The Psychological Impact of Political Violence in Sri Lanka

Of all the tasks of government, the most basic is to protect its citizens from violence.- John Foster Dulles

By Dr Ruwan M Jyatunge

(March 31, Ontario, Sri Lanka Guardian) Commonly violence is defined as the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation (Krug, Dahlberg, Mercy, Zwi & Lozano, 2002).

Political violence refers to acts of violence undertaken to further the political objectives. Violence is a common means used by people and governments around the world to achieve political goals. In this context Sri Lanka is one of the countries that is highly affected by the political violence. The scale and intensity of political violence has increased in Sri Lanka over the past few decades. Mob violence have become a common occurrence during the elections in Sri Lanka. Violence pervaded Sri Lankan social and cultural life. Although political violence and its associated factors are complex and multidimensional, violence continues to be a permeating and pervasive element of the Sri Lankan society.

"There is a close relationship between political violence, mental health and psychosocial wellbeing. Political violence has a variety of discernible long-term effects on political beliefs and attitudes, behavior and behavioral intentions, emotions, and other psychological variables. It can massively affect the mental health of the people."

Duncan Pedersen emphasizes the root causes for the political violence and of the view that in poor and highly indebted countries, economic and environmental decline, asset depletion, and erosion of the subsistence base lead to further impoverishment and food insecurity for vast sectors of the population. Growing ethnic and religious tensions over a shrinking resource base often escort the emergence of predatory practices, rivalry, political violence, and internal wars. (Duncan Pedersen -Political violence, ethnic conflict, and contemporary wars: broad implications for health and social well-being)

Collective violence

The collective violence is defined as instrumental use of violence by people who identify themselves as members of a group-whether this group is transitory or has a more permanent identity-against another group or set of individuals, in order to achieve political, economic or social objectives.

William Kornhauser introduced the social attachments theory of collective violence and it deals with the influence of a person’s interaction with society on their potential for membership in violent groups. This theory explains that people who have no attachments to society are more likely to join a group in order to have a sense of belonging.

Collective violence is often social control: self-help by a group. It typically defines and responds to conduct as deviant. When unilateral and nongovernmental, it appears in four major forms—lynching, rioting, vigilantism, and terrorism—each distinguished by its system of liability (individual or collective) and degree of organization -higher or lower. ( Roberta Senechal de la Roche Department of History, Washington and Lee University)

In Sri Lanka, collective violence had occurred in the form of civilian riots, protests pogroms, banditry and gang warfare.etc. Collective violence in Sri Lanka has taken place in political or ethnic dimensions and it has a drastic impact on mental health, as well as the economy.

Childhood trauma and violent behavior

Childhood trauma has a profound effect in brain development and it can negatively affect the person in relation with his / her behavior in the society. Children who had become the victims of collective and personal violence might carry anger and resentment towards the society and it can erupt in a violent form. The researches indicate that majority of the former members of the German Baader-Meinhof Group that engaged in political violence had traumatized childhood. Many research confirm that the link between adverse childhood experiences and social violence.

Trauma and violence that people experience can pass in to the next generation and it can lead to a vicious cycle. A 1998 study by R. Yehuda , et al Vulnerability to posttraumatic stress disorder in adult offspring of Holocaust survivors [American Journal of Psychiatry, 155(9):1163-1171] confirmed that offspring of Holocaust survivor parents with PTSD have a higher lifetime risk for PTSD and report more distress after traumatic events. Therefore, sociopolitical violence has severe damaging effects to the population.

Religious Fundamentalism and Violence

Religious fundamentalism has become a subject of much controversy and debate and it has become one of the contributors of collective violence in the modern world. In the past few decades, collective violence had occurred in Sri Lanka as a part of religious fundamentalism and this trend is aggravating. The clergy who embrace violence and radical path of their faith are psychologically unsound and they view people outside their religion as opponents. They lack empathy when addressing issues related to the people outside of their religious circle and often justify violence against them. They preach hate and instigate their followers to commit violence. Often the clergy who support collective violence have had tormented childhood and some of them had been the victims of sexual abuse. Their anger and resentments are generalized or projected to people outside their faith or ethnic group. They put forth their insecurities as threats to the religion or conspiracies against religion and use it to validate violence.

Political Extremism that leads to Violence

Laird Wilcox defines political extremism as taking a political idea to its limits, regardless of 'unfortunate' repercussions, impracticalities, arguments and feelings to the contrary, and with the intention not only to confront, but also to eliminate opposition with the intolerance towards all views other than one's own by adoption of means to political ends which show disregard for the life, liberty, and human rights of others."

Political extremism in Sri Lanka has vivid faces and the extremism is often masqueraded by using national feelings or religious ideology. Political extremist is one who advocates or resorts to measures beyond the norm, especially in politics. His antisocial components are often concealed and it can emerge when the time and situation is favorable. The political extremists often try to create a homogeneous society that is based on religion or ethnic group.

What is the deep psychology beneath creating a homogeneous society disregarding the multi ethnicity or multi religious spectrum? This indicates the sadistic homosexual instincts inside the extremist’s mind. This feature was evident in Adolf Hitler’s mind. Hitler took every effort to create a homogeneous society in Germany. Hitler believed that the Aryan race were supreme to other races and did not have any racial tolerance. His extremism was connected with the libidinous instincts. According to Henry Murray a prominent personality specialist at Harvard University, Hitler was confused about his sexuality.

According to the DSM 4 homosexuality is not a mental illness but homosexual instincts mixed with sadistic traits and if the person is deeply troubled by it a pathological condition may appear. A political extremist who is deeply confused with his sexuality unable to come to terms with his homosexual impulses would try to create a homogeneous society under any cost. He would be focused and make this extreme vision as his life mission. The German people once surrendered their liberty to such a person.

Political violence and Democracy

Political violence manifests itself at all levels of social organization. The prolonged arm conflict in Sri Lanka has caused a massive and radical transformation in democracy justifying political violence. Free arm circulation aggravated the condition and violence has became a part of day today life. Many politicians facilitated such conditions and saw it as one of the easy ways to grab power and rule inspiring fear among the opponents. The vicious cycle of political violence affected the every layer of the Sri Lankan society.

Kristine Höglund, of the Dept. of Peace and Conflict Research - Uppsala University describes the nature of political violence in Sri Lanka.

……From the perspective of democratic politics, violence and insecurity may affect the election results or the outcome of elections in various ways. Threats and intimidation may be used to interfere with the registration of voters. Voter turn out may be influenced if large sections of the population refrain from casting their votes due to fear of violence. Assaults, threats and political assassinations during the election campaign may force political contenders to leave the electoral process or prevent elections from taking place. ( Electoral Violence in War-Ravaged Societies: The Case of Sri Lanka by Kristine Höglund )

Political violence in the first parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka

The first parliamentary election of Sri Lanka was held in 1947 and mob violence were unleashed in larger scale. As a result of such action, one active supporter of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (pro-Soviet wing) was injured and became disabled. His 4-year-old son became heavily traumatized by this incident. As a boy, he realized that the people in politics made his father a disable aggravating their living condition. In the later years, the disabled man’s son launched two insurrections causing a collective trauma in Sri Lanka. In the both events, nearly 70,000 people lost their lives.

The Prabhakaran Fctor

Ethnic riots were initiated as a part of political violence in Sri Lanka. Some of the local politicians organized gang violence against Tamils for cheep popularity. When the tensions rose between the Tamils and Sinhalese, some people fabricated awful stories to keep high emotions. Young Prabhakaran used to listen to the terrible stories that occurred in the Gal Oya riots (1956) and 1958 ethnic riots where the mob savagely attacked the Tamil civilians causing many deaths. As the investigative journalist M.R.Narayan Swamy describes he was utterly ravaged when he heard the story of the violent murder of a Hindu Poosari in Panadura. The Poosari was burnt alive by the mob during the ethnic riots in 1958. He was determined to take revenge. He became very much focused and his made his entire life mission to fight Sinhalese. At the age of 16, he committed his first antisocial act – setting fire to a CTB bus. When he became the leader of the LTTE he ordered a number of massacres including Anuradhapura massacre in 1985 and Aranthalawa Massacre in 1987 and hundreds of suicide bombings targeting Sinhala civilians. Hence, Prabhakaran launched his terror for three decades causing over 90,000 deaths in Sri Lanka.

Violence conducted by the radical political groups in Sri Lanka

In Sri Lanka, several radical political organizations conducted violence to achieve their political targets. The JVP launched two insurrections in 1971 and subsequently in 1988. Tamil militant groups launched their violent campaigns since 1970 s and the LTTE became the mainstream militant group that was in action until 2009 May.

As Professor Gamini Samaranayake highlights the origin and development of the JVP and the LTTE relate more closely to the social expansion and the lack of economic and political development in Sri Lanka since the beginning of the 1960s. Basically, both groups are more action-oriented than ideology-oriented and dominated by youth with a similar socio-economic background.( Political violence in Sri Lanka: A diagnostic approach Gamini Samaranayake )

The former JVP General Secretary Lional Bopage explains the genesis of political violence in Sri Lanka in following account.

The island’s post-1948 political leadership did not come into being as a result of a coherent anti-colonial struggle that unified its people. The neo-colonial establishment not only carried forward the policies and practices of the exclusively colonial, mono-cultural and unitary administration, which were not only incongruent with the culturally and linguistically diverse nature of its inhabitants, but also their socio-economic, political and cultural expectations.

The post-colonial Sri Lankan state never considered it significant to protect the dignity and security of marginalised and disadvantaged social groups. Domestic issues were viewed and dealt with in a mindset of a conflict paradigm. Peaceful demands for social equity, justice, security and dignity were continuously disregarded and/or violently suppressed. The indignity and insecurity caused by such attacks on the physical and psychological integrity of individuals and communities thus motivated them to take up arms.- (Political violence in Sri Lanka- L. Bopage)

The Ethnic Riots and Political Violence

The human rights activist Rajan Hoole points out that the politicians like Gamini Dissanayaka, Cyril Mathew etc instigated ethnic riots as a part of political violence. (Sri Lanka: The Arrogance of Power: Myths, Decadence & Murder – Rajan Hoole)

Following extract is taken from Sri Lanka: The Holocaust and After," by L. Piyadasa, Marram Books, London (1984) which gives a comprehensive account how violence can be planned and executed by the politicians.

In Kelaniya, Industries Minister Cyril Mathew's gangs were identified as the ones at work. The General Secretary of the government "union" the Jathika Sevaka Sangamaya (J.S.S.) was identified as the leader of gangs which wrought destruction and death all over Colombo and especially in Wellawatte, where as many as ten houses a street were destroyed. A particular U.N.P. municipal councillor of the Dehiwela-Mount Lavinia Municipality led gangs in Mount Lavinia. In the Pettah (the bazaar area, where 442 shops were destroyed and murders were committed) the commander was the son of Aloysius Mudalali, the Prime Minister's right-hand man. And so on. Thugs who worked regularly for the leaders of the U.N.P., the Ministers of State and Party Headquarters, and in some cases uniformed military personnel and police, were seen leading the attack. They used vehicles of the Sri Lanka Transport Board (Minister in charge, M. H. Mohammed) and other government departments and state corporations. Trucks of the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation's Oil Refinery came from many miles away bringing the men who destroyed so much of Wellawatte. There is much other evidence of this sort. In view of the quasi-governmental nature of the "action," the killings that took place may have been difficult for the eye-witnesses to resist ... But in the neighbourhoods, after the initial shock, Sinhalese and Burghers organised themselves and kept off the gangs who had been sent to burn and kill.

How Nuwara Eliya was erupted following the minister Mr. Gamini Dissanayake s visit, specifies in Sri Lanka - 'Paradise' in Ruins," (Sri Lanka Co-ordination Centre, Kassel, 1983. )

The town was closely guarded by the army. All vehicles were checked. Bus conductors had orders not to transport Tamils. Minister Gamini Dissanayake came from Colombo to Nuwara Eliya to hold a meeting with party members. The day before, M.P. Herath Ranasinghe had arrested precautiously (sic) some well-known rowdies. Soon after the end of Gamini Dissanayake's party meeting they were released. These people went out immediately, well-equipped with petrol, iron rods and other kinds of weapons, and tried to attack two Tamil priests in town. They managed to escape. Without having succeeded they moved on - another mob joined up with the first one. They laid a ring of petrol around a Tamil shop which was then burnt.

Election Violence

Electoral violence has become a widespread trait in Sri Lankan politics. It has profound effects on people and their perceptions about politics and power. As Kristine Höglund, of Uppsala University points out that the electoral violence is used for a number of reasons: to hinder people from voting, to prevent candidates from campaigning, to display discontent with election results, or to overthrow the outcome of the election.

Politics in Sri Lanka and in the Village Politics impede many aspects of life in Sri Lanka. In an anthropological study of a rural village, politics in Sri Lanka is described as “a consuming passion” (Spencer 1990), closely linked to nationalist and religious identity formation. State-based political patronage is widespread in Sri Lanka. State resources have been used by the party leaders for personal benefits, to reward political loyalty, to remain in power, and to undermine the opposition (Suri 2007, 46).

Patron-client relationships are core aspects of party politics and organization in Sri Lanka. The party workers and supporters expect benefits in different forms – for themselves and for their family. Such rewards include, for instance, employment opportunities, state contracts and loans, or governmental welfare benefits (Suri 2007, 99). (Hoeglund, Kristine.- Paying the Price for Patronage: Electoral Violence in Sri Lanka )

Series of violence were unleashed in 1977 elections and many people became victims. Similarly, in subsequent elections this violent trend became a foremost factor. Murders, assaults and arsons became common occurrences during the election time. In the infamous Wayamba Provincial Council, election in 1999 52-year-old woman was assaulted and stripped in public by a local politician.

In 2001 election, a new tendency emerged in the Sri Lankan politics and politicians used army deserters and ex combatants to initiate election violence in larger scale. The culmination of the violence took place in Kandy on polling day for the General Election and ten Muslim youth were gunned down in Udathalawinna.

A large number of combatants with battle trauma took part in election violence from 2001 to 2010 elections and some of them were believed to be undiagnosed PTSD patients. As military psychologists indicate, anger and violence are prevalent problems combatants with PTSD.

Matthew Tull, of the University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson did extensive case work on PTSD and social violence. According to him, individuals with PTSD may have intense and unpredictable emotional experiences, and anger and aggressive behavior may ways of establishing a sense of control. Anger may also be a way of trying to express or release tension connected to uncomfortable emotions often associated with PTSD, such as shame and guilt. His research on Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans who screened positive for PTSD reported significantly greater anger and hostility than those in the subthreshold-PTSD and non-PTSD groups. Veterans in the subthreshold-PTSD group reported significantly greater anger and hostility than those in the non-PTSD group.

It’s a known fact that the traumatized soldiers can be used to commit political and social violence. This factor was seen in Somalia and in Rwanda. Extreme groups transform traumatized people into perpetrators of violence. At the end of the American Civil War, extremists formed KKK that conducted a series of racial violence in America through ex soldiers. Many Lincoln brigade soldiers who fought in the Spanish civil war involved in social violence soon after the Great Depression.

Political Violence and Antisocial Personality Disorder

From JRJ to the present leadership every head of the state had his or her henchmen to carry out politically connected violence. They were either ministers or the members of the parliament or thugs with political patronage. Most of them were under educated and had violently inclined behavior. These mob elements had committed a number of atrocities and violent acts but they were always protected and safeguarded by their political masters. This phenomenon has become a naked reality of politics in Sri Lanka. These men were always above the law and had licenses to commit violence in the name of their political leaders. In the psychological context, these characters have deviant behaviors and fit in to the diagnostic category of Anti Social Personality Disorder ( ASPD).

Antisocial Personality Disorder is a condition characterized by persistent disregard for and violation of the rights of others. Deceit and manipulation are central features of this disorder. The people with ASPD disregard the social norms and respect to lawful behaviors. They are impulsive as well as aggressive and with a slightest provocation, they can commit violent acts. They are also reckless disregard for safety of self or others and irresponsible. Their characters are marked with lack of remorse. They are selfish, callous and remorselessly use of others to full fill their goals. They have chronically unstable, antisocial and socially deviant lifestyles. When these brands of men become politically powerful, they can do a vast damage to the country.

Psychological Impact of Political Violence

There is a close relationship between political violence, mental health and psychosocial wellbeing. Political violence has a variety of discernible long-term effects on political beliefs and attitudes, behavior and behavioral intentions, emotions, and other psychological variables. It can massively affect the mental health of the people. People constantly exposed to violence and deteriorating social conditions, become emotionally insensitive and gradually losing their respect for the values of life. The "culture of violence" transforms people to believe that aggressive attitudes and violent behavior are normal and acceptable in an environment where violence is viewed as an acceptable way to get and maintain power and to solve problems. Therefore, psychological distress and mental disorders are closely connected with political violence.

Brandon A. Kohrt of the Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, did a clinical research of the Bhutanese refugees in Nepal and the impact of the Maoist People's War and found that psychological distress and mental disorders in situations of political violence.

Political violence is linked to poor mental health outcomes at the individual and collective levels. People exposed to political violence have symptoms of traumatic stress, depression, anxiety and aggressive feelings and it can lead to a vicious cycle of further violence.

Raija-Leena Punamäki - Department of Psychology, University of Helsinki did extensive study on political violence in Palestine and according to him exposure to political hardships also increased mental health problems, which is a reminder of the price which people are forced to pay in order to cope with political violence.

Ending Political Violence in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is a beautiful country with high 91% literacy rate. This earthly paradise has been deeply traumatized by the political violence for many decades. The violence has generated further violence damaging inner layers of the communities making it more dysfunctional. Ending political violence in Sri Lanka is a responsibility of an every citizen. When the civil society is aware of the manipulative nature of the political violence, they do not support such action. When the people have insight, they are not gullible or easily carried out by false propaganda that instigates political violence. When the civil society is strengthened and it is safeguarding democracy and protecting human rights there is no space for the political violence.