Groundviews

Abuse, violence and bullying: Post-war Sri Lanka is indeed a peaceful place


Photo courtesy JDS

The idea of writing this note came to mind after watching the recent interview between an Indian media personality and Sri Lanka’s Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Public Security, Law and Order. A lot has been said about the information exchanged during this relatively short interview. A surface look at comments made by readers on articles on this interview, especially in places like Transcurrents, amply demonstrate what members of the Tamil community (especially the Tamil diaspora) think about the content of the interview and the interviewee.

The present article does not intend to focus on the interviewee or the content proper of the interview as such. Instead, this writer views it essential to look at the bigger picture surrounding some facts exchanged, facts that could be deemed controversial or questionable in many a quarter.

This writer distinguishes three main points over which the interviewee was apt at commenting: Firstly, Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty as a non-negotiable issue, secondly, the denial of war crimes and rape in the immediate aftermath of Eelam War IV, and thirdly, a reiteration that life in Sri Lanka today is peaceful and normal. The most striking point among these is the third one. The first one is a given, and it is not surprising that the man who heads the entire national security establishment considers the security and territorial integrity of the state as absolute priorities. Concerning the second point, and despite alarming evidence to the contrary, the Government will never officially accept that sexual abuse took place soon after the war. If one raises similar questions on Israeli forces’ treatment of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody, the behaviour of Israeli youth in compulsory military training programmes, or on the US military’s treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, abuse of prisoners in Iraq and large-scale sexual abuse during Vietnam, or on the Indian military’s violent suppression of popular uprisings and revolts on grounds of self-determination and the handling of the Kashmir question, one is likely to get answers identical to those given by Sri Lanka’s defence administration chief in the aforementioned interview. This is the way in which military establishments work, and despite the sheer injustice caused to the victims, no truth commission or similar mechanism can alter the rigidity of the standpoints of culprit militaries and state organs. Having established that reality, it is only logical to reiterate that international investigations absent for Western military forces and state authorities simply cannot be imposed upon Sri Lanka, simply because Sri Lanka is situated – in this respect – in the wrong part of the globe.

Having thus established the ground rules of the post-war ballgame, it is the third point mentioned above that provides us with useful insights into what’s really going on in Sri Lankan society. Two specific points raised in the interview can be helpful in understanding the third point. One is the interviewee’s reaction to the Kuganadan case (i.e. editor of Udayan, a Tamil newspaper published in Jaffna, who recently suffered critical head injuries in what could be called an organised personal attack), and the comment about why Vani Kumar was not raped while in the Vanni. In evoking both points, it is impossible to miss the sureness, the certitude and conviction – if I could so describe – with which the interviewee raises his points. In other words, he simply does not mind if an elderly journalist is beaten up on his head while on his way home, and he has no qualms in questioning why a particular young lady, who he visibly finds physically attractive, was not raped, if the allegations of rape were true. These two comments by one man remind this writer of two other comments made by two other men, not so long ago. Before going to the two comments, it is interesting to note the following commonalities between all three men (including our hero the interviewee): that they are all men, middle-aged, Sinhalese, Buddhist, and leading members of the Rajapaksa administration.

Here are the two comments in question: one was made during the months that followed the war – while this writer does not recall an exact date – the comment resonates in the writer’s head. It was made by the gentleman who heads Sri Lanka’s Permanent Mission to the UNHQ. He noted, in responding to the very same rape allegation, that if they wanted, the Sri Lankan military forces could have raped every single woman who came there way soon after the final victory. He said so to clarify that (in his view…), the conduct of the forces was exemplary, and that no such rape or sexual violence against Tamil women took place. Allegations of rape were thus deftly refuted. The second comment was made just a few days ago, about Mr Kuganathan, the Tamil journalist who was attacked in Jaffna. This comment was made by none other than Sri Lanka’s Minister of Mass Media at a press conference held to inform the press about the week’s cabinet decisions. The Minister noted, in responding to a question about the attack, that he cannot do anything about it, that the security situation in Jaffna is tougher than in Colombo, and that all he could possibly do is to visit the injured journalist in hospital with a tambili, which he deems contains the same substances as in saline.

What is striking between the comments made by the interviewee, and the two other individuals is their total indifference to violence and rape, and lack of any qualms, or concern of any type with regard to such issues in their own society. Assaulting a man on his way home from work to the point of inflicting life-threatening injuries is no big deal. Rape – from the light-humoured manner in which it is evoked, seems to be deemed as a rather common, or inevitable an occurrence, something that happens every now and then, on which nobody can do anything.

What’s wrong here? Is it just a problem with the three high-level officials in question?

One cannot see the bottom line if one stops at such a naïve assumption, by judging these three men on their statements or deeds. Instead, it is important for all us Sri Lankans, to look beneath what we see at the surface, and question ourselves deeply. If we take the time to do so, it doesn’t take long to notice that the source of the frame of mind in which the above statements were uttered is one that engulfs the entire Sri Lankan society. As a former presidential sibling once noted in a televised broadcast by a foreign TV crew, Sri Lankans have turned out to be indifferent to violence. No acts of violence horrify the majority of us anymore. We have seen it all, especially during those bloodstained thirty years of civil war.

But the root cause of our collective indifference to violence and crime, as this writer sees it, goes even further down the lane. Violence, abuse, bullying and vandalism are not unknown to many Sri Lankans, especially those who have been through elite schools and Sri Lankan universities. In gender-segregated secondary schools in the urban metropolis, bullying and abuse are rampant. Everybody knows about it but nobody bothers to do something about it. While reiterating that this writer by no means agrees with the political positions of a fellow countryman in expatriation by the name of Brian Seneviratne, this writer recommends a piece written by him not long ago on sexual violence and abuse in our elite secondary schools and universities, which is quite thought-provoking. This writer was educated in a private boarding school, and was privy to the extent of forced sexual abuse of junior pupils by the seniors. In the boarding house, it was the norm for senior students to force juniors of their preference to engage in sexual favours. It was nothing but a form of organised and raw child abuse taking place within the precincts of one of the most prestigious private boarding schools in the country. What is even more worrying is the fact that the perpetrators of abuse (and the victims – who, as they came of age, turned out to be even worse abusers and bullies) were the offspring of respected people, people with influence and in high-flung positions in the public and private sectors and in politics. When this writer was in senior school, several of the writer’s classmates, who happened to be school officers and were caught red-handed in the dead of the night, with naked juniors in their beds, busily engaged in acts of underage child molestation and blatant sexual abuse (they were caught, for once, due to the arrival of a new school principle, one of the dying rare breed of principled folks – who felt the urge to do something about this issue) were promptly sacked – but with no recourse to the relevant authorities, no enforcement of child protection regulation, no police reports, and not a single word divulged to the parents of the victims (it was later heard that the parents of perpetrators were treated to a total lie of alcohol-related misbehaviour, and that not a single word about the real reason for being sacked was included in their school-leaving certificates – which were, apparently, as white as snow).

Informed readers alone may know that this kind of incident is quite common in high-flung urban, gender-segregated schools, and to varying degrees, this modus operandi extends to schools of both genders. What is even more alarming is that such acts are justified by their perpetrators as part of age-old ‘traditions’ that characterise their respected institutions. It is like an unwritten, underground law, to which the powerless and recourse-less junior pupils are subjected.

University entrance, in certain disciplines, is a nightmare for many smart young Sri Lankans, due to a process of humiliation and violence loosely termed ‘ragging’. There’s no ‘ragging’ about it whatsoever, and the whole process entails stripping both men and women, insertion of candles and other objects in vaginas and rectums, insertion of pens in penises and so on and so forth. Enough has been said and written about this gross unpunished injustice inflicted upon the nation’s brightest and the most hard working, and this writer does not intend to delve into the details of the processes of abuse.

The bottom line that needs to be highlighted is that, in Sri Lankan society, our very system of education, at the highest and most prestigious levels, is vicious enough to make us indifferent to abuse and violence of the powerless and bullying of anyone we don’t like. Early in life, many of us (who often end up in politics, senior government and private sector positions with decision-making capacity) learn that once we are powerful, once we have the authority (obtained through seniority in secondary schools, for instance), we can inflict any harm on those below us, the way we want, as many times as we want, and it is perfectly normal for us that the victims have no recourse to the slightest form of justice. Very early in life, and in those crucial formative years, we are taught – courtesy an outdated educational system directly imported from Tom Brown’s Schooldays – that as long as we are among the high and mighty, we will not be punished or held accountable to the acts of violence, bullying and vandalism that we commit.

Despite measures to the contrary undertaken by many a well-meaning individual in many a school and university, this mode of action is what characterises our most prestigious secondary schools, and many universities. It therefore goes without saying that many of those who hold the high reigns of power in the country are people who simply have no regard whatsoever to issues of violence and abuse. It is this overarching socio-political mindset that we witness, most amply, in the words of the three officials mentioned above. Herein lies the root causes of the collective mindset that prompts many Sinhalese to condone that no investigations on war crimes and accountability are necessary, an LLRC-like bluff would do the trick, and that we can continue to bully, for instance, by making forced Sinhala Buddhist settlements in Tamil areas or by forcefully evicting the poor and the powerless from central Colombo, under the supervision of leaders with fine track records of repeated sexual abuse and dodgy deeds, armed with the august blessings of the most high-profile, revered and cherished Servant/s of God with Papal admiration, who, visibly, do not seem to harbour the slightest strain of fear of the Cardinal Sins.

The concluding point this writer wishes to raise is that in present-day Sri Lanka, it is simply irrelevant to raise questions about rape, violence, murder, abduction, disappearance or any other atrocity thereof. The culture of violence, bullying and molestation has covered up the entire social fabric, as shown by frequent cases of refusals by the police to accept complaints from raped women (of all ethnic groups) from the powerless levels of society. The same goes for the tremendous aptitude of the influential echelons of society to cover up violence and molestation, such as in the case of an underage Tamil servant girl in a planter’s bungalow who committed suicide a couple of years ago, on whose corps evidence of sexual molestation and physical abuse was found – but the case was soon covered up without the slightest hush on punishing the guilty. Such is the extent of abuse and violence are inherent to Sri Lankan society, and one is safe as long as one is covered by some form of protective shield, be it class, wealth, power, or any related attribute. Those who are victimised are those who do not have such a shield, or those who do belong to the powerful, but are ignorant enough to compromise their protective shields for heroic and adventurous feats (the finest example is that of Sarath Fonseka – who chose the flawed course of action of standing single-handedly against the Alpha-Male in a society best described as a melange of feudal and essentially tribal traits). In such a context, one could conclude that our interviewee was indeed very sincere in his statements, which amply mirrored the reality that the unprotected are prone to violence and abuse, and given that our society functions that way, nothing, and simply nothing worthwhile, can be done about it.