Suppression in Sri Lankan society

Thursday, 18 September 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

There was a news item in the media a few weeks back about a girl, namely Thilini Amalka, delivering a series of slaps to a young man at the Wariyapola bus stand. The incident was videoed and published on the web by a freelance journalist. This resulted in several web comments, especially by men, criticising Amalka’s act, saying that she has done it excessively. Subsequently she was arrested by the Police, produced before the Judicial Medical Officer to examine her mental condition and then produced before the magistrate. She was later released on Rs. 50,000 surety bail. Her Attorney Lakshan Dias of Rights Now Collective for Democracy was of the view that the action taken by the Police was not correct and she was protected by Sections 345 and 346 of the Penal Code. Hence there would be a fundamental rights case against the Police by Amalka. He said that the young man made vulgar comments about her dress and then made obscene gestures. By viewing the video it is clear that the young man was enjoying the slapping, which act suggested that firstly Amalka’s claim about his sexual remarks and gestures would be true and secondly that he should be subjected to a medical examination and not Amalka. Women face harassment daily Women in this country face a similar situation and are harassed by men every day, especially in tightly-packed public transport system. In public places there are enough men who ‘accidentally’ touch bodies of women and hardly any woman raises her voice against this situation, mainly because of shame and fear. One reason for this may be social suppression of sex which is eased by unorthodox ways such as this. Yet when one person rises and protests against this discriminative system, there are enough comments and much criticism, some in obscene language, against the girl who acted against the so-called authority of men. These male commentators were visibly shaken by the repeated slaps of the girl against the dominant male authority prevalent in the country today. Sri Lankan women a discriminated lot Women in Sri Lanka are a discriminated lot although they are the driving force of the highest income generation avenues to Sri Lanka – firstly, foreign remittances where the majority comes from Middle East housemaids; secondly, the apparel industry where factory floor workers are mainly girls coming from rural areas; and thirdly, the plantation industry where there are a lot of females working as tea pluckers and rubber tappers, in addition to the household chores, which are not included in any economic calculation. Although their contribution is high at the lower levels of economic activities, which brings volumes to national coffers, their contribution to the higher level decision making is very low compared to the percentage of their population and compared to the level of their education. Most men would not agree to this fact of discrimination against women although it is evident but yet when someone uses force against it, there are several criticisms. Racial discrimination This is the situation against Tamils in Sri Lanka as well. When Tamils of Indian origin in plantations have voted with left parties in the first general election, their voting rights were removed against the provisions of safeguards of the Soulbury Constitution. When Chelvanayakam staged a peaceful satyagraha campaign against the Sinhala only Act in 1956, he was booted away. When Amirthalingam became the Opposition Leader in 1977, Tamils in Colombo were attacked. When the 6th Amendment was introduced to the constitution in 1983, soon after the riots, Tamil parties had to withdraw from the Parliament. Finally when the LTTE came to the fore, operating in far more excessive manner, they were destroyed. Whenever there was a protest against discrimination and prevalent authority, whether it was peaceful or otherwise, it was crushed and no solution was given thereafter. However just like in Amalka’s case there is lot of criticism and actions against the very actions opposing discrimination and authoritarian rule. Religious discrimination Christians in this country were privileged during colonial time and that status faded away gradually and the church started to integrate culturally with the rest of the society. However, there were several instances where the churches and temples of religious minorities were attacked and their religious activities were protested in the recent past. A protest campaign was launched against the Muslims and they were systematically attacked in Aluthgama recently. Religious intolerance becomes evident in various ways in recent past. Underprivileged discrimination Poor in Sri Lanka are discriminated without any notice. Nowadays since national politics is centred on pseudo patriotism and show-off development, the poor of the country are affected. They are chased away from their inherited lands in the name of development. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening whereas the policy makers focus on per capita income. This is the total income divided by the population which does not reflect the unequal distribution of income. Gini coefficient is the indicator which measures income inequality where if it is 0 it is a perfect equal society and if it is 1 it is a perfect unequal society. According to the available statistics, Sri Lanka’s Gini coefficient in 2010 was0.49 which was higher than India and Indonesia and was lower than Hong Kong. The dependence of direct taxes is low whereas there is heavy dependence of indirect taxes such as Value Added Tax. In Sri Lanka the ratio of direct taxes to indirect taxes is around 20:80 where as it is around 55:45 in India. This means that the contribution of the rich to the national coffer is less and the same by the poor is more in Sri Lanka compared to India. In tax structure changes of the past years we saw that the import taxes of small cars and three wheelers were increased whereas the taxes of sports cars were decreased. Caste-based discrimination Although it is not prominently discussed and gradually fading away, the caste system in Sri Lanka still plays a discriminative role in the society. Ranasinghe Premadasa was the only non-Govigama national leader produced by Sri Lanka. He was severely criticised and lot of barriers was created because of his caste. He came to the top as a result of sheer perseverance. The other leader who came close to Premadasa was C.P. De Silva who led the June 1960 election successfully and was deprived of the premiership mainly because of his caste. This system was somewhat challenged by the rebellions the country faced. The leaders of three rebellions faced by Sri Lanka after the independence were spearheaded by non-Govigama and non-Vellala leaders and followers. High suicide rate Suicide rate in Sri Lanka is very high with 28.8 deaths for every 100,000 people according to the data of World Health Organization (WHO). According to the WHO, suicide victims are often from marginalised groups of the population and many of them are poor and vulnerable to a string of pressures. In Sri Lanka, the suicide rate among younger age groups is higher compared to older age groups where the reverse is the case in developed countries. The country faced three rebellions after independence, where deaths on both sides were of the youth and it appears to be that the authorities and society have learnt no lesson except for President Premadasa who implemented certain recommendations of an appointed commission. Power the main cause of oppression Power is the main cause of oppression in Sri Lanka. Successive governments misused power and subjugated the powerless, which process has reached the zenith now with the virtual control of Executive, Legislature and Judiciary being in one hand. Ironically this is with the support of the oppressed. The Leftists of this country tried to focus on the discrimination by haves against the have-nots. According to their view, the oppressed were the poor. In this intolerant nation, suppression can be exercised by men against women, Sinhalese against Tamils or Muslims, Buddhists against Christians or Hindus, higher castes against lower castes, the old against the young, people with power against the commoners and finally the rich against poor. If a nation wants to prosper economically, let alone the humanitarian aspect of social development, respect for all citizens irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, caste, age or gender should be prevalent and developed ahead of economic development. It is only then that economic development would be inclusive and sustainable and pave the way to distribute the benefits of development to the masses. (The writer is a Chartered Accountant by profession and holds a Master of Business Administration degree awarded by the Postgraduate Institute of Management of University of Sri Jayewardenepura.)

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