Urge to excel in the face of great odds

LAST Friday, Chinthana Vithanage, a poor, unemployed rural youth lifted Sri Lanka to glorious heights when he won the Gold at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne. A rousing welcome is awaiting the 25-year-old weightlifting hero, who won Sri Lanka’s first Commonwealth Gold in 12 years. He lost his father when he was just five. His mother supplied string-hoppers and hoppers — a common Sri Lankan breakfast and dinner dish — to a wayside diner and sold garments made out of cut-pieces to raise her four boys. Chinthana couldn’t even afford the powder which weightlifters use for grip. He used raw cement!

By Ameen Izzadeen

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Published: Tue 21 Mar 2006, 9:35 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 1:35 PM

Chinthana was an airman. He quit his job to concentrate on his weightlifting career under trying circumstances. But the determination of a soldier finally enabled him to place his country on the number 1 pedestal. Some anthropologists have suggested that humans have a physiochemical system that motivates them in the face of odds to respond in an aggressive manner. In some, this produces violence and in others, it brings out the best, as in the case of Chinthana.

If one were to say we are innately aggressive beings, history would prove one right. Throughout human history, men have behaved as if aggression fulfilled a biological need. Aren’t US President Bush and his neocon advisers demonstrating this behaviour? They are unleashing their aggression at international level, probably because they cannot do it within the country where the mechanism to curb violence is strong unlike the international system or law for which the big powers have scant respect.

The ever-growing mountain of legislation suggests that although man is born free, he needs to be kept in fetters and more fetters to maintain peace in society and although a state is sovereign, it needs to be nailed down to international obligations to keep our world at peace.

British philosopher Thomas Hobbes advised the sovereign to place a check upon people’s ability to harm others while Greek historian Thucydides who wrote about Peloponnesian wars recorded that the youth of Athens gleefully welcomed the outbreak of hostilities.

In the early 1990s, when Sri Lanka was conducting a post-mortem of the JVP-led youth insurrection, a politician recommended that the government set up more parks-like Colombo’s Victoria Park, where young lovers show little regard for public decency —as a means to prevent the frustration of the youth from turning into violence.

The then UNP government, which was facing a war in the north, did not take serious note of the proposal, probably because it thought that youth frustration —a factor that gives rise to aggressive behaviour —was a necessary evil in the cause of militarism. The LTTE leadership is, however, well aware of the link between youth frustration and aggression. There are strict guidelines which govern, or rather restrict, LTTE cadres’ love and sex life.

Leftist leader Vasudeva Nanayakkara who made this proposal for lovers’ parks is the ruling coalition’s mayoral candidate for Colombo at the upcoming local council elections and it is not known whether he still holds the same view.

In December last year, two female police officers in Meerut in India, humiliated young lovers by slapping them repeatedly in front of TV cameras in a raid codenamed Operation Majnu. Fortunately, in a still-not-so liberal Sri Lanka, we do not have female police officers who publicly slap, punch and pull the hair of young women on a date in public parks. The Meerut police officers’ behaviour, however, indicates that aggression is innate in both men and women. In Sri Lanka, every third suicide bomber is a woman. Women also made up a third of the LTTE’s fighting force.

Last week, I came across a BBC story about a female warlord in Afghanistan. The aging woman Bibi Ayesha, was quoted as saying that she was still wishing to fight. "It makes no difference if you are a man or a woman when you have the heart of a fighter," she said resisting government moves to disarm her.

But in Sri Lanka, we also have a powerful peace movement spearheaded by women. However, they do not resort to Peloponnesian tactics. Members of several women groups are often seen at Colombo’s Lipton’s Circus, holding placards and shouting anti-war slogans. They conduct extensive research and call for urgent action to alleviate the suffering of the war-affected Sri Lankan women. According to UN figures, there are some 40,000 war widows in Sri Lanka and some 30,000 female-headed families in the war-ravaged north and east. In June 2002, in the afterglow of the ceasefire agreement, Sri Lanka’s women groups presented a petition containing myriad problems related to women in war zones to both the government and the LTTE. Although both the government and the LTTE responded positively to the petition, the situation on the ground remains much the same.

Ameen Izzadeen is a Sri Lankan journalist based in Colombo

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