Thursday, September 15, 2011

Urban legend causing problems in Sri Lanka

Photo courtesy: Tamilnet

By Devi Boerema | Radio Netherlands

The North Eastern part of Sri Lanka is gripped by a mythical creature. The so-called Grease Devil attacks have sparked outraged among locals. But the Sri Lankan government refuses to seriously investigate the attacks of what they claim to be ‘only a myth’. Over the past few months this has led to clashes between protesters and government officials. In one case a policeman was lynched by the angry mob.

According to legend, Grease Devils are men covered in oil and grease who wander the streets at night looking for women. The grease and oil makes the devils too slippery to catch on their nocturnal escapades. Sri Lankan folk tales specifically warn widows and single women to lock their doors at night.

The myth

Even without the slippery fluids these men, or devils rather, have been getting away with the nightly attacks. Women from the Tamil and Muslim communities have filed assault cases against what they believe are “Grease Devils”. The creatures seem to wander mostly around military bases.

In Kinniya villagers claim to have seen men fleeing back to the base after an attack. But the Sri Lankan navy has been reluctant to make any arrests. This led to violent clashes between civilians and the navy, in which over 25 civilians were arrested. Similar clashes have taken place in Navanthurai in the Jaffna District and the town of Puttalam in the North West.

“The government of Sri Lanka is very keen to dissuade anyone who wants to investigate the attacks properly and thoroughly or do anything that shows the Sri Lankan military in a bad light. In particular anything that confirms the increased militarisation of the North and the East”, says Fred Carver, who is the director of the Peace & Justice Campaign.

The attacks

It seems that the locals are playing right into the government’s attempt to brush off these claims, by attributing the attacks to the Grease Devils.

Over the years the term Grease Devil has become a common name for men who assault women. Clearly a lot less mythical then vague visitors in the night, but the myth surrounding the name still prohibits the victims from being taken seriously.

“There is clearly something going on, there are people being attacked. To be honest it’s a problem that Sri Lanka has always had [sexual harassment], which is basically what we are talking about here”, says Mr Carver.

“It seems to have gotten worse in recent years and in particular in the North and the East in the aftermath of the war ending.”

Evidence gathered from witness reports all show a connection between the military compounds and the attacks. Women who fall victim to these attacks are mostly from minority groups, not the predominant Sinhalese community.

Fred Carver believes this tells us something about the attackers.

“Most likely they are fairly bored young millitary men who have been trained to believe that the minorities from the local surroundings should not be given any respect. Therefore the number of attacks in these areas has gone up”.


The Grease Devils sightings tie in with general reluctance in South Asia to report molestation cases. In Sri Lanka, where media is self-censored and critique is met with violence, it’s not easy to accuse government employees of sexual harassment. The myth of the Grease Devil offers locals a way to indirectly vent criticism.

Both parties have their own reasons for keeping the myth of the Grease Devils alive. Meanwhile the tension between civilians and the government is growing stronger and victims have nowhere to go.

“This is the kind of thing that the government’s human rights commission should look into, but the commission is apparently toothless. Also the government shows no interest in investigating these things. You have quotes from various government ministers saying: We’re not going to investigated this, because there is nothing to investigate.”

A new approach

It’s almost unheard of for Sri Lankans to march the streets like they have been doing recently. Over the last few months they have openly showed their discomfort towards the government on many occasions. Some of these protests led to violent outbreaks.

People are genuinely angry about what has been happening in the Northern and Eastern part of Sri Lanka. Another clue that suggests it’s not just a mythical creature from an urban legend which is roaming the streets.

© Radio Netherlands

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