Recent Political Violence And Its Consequences
By Laksiri Fernando –
It is for the first time, in Sri Lanka’s political history, that a government was directly involved in instigating political violence against peaceful protestors on 9 May, consequences of which had to be reaped within hours even those who are not directly involved in such action from the government side. Given the economic crisis and foreign exchange difficulties the country is facing at present the consequences of these violent events that would badly affect the image of the country and the people. Sri Lanka has emerged as a violent country among foreign observers and critiques.
There were instances in the past that some ministers involved particularly in attacks on ethnic minorities (1983). There was election violence where almost all parties involved. The country is also notorious for a longstanding separatist movement with political violence as the main mode of operation. In 1971, there was a youth insurrection which reemerged in late 1980s in a more sectarian manner. In April 2019, Sri Lanka became a target of Islamic State, with both local and international roots.
Reasons for Increasing Violence
During the initial years of independence, Sri Lanka was a peaceful country. Even the independence movement was characteristically peaceful without going into extremes. Except some incidents related to worker’s strikes, the country was by and large peaceful appreciated by many observers and commentors overseas. The situation dramatically changed in late 1960s giving rise to a strong leftwing organization, the JVP. Even if the old-left parties were advocating ‘class struggle,’ no organization had any military wing or anything like that.
Then what went wrong since 1970s? ‘Frustration-aggression’ theory could be one explanation. This is also the case in recent events beginning with farmers’ protests opposing the fertilizer ban. There were more broader reasons than ‘frustration’ or ‘relative deprivation.’ When it came to long ques and shortages in cooking gas, petrol, kerosene, diesel, medicine, and other basic amnesties, the ‘relative deprivation’ turned into a ‘absolute deprivation.’ Most devastating was power cuts. All these happened within a context of high inflation where the value of people’s salaries and income became absolutely depreciated.
There were broader social reasons. Population explosion with young people becoming large both in numbers and as a proportion, widespread graduate and educated unemployment, dysfunctional education, the gap between rural and urban areas widening both in economic and social terms are some of them. Constitutional instability with amendments like 18A, 19A, 20A, back and forth, also contributed immensely for the youth to join militant political organizations and trade/student unions.
Can any of the reasons, however, justify political violence that became unleashed in the country in recent past or before? Perhaps it is a common dilemma in many countries that human beings have a propensity to violence, ranging from mild verbal aggression to physical violence and vicious murder and everything in between. Aggression patterns, however, vary from country to country, age to age, and male to female. It is a fact that women are less violent than their male counterparts.
From PM’s Office
It was a Monday. Background was for the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa to resign given the increasing protests and because of obvious failures. With the organization of MP Johnston Fernando and others, hundreds of people were rallied around PMs official residence, the Temple Trees. Soon PM asked the people to come in and addressed them in an aggressive manner.
PM asked whether he should resign, and the crowed shouted ‘No.’ They were shouting ‘whose power, Mahinda’s power.’ ‘That means I don’t need to resign,’ he replied. He has further said “You know in politics I have always been on the side of the country. On the side of the people…I am willing to make any sacrifice for the people’s benefit.” [i]
Johnston Fernando, government’s whip, was more aggressive and violent. “Let’s start the fight. If the President can’t handle the situation, he should hand over power to us. We will clear Galle Face.” The crowd cheered. Another person who was closely involved was Namal Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son.
Some of the people who were prominently involved were Johnston Fernando, Sanath Nishantha, Milan Jayathilake, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Sanjeeva Edirimanna, Saman Lal Fernando, Mahinda Kahandagama, Dan Priyasad, and their supporters. Western Province DIG Deshabandu Tennakoon was clearly involved as an accomplice.
The objectives of the gathering were extremely clear. It is difficult to believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa was unaware. During the apparent interference of the police at Galle Face, his intervention was very clear on the side of the attackers.
Attacks and Counter Attacks
There were two sites that were particularly attacked. While there are different names most popular being ‘Gota-Go-Gama’ and ‘Mina-Go-Gama.’ Apart from around 200 people who were brutally attacked, their platforms, tents, placards, and flags were destroyed. At Galle Face, some people were thrown into the Beira-lake. Whatever the extremes of their slogans and demands, the above protest sites were prominent as peaceful protests.
It is strange to see, however, within hours of the above incidents, over 40 houses of the government supporters, including MPs, were attacked, and burnt down destroying some of the personal valuables. Ten people were killed in the incidents. Below is one incident that Aljazeera reported.
“Earlier in the day, legislator Amarakeerthi Athukorala from the ruling party shot two people – killing a 27-year-old man – after being surrounded by a mob in Nittambuwa, about 40km (25 miles) from Colombo, police said. CCTV footage showed the MP and his security officer fleeing into a nearby building. They were later found dead.”[ii]
Of course, there are contradictory and different interpretations of the incidents. However, it is difficult to deny the involvement of some form of political activists. Who are they? Geetha Kumarasinghe narrated her ordeal in the following manner in Parliament.
“When they were attacking my home, I was trembling in fear and was hiding in a corner of a room. What wrong have I done? I have never hurt anyone. I have sacrificed everything to engage in politics and serve my people. I slogged and slaved in cinema and won many awards through sheer dedication and hard work. They destroyed all my trophies and awards. Why? Why did these young people do this to me? I can never get my awards and trophies back. You all have mothers, I am also a mother, why did you do this to me?” she sobbed.[iii]
Who Indulged in Violence?
One side is very clear. Mahinda Rajapaksa, Johnstone Fernando, and Namal Rajapaksa were clearly on one side. But who were on the other side?
The JVP General Secretary, Tilvin Silva, recently admitted or claimed that “Our party has been there right from the beginning. We have our youth, cultural, student and women wings, at the Galle Face.”[iv] Of course there were other groups and more independent ones. Silva’s attitude towards politics and other parties also became clear when he referred to heckling of the Leader of the Opposition, Sajith Premadasa, when he visited the Galle Face protest site. Silva said the following.
“Everybody should be careful. People hate to see politicians travelling in luxury cars with security contingents. People detested the politicians’ attitude of trying to stay above them. The Opposition Leader went there in his luxury vehicles with his security guards and henchmen. So, he had to face the wrath of the people.”
Anura Kumara Dissanayake, in Parliament, denied any involvement of the JVP in house attacks and counter violence. He may be true to his conscience. There is a possibility that within the JVP itself that there are two wings operating. Tilvin Silva’s words remind us of the JVPs aggressive and violent past.
Dilemma of Violence
Violence appears to continue. There was a recent incident of people or groups attacking and burning a house of an owner of a fuel station. Undoubtedly there are extreme grievances on the part of the people due to fuel shortages and high prices of consumer items including essential medicine. However, none of these reasons could justify political violence unleashed by the government or the opposition politicians.
There may be deep seated reasons why people in the country are extremely violent. Some of the reasons may go to the educational system and the way students are taught in schools and universities. Moral education should take priority in primary schools. Some reasons may be rooted in the family institution or even religion. Political culture in the country does appear to be extremely distorted or lopsided and change of which should come from all sectors of the political society. What might be important in the meanwhile are:
- Deplore strongly political violence of all forms.
- Request the new national government to ameliorate people’s economic grievances.
- Punish those who have involved or instigated violence without discrimination.
- Establish Rule of Law and impartiality of the public and security services.
- Promote non-violence and peace in the country.