Colombo Telegraph

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.


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.


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