city centres. The streets empty by early evening, businesses close down by dusk because sales dry up, women cloister themselves and fear to venture out for water or firewood, and families huddle together in a single house for the night. It’s really weird he says, and there is no way of convincing people that GD talk is mass hysteria, and that it’s just criminals and pranksters whose exploits are blown out of proportion.

The so-called GDs are men, nude or semi-nude, who coat their bodies with oil or grease and waylay women, groping, scratching, molesting, and sometimes allegedly raping the unwary. Apart from the first incident I mentioned above, to the best of my knowledge there have been no other rapes or murders. Actually the few murders that have taken place are of suspected GDs trapped by villagers, or of policemen attacked for allegedly protecting arrested GD villains. Apart from attacks on women there are many reports of GDs breaking into houses, terrifying people by peering in through windows and climbing on roofs. It is not possible to tell whether, in hard statistical terms, there has been an increase in breaks-ins and nuisance exploits above the normal, but robbery does not seem to be a motive, and lubricating the skin for easy getaway is frequent though not invariable.

In the central hill areas, villagers and estate workers are running amok, pouncing on strangers and hitch-hikers and beating up men they don’t recognise. There is pandemonium spreading across the island, but we are entertained to inane utterances that take our breath away from the top police officer of Batticaloa. “The evil forces of the Tamil diaspora, resentful of the President’s development programme” are behind the GD hysteria and are stirring up trouble in the country (Sunday Times, 21 August)! Thus law enforcement makes a comedy of itself and is distrusted in every home and hamlet, and when the judiciary’s reputation for impartiality has suffered grievously - even in the words of former judges and chief justices – then it comes as no surprise that the mob is taking the law into its own hands. Sri Lanka is well on the way to a breakdown of the rule of law more widespread than during the anti-Tamil civil war and the government is palpably unable to get a grip on things.

Charges and counter-charges

It is the spreading out of incidents of a similar style across swathes of rural territory and the large number of such incidents that is troubling; it may be daft mass hysteria or it may be something more sinister, even the sober minded find it hard to tell as yet. The most widespread conspiracy theory in the public mind, and quite explicitly publicised by the JVP, the UNP and other critical analysts, attributes the phenomenon to the military, the government, or a conspiracy of collaboration between the two. UNP Kandy District MP Lakshman Kirelle alleges in an article in the Daily Mirror of 23 August that “villagers in Kandy have seen GDs being dropped-off by government vehicles”.

Neither the government nor the military want the state of emergency lifted; the government because it uses the regulations to manipulate elections and keep up other impositions, the army because it does not wish to lose its far-flung power, have military camps dismantled and its numerical size cut down. Therefore the allegation is perfectly plausible as a conspiracy of two arms of the state intended to prolong the state of emergency in the face of mounting local and international pressure to have it lifted.

When a government loses public credibility and has no residue of transparency, then understandably, the worst interpretation of every incident takes possession of the public mind. Hence, while it is not possible to discount the likelihood that the government or the military may be behind the GD outbreak, one also cannot discount the possibility that these two institutions are simply getting their just deserts for past transgressions.

Protesters across the board are demanding the closure of army camps and withdrawal of troops from their neighbourhood, such is their mistrust. If the military was indeed behind the events the exercise has clearly boomeranged. Several police stations have been stormed by angry villagers or local Muslims and there have been more than half a dozen clashes violent enough to become the tip of an iceberg if public confidence is not quickly restored. Local people suspect that police stations are safe-houses for apprehended GDs and demand that the culprits be lynched summarily. Two travelling salesmen where chopped up and burnt in an upcountry area and a bunch of official elephant enumerators where snared by people living in a remote locality and all but tarred and feathered before they were rescued by the police.

President Mahinda Rajapakse claims that there is a conspiracy to discredit him and his government but has still not produced a shred of evidence or said who is responsible. Nor have the authorities made the identity and connections of those who have been apprehended available. This too is troubling because, though certainly innocents like the hapless travelling salesmen and the elephant enumerators may have been caught up in the cross fire, there is justified suspicion that military or ex-military personnel may be among the mysterious others. Whatever the truth, there is little sympathy for the government at this time on this matter.

Manhohan Singh has learnt too late that turning a studiously blind eye to mountains of political corruption has jinxed him now, when finally, under the turbulent pressure of the streets, he wants to act. Rajapakse senses that the GD issue has gone out of control, so he has decided to appoint vigilante committees, headed by government party MPs in all areas, to eradicate the grease devil menace. Anyone familiar with the soiled reputation of his government MPs will tell him that he is jumping, with his eyes wide open, from the frying pan into the fire. Manhogan Singh has appointed a Group of Ministers to look into the Lokpal Bill (thank goodness he has not made the former Telecoms Minister the Group Chairman!). When will these people in power, the Singhs and the Rajapakses of this world, ever learn? Thankfully in democratic societies we have solutions short of the way Gaddafi had to be shooed out.


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