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Terror on cue

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Sri Lankan security forces have an overbearing presence in many Tamil-speaking areas where 'grease devils' - night prowlers - are terrorising villages.

Until very recently, the term ‘grease devil’ had not appeared in international reportage on Sri Lanka. However in the past few weeks it has been associated with an epidemic of terrifying attacks and attempted attacks by night prowlers on women, largely in Tamil-speaking areas. Wearing masks or face paint, they either break into female-only houses and residences, or loiter in areas frequented by women.

The incidents have not only caused panic amongst residents in Tamil, Muslim and Upcountry Tamil villages (mainly, but not exclusively), but also anger - which has been directed, tellingly, at the security forces who are seen to be protecting the prowlers.

Sri Lanka has been making much of supposed local superstitions. But people are terrorised by the attacks themselves, not paranormal readings of the perpetrators. Indeed, they have often chased after - and sometimes apprehended - the prowlers when they encounter them.

It is no coincidence the wave of attacks comes as Sri Lanka’s authorities are under international pressure to repeal draconian Emergency Regulations and reduce the overbearing military presence in the war-shattered Tamil areas. In short, the ‘grease devil’ phenomenon has emerged as an all too convenient justification for Sri Lanka’s security establishment to continue its massive deployment in Tamil areas.

This is no conspiracy theory. ‘Grease devils’ pursued by residents have often fled to local military camps or police stations. Those caught in the Tamil areas are usually Sinhala speakers. In one instance the captives admitted to being members of the paramilitary Civil Defence Force, which also comes under the Defence Ministry. In several instances, furious residents have attacked police officers or besieged police stations and military camps when security forces are seen to be habouring the prowlers. Security forces have responded by firing on protestors.

Rape and sexual abuse against women is a commonplace in Sri Lanka’s former conflict zones in the Northeast. As Aljazeera television reported this week, civil authorities have received hundreds of complaints against the security forces since the end of the war in 2009 in the north alone. Rape and sexual abuse were also widely reported in Sri Lanka’s militarised camps where the entire surviving population of the Vanni was held for several brutal months. Sexual violence by security forces against Tamil women predates the armed conflict, and it was a routine during Sri Lanka’s counter-insurgency operations.

All of which makes the present terror amongst residents in Tamil-speaking areas especially notable. Even as the very real attacks have escalated, the ‘grease devil’ argument has been advanced in official briefings and state media which repeatedly discount claims – attributed to residents - that the attackers are not human. One top police officer even blamed the Tamil Diaspora as the source of such ‘malicious rumours’.

Yet it is the sudden spate of attacks, taking place simultaneously in so many places in Tamil-speaking areas, that remains unexplained. And despite the long prevailing and heavy security presence, the security forces are seeming unable or, as the residents would have it, unwilling, to stop the prowlers.

Sri Lanka is infamous for its culture of impunity. For decades security forces and allied paramilitaries have carried out extrajudicial killings, abductions and disappearances, as well as rape, sexual attacks and torture. Yet there have only been a tiny handful of arrests and even fewer convictions. Amongst the thousands of victims are parliamentarians, aid workers, journalists, priests and ordinary Tamils merely suspected of being enemies of the state.

Extrajudicial violence is thus a much used instrument of Sri Lanka’s governance. The spate of murders and disappearances that gripped Jaffna in January during the run up to the local government elections is a case in point. The attacks stopped when the government, for other reasons, decided to delay the polls anyway.

Sri Lanka’s Tamil-speaking citizens are today being presented with a stark choice: either live with the continued heavily militarization of their areas, or risk attack by ‘grease devils’ - which the authorities smugly, and quite unnecessarily, point out are ‘merely’ human.