Conditioned by war

In Sri Lanka, post-war trauma and a militarised peace have created a violent society, with children the worst affected.

Tisaranee Gunasekara is a political commentator based in Colombo.

Having experienced one long war and two insurgencies, Sri Lanka is no stranger to violence. But until a few years ago, violent crimes targeting children were relatively rare in this wounded land. Historical maladies such as female infanticide, which tormented many of the country's Southasian compatriots, were unknown. There was poverty, malnourishment and child labour, and certainly some amount of child abuse – including sexual abuse – shrouded in the privacy of homes, schools and religious institutions. But violent crimes against children, of the sort that cannot be hidden from either the police or the public, were uncommon.

Not anymore. Today, violent crimes against children are everyday news. The end of 2012 and the start of 2013 brought news of two horrendous cases, one from the Tamil-majority north and the other from the Sinhala-majority south. In late December, on the small island of Mandativu off the Jaffna coast, the body of a four-year-old girl, reportedly raped and strangled, was found in an abandoned well. In early January, in Colombo district, a baby girl died after her father assaulted her and burnt the lower half of her body. The father, who was out on bail after allegedly raping his 17-year-old cousin, has since killed himself.

Statistics about child rape and sexual abuse paint a horrendous picture, especially by Lankan standards. According to a police spokesman, over 700 cases of child rape and sexual abuse were reported in the first six months of 2012 – a rate of four a day. The real figure may be significantly higher: according to the National Child Protection Authority, over 20,000 instances of child abuse may have occurred in the first half of 2012. In 2011, 1169 cases were reported – an average of over three a day. That same year, the Family Health Bureau warned that 10 to 14 percent of underage girls are sexually abused every year, and about seven percent became pregnant at a very young age. Reports for 2010 recorded that three children were raped or abused every day. The problem is particularly acute in the country's north, according to the Government Agent (GA) of Jaffna. The GA also reported that there are about "600 child abuse cases annually", and that "this immoral culture was not there before the conflict or during the conflict period, but has emerged after the conflict". Currently, according to unconfirmed reports, about five children are raped or abused in Sri Lanka every day.

Why has post-war Sri Lanka become so extremely unsafe for its children? "The returning warrior risks carrying the seed of violence into the very heart of his city," wrote French anthropologist René Girard in his 1972 book Violence and the Sacred. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a relatively new name for an age-old phenomenon. The question is whether PTSD affects societies as well, especially ones which have been consistently and extensively exposed to exceptional levels of violence. Is Sri Lanka's plague of anti-child violence rooted in the country's bloody past? Did the triumphant and lionised warriors of the Fourth Eelam War bring back with them the bacillus of violent mores? What happens when a society is exposed to a military culture and is injected with concomitant military values, as Sri Lanka has been?

Culture of violence
On 14 August 2006, the Lankan Air Force bombed an LTTE camp in Vallipunam, causing over 100 casualties. The Tigers claimed the victims were participating in first-aid training, while the Lankan government insisted they were undergoing military training. Independent sources reported that the victims were civilians forced by the LTTE to attend a quasi-military training camp. Amidst the conflicting claims, there was one indisputable fact: all the dead andinjured were children, girls of school-going age.

The long Eelam War never spared children, on either side of the divide. But the Vallipunam raid marked a turning point. It was the first time such a large number of female children were killed, away from the battlefield, by Lankan forces. It was also the first time Colombo explicitly justified the targeting of children. The government could have admitted its mistake and blamed the LTTE for using the children as cannon fodder. Instead, it chose to defend the raid, explicitly and unconditionally. The unspoken conclusion was that if the children were in a Tiger camp, voluntarily or involuntarily, they deserved to die.

Treating child combatants differently from adults is a mark of a civilised society, and that distinction can and must be maintained away from the theatre of war. Killing child soldiers in a battle can perhaps be justified as a sad necessity of war, but targeting child soldiers in training camps cannot be justified by any society which fears the abyss of barbarism.

Colombo's ruthless, blasé attitude was symbolic of and symbiotic with the permissiveness which characterised the Fourth Eelam War. The myth of the 'humanitarian operation with zero civilian casualties' could not be sustained without arbitrarily effacing the line dividing combatants and civilians, and labelling all dead Tamils – including children – as Tigers. One of the final scenes from the Fourth Eelam War was the execution-style murder of LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran's 12-year-old son, who was allegedly shot at point-blank range by a Lankan soldier. The government never really bothered to explain how the boy died, and most of Lankan society greeted the news with silent approbation.

Wars transform societies attitudinally, replacing old memes with new and more violent ones. This is particularly true of elongated civil conflicts. What was previously unthinkable first becomes validated in the theatre of war. If preventive measures are not taken, this germ of permissiveness can permeate the larger society, gradually, until it becomes a new norm. The strong chronological coincidence between the Fourth Eelam War and the country-wide outbreak of violent crimes against children suggests that the permissiveness towards targeting 'child soldiers' ended pre-existing psycho-emotional taboos against violence towards children.

Children are not the only ones suffering. In post-war Sri Lanka, violence is everywhere. It is the method of choice to resolve a conflict, fulfil a desire, deal with an opponent, enrich oneself, cure an 'occult' illness, or just vent out. Rape is also proliferating. The number of reported rapes, which stood at 542 in 1995, rose to 1397 in 2007. There were 1582 reported cases in 2008, 1624 in 2009 and 1854 in 2010. In 2011, 1864 cases were reported. In the north, Tamil women face double the jeopardy, from the ubiquitous and omnipotent Lankan soldiers, and from the men in their own communities.

Even though the 2011 murder rate shows a decline compared to a high of 1924 in 2008, homicides have become more brutal. Anecdotal evidence highlights the degree to which gratuitous violence has invaded every aspect of Lankan life. On Christmas Eve of 2011, a party in a small tourist hotel in Tangalle, in Hambantota District, turned into an orgy of violence which ended with the brutal killing of a British tourist and the reported gang rape of his Russian friend, allegedly by eight Lankan men including Sampth Chandrapushpa, a local politician and Chairman of the Tangalle local council with known ties to the Rajapaksa family. According to a tourist who witnessed the event, the victim, Kharum Shaikh,

was walking and hunched over hugging himself. Things were being thrown at him and he was being beaten while he was walking. He made it to end of the pool area where they caught up to him. Three guys were bearing down on him and then attacked him. This is where I believe he was again wounded severely by the broken bottle and they slashed his throat. He only made it another 15 feet where he collapsed and did not get back up.

Take another example: Exorcisms have been a Lankan norm from time immemorial, and these are usually nonviolent, bloodless affairs. Yet in 2012, in rural Dehiattakandiya in the North-Central Province, a little girl was killed when an exorcist forced her to swallow a sharp knife in order to 'cure' her of a malady; two other 'sick' girls suffered severe burn-injuries when the same exorcist and his wife pushed them into the ritual fire. It is noteworthy that this bizarre triple-crime took place not in the privacy of a home but in public, amidst a large gathering. Also in 2012, an unknown serial killer (or perhaps several killers) in a nondescript village in the sylvan setting of gem-rich Ratnapura District claimed victim after victim.

Alongside the increase in violence, murder has become almost synonymous with rape. According to a police spokesperson, "the murders committed in recent times have become more gruesome … They cut and chop without a care. Sometime back, rape was not followed by murder, however now rape is followed by murder".

The new 'normality'
Sri Lanka cannot simply dismiss these incidents and statistics as an increase in the reporting of such cases, rather than an actual rise in violence. Even with the sharp increase in reported rapes, the numbers probably under-represent the actual incidence of sexual violence since many rapes, including child rapes, can often go unreported and undiscovered, especially in the privacy of the family and home. But this is not true of murder, gang rape, and rape accompanied by lethal or near-lethal violence. When they happen outside a warzone, such crimes are hard to hide from both the police and the media. There is certainly more reportage on violence, but there is also a real increase in both violent and sexual crimes, and especially in the use of violence on a scale unheard of in normal settings.

In A Savage War of Peace, his magisterial work on the Algerian War of Independence, Alistair Horne writes of a French police inspector who tortured his own wife and children because of "what he had been required to do to Algerian suspects". Wars brutalise societies and make them pitiless. Both physical and psychological demilitarisation is necessary for societies to revert to peaceful modes of thinking and doing. Lankan peace, on the contrary, is characterised by increased militarisation, including that of hitherto unmilitarised spaces. The Rajapaksa regime promotes the notion of the military as the embodiment of all that is good and virtuous. This veneration of power and force is impeding the advent of a more compassionate societal ethos. When force and power are regarded as the most desirable qualities, powerlessness becomes an embarrassing weakness. Such a society, instead of protecting its most powerless members –children, women, minorities – becomes indifferent to their plight.

Speaking to the Sunday Leader, Dr Jayan Mendis, a specialist psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health, said,

We lived with a war for 30 years. All those who are 30 years or so were born, bred and schooled within a war situation … They knew of war and war alone … Now it is over. However, what one grows up with is not easily forgotten. Some would want to kill any person who troubles him on even a small issue, just to get even. They know of killings and murder quite well. That is their experience.

"The leaders of this nation do not set a good example to society … That is why crime is forever on the increase," says Professor Harendra De Silva, the former head of the National Child Protection Authority. Indeed, there is a conspicuous absence of political will for dealing with the plague of violent crimes. The official response to the outbreak varies between denial and indifference. When a soldier stationed in the north murdered two of his comrades and killed himself, the regime responded by banning news reports of the incident. When asked about the rape problem in Sri Lanka, the country's ambassador to the US responded that "rapes this and that [are] not taking any place [sic] in Sri Lanka," then proceeded to concede that "like any other country, we have, like couple of cases [sic]."

The judiciary also tends to treat crimes against women and children with unpardonable leniency.  According to the Daily Mirror, a study by the NGO Lawyers for Human Rights and Development found that "since 2008 there [has] been a trend in imposing suspended sentences in cases of rape and child molestation … the study [has] revealed that even convicts of gang rape of underage females including school children had been given suspended sentences by courts."

For example, on 12 July 2012, a soldier attached to an army camp in Ambepussa, north of Colombo, was arrested for molesting a six-year-old child. The suspect was a repeat offender out on bail. As reported by the Colombo Gazette, "Investigations had revealed that the soldier had molested another girl in 2010 and there was also a pending case against him at another court." In another case, on 30 March 2012 in Jaffna, a man accused of raping a 13-year-old girl was granted bail at just SLR 50,000. The accused managed a home for underprivileged children in Kopay, Jaffna, where the victim was living. There seemed little concern over whether the accused would lose his job, and what would happen to the other girls under his charge.

Law becomes even more ineffective when alleged perpetrators hold political positions or have political connections. The police are yet to file action against the ruling-party politician who is the main suspect in the Christmas Eve murder and rape case in Tangalle. He is currently out on bail, and is back in the top post in the local council, a state of affairs which is likely to discourage all but the most courageous of witnesses against him. The head of a local council in the adjacent Matara district, who is the main accused in a case of gang rape of a minor in 2012, is also out on bail and has resumed his political activities. A child rape case against Duminda Silva, formerly an opposition lawmaker, was dropped after he joined the government in 2011. The appointment of a politically partisan Chief Justice is likely to make Lankan police and courts even more reluctant to act firmly against politically connected criminals and suspects.

The same change between pre- and post-war attitudes evident in reactions to violence against children is also evident here. On 22 October 2007, a group of Black Tigers – a branch of the LTTE notorious for their suicide attacks – launched a devastating attack on the Saliyapura air force camp in the Anuradhapura District. Afterwards, Lankan forces packed the naked bodies of the attackers, including three women, into two tractors, and paraded these grisly 'trophies' through Anuradhapura town. Many Sinhalese responded to this horrendous spectacle with embarrassment and outrage. Two years later, however, the dead body of Vellupillai Prabhakaran, stripped down to his underpants, was widely displayed by the media. There was no embarrassment, no outrage. Nor was there any shame when British Channel 4 aired the documentary 'Sri Lanka's Killing Fields', with pictures of dead LTTE cadres stripped naked, suggestive of torture and rape. This points to a sea-change in attitudes. During the course of the Fourth Eelam War, Sri Lanka's southern society had come to accept torture, rape and murder as legitimate weapons of war. This sanctification of the abhorrent has also helped create today's hothouse climate for violent crimes. On 25 October 2012, a businessman was cut and stabbed by two motorcyclists at a busy junction in Galle District, in full view of hundreds of people. No one intervened to stop the crime or help the victim, while a nearby policeman continued to direct traffic control throughout the incident. There are plentiful other such examples.

"These murders show that Sri Lankan society is sick," Dr Mendis has said. "The Police may not be able to cure this by themselves. It is within the responsibility of the government." But does the current government want a psychological demilitarisation of Lankan society? Does Lankan society realise the insalubrious state of its collective psyche? Do individual Lankans understand that their personal safety is inextricably linked to their capacity to reject the violent mores spawned by the Fourth Eelam War?

~ Tisaranee Gunasekara is a Sri Lankan columnist based in Colombo.

Loading content, please wait...
Himal Southasian