Photo courtesy of India TV News

There has been a lot of violence and also a lot of talk about violence in this last month. It shouldn’t come as a surprise because violence has underlined our Sri Lankan existence at least throughout my life time. From the time our band-playing triforces were transformed into killing machines in 1971, guns  military technology, poles, Molotov cocktails and bombs have been used by the forces, the vigilantes and the so called terrorist groups to wage destruction  on the LTTE, on the JVP and against many local minority groups, the most recent being the Easter Sunday massacre of innocent civilians. We have assassinated a cohort of leaders, starting with the much maligned S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike in 1956 and more recently Lalith Athulathmudali, Gamini Dissanayake, Vijaya Kumaranatunga, Ranasinghe Premadasa, Neelan Thiruchelvam, Nadaraja Raviraj and Lakshman Kadirgamar to name a few of the others. We have seen the gruesome deaths of Richard de Zoysa, Lasantha Wickrematunge and Wasim Thajudeen. In this violent history, few if any perpetrators of violence have been called to account. Instead, we have seen convicted murderers pardoned and war crime allegations ignored, sometimes even rewarded, leading us as a nation to believe that problems can be solved not through system of justice but through intimidation and destruction.

All this notwithstanding the #GoHomeGota protest provided us with a truly democratic vision of how citizens could air their grievances, raise their voices, assertively and maybe  aggressively, with humour and with derision but without the attendant destruction to lives and property. Authoritarian governments  typically do not know how to deal with non-violent onslaughts on their legitimacy and the Rajapaksa government was no exception. Their attempts to provoke the protestors to act in ways that would justify violent suppression failed repeatedly. Neither the burning bus in Mirihana, nor the riot police sent to Galle Face nor even the killing of a protestor in Rambukkana sparked a violent reaction. That is not until of May 9. On that day, even as aragalaya supporters celebrated the resignation of Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, SLPP goons attacked the protestors in #MainaGoGama and in #GotaGoGama and the country erupted in a spate of retaliatory violence against SLPP supporters. Houses were burnt, property was destroyed and some SLPP supporters humiliated in a style that has been described as  “the discarding of the core-values of resistance, decency, mercy, and non-excess”.  Thankfully and curiously, the damage to property was far greater than the damage to life.

In this land of conspiracy theorists the jury is out on who the perpetrators of the violence were. The GotaGoGama stalwarts are adamant that the violence did not emanate from their midst. Yet their credibility as a non-violent group of changemakers has been eroded. The retaliatory violence  “[damaged] the heart winning image of peaceful protest demonstrated by aragalaya”.  Even as the newly appointed Prime Minister blindsided the protestors, and different political groupings, some with violent histories, claimed leadership in the GotaGoGama, the legitimacy of this people’s resistance movement is in danger of being gradually invalidated, at least among Sri Lanka’s privileged classes.

No act of violence that creates fear, takes lives and destroys property can ever be condoned. But as the army tanks roll along the streets of Colombo and other towns, we need to recognise that committing acts of violence is not the prerogative of the mobs nor of armed forces.  It is not only the arson and the thuggery, the shooting and the bombs that create fear, take lives and destroy property. There are many indirect, insidious, egregious forms of violence that are meted out by those with economic, political and social power and through the institutions of our society. In Sri Lanka, as in many other parts of the world, these forms of violence have generated fear and helplessness among the underprivileged, destroyed whatever assets they had, assaulted their dignity as human beings and citizens and taken a toll on their lives and livelihoods.

John Galtung, the Norwegian sociologist, sees violence as present when “human beings are being influenced so that their actual somatic and mental realisations are below their potential realisations”[1]   In  other words when people’s potential reality (what they could have been) is different from their actual circumstances (what they are). He illustrates it very clearly when he says that if someone died of tuberculosis in the 18th century, it would be hard to consider it violent because it might have been unavoidable. But if someone died today of tuberculosis, with all the medical advances to prevent it and treat it, that in his definition, would be an expression of violence. This concept of structural violence as it is called, has also been taken up by other writers on violence such as  Paul Farmer, James Gilligan.

In the last few months in Sri Lanka we have seen almost an everyday expression of this type of structural violence. Social media is full of stories of older citizens collapsing  under the weight of gas cylinders they are carrying or dying of heat exhaustion in the queues and infants and children losing their lives because families failed to get them to hospital in time because of the lack of fuel. In this situation the perpetrators of this violence are easily identified, an irresponsible government led by an equally irresponsible and uncaring president. But even as law enforcement is moving, albeit slowly, selectively and could even be unfairly, to punish who they see as the perpetrators of the May 9 mob violence, the murder and manslaughter of citizens by depriving them of the basic necessities of life and placing them in conditions that make it hard for them to survive, goes on unpunished.

Many of the Sri Lankans who are reeling most under pressure today have experienced a much longer history of such structural violence, not just harm to their physical wellbeing but also psychological assaults to their minds and psyche. Foremost in my mind are the families of Sri Lanka’s forcibly disappeared, allegedly 60,000 to 100,000 persons from all ethnic groups since the 1980s. Without knowing the truth about their missing family member, these families cannot properly mourn their loss, seek justice and reparation for the crimes against their missing loved one, and run the danger of intimidation and further victimisation for seeking the truth.

Another group are the victims of the post-war beautification and gentrification of Colombo as a world class city that sought to make Colombo a slum-less (note, not poverty-less) visual space. These residents of Colombo’s underserved settlements were forcibly evicted from their residences and intimidated when they sought legal redress.  The homes that they had invested in were destroyed and they were allocated new high rise accommodation where they felt crammed and insecure, lacking mutual support structures and community more than anything else, compromising their participation in urban life. The lands that were wrangled away from them, in the meantime, were made ready for commercial use and investment.

Then there is the Meethotamulla rubbish dump that collapsed in 2017 damaging houses and killing 26 people. The people of the area had been complaining about the dump for years and in 2015 instigated a lawsuit that sought to close the dump. More than 15 protests were held and on three occasions the protestors were attacked, and twice people were arrested.

Women seeking to start enterprises or build homes after the war in the northern provinces faced a different form of violence from aggressive microfinance companies who seized the opportunity to market their loan schemes, trapping these women into horrifying cycles of indebtedness.

And if you add to all this the intimidation of individuals (such as the arbitrary arrest of lawyer Hejaaz Hisbullah or the Kurunegala gynaecologist accused of involuntary sterilisations), the forced cremations during COVID-19 including that of a 20 month baby, the sexual harassment, the gender based violence, the vilification of garment workers as juki girls, the exploitation of the plantation worker community, and the vulnerability of families forced to live on landslide prone unstable hillsides, the stories of  a society exercising structural violence on its citizens occupying the bottom rungs of the social ladder are legion.

Right now, our priority is to relieve the immense suffering that has been caused by the economic crisis, to obtain dollars urgently and “to find and cling to ordinary every day decency, kindness and empathy that are in us”.  But we also need to closely examine the paths we take to economic recovery and ensure that the decisions we make will not compound in the long run, the dispossession and lack of agency of the women and men without power and privilege. As citizens we can regain the decency, kindness and empathy that we may have lost recently but we also need to work on eradicating the systemic structural violence inherent in our social structures and institutions. This is not the kind of violence that is readily visible to the privileged because we are rarely at the receiving end of it. But it is nevertheless a violence that creates fear, takes lives and destroys property just like the mobs did on May 9.

Professor Jayadeva Uyangoda has described the #GoHomeGota protests as “a rare moment of Sri Lankan citizens’ political awakening. They are now asserting their public duty to the common good of the larger political community. Young citizens in large numbers are spearheading this new movement of resistance and political hope. This is Sri Lanka’s long awaited moment of democracy.” My young friend  with two kids and one on the way, in the throes of the aragalaya from its very start, described the movement of  the coming together of a previously atomised society, no longer divided on ethnic, religious, class and age lines, with collective leadership and an organic development of strategy as  “All of us doing our tiny, tiny bits to create a masterpiece.”

Making  the most of our moment of democracy and  scaling up  rather than destroying the masterpiece that is the aragalaya means arresting the structural violence inherent in our inegalitarian and majoritarian society. The alternative would mean tearing ourselves apart along those very lines that we finally came together.

[1] Galtung, Johan. “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1969), pp. 167-191