Groundviews

De-greasing social speculation over “grease devils” in Sri Lanka


Image courtesy Amber

Whispering campaigns in Sri Lanka are the most speedy and penetrating campaigns that product promoting advertisers have not been able to make use of. Often in Sri Lanka these whispering campaigns have been political. They have also been on “negative impact” mode, socially. The latest is on the very sensational “Grease Devil” that is said to be after young women.

Opening for a “grease devil”

This has many stories making rounds and each round making it more bizarre than the previous round and the previous day’s. Worst is when media outlets use such stories for political interpretations of their own. The controversial “LankaeNews” (LeN) a not so professional web site carrying Sri Lankan news, reported on 12 August, 2011 a long story that gave life to gossip, captioned “Deadly flame of ‘Grease devils’ spreads: curfew in Samanthurai –King Dutugemunu’s sword vs people’s word”.

The report said, the so named elusive stalkers are on the prowl to abduct 14 breast feeding young mothers for a ritual to dig out the sword used by King Dutugemunu.  Justification of this fiction comes with the final paragraph that says, “no matter what…” the North Central Province reservoir dams are being dug by a powerful politico in search of King Dutugemunu’s sword and has pushed the archaeology department also into a quandary. Implied sub text of the whole story is that, it is for Mahinda Rajapaksa.

LeN’s “14 mothers” since August 12, have multiplied making rounds in Colombo and suburbs to 500, then to 1,000 and the last heard this morning (19 August) as 50,000 mothers. Most stories don’t talk of abductions now. Most now talk of night stalkers who come wearing well pointed “white iron” finger nails, that make scratching of  female breasts easy, to collect blood. Again the blood is said to be for a ritual that would release President Rajapaksa from a very bad astrological influence.

There are many deviated versions too that extend from saving Mahinda Rajapaksa from bad planetary effects to critical illness and to gain life long rule of the country that King Dutugemunu’s sword, (sometimes the crown as well) would guarantee.

Tracking the “grease devil” through media and gossip 

A very cursory glance at all the media stories, community stories told and retold over and over again with spicy alterations, the fear that has gripped society in very many areas and actual incidents that provoked people’s angry reactions in some parts of the country as acknowledged by the police and recorded in Courts of law, reveal a confusing pattern of social conflict that has evolved quite fast and has many unanswered questions. Its  the unanswered questions within this unexplainable social conflict, which makes the “Grease Devil” story worthy of dissection.

  1. The whole “grease devil” phenomena had a pre event in Kahawatte, in  Ratnapura district, where an “elusive” serial killer was on the prowl for over an year. After his arrest, the man was identified as an army deserter. At the time of his arrest on 07 July, 2011 he was said to have killed 07, all elderly women, but in his interrogations he had accepted only 02 killings. The next day, 8 July, another army deserter was arrested from Kahawatte for the killing of another elderly woman. This murder spree of 03 women being killed within 03 months, and the killer(s) being elusive, came to be reported especially in the Sinhala media with spicy captions and the killer given an alias as “Bhoothaya” (Ghost or demon). Over months, the rural social psyche was being rooted in this mystic and elusive “Bhoothaya” with stories of villages around Opatha estate freezing in fear and some resorting to rituals seeking relief from Gods to rid their village(s) from ghosts. These rumours with more and more speculative media coverage, established the “Bhoothaya” story with fear, suspicion and frantic interpretations. During May – June period, “Bhoothaya” news got promoted to the front pages in Sinhala media. Meanwhile, the village Civil Defence Force (CDF) that was virtually disbanded almost 02 years ago, though some were still on the pay rolls, was reactivated to keep vigil in the night. While it is not known as to who initiated the CDF, villagers were not sure of the CDF that had many volunteers doing night rounds. Two days before the arrest of the first suspect, villagers came out on the streets in protest over police inactivity, with demands that the police be replaced by the army for their security. This brought the army and the STF to Kahawatte, reported in the media as a decision taken by the new IGP, on instructions from the defence ministry.
  2. Thereafter, rumours were afloat in Colombo and suburbs, especially among the Sinhala middle class, about “Boothayas” in other remote areas, that gradually was given a twist, with the old fiction of “greased robbers”, turned into “grease devils” now hunting for young mothers. The Daily Mirror (DM) on 02 August reported that 07 youth alleged to have frightened women in the night and made homes in Ambagolla and Dodamgolla (Moneragala district) close doors and windows early evening, were produced in Courts. The news item was titled “Drunken grease devils scare women”.
  3. Interestingly, the Police Spokesperson, SP Prishantha Jayakody was reported by the CDN on 05 August, 2011 as saying, “The grease yaka or the bhuthaya is a myth.” He was reported to have told the CDN, “The stories started when seven women were killed at Kahawatta. But all suspects are now in custody. All grease devils and other suspects arrested from various parts of the country(emphasis added) are in custody. No more grease yakas roam the country now.” His explanation on these new stories making rounds was that, “….some women had caught some `super natural forces’ and grease devils and found that they were from their own neighbourhood. Some women admitted that the persons who attacked them were not grease yakas but their own husbands who were under the influence of liquor. They had lied to the police to prevent their husbands from getting arrested,”
  4. Just one week later, the IGP deploys the STF to track down “Grease devils” (emphasis added) not just in one village, but in more than half a dozen areas spread across 03 provinces. They included Hatton in CP, Badulla, Mahiyangana, Girandurukotte, Siyabalanduwa and Bibile in Uva Province and Rambewa in NCP according to DM (“STF on the lookout for grease devils”) of 12 August.
  5. By then the “grease devil” scare had gripped more villages. In Haputale, 02 young men were hacked to death by estate workers who thought they were “grease devils”. Sunday Times (ST) of 11 August, had already passed judgement on the two who were killed by reporting they were caught “while intimidating women tea pluckers”. They had come from Moneragala on a motor bicycle wearing black said the ST report, but, was never proved so, in later investigations. There were also reports of villages in Galewela, Nuwara Eliya, Kandy and Ottamavedi getting into the grip of the “grease devil” syndrome. Quoting police sources, the media had counted 03 deaths by then.
  6. On 11 August, the DM again reported that 06 youth from Halpe, who entered a tea estate in Uduwara, Badulla and tried to molest women were handed over to the Ella police, and that Ella police had taken into custody, a 3 wheeler they had used. Police were quoted as saying investigations are under way, but there were no reports of the youth being produced in Courts. The source of this whole story was also the police. In a second DM report the same day, the IGP is quoted as having deployed the STF in tracking down men who pose as “grease devils” to rob women (emphasis added). Yet police maintained there were no such issue as “grease devils”. Contradicting themselves, police were providing information about “grease devil” issues in different parts of the country, such as arrests in Alawathugoda, Bibile and Mahiyangane, where the police claimed persons posing as “grease devils” were arrested and investigations are continuing. But no reports of any being produced in Courts.
  7. The second week of August ended with the “grease devil” issue gripping  Eastern Province more than in all other areas. The first was from Valachchenai where a woman was reported to have been attacked on Wednesday 10 August by a “grease devil” and warded in hospital, with deep scratches on her breasts (ST 14 August). Thereafter large uprisings were reported in Pottuvil where civilian population claimed they handed over 02 men suspected to be “grease devils” to the police, but the two had been released by the police. Large protests by the people who surrounded the police station, were first tear gased and then shot at, killing a protesting youth said to be a SLMC member. People claimed the two suspects handed over to police, were military intelligence men. Thereafter, Thirukkovil, Kinniya and Urani, were hot spots with very similar stories. Kinniya the difference was, instead of the police, the Navy camp became the target. People claimed again, 02 suspected “grease devils” were provided refuge in the navy camp.
  8. Sinhala media also carried similar stories, with almost the same information, but the language and tone used, adding more speculation and a sense of desperation among villages. Yet the stories making rounds in Sinhala middle class circles were getting more political but on divergent lines.

First impressions on media reports

Of all news reports, the only confirmed cases of some tangible incident(s), comes from the East in Valachchenia, Pottuvil, Thirukkovil, Kinniya and Urani. In all cases except in Valachchenai, there is some involvement with the police and the security forces that the people had reason to get agitated for.

With little trust on the police, people in most areas had taken the responsibility of guarding their own village during nights, forming their own village “vigilante” groups.

Where people had taken the law unto their hands and deaths had occurred, was only in Haputale with 02 persons getting hacked to death. In Wellamboda Kandy, 01 had died from electrocution, trying to chase after a supposed “grease devil”.

All other deaths reported, were due to police firing at protesting crowds, that too in  Eastern protests.

All other news reports from very many areas that cited names of places – Ottamavedi, Galnewa, Rambewa, Wellamboda, Hatton, Nuwara Eliya, Alawathugoda, Mahiyangane, Girandurukotte, Siyabalanduwa, Bibile, Uduwara, Badulla, Ambagolla, Dodamgolla – mostly from Uva, have no clear proof of any incident, other than the police telling the media of incidents they claim, they are investigating.

What is most conspicuous was that, even the English media, generally accepted as more responsible than others, was not that responsible in their coverages. They too were taking the easy way out, carrying what the police had to say, using village gossip as dressings. For a very speculative issue that kept gripping more and more villages in fear and the rule of law and social order being compromised, there were no efforts to dig deep, with investigative reporting.

Speculations, realities and possibilities

  1. Stories of “grease devils” stalking Tamil and Muslim areas spread quite fast with most Eastern Province villages getting agitated. Therefore minorities are feeling more insecure than the Sinhala people. Even in Kompannaveediya (Slave island) Muslim vigilante groups kept guard in the nights.
  2. Rajapaksa regime is implicated in most instances. Many theories are gossiped around. (i) Blood in drops from breast feeding mothers collected for a ritual to bless President Rajapaksa (ii) Blood collected for a ritual to dig out King Dutugeminu’s sword/crown for President Rajapaksa
  3. Political interpretation gossiped around, claim the whole “grease devil” story was used by the Rajapaksa regime to prove the military and the STF has to be deployed in all areas for security, even if the Emergency Regulations have to be lifted. This regime can not exist without the military, the argument goes, that also says the government is under pressure from international financial agencies to lift emergency regulations.

Summing up, it seems there is space to hypothesise that somewhere up the ladder, some brain(s ?) was trying to use the Kahawatte serial killing to justify the deployment of the STF at least, as most stories that were in the media, looks more like “plants” from the police. Perhaps the whole project blew beyond the expected size and went out of hand. Or was it ? This also coincides with the “hot news” that says, STF camps would  be established in every district. A news that was not contradicted nor denied by any in the regime, including the defence establishment.

Yet, what can not be clearly explained is, how such sensational stories wrapped with speculations, reach grass roots in remote areas so fast and with conviction. Also, how they provide or provoke social energy for spontaneous mobilisation of people. This perhaps needs a social psychiatrist to de construct the whole social narrative of the “grease devil”.