Colombo Telegraph

The Violence In Sri Lankan Parliament: A Mirror Image Of Ourselves?

By Jude Fernando

Jude Fernando

People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf”~ George Orwell

There is no gainsaying in condemning the current parliamentary violence. Nevertheless, our reactions to such violence—surprise and shock—imply that we think such abhorrent uncivilized behavior is an aberration, not a permanent fixture in our society, thus, allowing us to distance ourselves from any responsibility for it. We overlook how the different types of violence ingrained and normalized in our society are deeply interconnected with the violence we have witnessed in Parliament. We overlook that we value and glamorize violence and that the perpetrators of violence are often celebrated as role models and national heroes to emulate.  We are oblivious to how we are exposed and socialized into violence from our childhood on a daily basis via television, social media, sports, and education, and how we imitate what we see and are taught when identifying with the victims or perpetrators of violence. How we address violence often ends up reinforcing that violence, blames and traumatizes the victims, and safeguards the perpetrators of violence. 

Now is a good moment to reflect upon the violence we recently witnessed in Parliament as a starting point for serious conversations about violence in our society, take ownership of it, and be stakeholders in creating a culture of non-violence. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines violence as “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, mal-development, or deprivation”—although the WHO acknowledges that including “the use of power” in its definition expands on the conventional understanding of the word (violence). Thus, violence, verbal or physical, is about exercising power to deny the equal worth and dignity of all humans at all levels of society.  

There are three types of violence: visible, invisible, and intermediate (also known as micro-aggression). Although there are differences between them, they all have similar roots, as they originate from the same institutions at all levels of society. These types of violence tend to reinforce each other and the most vulnerable minorities These types of violence tend to reinforce each other and the most vulnerable minorities (e.g.: class, racial, religious ,caste, sexual and gender) especially women and children, disproportionately suffer from such violence.  

Violence, including interpersonal violence, is structural. According to Johan Galtung, structural violence is ‘the systematic constraints imposed on humans to realize their potential due to economic and political structures.  It is a form of violence wherein social structures or social institutions harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs.’  Legal systems often fail to address the structural violence. As Anatole France put it, “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike sleeping under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”. As Gandhi noted, “It little matters to me whether you shoot a man or starve him to death by inches.” Thus, all forms of violence should have no place in humanity.

Visible Violence: The violence we witnessed in Parliament is a good example of visible violence. Such violence occurs in the public domain, and thanks to electronic media, it is readily visible to the public and invoke instant public reaction. Since independence, the time gap between episodes of public violence has gotten shorter shorter, their geographical coverage and human, economic and social costs have increased. Increasingly, ethnicity, race and religious play a dominant role in the organization of violence. Particularly since 1977, but public violence has took extreme forms and became normalized to a greater degree under the previous Rajapaksa regime. Recent parliamentary violence could be a warning sign that violence has become an integral part of the regime under the constitutional status quo. Such violence will be further normalized if the sudden transfer of the director of CID in charge of cases of violence and abuses of power, and the placement of the investigating police department under the Ministry of Defense, succeeds in forestalling the criminal proceedings that are expected to begin before the end of the year.  These are all sings of a violent future. 

The public easily distances itself from any responsibility for violence by blaming the politicians and the extremists responsible.Blaming uneducated parliamentarians and those from “uncivilized backgrounds” for committing violence overlooks several important facts. The criminal justice system would have instantly punished an ordinary person who committed the same violence. Ragging, a form of violence perpetrated at universities that involve violently harassing people, is an example of a violent exercise of power similar to the violence perpetrated in Parliament. During the violence in Parliament, a number of educated, civilized, and experienced MPs of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party remained silent and failed to condemn the violence. In fact, some even tried to justify it. The perpetrators know that violence is acceptable. Their bosses think that they are above the law, and the general public justifies such violence, as long as a patriotic party trying to save the country from the opposition commits it.

People are more likely to protest legal actions against those who commit violence than to demand justice when violence is considered necessary to preserve their dominance (caste, class, gender, sexuality, religion, citizenship etc.) in society. For politicians, protecting perpetrators of violence generates votes, while upholding law and order equates to political suicide. Leaders ignore public violence and even apologize to the public when law enforcement authorities use force (tear gas) to disperse protesters demanding the release of those put in prison for committing violence. Politicians, professionals, and religious leaders, once honored as community heroes, can evade any responsibility for the violence they commit or incite. Politicians, religious leaders, and society alike reward those who commit violence with honorary titles, and then those titleholders gain access to lucrative positions and establish their authority and power in private and public domains. Narcissistic responses normalize violence and paralyze the nation’s criminal justice system. 

Isolated and spontaneous incidence of violence is quickly turns into to mass violence when such incidence are framed in terms of ethnicity, race, religion, and sexuality, and those not even remotely connected with the original sources of violence are punished. A spiral of violence is unleashed, and the violence assumes a life of its own, appearing to be quite distant from the original causes of that violence. Moreover, violence is addressed under the same discriminatory laws that provide immunity to the perpetrators of violence. We often find that those protesting against the economic inequalities inherent in a capitalist economy are more brutally treated by law enforcement and society than those who commit violence against racial, gender, sexual, ethnic, and religious minorities. Workers and peasants, who protest against their poverty, loss of land and the destruction of their environment, are treated as criminals if they violate the laws of the country. Laws do not penalize actions of those who are responsible for the reasons for the protests.  Thus, structural violence never ends when the legal systems criminalize the victims of structural violence and protect those responsible for victimization. 

No society can expect to end violence and bring closure to those suffering from memories of violence when it condones violence based on ethnicity, race, religion, and ideology. Selective permission to memorialize violence keeps memories of violence alive. Those who belong to the “right” community can hold national events to memorialize their comrades’ deaths and sacrifices. Conversely, memorializing of those who belong to the “wrong” community is criminalized. Some victims of violence are worthy of memorialization, while others are not because they are treated as less than human.  

Both the JVP and the LTTE committed atrocities that could never be justified from the vantage point of their respective struggles for equality and justice. The states too acts like terrorists, they use “systematic use of violence to create a general climate of fear in a population and thereby to bring about a particular political objective.” Memorialization of those lose their lives in different communities is always political, but it is also of critical importance to post conflict reconciliation and transitional justice within and between those communities. When state policies are driven by narrow identity politics, it grant permission for memorialization not on the basis of peoples yearning to bring closure to their sufferings due to traumatizing memories of human loses due during the, rather their identity and politics in relation to the national security imperatives of the state. For example,  the JVP is allowed to memorialize their fallen comrades, while Tamil civil society is not allowed to do the same unless they prove those whom they wish to memorialize, are not a member of the LTTE, and do not undermine the national security interests of the country. Therefore, peace-building and reconciliation efforts are bound to fail. Instead, immortalizing memories of violence and making victims vulnerable to political exploitation will continue to prevail, as long as those peace and reconciliation efforts do not challenge the ideologies that prevent everyone’s right to memorialize those lost to violence. The denial of transitional justice is violence as it entails exercise of power over the victims of war, families of those murdered and disappeared journalists, civilians, and politicians of all communities. Denial is a political ideology that discriminatively deprives equal rights to people.  There will be no end to culture of violence until justice is severed. 

Those who blame extremists, the ‘uncivilized’, and the ‘uneducated’ for violence, completely ignore how they themselves share and actively reproduce the same ideologies of the extremists and are, thus, complicit with the violence of which they are not directly a part. Such societies are not supportive and are disrespectful of those seeking local and international mechanisms to safeguard themselves from violence because they value their narcissistic interests more than the dignity and equal worth of all humans.

Invisible Violence: Invisible violence, the most widespread form structural and interpersonal violence, involves physical or verbal abuse in private domains such as workplaces, homes, and educational, civil, and religious institutions. Such violence is not readily visible to the public beyond the places where they occur.  The restrictions against public disclosure on such violence through print and electronic media, the legal system, and the risks and vulnerabilities of those courageous enough to bring such violence to public view, are far greater than in the case of the visible violence. Visible violence embodies invisible violence.  The social and the legal restrictions on public disclosure of invisible violence normalize it and in turn safeguard the perpetrators of visible violence and often further victimize the victims.

In the absence of reliable whistle blower protection, the victims of invisible violence do not bring their stories to public view, to protect their jobs, honor, children’s public reputation, and maintain the public respectability of their work and places of worship. In particular, violence against female children is concealed in order to protect their prospects for marriage. Abusive men are freed or abuse is covered up by organizations, while women are sent for counseling. The pressures on women to tolerate invisible violence in the name of the public image of the family, extended family, community, and the nation, is much greater than the pressure on male victims of violence. In a patriarchal society, women fear coming forward to tell their stories due to fear of being ill-treated once they are married.

The legal system is of no help in prosecuting those responsible for the violence because these women lack the material evidence, such as photographs and videos, required for legal proceedings. Gathering material evidence such as medical evidence of physical abuse makes them even more vulnerable to further abuse. The legal system does not provide safe spaces for women to tell their stories. The legal language is often alien to the victims, who are often of low social status, and the court environment intimidates and silences them. Asking for non-existent or difficult-to-disclose material evidence, allows such violence to continue further, and keep it hidden; and victims are penalized more than the perpetrators. Not punishing the perpetrators of violence and letting them remain in leadership positions, traumatizes the victims for the rest of their lives. 

Victims are more traumatized when they are called to testify in public, often in front of male judges and the perpetrators. The victims, until the trial is over, are institutionalized in places that are open to the public gaze, and openly transported in prison vehicles to and from the court. Court cases can be extended for years, and violence against women in such institutions during the court proceedings is not uncommon. Oftentimes, these institutions are run by people with access to funds and influence, but who do not necessarily have the appropriate training.  For example, photos of abused women are publicly displayed for visitors and potential donors, without consent.  When the stories of abuse victims within these institutions become public knowledge, these Institutions restrict visitors, especially the ones who would potentially take an interest in investigating such abuses.

Victims frequently refuse to tell their stories to researchers and counselors and often run away from them, and from the public eye. This happens when the victims feel that they are being used as human subjects, to gather information, by researchers and policymakers. They use that information in publications, consultancy services, and to advance their careers, and refuse to take the action requested by the victims. “I am only a counselor and I cannot help you beyond that” is a common response that forces victims to hide their stories. These privileged researchers and policymakers use professionalism and ‘risk’ as excuses for not acting because they fear of losing their privileges, which are often maintained by their claim to represent the victims. When the victim loses trust in those who they think can help, they often refuse to collaborate with anyone else trying to help them.

Cover-ups are more common than the instances of perpetrators being brought to justice. Committees responsible for justice maintain reciprocal financial, social, political, and spiritual relationships because they share similar interests, most often related to each other and are members of the same social and religious circles and professional boards. Some of them are even closely related to each other through marriage, and even worse, to the perpetrators of violence. Otherwise reputable lawyers, who are part of such affinity groups, often do their best to neutralize and silence the victims, often with subtle disguised threats, under the pretext of helping the victims. The victims are petrified to tell their stories and seek justice from such closely guarded and networked committees. The perpetrators offer leaders of high spiritual status, money, and employment (in one case, as much as Rs. 200,000 rupees) to silence the victims and compel them to withdraw their cases.

The most insidious form of invisible violence occurs in religious institutions and under those with a reputation for being deeply spiritual. Abuse of minors in religious institutions is tolerated because parents and spiritual patrons think such acts are religious sacrifices demanded by their horoscopes or vows to their respective gods. Dependent relationships created through spiritual activities (e.g., prayer and counseling) are often used to make aggressive sexual advances. Martial assistance, gifts, and verbal expressions of “unconditional” (often fatherly) love are used to buttress aggressive behavior and to make the victims feel guilty for publicly disclosing their experiences. Victims find it extremely difficult to leave such relationships, especially when they come from poor and marginalized segments of society. Instances, where such victims are forced to have abortions against their will to safeguard the perpetrators, are also not uncommon in our society. Following such incidents, victims are relocated to distant places against their will or voluntarily disappear from the public eye, while their spiritual masters never bother to follow-up on their wellbeing.

In such settings, victims are often told that the abuse occurred due to their own spiritual failings and counseled to develop spiritual safeguards against violence and to continue praying for the spiritual wellbeing of the perpetrators. We commonly hear high-level spiritual leaders provide the following advice to victims: “We all are imperfect and make mistakes. We must continue to pray for God’s intervention in these matters. We must be humble enough to tolerate our sufferings, which are also due to our own spiritual failings. We have a responsibility to maintain the stability of the family and the spiritual community to which we belong. Abusers, too, are God’s people, and we need to take care of their wellbeing as well.” Such bogus and insidious spirituality cultivate spiritualized guilt in the victims as a weapon to safeguard perpetrators of violence and the institutions in which they work and to prevent the victims from seeking assistance from the secular authorities.

Those who dare challenge such bogus and narcissistic spirituality or suspected of exposing abuse to public authorities are often ill-treated in their workplaces, and even removed from their jobs, and ridiculed in public. When the workers within such institutions begin to be vocal about abuses, their bosses make it impossible for them to remain in the workplaces.  But the bosses do not hesitate to give glowing letters of recommendation to those workers who decide to find work elsewhere, with the tacit understanding that they will not divulge their stories of cover-ups of abuses within their institutions. Still, the institutions do not stop using propaganda and intimidation tactics to isolate the workers from the society, perhaps for fear of them having to face their own ‘me too’ moment.

Intermediate Violence: This type of violence is also known as micro-aggression (also micro-insults and micro-invalidations). These terms were first coined by Harvard University psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970 to show that “every Black must recognize the offensive mechanisms used by the collective White society, usually by means of cumulative pro-racist microaggressions, which keep him psychologically accepting of the disenfranchised state” (Pierce, 1970, p. 472).  In recent times, microaggression refers to verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights, jokes, insults, and snubs; convey aggressive and prejudicial messages; and establish hierarchical power relations against individuals because of their individual and collective identities (e.g., within family, race, gender, culture, religion, social class, sexual orientation, etc.) leaving them feeling vulnerable, targeted, angry, and afraid.

Intermediate violence (e.g., casual response to butterfly groups by the president) is no less pernicious than other forms of violence because it “create[s] and enforce[s] uncomfortable, violent, and unsafe realities onto people’s workplace, home, school, childhood/adolescence/adulthood, and public transportation/space environments,” especially in societies “where racial, sexual, status and class prejudice remains an inescapable and deeply troubling reality of daily life in a myriad of subtle and covert, and insidious ways” (p. 140). In practice, micro-aggressions become visible in spaces of visible and invisible violence.   

The three types of violence are interrelated, and together, they reproduce each other. According to feminist scholars such as Cynthia Enloe, such interrelationships are most visible in highly militarized societies engulfed in conflict, and in post-conflict societies. Yet the origins of the three types of violence do not begin with the military or in theaters of war, but rather with narrow notions of masculinity, femininity, race, and sexuality in all spheres of society. According to the World Council of Churches, “Military values, ideology, and patterns of behavior achieve a dominating influence on the political, social, economic and external affairs of the state, and as a consequence, the structural, ideological and behavioral patterns of both the society and the government are ‘militarized.’” Militarism in this sense is a part of invisible domestic violence and intermediate violence when they shape power hierarchies, domination, and oppression in society. 

Incidences of domestic violence in militarized societies show how the combatants exercise abusive authority upon their own families and society, and how the public and state-sanctioned honor associated with that authority, silences those who resist it. Women and children are often forced to remain silent about aggression and violence out of guilt when the society interpret them speaking up/resistance as disrespectful to soldiers and the sacrifices they made to better their families, communities, and nation. In this context, Enloe advocates the necessity of ‘feminist curiosity’, which she defines as “a curiosity that provokes serious questioning about the workings of [the] masculinized and feminized meanings” conveyed in all forms of violence, and which acts as a crucial tool for making sense of the links between the visible, invisible and intermediate violence, that occurs in the context of state formation in relation to increasingly militarized neoliberal globalization, that impinge on every aspect of our lives. 

The recent parliamentary violence mirrors our complicity with violence in everyday life. If we are sincere, we must be self-critical of the ways in which we expose our children to violence and normalize it at all levels of society, and be willing to take social and personal risks as stakeholders, to prevent it.

Back to Home page