MIDWEEK REVIEW

The epidemiology of violence

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A file photo of protesters inside the President’s House

By Prof. Susirith Mendis

Introduction

Violence, by simple definition, is the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy. The World Health Organization (WHO) definition of violence is “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”

In this essay, I will not take the whole gamut of the WHO definition of violence, but a limited aspect that is required by my initial intent to write about violence in the context of what developed in Sri Lanka during 2022 and early 2023. Therefore, I will be limiting myself to the category of ‘Collective violence’ where violence is committed by larger groups of organised or disorganised individuals and retaliatory violence of the State.

The Present Setting

It is almost a year since the expulsion of the President of Sri Lanka without a shot being fired. Perhaps, the only instance in the world when that has happened. What came to my mind then, was the storming of the Winter Palace in Petrograd in October 1917 by workers, peasants and soldiers and the Palacio de La Moneda (the presidential palace) by military units loyal to Pinochet which led to the death of the President Salvador Allende. But they were extremely violent events as against what happened at the Presidential Residence in Fort, Colombo.

The most unlikely political process has come to pass in Sri Lanka in the Parliamentary election of the Executive President on 20th July 2022 – where a man who was not even elected to Parliament by the people, becoming President. The probability of such an event occurring anywhere in the world of democratic politics and state governance is so infinitesimal. But it has now come to pass. This is a unique confluence of events that is unparalleled in the world. Ranil Wickremesinghe will certainly find his place in the history books in decades to come – for this feat alone.

We need to wait and watch. History will unfold slowly; and surely it will.

Last year, we experienced a new type of violence. An ostensibly non-violent, non-political-party waves of anti-President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa (GR) and anti-government protests expectantly transforming into two serious spasms of violence on 9th May and 9th July 2022.

Preamble

Therefore, in preamble, a short analysis of the current and developing situation in Sri Lanka in terms of the nature of violence, I think, is appropriate and necessary. The foreign exchange crisis that commenced with the dramatic fall in our dollar income from zero tourism and serious decrease in the influx of dollars from the Middle East workers due to Covid-19 pandemic was further aggravated by gross mismanagement of our finances by the government. The totally misplaced tax concessions at the outset of the GR Presidency and the asinine policy decision to ‘go organic’ in agriculture with ‘immediate effect’ created the first wave of protests by farmers who justifiably felt that there was an existential threat to them and Sri Lanka’s agriculture.

The ‘straw that broke the back’ of the people’s patience finally was the gas and fuel crisis. Never have we experienced kilometres long queues and 48-hour waits for them ever in our history – not even during the worst of 1971 and 1988-89 Southern insurrections nor during the 30-year Northern ethnic civil war. It is my considered view that if the fuel and gas crisis could have been avoided by foresight and prudent politico-economic thinking, President GR would still be in his seat. There is little point in going back and blaming GR for his grossly inappropriate appointments to key government positions not mentioning the cabal of retired military men who had no experience in civil administration.

Since GR was not doing anything to stop the Galle Face aragalaya, Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) in his foolishness prompted by his close coterie of low-IQ, but inherently violent henchmen decided to counter-attack. This led, in reaction, to the first spasm of widespread violence by the hitherto non-violent aragalaya enterprise. What took me, and many other observers, by surprise was the magnitude of that violence. The organisational capacity of the nationally widespread violence was not expected nor foreseen. Neither did we expect the JVP politburo member Lal Kantha to take covert responsibility. We discovered that there had been a subterranean stream of incipient violence hibernating within the aragalaya. Whether the innocuous ‘candle-lit vigils’ that began it all, had a hidden hand (local or foreign) is a moot point that will need analysis when the history of these events are written with quietly contemplative hindsight.

There is little doubt in my mind that the episodic signs of incipient violence were initially led by the JVP. But soon it became obviously apparent that the FSP and its student-wing, the Anthare (IUSF) had taken over and had decided on the future course of the protests. Soon, the non-violent aragalaya had taken a sinister violent demeanour. As we watched, the violence gradually, but surely, increased and exploded on 9th July with the invasion and takeover of the Presidential Residence, the Presidential Secretariat and the Prime Minister’s Residence (Temple Trees) and subsequently, the Prime-Minister’s Office and the residence of Ranil Wickremasinghe. The FSP-Anthare quickly took responsibility. JVP-NPP-AKD took a back seat. The JVP-NPP had lost the initiative though being the larger and better organised political grouping. Kumar Gunaratnam was seen more on TV being interviewed by political commentators. To me, it looked as if that the JVP-AKD had, at least temporarily dropped the NPP. AKD was appearing at news briefings in front of a pure JVP banner. This may be due to the more genteel and only NPP parliamentarian Dr. Harini Amarasuriya possibly declining to be part of or take responsibility for the developing violence.

Political blogger, Sepal Amarasinghe, Lal Kantha and Handuneththi were seen at the entrance to the road to Parliament. Amarasinghe was urging the aragalites to invade and takeover Parliament. Lal Kantha and Handuneththi were of similar mind. The violence there took a turn for the worse. The military had to take more severe decisive action to prevent an invasion and takeover of Parliament.

The elite upper crust Colombians and the urban genteel middle-class saw their politically innocent and sometimes joyous family protests at Galle Face green take a turn violent. Many said, ‘enough is enough’ and backed out of further participation in the protests. Their motivations and their role that began with the candle-lit vigils and the aragalaya will need a detailed socio-political study in the near future. I believe that a few factors drove them onto the streets: these included the fuel crisis that made their transport for work and leisure a hitherto unexperienced irritant; and their inherent political affiliations and anti-Rajapaksa sentiments accentuated by the large-scale corruption and nepotism of the Rajapaksa clan and their acolytes.

President Wickremesinghe, perhaps enraged by the torching and destruction of his home, and his well-known propensity to use violence when politically needed, conducted himself true to form. The rapidity with which he ordered the midnight raid on 21st July on the illegal-criminal occupiers of the Presidential Secretariat had been well-scripted in his scheme of things. It portends of things to come.

I will not dwell nor delve into the “international” ramifications of the suspicious funding of the aragalaya in this article. That must also be left for those who are professionally capable and have the means for ‘deep penetration’ and ‘extreme investigative journalism’ to uncover. Since the motivations of Wimal Weerawansa are generally looked upon with suspicion, his hastily complied book Nine the hidden story, will be kept out of this discussion.

Well, that is a very long, but necessary, preamble to the topic at hand – The Epidemiology of Violence.

What begot the aragalaya in the first place and what factors enlarged it into a state of violence?

Structural Violence

Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung introduced the term ‘Structural Violence’ in his 1969 article “Violence, Peace, and Peace Research” in the Journal of Peace Research. Some examples of structural violence as proposed by Galtung include institutionalized racism, sexism, and classism, among others. Structural violence and direct violence are said to be highly interdependent, including family violence, gender violence, hate crimes, racial violence, police violence, state violence, terrorism, and war. It is very closely linked to social injustice insofar as it affects people differently in various social structures. Galtung also lists “structurally conditioned poverty” as the first category of structural violence. violence does not necessarily need to be done to the human body for it to be considered violence. Galtung proceeds to identify ‘repression’ as another factor in violence.

It can, therefore, be argued that the State perpetrates violence in the manner they govern without any seemingly observable incidents of violence.

Hence, can it be said that the aragalaya was a final cumulative eruption in reaction to the ‘structural violence’ that has been perpetrated on the populace for an indefinite period in our recent political history? That the fuel and gas shortages was only the final straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back? That the long-term effects of societal structural violence were the final trigger? Sociologists and social psychologists will need to delve into this aspect when the history of the aragalaya is written in the aftermath when we get back to a ‘new normal’. When we are capable as a nation to NOT ‘look back in anger’.

(To be continued)

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