Increased fear and violence have spread across rural areas of Northern and Eastern Sri Lanka over the past month following reports of assaults by ‘grease devils’.
Traditionally, the term grease devil was given to thieves who wore only underwear, covering themselves in grease in order to make themselves hard to catch. The term has now been used to describe men who have sexually assaulted women in night time attacks.
Suspicions among local residents that the ‘grease devils’ responsible for recent attacks are linked to the security services, who are also accused of providing them with protection, has led to vigilante attacks and clashes between civilians and the police and armed forces. The alleged attack on a woman near the Navy base in Kinniya, in Eastern Sri Lanka, resulted in clashes between the Navy and civilians after local residents demanded the navy hand over two men who were suspected of carrying out the attack and then returning to the Navy camp. The clash saw the Navy firing on the crowd and the arrest of twenty five civilians. Similar clashes have occurred in Navanthurai, a village in the Jaffna District, and the in the town of Puttalam, in the North West, where vigilante attacks by angry residents saw a police officer killed.
The government response to the grease devil attacks has been characterised by denial, with state media blaming the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), or Peoples Liberation Front, for starting the grease devil panic in order to discredit the government. In a statement on the 23rd of August the defence secretary, Mr Gotabaya Rajapakse, denied the existence of the grease man who had sparked violence in Navanthurai, claiming that these were all constructed by opponents of the Government. The wave of retaliatory attacks and vigilante action against police and military bases (in Trincomalee, Badulla, Potuvil, and many other places) has seen the government employ increased military presence within the affected areas in order to crack down on public disorder.
Following civilian protests at the army base in Navanthurai, on the 22nd August around a 100 young men were detained in an operation conducted by the Sri Lanka Army in which reportedly men and boys were dragged from their homes and beaten by the army and later taken to the police station where they were remanded in custody. Groundviews reporters who visited the village collected testimonies from villagers who claimed that property was destroyed and stolen and women and children were also physically attacked by soldiers.
Whilst the links between the ‘grease devil’ attacks and the military and security services have been circulated by rumour and have not been officially verified, the recent events surrounding the ‘grease devils’ are notable for how they have highlighted the governments reliance on the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which allows the President to deploy the military whenever he feels necessary, to repress shows of public dissent. In addition since the end of the war in 2009 the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka have been increasingly militarized, with the creation of army and navy bases across the region in a government attempt to ensure control of regions previously under LTTE administration.
The recent events also point to the continued impunity and lack of accountability that surrounds the military. The government has vehemently denied allegations of war crimes committed during the civil war, and no military personnel have been investigated despite allegations by a recent Channel four news report that attacks on civilians were ordered by high ranking officers. The government’s refusal to acknowledge the attacks or investigate possible links between the perpetrators and the military and security services points to a continued privileging of state security over the personal security and rights of Sri Lanka citizens. Once you have gotten away with murder, it is easier to believe that you will get away with sexual harassment.
The government’s willingness to deploy the army to resolve public disorder and the continued impunity surrounding the military may not come as a surprise. However,the open opposition towards the government and military demonstrated by the violent protests is something not often seen within Sri Lanka since the end of the war. In a country in which the media is self-censored and criticism of the government is met with threats and intimidation, the Rajapaksa regime has been able to claim to hold popular support. However, the violent protests against the police and military seem to reflect a growing resentment from within minority communities towards the military presence – many of whom appear to not regard the locals as people, if even half the stories of Grease Devils are based in fact. What is new is the willingness to openly express this dissent towards the government.