By Col R Hariharan
Sri Lanka is currently rocked by reports of ‘Grease Yakka” (Grease devils) suddenly appearing in rural areas and terrorising villagers. Traditionally a grease yakka is a prowler in the dark who attacks women; he is said to wear only a loin cloth and cover his body with oil to escape capture. Already five lives have been lost in more than 30 incidents of vigilantism against grease yakkas by paranoid villagers. In two recent incidents a policeman was killed by irate villagers and a traffic-cop beaten up and four others were injured. In one incident naval sailors and the public got into a fracas over grease yakka attack. What is interesting is most of these incidents have been reported from eight Tamil and Muslim minority inhabited districts.
Some years back there was a similar series of mysterious animal attacks in outskirts of New Delhi in areas where illegal low cost colonies had mushroomed. It was identified as mass hysteria triggered by feeling of insecurity due to fear of child snatchers and other criminal element prowling in the area. The administration tightened law enforcement in affected areas and the hysteria died a natural death.
The suspicion and violence triggered in these villagers probably have similar origins. It is probably symptomatic of the feeling of insecurity and lack of trust in the administration and law enforcement agencies among minority population. They are not yet fully recovered from the traumatic effects of war; many have lost their kith and kin, property and livelihood. While they struggle to cope with these problems, they have also to deal with criminal elements moving around with political patronage. Unfortunately, the government has failed to create climate of trust and security in its actions during two years of post war peace; there is a big gap between what it says and how it acts. This clouds their perceptions of security and trust in the rulers.
Why is the government having the Emergency in force even after two years of peace? Can a couple of defeated LTTE prisoners held in prison overthrow the militarily powerful government? Find no answers to these questions, the continuing state of emergency and its draconian enactment is a constant reminder to the minorities that the normalcy the government talks of is yet to arrive. The larger than life presence of battle hardened troops in their immediate neighbourhoods only reinforces these fears.
And how can the government conduct free and fair elections when many of the Emergency provisions confer special powers to the executive to directly interfere with the campaign process? But the government had conducted elections in such a setting. The media continues to be wary of hostile reaction (usually from goons in white vans) to what they write or utter. And media men who do not relent continue to pay the price. Can these acts create confidence in the government among the population burnt by three decades of insurgency and terrorism?
Even on the larger issue of Tamil grievances President Rajapaksa’s government appears to be moving from prevarication to doublespeak. Otherwise it is difficult to explain the tortuous political journey of this issue in recent history. Even before the war started in 2006, President Rajapaksa had repeatedly affirmed that he wanted Tamils to join the national mainstream as equal partners. That was the avowed goal of his ‘humanitarian war’ against the Liberation Tigers. He frequently repeats these affirmations to India, talking about his contemplated actions (I have already written about this, so I do not want to repeat it) so that the Indian government, beleaguered by vociferous demand from Tamil Nadu, could buy time. However, of late the President’s two brothers – Basil and Gotabaya who hold responsible positions in government – have repeatedly stressed that the present constitution was adequate and nothing more was needed to be done for Tamils. They say so even as the President announces his plans to form a Parliamentary Select Committee to deal with the issue. And his brother and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse goes on the Indian TV and says “The existing constitution is more than enough for us to live together. I don’t think there is any issue on this more than that. I mean this was given as a solution for the whole thing with the discussion of these people. I mean now the LTTE is gone, I don’t think there is any requirement. I mean what can you do more than this? This gives power at a lower lever. Even now we had the local government elections…” If this is not doublespeak, what is it then?
Government representatives held ten rounds of talks with the Tamil National Alliance, the largest Tamil party. According to TNA, it got cheesed off with this exercise as the government came up with no proposal. In disgust TNA withdrew itself from the talks as it considered an exercise in futility. Immediately, treasury benches accuse TNA of LTTE mindset. Few weeks later 13 ministers and five other parliamentarians give notice to parliament to enlarge the scope of the Parliamentary Select Committee and dilute its exclusive focus on Tamil grievances.
Do these actions indicate that the government is serious about attending to Tamil grievances? Far from it; on the contrary, one has to come to the sad conclusion that the government’s focus had all along been to milk maximum political mileage by using the Tamil issue and harp on international conspiracy to destabilise the country. Is the government seeing a political grease yakka or creating one? We don’t know.
But in the bargain, ethnic divide has been given a fresh lease of life. And the Tamil minority, whittled down in numbers now, will have to continue to cope with this anomalous situation.
The Channel 4 allegations of war crimes issue has now reached across the Palk Strait; and the U.S. has told Sri Lanka that it wants the final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) discussed at the 19th sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2012. A more vociferous chief minister in Tamil Nadu is vigorously espousing the Sri Lankan Tamil grievances. All these issues provide ample scope for furthering political opportunism in Sri Lanka. These issues, coupled with the constant focus on the likely resurgence of Tamil terrorism (which the government had claimed was wiped out forever) there is a real danger of political paranoia becoming endemic, infecting the government. And it might be too late for Sri Lanka to get out of the grease yakka syndrome.
(Col R Hariharan, a retired Military Intelligence specialist on South Asia, served with the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka as Head of Intelligence. He is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-Mail: [email protected] Blog: www.colhariharan.org)