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A Provincial Poll That Is More Of A Battlefield

| by Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena
Courtesy: The Sunday Times

( August 31, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Is there any country in the world where the ruling administration castigates the Department of the Police, (gripped tightly in the iron fist of its own politicians), for failing to control election violence?

This amazing if not palpably ludicrous phenomenon is increasingly exhibited in Sri Lanka as the Uva province moves towards a provincial poll which is beginning to resemble more of a battlefield rather than an electoral fray.

No level electoral playing field

This week, the UPFA’s General Secretary and a senior Minster of this government lambasted the police for failing to stop election violence in Badalkumbura in the Monaragala District. Supporters of the opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) were attacked by goons of a ruling party politician while putting up a stage preparatory to an election rally. Claiming that they were the injured party on the other hand, the government complained that their supporters had to be hospitalized. Indeed, these clashes left intervening police officers also injured.

This appears to be a tad different to what took place during the previous provincial council elections. The violence is concentrated this time around in Moneragala where the government’s show of strength is directed also at former Army Commander Sarath Fonseka’s electioneering efforts.

In this ugly fracas, efforts of ruling party politicians to show themselves off as victims should receive short shrift. The attempt is to project the government on a level electoral playing field with the opposition parties. This is logically unsustainable. At no time following independence has all state institutions been so completely controlled by the ruling party as in these unhappy times. The Department of the Police has fared the worst in this regard. Its professional command hierarchy has been rendered obsolete. Political patronage reigns supreme.

Non-existent morale of the police

This status quo has not changed by bringing the Department under a so called Ministry of Law and Order to give effect to the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission that the police must be de-politicized and de-militarized. The police continue to be run in a militarized manner subject to the whim and fancy of ranking superiors who are protected by political patronage. In fact, police officers are themselves perhaps in the worst predicament that they have ever been as the honourable among them struggle to maintain equitability in this appallingly lop-sided power equation.

Individual cases show the overall pattern very well. A police officer was interdicted last month by his superior supposedly for informing a private TV Channel that he was ordered to do labourer’s work at the Borella police station by the officer-in-charge (OIC). A few days ago, he complained to the Supreme Court that his fundamental rights had been violated. And what of that other unfortunate police officer who attempted to stop a Deputy Minister from speeding and was abused and assaulted? Action was also taken against him and he later resigned from the police service in disgust. This extent of politicization of the police department is unprecedented.

Retired police officers who protested against the 17th Amendment for vesting disciplinary control of errant police officers in an independent National Police Commission (NPC) remain markedly silent in response to these profound injustices. At that time, the objection was that those who exercise administrative control over the police must also exercise disciplinary control. It was opined by some that bifurcating the two functions would have a disastrous impact on the morale of the police. But the question now is whether the so-called morale of the police is existent in any manner to be talked of? The one voice consistently speaking out on these matters belongs to former Senior Superintendant of Police (SSP) Tassie Seneviratne. Many more should follow his lead.

And the opposition is also responsible for this state of affairs. The jettisoning of the 17th Amendment was by all political parties, as we must remind ourselves. Despite the JVP being in the forefront of pushing this Amendment through, they also joined in the chorus of discrediting the NPC. It has been consistently contended in these column spaces that the political objection to the 17th Amendment arose primarily as a result of the steadfast functioning of the NPC in its first (and constitutionally appointed) term. In the absence of strong public support, the independent NPC was replaced by a puppet entity under the 18th Amendment. This body now only wastes public funds to no discernible purpose.

When the South is in disarray, what hope can the North and East have?

So what is the reality that currently confronts us? Ordinary Sri Lankans in whatever part of the country are united in their condemnation of the police. Mob attacks on minorities and on activists have seen the police only as silent observers. Now to add insult to injury, we have government politicians also blaming the police.

This problem must see substantive reform of the police administrative structure and the reinstitution of an independent supervisory body, not mere tinkering with the Police Ordinance. Where the former conflict areas are concerned, increasing the number of Tamil speaking police officers is hardly an effective solution. Representation of minority police officers in a state structure designed to mete out injustice is no answer. Michael Brown, the unarmed, black teenager shot and killed by a white police officer in Missouri, led to riots and outrage across the United States. This ignited fierce debates on institutionalized racism within the police ranks by community activists, lawyers and policemen themselves.

Such questions must likewise occupy public debate here. As the rawest recruit to the head of the Department of the Police is aware, refusing a political command invites professional suicide if not danger to life and limb. Spokespersons for the regime would do well to refrain from pretending otherwise.
And the most telling point is that if effective law and order is not maintained in Sri Lanka as against the Sinhala majority, what hope could minority citizens possibly have?

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