Jun 27 2005

Politics and the Fear Factor

Well, I’m back!

My silence for the past three weeks was because I was in Sri Lanka (the land of my birth and where some of my family still resides,) during the first two weeks of June, and then spent a few days in England on my return trip. During my time in Sri Lanka, there were some contrasts with life in the US that struck me that I will post about this week. These are not the obvious contrasts about wealth and lifestyles but more subtle ones.

The first was the role that fear plays in politics. To understand the difference, one has to know a little about Sri Lankan history. Although, Sri Lanka has been a democracy since it achieved independence from the British in 1948, since 1971 it has been wracked with serious political violence. In 1971 there was an insurgency led by the People’s Liberation Front (JVP) that tried to first overthrow the government and when that failed, carried on a series of violent guerilla acts against members of the government and police and armed forces similar to what one sees now in Iraq. This lasted for about twenty years.

Then in 1983, an ethnic separatist insurgency, headed by a group known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) burst on the scene, determined to carve out a separate state for the ethnic Tamil minority. They too carried out a series of violent attacks, first on the government and the armed forces, and then on civilian members of the Sinhala ethnic majority and sometimes on the smaller Muslim minority. This war was suspended in 2002 with a shaky truce that left the LTTE in de facto control of significant portions of territory. Negotiations for a permanent peace are now going on under Norwegian mediaton, but it is very shaky and fragile peace.

All capsule histories like the one above are necessarily both incomplete and distorted. I give it just to make the point that during the thirty-year period beginning in 1971 and ending in 2002, there was massive and almost daily violence in the country caused by the actions of the JVP and LTTE and the ferocious and often indiscriminate response by government forces. As is the case with all modern conflicts, civilian bystanders bore the brunt of the casualties, either because they were killed by bombs and bullets intended for others, or they were deliberately killed as reprisals, warnings, or to create general terror and fear. Detailed casualty figures are hard to obtain because many victims just disappeared or were buried in mass graves, but around 100,000 dead seems a reasonable figure. In short, on average over a thirty-year period, every year there were as many political killings as occurred in the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2005.

You would think that people would be cowering in fear but that is not the case. Even after major events such as the assassination of the President, cabinet ministers, and military commanders, or after attacks on major public institutions like the Central Bank (the equivalent of the US Federal Reserve), the Parliament building (the equivalent of the US Congress), or the national airport, people would be shaken and discuss the issue animatedly but almost immediately go back to their normal business, even if their workplace had been very close to the scene of the atrocity.

The response by political leaders was also interesting. Like political leaders everywhere, they would try and whip up public anger about the incidents in order to push through their policies, but they also tended to try and play down the fear. This contrasts with the situation in the US where the government seems to be working overtime to keep the people in a state of fear. One method is the use of things like the color coded alerts that are currently in use in the US, the raising of which can lead to increased anxiety and the corresponding stocking up of duct tape and the like. Such a move by the government in Sri Lanka would have been greeted with ridicule. There the emphasis was on quickly getting back to a sense of normalcy.

Why this difference in the response to political violence? Although I don’t really know the reasons, in the next posting I will suggest some possible explanations.


It is nice to be back after my trip to Sri Lanka and England. While on vacation, I made a determined effort to stay away from all email and internet use, and even read the newspapers on only two or three occasions. This was pretty serious withdrawal for a news and internet junkie like myself but it was refreshing too. It is nice (and humbling) to know that the world gets along just fine without you. The downside was that there were about 2,000 email messages waiting for me on my return, about 80% spam.

I found that there have been many interesting comments and discussions on my previous posts and will respond to them soon.

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