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RIGHTS-SRI LANKA: ‘Culture of Violence Getting Ingrained in Society’

COLOMBO, Jan 12 2009 (IPS) - One of the worst legacies of the decades-old civil war in this island country is the culture of violence and impunity that many fear has become ingrained in Sri Lankan society – once known for ‘serendipity’ and respect for Buddhist virtues.

While some believe that the country is currently going through yet another periodic cycle of violence and uncertainty, others think that the situation has reached a nadir. ‘’This is the worst period I have known in my lifetime,” contends A.T. Ariyaratne, one of Sri Lanka’s best-known thinkers.

‘’Earlier there were directions we could turn to. Now we have no direction,””the veteran social rights campaigner and founder of the 50-year-old village awakening movement called ‘Sarvodaya’ told IPS.

Ariyaratne’s despair was understandable. In two shocking incidents, last week, unknown gunmen ransacked the offices of Maharaja Television (MTV), broadcasters of Sri Lanka’s most popular TV and radio programmes, and shot dead Lasantha Wickrematunga, a highly-respected newspaper editor.

Almost mechanically, the two events set off protests, condemnation and outrage, but there is a sense that once the dust settles the brutalisation of Sri Lankan society will continue unabated.

Jayadeva Uyangoda, columnist and a political science lecturer at the University of Colombo, told IPS that it is as if violence in Sri Lankan society is now turning upon itself.

Uyangoda pointed out that Sri Lanka has been seeing large-scale violence since the early 1980s, starting with attacks on the Tamil minority community.

In the late 1980s, the majority Sinhalese suffered during a rebellion against the state by the Marxist People’s Liberation Front or JVP and its harsh suppression.

The last two years have seen a military offensive against Tamil rebels in the north and east of the island that has little regard for the rights of the civilian population. And now there are attacks by unknown gunmen on people in the Sinhalese-dominated south.

At least 15 journalists and media workers have been killed and an equal number arrested since 2006. Any dissent or opposition to the war against Tamil rebels is considered anti-national or unpatriotic by the state, as clearly seen through the repeated pronouncements of the government.

Journalists and peace-promoting NGOs, critical of the way the war is being fought, have been branded traitors. Some of the most respected columnists and commentators on military affairs have gone silent or have been reduced to parroting government handouts.

The MTV broadcasting station, which came under attack last Tuesday by agencies suspected of having links to the government, was accused of insufficiently celebrating the success of government troops in the Tamil-dominated north.

Wickrematunga’s death is said to be linked to the fact that he was a vociferous critic of President Mahinda Rajapakse’s regime and had built up a reputation for fearlessly exposing corruption in the bureaucracy.

Political analysts say dissent or anti-war discussion is simply not tolerated by the state. ‘’If there is no discussion, there is no democracy. Public discussion is vital for a democracy,””asserts Prof. Siri Hettige, senior sociologist at the University of Colombo.

Wickrematunga’s killing saw a popular news website register its protest in an unconventional way. ‘Lanka Dissent’, associated with an influential minister in the present regime, but who has fallen out with Rajapakse, took the unusual step of suspending operations until violence stops.

In a white-on-black message on its website, Lanka Dissent said cynically: ‘’…in this compassionate, democratic Buddhist land enfolded with love, in wisdom and fullest freedom, (the) media is forbidden to raise a dissenting voice”.”

Sinhalese Buddhists form Sri Lanka’s majority community. They are followed by Tamil Hindus, Tamil Muslims and Burghers. The tear-drop shaped island is known for its celebrated Buddhist culture where non-violence is preached as a way of life and beckons thousands of foreign tourists to the land.

According to Uyangoda what is now on display is the dark side of a Buddhist country.”‘’There is also the nicer side – smiling and friendly people. But we are also violent in a way as we tolerate violence.”

Thousands of people have died in Asia’s longest running civil war where Tamil rebels, since stepping up their violent campaign in 1983, are seeking to establish their own homeland in the north and east of the country.

Last week, the army recaptured the rebels’ northern headquarters of Kilinochchi. The defence ministry says it is just a matter of time when the government takes control of all areas held by the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

An estimated 230,000 people were stranded for months by shelling and air raids on the war zone in the north but Colombo refused to allow reporters access to the area.

Chandra Jayaratne, former chairman of the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, is despondent about future. ‘’I don’t know where this violence will end.” ”

Jayaratne says there is danger in the widespread belief that war would rbing solutions to Sri Lanka’s problems. ‘’There is now embedded among politicians and leaders of civil society and even religion a feeling that it is possible to achieve national integrity only through war.”

He said it is difficult to change this culture unless a new leadership emerges. People now fear speaking out or even helping a next door neighbour under attack, says Jayaratne who does voluntary work for the Berlin-based Transparency International and several human rights groups.

The culture of violence appears to have been exacerbated by the international economic crisis that is affecting Sri Lanka. Export earnings have declined as also remittances from millions of Sri Lankan workers in the Middle East where oil revenues have plunged.

Ariyaratne, who lectures across the world, said if Sri Lanka does not solve its problems by 2010 the country will face a crisis similar to that of many African countries.

‘’We have to look inwardly and all of us must find release from the cyclical force and tackle this period of chaos,” he said. ‘’On Sarvodaya’s part we are already organising food banks and food security measures at the village level in anticipation of an economic crisis.”

Ariyaratne says the elite classes in the country are the last to worry about any crisis. ”When there is one, they get air tickets and fly out of the country. They care a damn,” he said.

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