By Laksiri Fernando –
“We are not merely the most intelligent of animals. We also have a rare and perplexing combination of moral tendencies. We can be the nastiest of species and also the nicest.” ~ Richard Wrangham
When the British PM Theresa May declared her resignation, she talked about ‘the country I love,’ almost in tears and emotion. We all feel the same no doubt about our own country Sri Lanka whatever the misgivings that we have about its violence, misdeeds or leaders.
There must have been so many events that have disturbed us in life, and in my case most were related to violence and killings. I left active left politics after the 1971 insurrection because it was unfortunately in the name of ‘socialism’ and ‘revolution,’ although I had occasion to warn about its catastrophic consequences as a young university teacher.
Cycles of Violence
Some may point out only the atrocities of the police and the armed forces in 1971, but I have at least seen two dead bodies killed by the insurrectionists at Rambukkana. It is the same tendency that became enlarged in 1987/89 period. Although I was abroad (fortunately) by this time, I have seen dead bodies at Ratmalana and Agulana during a visit in early 1989.
Most disturbing out of all violence undoubtedly is the violence committed by one community against the other without any cause or objective, but just hatred. Apart from 1958, when I was too small to witness except hear, there were series beginning 1977 culminating against the Tamils in 1983. Those made the country’s image to tear and terrorism to emerge. And when you belong to the community who is the main perpetrator, the feeling of despair and disgust is undoubtedly the most. We left the country in 1984.
It is not only what you see that disturbs you, but what you hear or come to know about. Of course Sri Lanka is not the only country that is engulfed in violence but many that I have visited in Asia and the Middle East on official duties. That experience led me to come back in 1997 and try my best to help resolve the situation, unfortunately no that successfully.
After the end of the war, there was a particular incident that disturbed me most. That was in October 2009. A mentally unbalanced Tamil youth in his underwear was throwing stones at trains in Bambalapitiya. The police came in civils and without arresting him, chased the man to the sea and attacked him with poles until he drowned. People watched but no one tried to prevent or object. (Watch You Tube). That is the time we decided to come back to Australia again.
Sri Lanka is not all violent. There are peaceful times. The country achieved independence in 1948 peacefully. Until 1958 major communal riots, it was relatively peaceful. Then after 1971, until around 1983 it was again relatively peaceful. It is a beautiful and a friendly country in general. People also have achieved many things in cooperation and harmony. I have met many people who have visited Sri Lanka from different parts of the world and they appreciate not only the natural beauty but also peoples hospitality. It is peaceful until people become suddenly violent!
After the end of the war in 2009, who believed something would happen suddenly as the recent Easter Carnage?
Sureshini Sanders also called Sri Lanka ‘The Land of Lost Content’ (2013). There is another book by the same title. She notes the following with amusement and also sadness referring to the 1983 riots.
“Dad had a Tamil friend married to a Sinhala lady and his kids were asked in school, ‘What is happening in Sri Lanka?’ One of them famously answered, ‘I think my mother’s people are trying to kill my father’s people!”
We need to appreciate the positive sides of the people and the country as well. Particularly during Tsunami in December 2004, the people became united to assist those who were affected and in need, irrespective of ethnicity, religion or political differences. However, there were some even stole the Tsunami funds! This is a paradox that we encounter everyday in politics and in social life. This is not simply about ‘good people’ and ‘bad people.’ It is mostly the same people playing good and bad. This is what Richard Wrangham said about “We can be the nastiest of species and also the nicest.”
There was an interesting interview recently given by a woman from Prague, Aran, to the Vishwakarma channel who is apparently stranded in Sri Lanka. She was cheated by a Sri Lankan woman. Yet, she says Sri Lankans are nice and helpful people. More importantly she makes a comparison between Europe and Sri Lanka. She says, in Europe people are not helpful, but if you are in trouble, the police would assist. On the contrary in Sri Lanka, people are helpful, but not the police. This may be her experience, but with some lessons for the country as well. The breakdown of the ‘institutional system’ is mostly at the centre of the unbridled chaos, conflicts and violence.
The most intriguing factor is that most people who indulge in violence are almost ordinary people. For example, those who took up arms in 1971 were some of our students at Vidyodaya. They were good natured people in normal life. They thought they were fighting for a good cause, to change the class nature of society and bring socialism. The question however is why some people take up arms and some not for the same cause?
Then you have the state and its armed forces. From its origins, the state has been a coercive and sometimes a brutal apparatus. It is often justified that if otherwise that the society would run into chaos and violence. Therefore to prevent violence, an organized form of violence is institutionalized. That is the argument. Then again there is a question why some people join the armed forces (including the police) and some not? Of course some may be desperate in finding employment. However there are some others who join the police or the army because of its apparent power. They indulge in violations.
I have also conducted classes for armed forces on human rights, conflict resolution and related matters. They are ordinary and sensible people and even when they are confronted with moral questions, some even were forthcoming in divulging some of their deviations or mistakes. Lack of knowledge on ‘what is right and what is wrong,’ and the absence of rules and training on correct behaviour also might be contributing factors to the institutionalized state violence.
Those who take up violence as a ‘career’ are often called terrorists. They also could be the most ordinary people. Either they are indoctrinated to indulge in violence as a cause or forced to be so under compulsive circumstances.
In the case of Sri Lanka however it appears that for the recurrent cycles of violence, insurrections, terrorism and state violence, there are more profound political factors underpinning those occurrences, nationally and also internationally. It may be suggested that violence in society is linked to violence in politics. It is not only overt violence that we should be concerned about but also hidden and covert forms of violence that we ourselves must be careful about.
There are links between extremist views, criticisms, propaganda and violence. There are links between intolerance of views, hatred, castigation of others (for the slightest disagreement!) and violence.
It is difficult to identify in one go the possible reasons for the endemic nature of violence in Sri Lanka or elsewhere. One may need to analyse more carefully the events and incidents in determining particular reasons for particular incidents/upsurges of violence. However, there are general patterns and reasons.
There is a tendency in social studies to always identify socio-economic or objective reasons (i.e. unemployment, poverty, discrimination etc.) for political violence or even terrorism. However that is not the case or not always the case. While they undoubtedly could supply background reinforcements, the actual driving forces are subjective and ideological. This is abundantly clear through the suicide bombings that created the Easter Carnage recently, more than the LTTE or the JVP insurrections in the past.
Then what drives the humans to follow and embrace ideologies of warfare, violence and terrorism? Some of the reasons may be inherent in our genes and biological evolution. In 1996, Dale Peterson and Richard Wrangham published a book called ‘Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence.’ Based on many field studies they identified similarities in aggression between chimpanzees and humans.
The main culprits were the males! This sounds quite fitting to Sri Lanka as well. I am not sure whether they did a study on generational differences of violent chimpanzees. But in Sri Lanka’s case, the culprits are mainly or relatively male-youth, although there have been female suicide bombers as well, but mostly conscripted. When one looks at violence and warfare that humans or Sri Lankans have been indulged in throughout years or centuries, it should have come from somewhere. Arthur C. Clarke fictionally imagined it had come from the aliens! (A Space Odyssey, 2001).
Richard Dawkins argued it is The Selfish Gene (1978) that leads not only to selfishness but also to violence, killings and warfare. It was a scientific study. This is what the Buddha tried to deconstruct or counter, but it appears that this particular gene is abundantly there among some of our Buddhist monks.
There is however a new study by Richard Wrangham (The Goodness Paradox: How Evolution Made Us Both More and Less Violent, 2019) that gives us some hope. The hope is that there are some traits of ‘tolerance’ and ‘less aggression’ as well (a good gene perhaps!) in humans beings that we might be able to cultivate through awareness and self-discipline. Most important might be to give more space for the females to conduct public affairs as they appear to be less fortunate with the selfish gene.