Shihar Aneez and Ranga Sirilal
Sri Lanka on Monday deployed soldiers to quell unrest sparked by a fear of nighttime prowlers known as “Grease Devils”, after at least five died over the past two weeks in a wave of vigilantism and clashes with police across the island nation.Sri Lanka’s army also set up a new brigade in Kinniya near the eastern port of Trincomalee, where thousands of angry people last week besieged a government office after fighting with the navy in pursuit of suspected “grease devil”.
The increased deployment came a day after a mob killed a police officer in the northwestern town of Puttalam. Troops have remained out in force since Sri Lanka’s government won a 25-year civil war in May 2009 with the Tamil Tiger ethnic separatists.
“The military and the police are doing the patrols in the towns and the areas affected by the incidents in the east, northwest and north,” military spokesman Brigadier Nihal Hapuarachchi said.
More than 30 incidents of violence and vigilantism have been reported in eight districts of the country, primarily in areas inhabited by minority Muslim or Tamil people as the government and opposition trade blame over the phenomenon.
Traditionally in Sri Lanka, a “grease devil” was a thief who wore only underwear and covered his body in grease to make himself hard to grab, but the new iteration has a more sinister reputation as prowling attacker of women.
“It is a new kind of fear psychosis,” lawyer Gomin Dayasiri, who has often supported the government’s more nationalistic positions, told Reuters. “It is certainly an organised fear psychosis to destabilise the society.”
The government has said the “grease devil” panic started with criminals taking advantage of traditional beliefs in spirits and devils in Sri Lanka’s rural areas, but has been hijacked by political opponents trying to spread mayhem.
It blamed the Marxist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) party, which led bloody insurrections in 1971 and 1988-89 stoked among the rural population, for spreading the panic.
The JVP denies it is behind it, and has suggested in parliament that government-linked forces may be responsible, saying female blood was required to find an ancient gold treasure or help prolong President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rule.
Opposition parties have also said the government may be stirring up pandemonium as an excuse to extend tough wartime emergency regulations, amid Western pressure to lift them.
“This government can justify the continuation of the emergency only by showing that the police can’t control civil life, that to maintain law and order it needs military on the ground,” an opposition-linked analyst told Reuters on condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from authorities.
Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne this month told parliament the government may lift the emergency laws, but is awaiting the recommendation of Rajapaksa’s national security council. courtesy: Reuters
Writing by Bryson Hull http://twitter.com/brysonhull; Editing by Yoko Nishikawa
For updates on twitter from Reuters Sri Lanka bureau: Ranga Sirilal