18 September, 2019

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A Nation Of Bystanders

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

“There must be some way out of here….” –Bob Dylan (All along the Watchtower)

Mel Gunasekera, the accomplished journalist; Lahiru Sandaruwan Rathnayake, the aspiring undergraduate – both died last week. The acclaimed journalist at the Zenith of her profession was murdered, reportedly by a non-professional thief. The unknown student at the threshold of his university life died, when a pre-existing health condition turned lethal during the military-conducted ‘Leadership Training Programme’ all university-entrants are subjected to.

Both deaths were senseless and preventable. That they happened at all are indicative of the irrational, pitiless and brutish place Sri Lanka is becoming.

Mel

Mel

In his eulogy on Mel Gunasekera, Sanjana Hattotuwa wrote, “Her murder blindsided many of us because she wasn’t on our list of those against whom hate, hurt or harm would be directly channelled. She wasn’t working on any story that risked her life. She was just a damn good journalist. And damn good journalists don’t die like she did. They don’t. They can’t.”[i] Except that they do and they can, in a society which is becoming inured to decency and compassion, which is losing sense of reason and proportionality, which sees violence as the first and the ideal solution to any problem.

The murder of Mel Gunasekera and the death of Lahiru Rathnayake demonstrate that in this Sri Lanka, one does not have to be a Rajapaksa opponent to be felled by sudden, unnatural death. Irrational laws and societal violence can claim the life of even the most non-political citizen, anytime. In this country which spends the largest chunk of its national wealth on national security, security has become the prerogative of power-wielders and their kith and kin while the rest of the citizenry live with chronic insecurity and perpetual threat of violence.

The Eelam War ended almost five years ago. Since then Lankan society has lurched from violence to ghastlier violence. Crimes are becoming more brutal and more anti-civilisational. Last year, a four month old girl and a ninety year old (bedridden) woman were raped. In this thrice-blessed Mother Lanka, the only females safe from rapine seem to be the unborn ones and the dead ones.

Why is post-war Sri Lanka becoming such an extremely unsafe country for her people, especially her children?

The Moral and Rational Slide

The Greek philosopher Protagoras, in Plato’s eponymous book, relates that Zeus sought to endow the young mankind with civic-wisdom through two vital gifts: aidos (shame/decency) and dike (justice/even-handedness/fairness). Zeus insists that these gifts must be given to all, “for cities cannot be formed if only a few share in these skills as they do in other arts.”

When societies lose their collective sense of shame/decency and justice/fairness they become dangerously dysfunctional places for their own people.

In 2012, at a school in the Galle District, a group of uniform-wearing students, led, aided and abetted by a mob of parents, launched a violent attack on the incoming principal.

A twelve-year-old boy who would have hacked his sister with a manne, after breaking open her door, had he not been restrained by adults, and a nine-year-old girl who stabbed her father in the back with a kitchen knife are two examples mentioned by Kumudini Hettiarachchi in her timely piece on that gathering malaise – child-violence.[ii]

“Violence has become a familiarity in society” warned Professor of Criminology and Head of Department of Sociology and Anthropology, WM Jayasundara[iii]. A society which lived with a civil war for thirty blood-soaked years cannot be immune to the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder anymore than its military is.

“Military training has to make people do things which they do not do in civilian life”[iv]. The military-landscape has to be free of many familiar and vitally necessary ‘moral landmarks’, starting with the universal injunction against taking a human life. Military values and civil values cannot and must not be identical. ‘If the sword is not used in war, is it for cutting jak-fruit?’ That popular Sinhala aphorism pinpoints two equally seminal truths: in wars, swords are necessary, but they have no place in civilian lives. Militaries must be kept sequestered from larger society, to protect societies from the ethos of violence without which a military is not a military. When a country deliberately breaks down that necessary wall, when it hails the war as a meritorious enterprise, glorifies soldiers as infallible supermen and upholds martial-valour as the greatest of virtues, it unplugs those psychological and moral safeguards which prevent the contagion of violence from infesting the national bloodstream.

After the October 2007 Black Tiger-attack on the Saliyapura Air Force camp, the naked bodies of the attackers (including three women) were loaded into two tractors and paraded in Anuradhapura town[v]. Sinhala-South responded to this horrendous spectacle with embarrassment and outrage; the dominant feeling was that such denigration of the dead enemy was against our values. In 2009 when the dead body of Vellupillai Pirapaharan was stripped down to his underpants and displayed on national-television that same society responded with equanimity if not approbation. That differential response was indicative of the eons we had travelled, morally and ethically, in less than two years[vi].

According to Dr Jayan Mendis, the specialist psychiatrist of the National Institute of Mental Health, “All those who are 30 years or so were born, bred and schooled within a war situation….. They knew of war and war alone….. 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…. These murders show that Sri Lankan society is sick… The Police may not be able to cure this by themselves. It is within the responsibility of the government.”[vii]

The Rajapaksa government cannot offer solutions because it a vital part of the problem. It is the Ruling Siblings who are militarizing society, including psychologically. The best case in point is the ‘Leadership Training Programme’, which aims at transforming universities from breeding grounds for dissent into epicentres of conformism[viii].

“Laws are not enforced properly and the police do not carry out their duties properly. Police now act according to politicians’ dictate,” Professor Jayasundara points out[ix]. A society can be simultaneously unlawful and ‘disciplined’ in a regimented sense. An individual can be an obedient subject and a violent citizen. The regimentation of public spaces can coexist with societal lawlessness. The same person who will not dream of breaking the militarised code-of-conduct prevailing in the new Gardens of Gotabhaya may not hesitate to kill a man or abuse a child. Mindless obedience and mindless violence are the two sides of the same pitiless, irrational, shameless coin.

On 25th October 2012, a businessman was hacked by two motorcyclists at a busy junction in Galle, in full view of hundreds of people. No one intervened to prevent the crime or to help the victim (until the arrival of the municipal ambulance). They just watched[x].

We started off by ignoring Tamil victims. Now we are indifferent to our own, including children.

How many Mel Gunasekeras and Lahiru Rathnayakes must die before we realise that we cannot remain a nation of bystanders except at our own peril?


[ii] Rein in child rage immediately – The Sunday Times – 2.2.2014

[iii] Hacking and stabling: Our crime scene is getting uglier by the day – Chathuri Dissanayake and Chamal Weerakkody – The Sunday Times – 18.8.2013

[iv] Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century – Jonathan Glover

[v] “Sri Lankan authorities stripped the bodies of Tamil Tiger guerrillas killed in an attack on a key military air base and put them on public display, local residents said” – AFP – 23.10.2007

[vi]The Mahavamsa unequivocally upholds the value of respecting the enemy-dead. The antipodal response which became the vogue during the Fourth Eelam War demonstrates that the Rajapaksa ethos is far more anti-civilisational than the Mahavamsa ethos.

[vii] The Sunday Leader – 1.12.2012

[viii] Lahiru Rathnayake was not the only victim of the Leadership Training insanity; in 2011 a female student was killed while the Leadership Training Programme for school principals caused the death of one participant last year.

[ix] The Sunday Times – 18.8.2013

[x] Warning: Please bear in mind that this clip is extremely graphic. I am including it because it demonstrates how far we have regressed as a society. http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=609_1352234489

 

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Latest comments

  • 3
    3

    “We started off by ignoring Tamil victims”. Omigod!!! at last!At least one idiot has acknowledged that it is this racism that lies at the root of the fascist that every sinhala and tamil speaking person is. It is very interesting but I have not as yet met a sinhalese speaking or tamil speaking person who was not a fascist. There are English speaking fascists too, but they are rare exceptions and there is only one whom I know of.

    • 6
      2

      Sinhala civilization is decadent and decaying. Before the whole country is soaked in blood action must be taken to arrest this trend and reverse it by setting up new state structures by the international community and punish the dictatorial regime perpetrating violence, cheating, lies, torture, rape and killing.

      • 6
        2

        Thiru, as usual you are either ignorant or being a racist. Have you not noticed the torture and murder carried out by Prabhakaran on his own Tamil people? He had strong support from the community that knew well what he was up to, didn’t he? Why would you then not say the Tamil civilization is also decadent and decaying?

        • 2
          0

          Tamils were provocated just as Muslims are now. Its human nature to fight back if you strip the dignity and rights of a human bring.

    • 5
      2

      crazyoldmansi,

      “We started off by ignoring Tamil victims”. Omigod!!! at last!At least one idiot has acknowledged that it is this racism that lies at the root of the fascist that every sinhala and tamil speaking person is”

      There is some truth to this. Where is the supporting data? However, all this racism has been taught, and the religious leaders, especially Sinhala Mahanama Buddhist Monks and Mahawansa have played a big role.

      where is the data?

      We have 2,300 years worth of data.

      Have you ever wondered why even after 2,300 of Sinhala “Buddhism” in Lanka, there are hardly any Tamil Buddhists. whereas in India every state has a few percent Buddhists.

      In fact the Monk Buddhaghosa was from Tamil Nadu and Madhadi, who spent lot of time in Lanka at Mahavihara, writing, even though he was from another state.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddhaghosa

      • 2
        0

        Amarasiri

        Radical Bhikkus are to be blamed. Buddhism’s very survival is challenged by these fools.

    • 1
      0

      Mahesh Fernando:
      Why don’t you learn to write basic English before you cross your idiotic sword with that of an intelligent journalist? It is idiots like you who given Sri Lankans a bad name no matter where they are!

      crazyoldmansl:
      If you took the time to read what she has had to say over the years, you will realise what a lying dolt you are. But then truth was never your strong point, was it?

      Izmi:
      What you say is simply UNTRUE. There has been no complete collapse of law and order in any of the democratic countries. Things are not perfect, but NOWHERE has it reached the level it has in Sri Lanka.

      punchinilame:
      Yours is one of the few sensible and logical suggestions here. Thank you.

  • 13
    1

    Thisaranee you are as always spot on. Mel’s death was indeed tragic and no matter what anyone may say i will always believe that it’s a mysterious death like many journalists including my friend Lasantha who when i met him about a month before his death almost prophesied that his days are numbered specially when he was called by none other than the head of state and warned that he will be destroyed. This he reported but we were by standers. Another batch mate of mine Romesh Abeywickrema and his wife fled the country to save their lives and still we remained by standers. This is apathy at its worst which is the ideal ground for any dictatorship. It reminds me of the 19th of May 2009. I was on leave as some renovation work was being done to my home. The news channels were streaming in with updates of the final hours of the war. I had to go to the Kotte town to get some building material and in front of the Kotte bus stand there were over hundred people erecting a pandol of General Fonseka. A jeep screeched to get halt and out of it emerged a provincial councillor with his band of merry men and instructed those who were erecting the pandol to replace it with what he had brought in a truck which was twice the size of the one that was to be erected. The general was scaled down to the size of a stamp and there gleaming was the giant figure of the one who was to be the king. In the euphoria i too could not help telling the hardware store owner ” mudalali at last we have won and now this country will be unbeatable” He laughed cynically and this is what he told me which i will translate to English. Sir do you really think so ? You are educated and may see things differently but i have only studied upto the 8th standard but i think this is the beginning of another war which will affect every part of society. I was gobsmacked and asked him why he is so negative. He said ” you saw what these people just did didn’t you ? Now before a year passes there will be a war between the general and this person who is about to be crowned king. There will be unlimited power bestowed and no rule of law will prevail. If you think you have seen corruption then you will see a different type of corruption unmatched by any previous regime. We will simply be told that it is they who saved this country and anyone who opposes them are also traitors of the country. This will create even more division and fear among people.” I was stunned by what i heard and told him he either is extremely negative or is too politically biased. He told me laughingly ” ok sir lets see whether i am right or wrong. Drop by in two years and let’s have this conversation. I have not paid him that visit as i am not sure if he is right or wrong but i want to believe that i am right.

    • 2
      0

      MR@,
      people in general add this kind of views be them, taxi drivers, retail shop oweners/runners, private bus owner/conductors/drivers to almost many in lanken society that they disargree with the way the current politicians work, but in elections very same people to vote against the opposition is not comprehesible to me. Why ? This I notice every time on my return to Europe. Those who live there may get it but others like me would never. I think it is the people´s mind sets should need drastical changes. Many down there do feel developement is roads, bridges and few ports/airports.

  • 1
    3

    Did the public rise up in 1971 when their sons/daughters were murdered or vanished without jurisdiction?
    Did they rise up 1988~89 murders and mass scale disappearance of their children by Gov?
    In fact, public opinion was in favor of government actions, they claimed their children were too naughty.
    Now.. will the public rise up against powerful MR Gov for killing of some naughty editors?
    Probably they might… if we have couple of more Thisaranees, Sharminis. And Shyamon Jayasinghe has to go back and join the girls.. rest may follow…

    • 0
      0

      AVB

      “In fact, public opinion was in favor of government actions, they claimed their children were too naughty.”

      Man/woman from parallel universe.

  • 3
    0

    Not only the two mentioned but there were few more caught to my view – whose lives could well have been saved if the authorities had a human face.

    One school boy of Galle Richmond College, who had jumped from a PUwak tree had not been treated adequately by the treating docs at Karapitiya hospital – so the child had died due to lack of the proper attention. And dead body of an infant, that had been already eaten by dogs were found by one old farmer was reported in the media yesterday. This infant was believed to have killed by his own parents and thrown away free-as house garbage. Could well be these are single cases, but where have the senses gone in terms of morals,dignity, peity etc. I think – Rajapakshe should spend milliions instead to the nation building than to increasing number of physical structures. We need more professionals being invovled in society building projects. Lanka is said to be a country where they lack of psychologists, sociologists or other society buidling professionals. Those were the days, that buddhists monks without the titles but functioned as people´s immediate councellors. This the authorities should rebuild again.
    It is believed alternative medicine practices are the only reason srilankan health is scored high index – sometimes comparing with those of Russia and other so called developed countries. In the same manner, if buddhist monks could take care of their small bezirks better as had been in previous times, I believe, we dont need to hire high professionals to guide them well. Instead of doing politics, buddhist monks could do more in the mentioned areas that then would lead us for a healthy folk, that would respect human respect and dignity above all.

  • 5
    1

    There is something called “thought violence” which I see abundantly in Tisaranee’s writings. It is sad.

  • 3
    0

    A nation of repeatedly abused Bystanders who have to prove at least now that they can react using their ballot!

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

  • 2
    0

    What has happened is unfortunate, but isn’t it about time that we stopped pointing fingers and take a good look at ourselves. I have lived in Europe for more than 25yrs, and compared to what happens here Sri Lanka is still paradise. There is corruption, killing and discrimination all over the world, the only difference is that they use different termolergy.

  • 3
    0

    Leadership Training by the Military is a pet-scheme of the MOD with a
    hidden agenda and just imagine that School Principals are subjected to
    it (with at least one death) and no meaningful protest is being made –
    even by the Sinhala intelligentsia. That being so, this will last as
    long as the Regime lasts.

    I propose that all winners in the next prov.Councils also undergo
    this training irrespective of Party – the rules CAN be amended to
    suit the Regime.

    • 2
      0

      See, who introduced this kind far unlawful to be the compulsory stuffs to the lanken Universities or schools ?
      Instead they could improve the levels of sport lessions that have long been part of the school curriculum.

      By the name we are democracy, but forcing schools, universities to take part in such programs sound as if the current rule is millitary by this kind of actions.

  • 1
    0

    (‘ Violence has become a familiarity in society’- Prof.W.M. Jayasundara.)

    ‘ Over half a century ago, while I was still a child, I recall hearing a number of old people offer the following explanation for the great disasters that had befallen Russia; ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’ Since then I have spent well nigh 50 years working on the history of our revolution: in the process I have read hundreds of books, collected hundreds of personal testimonies, and have contributed eight volumes of my own towards the effort of clearing away the rubble left by that upheaval.
    But if I were asked today to formulate as concisely as possible the main cause of the ruinous revolution that swallowed up some 60 million of our people, I could not put it more accurately that to repeat:
    ‘Men have forgotten God; that’s why all this has happened.’
    (Alexandr Solzhenitsyn)

    ‘ From the sole of your foot to the top of your head
    there is no soundness –
    only wounds and welts
    and open sores,
    not cleaned or bandaged
    or soothed with oil.

    Your country is desolate. ( Holy Bible)

  • 3
    0

    As usual yet another marvelous piece by TG. Hope people are aware of the violence that runs in the minds of ordinary us. I for one don’t argue with a three wheeler or a bus conductor or a vehicle driver who might throw an abusive word at me…..that’s how scared I am.

    War gives special privileges to those who enforce it. The winners take it all. Look at how the media glorifies subtle and sometimes not so subtle violence. The constant attacks on opposition figures in Ceylon Today and the MTV channel encourages violence. Yesterday Ranil Wickremasinghe was almost assaulted by an idiot whose irrational behaviour had been glorified by the media….even Romanticised in the recent past. Suppose he had a gun, would he have shot RW? Murder is respectful these days as Orwell had predicted. Take a bow Ceylon Today and MTV if you believe you have achieved your objective!

    Aman

  • 0
    4

    This writer, Thisaranee Gunasekara is lacking analyzing intellectuality .
    Most probably she writes [Edited out]

  • 3
    0

    These murders show that Sri Lankan society is sick – The bottom line is that!!! This society is fearsome! they don’t even know when they are depressed. No one to notice the depression, anger and mental illness. Going to a psychiatric is also seen as a taboo!!! We have to help ourselves and for that we need to be educated. The rest of the society… will be pathetic always and there would be unwarranted crimes like Mel and Lakruwan.. We would be reading more and keep feeling sorry. Sorry to state this.. tomorrow we would be talking about another person. Sad state of affair!

  • 3
    0

    Tissaranee, You are a great writer. but you have to do this in Sinhalese if you expect results.

  • 3
    0

    Leadership training must stop.

    Why this idiotic govt. is doing this stupid thing & getting blame ??

    Unlimited foolishness ??

  • 0
    0

    The reality is that the perpetrators of the kind of violence referred to that has plagued this beautiful country post war will NOT be able to comprehend sensible articles as this.
    Those who do are essentially law abiding , civilized citizens.
    Those who don’t continue to be influenced by what they see……so till that is seriously addressed by the powers that be , the decline will inevitably continue.Skanda

  • 3
    0

    Tisaranee:

    Violence breeds Violence. When Violence is Preached and Practised by the King the subjects follow suit and can you blame them. The killings in the South are although isolated and not justified ( most are high profile members) is nothing compared to what the Tamils in the North face.

    Just spare a thought for what the Tamils in the North have to face 24 hours a day. Intimidation and killings by the Military of those who oppose army occupation. Attacks and killings by the Para Military headed by Douglas involved in money extortion and then the dreaded Grease Men who terrorise and when chased by the General Public disappear into army camps.

    • 0
      0

      If Gaddafi can fall the rest will savour the wrath of God.

  • 0
    0

    It appears that there is a widening chasm between ordinary folk and those who wield various forms of power in Sri Lanka. The latter can eventually become inured and therefore insensitive to the issues that commonly impact on the former.

    Whether it involves inadequacies in law and order, economic hardship, judicial integrity or health and medical facilitation, when those who wield power and also make policy decisions become out of touch, the vast majority suffers long, often unheard and uncared for…

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