Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is the Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd
Each time a horrific crime hits the headlines, ministers and police top brass make solemn avowals that stringent action would be taken against the perpetrators and that effective deterrent measures would be instituted to ensure such crimes are not repeated and law and order prevails in the country. But like all promises, these are also shoved behind a back burner, until another serious crime occurs. Then these promises are brushed up and renewed, only for the cycle to be repeated again, and again.
After Maithripala Sirisena came to power in the 2015 presidential election, the disruption of law and order, violence and criminal activities appeared to have considerably subsided all over the country. But that seems to have changed in the past few month with the sudden upsurge in violent incidents and serious crimes.
And the violent incidents that range for gun fights to murder and underworld gang rivalry, is not limited to the South. Even in the North and East, which were devastated by the three decades of civil war and is struggling to come back to normalcy, serious crimes including murder, sexual violence and robbery have been rampant. In the Jaffna peninsula, sword-wielding gangs most of whom are in their twenties are running amok despite the prevalence of heavy army and police security. Sexual crimes are also reported as relatively high in the peninsula and residents are at a loss to understand how these gang members are able to move freely with dangerous weapons, even in broad daylight, and engage in criminal activities, without being detected by the law enforcement authorities.
Meanwhile, the recent upsurge in violence against foreigners, especially women, by perpetrators with political connections has once again seen the world spotlight being focused on the ugly side of Sri Lanka.
After the incidents in Mirissa, where two female tourists were alleged to have been sexually assaulted and several other who attempted to save them were brutally attacked, and in Midigama where a group of Dutch tourists were attacked, the government avowed action against all the perpetrators irrespective of their allegiances. And while a number of the perpetrators had been arrested and remanded, the police top brass and politicians have gone on record saying everything was being done to ensure the safety of the tourists.
The media, quoting some eye witnesses, reported that a powerful ruling party politician was sighted where the attackers were boozing prior to the attack. It is worth noting that both the Mirissa and Midigama incidents occurred in the same police area. There is no gainsaying that police more often than not swing into action long after the crimes are committed and the damage is done. Sex offences are not unknown in the tourist areas in Sri Lanka. Many such incidents have been reported in the past, with some of the offenders even sent to jail. But jail terms don’t seem to have a deterrent effect if the recent tourists related crimes are any indication.
Waking up to the reality of the damage done to tourism by these violent incidents, the government swung into damage control mode, requesting the foreign diplomats in Colombo to persuade their compatriots to visit Sri Lanka, pledging that strong security measures are in place to ensure the safety of the tourists.
In this backdrop, it heartening to note that many socially conscious people have via newspaper columns pointed out the irony of violence and criminal offences intensifying in many parts of the country nine years after the guns in the North and East fell silent, and urged that the root causes of the rising violence be investigated. This writer’s attention was drawn to a comment by Kishali Pinto Jayawardene, a leading political columnist and a civil rights activist lawyer, in a weekend English paper last week.
Convinced that the continuous violence and criminal activities are the result of the impact of the culture of violence nurtured during the war, she wrote, “What happened at Mirissa and Midigama were not isolated incidents but reflections of a daily lived reality in Sri Lanka, not only for tourists but also for citizens, where at any given point, the law can yield to bestiality with catastrophic consequences. That is what war, political savagery and abandonment of the Rule of Law has brought about for this country.” There is no arguing that nearly 30 years of war had brutalized the Sri Lankan society. Killing had become common place often justified for political reasons. There has been no tangible actions by successive governments and political class to change the situation. What we are experiencing now is the degeneration of society where murder has come to be seen as an ordinary weapon for settling disputes whether they be personal, political or economic.
Most Sri Lankans, particularly the Buddhist are fond of referring to the country as an ‘island of peace, wedded to the doctrine maithri and non- violence’. The first Buddhist precept, which is intoned by every Buddhist at the temple on poya days is; ‘I shall not kill’. Despite this, not only does SriLanka possess the highest crime rate in Asia it has also become a land of frequent communal violence. It is not an exaggeration to say that killing has become a business – reminding us of the gangster killings of Chicago and Mafia. It may be that we have not reached American standards. But, we are certainly well on the way to it.
It is ironic to note that even Buddhist priests, didn’t just advocate the killing of Tamil militants during the war, but even blessed the security forces that was got ready to do the murderous job. There had been even instances of Buddhist monks disrobing themselves in order to join the army.
One thing be said about the Buddhist doctrine is that the Buddha never compromised on his commitment to non-violence. For no reason whatsoever did he condone the killing of one man by another.
On the one hand, in the name of ‘liberation struggle’ internecine warfare between Tamil militant groups was encouraged in the North and East resulting in the death of hundreds of youth in the initial phase of the war. And killing was justified. Even when innocent civilians who disagreed with the militants for genuine reasons were branded as ‘traitors’ and subjected to lamppost killings, Tamil society couldn’t condemn it fearing the repercussion. It was argued by the militant groups that loss of life was inevitable in a freedom struggle and they even went to the extent of justifying the unfair actions thus paving the way for the promotion of a culture of violence.
The other significant reason for the rise in violence and killings is the nefarious activities of the underworld and unscrupulous activities of the new class of capitalists with enormous political clout at the highest level, who are notorious for their lavish spending habits and complete lack of respect for law and order. These men and their women are to be seen every evening at the liquor bars of the five star hotels and in the posh casinos that have sprung up all over Colombo. There have been several instances where foreign tourists had been attacked and women molested by these ‘new rich men’.
It is no secret that hundreds of thousands of rupees are gambled away every night at these casinos, most of which are foreign owned. As this sort of money can be accumulated only through illegal means, it follows that such money can only be protected either by heavily bribing politicians, the customs or police officers. This has led to e politics becoming criminalized and crime becoming politicized.