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Grease devils?

Challenge to post war security measures

Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu devotee dances with hooks inserted into his skin in the Adippura religious festival in the capital Colombo on August 06, 2011. Tamils who are mainly followers of Hinduism are the main minority community in the island which is emerging from nearly four decades of ethnic conflict which had claimed up to 100,000 lives. - Getty Images
by Jehan Perera

(August 23, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) With the end of the war against the LTTE in May 2009, the country has enjoyed more than two and a half years of peace without violent strikes by terrorist groups. There is popular acceptance that the strict anti terrorist measures and surveillance of the security forces backed by emergency laws have been responsible for this positive state of affairs. Responding to local and international pressures that a State of Emergency is no longer required to give teeth to the security forces, government spokespersons have been saying for the past month that most of the emergency laws under which the country has been governed continuously since 2005 will be removed by next year or possibly even earlier.

However, a new development is casting doubt on the government’s intentions with regard to the repeal of the emergency laws. There has been a sudden increase in the reports of attacks, almost all on women, by assailants who are said to have grease applied to their bodies. This has given rise the phenomenon of the "grease devils." The early attacks that first sparked off fear over a month ago were the rape and murder of five women, where the assailants were eventually apprehended by the police. Most of the subsequent attacks are reported to be of a less deadly nature and involved scraping and groping of women. The worst affected areas were initially those parts of the hill country and the east which are predominantly inhabited by ethnic minorities.

More recently, reports of attacks have spread to other parts of the country as well. Communities have formed vigilante groups that wait up at night for intruders. In some areas groups of vigilantes have even killed people they believed to be grease devils. The most recent victim has been a policeman in civilian attire who is accused of having going surreptitiously into people’s houses. In the east, large numbers of people have even surrounded police stations and military camps and demanded that the latter in particular be removed. A frequent allegation has been that when a suspect is apprehended by people and handed over to the police, he is either released or taken to the nearby military camp.


Government spokespersons have issued stern warnings to the general population that they cannot take the law into their own hands. In a particularly tragic incident, two of the people killed in the hill country by vigilantes are said to have been traveling salesmen. In other parts of the country, people apprehended officials of the Wild Life department who were engaged in an elephant census and moving about in the jungles to count the animals. While these cases of mistaken identity have received wide publicity in the media, more and more incidents of grease devils attacking women also continue to be reported. There are also reports of sounds being heard and people being seen, but with the suspects getting away leaving the entire community in a panic.

Although the reported attacks on women have taken place in a wide swathe of the country, the blaming of security forces and breakdown of law and order appear to have been most prevalent in the areas inhabited by the ethnic minorities. One of the weaknesses of governance that got aggravated during the time of the war against the LTTE and Tamil militant groups was the increase in the mono-ethnic composition of the security forces. There was a time when the security forces had a significant proportion of ethnic and religious minorities especially at the higher levels. But with the escalation of the war and the sharpening of ethnic polarization the security forces became a largely Sinhalese force. After the war the government has declared its intention to increase the Tamil-speaking proportion of the security forces, particularly of the police.

Another weakness in governance that the present crisis has brought to the surface in the continued reliance of the security forces on draconian methods of crowd control. On a previous occasion in the recent past the police fired on a crowd of workers who were protesting about a new government pension scheme for the private sector that they believed would disadvantage them. Among the crowd there were agent provocateurs who threw stones and missiles at the police prompting harsh retaliation. The police firing killed one worker. On this occasion too in regard to the grease devils there has been police firing that killed a protestor. It is essential that the security forces be re-trained to deal with civilian protests and agitation in the post war context and to treat civilians with respect and as right-holders. There is also a need for more positive relationship-building exercises to take place between the security forces and civilian population.


Post war societies are prone to the breakdown of law and order due to the inability of the security forces to impart confidence in the general population. The security forces who have fought a brutal war and suffered trauma as a result also need to be counseled and rehabilitated even thought they were the victors. There are those who have left the security forces either through retirement or desertion who are in need of employment. Some of them may seek a life of crime with their special training. There are others who are serving officers who may wish to abuse their power. There is an arrogance that comes with unchecked power especially in those who wield arms. A particularly notorious case comes from East Timor, which received its independence from Indonesia in 2002 after years of bloodshed and guerilla struggle.

In 2010, a "Ninja" phenomenon swept through the fledgling state. The ninja terminology first came into use in the 1990s when Indonesia was still struggling to suppress the East Timorese struggle for independence. Secret militias allegedly backed by the Indonesian military targeted Timorese independence activists. The people were terrorized as large numbers of them were abducted and killed in the dark by men dressed in black. The fear of these death squads became part of a traditional dread of a lurking shapeless apparition with evil qualities and resurfaced in 2010.

The re-emergence of fear of ninjas in 2010 permitted the security authorities of East Timor to take on once again the role of protectors of the people. However, in Sri Lanka, there is no fear that the grease devils are part of a mystical realm. On the contrary they are known to be real human beings, whom the people are sometimes able to capture and hand over to the police. But with reports that many of the suspected grease devils who have been apprehended, belong or have belonged to the armed forces, there is a breakdown of confidence in the government’s ability to preserve law and order. This vacuum creates space for groups with their own hidden agendas to gain ground. So far the government response to this development has been deficient in rebuilding confidence amongst the people. The government needs to order an immediate investigation and make its findings known.

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