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Are We Facing A ‘Nahinda Chinthanaya’?

| by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena 

( June 8, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Even the most stubborn among us would concede that the complete subordination of Sri Lanka’s police establishment to political command is now uncontestable. A Law and Order Ministry and a wearingly unctuous Secretary who can only wax eloquent on public service by the police are just cosmetic trappings. 

Catastrophic consequences of misrule

Presidential promises of advisory committees looking into reform of the Police Ordinance also do not serve any purpose. What we face is the practical reality is of a politically undermined police establishment. Sri Lanka is therefore in the eye of a particularly dangerous storm. Minorities, opposition activists and dissenters are more at risk as a result. But equally, no citizen is immune even if one minds one’s own business and keeps out of trouble as is sometimes mistakenly believed. 

Certainly the politicization of the police service has many shameful godfathers. Similar to the undermining of the judiciary, no political party can piously wash its hands of responsibility. Those who served at the helm of the police and judicial establishments and the so-called intellectual community must also take a great deal of blame for the present ruinous state in which we find ourselves. 

Notwithstanding, critical differences exist between then and now. In their current avatars, neither institution can boast of a semblance of democratic functionality even though courthouses and police stations exist in theory. Their collective roles in serving as a buffer between government power and abused individuals have been severely undermined. Sri Lanka’s previous political leaders toyed with the police and the judiciary as if they were playthings but managed to keep a minimal balance from an acute sense of political survival. Post-war, such niceties have been cast to the four winds by a regime bloated with the immense power that we gave them in abject and shortsighted gratefulness for having ‘won the war.’ 

Law enforcers, the law breakers

So now police excess is no longer an aberration to be excused as occurring in extraordinary circumstances. Daily reports of police inaction or police complicity in gross abuses predominate. Extra-judicial killings of suspects in police custody are publicly accepted. This week, students of the Ruhuna University were assaulted by a mob with the alleged incitement of a former cricketer turned government parliamentarian along with Southern provincial councilors. The police were deaf, dumb and blind, just as they was when called upon to stop a (toy) pistol wielding so-called mayoral worship of Hambantota who attacked visiting opposition parliamentarians. 

But the incidents at the Ruhuna University have even more ominous undertones. University lecturers who had, in Senate meetings, spoken against the holding of the government’s mega show Deyata Kirula in the university premises, were obscenely insulted by mobsters while their vehicles were attacked. These academics deserve credit for boldly hosting a press conference to describe their travails. 

At the extreme other end of this small but eternally troubled country, lecturers of the University of Jaffna who face daily intimidation for a multiplicity of reasons must be ruminating on the ironic vicissitudes of life as they witness these torrid scenes in the deep South. 

A question for the President 

Small wonder it was that an outraged public servant from the Kandyan Provinces now in retirement and otherwise known for his gentle temperament within the family, questioned from me in a rare burst of anger over the phone this Saturday as to whether ‘the Mahinda Chinthanaya has become the Nahinda (killing) Chinthanaya?’ This is indeed a worthy question that President Mahinda Rajapaksa should contemplate, taking a step back from the deeply disturbing political ethos of his administration from the North to the South. 

Where the police establishment is concerned, the loss of authority of those in the police high command is a particular aspect of this breakdown. The political victimization of hapless police officers who try to administer the law without favour is therefore inevitable. Typically, these are junior officers even as we can see far more courageous decisions emanating from the lower courts than from the higher levels of the judicial institution. The merciless assault by political goons of a police constable who had issued a fine to a Deputy Minister acting in blatant violations of traffic laws again is a good example. Outrageously, an official inquiry has reportedly been instituted against this brave police officer rather than against the thug politician. 

And just this weekend, the Vice Chairman of a Polonnaruwa pradeshiya sabha had assaulted a policeman when he was interrupted in the process of illegally transporting sand. Such incidents come as no surprise. Indeed, these are the natural consequences of the breakdown of the police line of command. It is precisely these consequences which had been frequently warned against in preceding years by some of us who were called prophets of doom in consequence. Now it is scarcely a laughing matter anymore. 

Social mobilization programmes needed

The establishment of an independent National Police Commission under the 17th Amendment was one small step but was soon discarded. The Opposition was monumentally foolish in failing to stand by this constitutional amendment at a time when the Rajapaksa government may have been reined back. Neither was strong public resistance evidenced. A collective cry of mea culpa may be appropriate. 

At this point of time, raising public awareness regarding the erosion of the Rule of Law is well and good. However, the poor (unlike the privileged classes) are intimately familiar with these multiple crises anyway. What should be prioritized are concrete social mobilization programmes to build critical mass around these issues with distance being scrupulously kept from the Government and the Opposition alike. 

Absent this strategic approach, countering the Rajapaksa political juggernaut will be unfortunately reflective only of the frenzied rat running futilely around in the circles of its own wheel. 

Excerpted from the ‘Focus on Rights’ column of The Sunday Times, June 8th 2014 for which paper, the writer is the legal (editorial) consultant/columnist.

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