| by Shanie
“Water Supply and Drainage Minister Dinesh Gunawardena yesterday said that the UPFA politician and trade unionist Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra had told him, a few hours before he was shot dead by supporters of fellow party man Duminda Silva, that if the police performed their duty there wouldn’t be a breakdown of law and order and many unruly incidents could be avoided. Minister Gunawardena said: “I met Bharatha in the morning of the fateful day and had a long conversation with him. He said that the UPFA could retain the Kolonnawa seat and was quite happy about it but blamed the police for unpleasant incidents taking place in some areas of the Kolonnawa electorate.”
(October 15, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) In our column which appeared last Saturday, we urged Inspector General Illangakoon to take urgent steps to restore the image and professional of the Sri Lanka Police. That Saturday was Election Day and the day ended in a multiple tragedy in Mulleriyawa. The Police were caught flat-footed, unable to prevent gun-toting thugs from committing murder. The shoot-out was the result of a vicious internecine warfare between two factions of the ruling political coalition. In such circumstances, a politicised Police, who consider serving the ruling party politician more important than serving the people by upholding the Rule of Law, were unable to take any preventive action. That is what has caused Minister Dinesh Gunawardena to make the statement attributed to him in a news item in Monday’s Island. Police have also drawn flak from speeches made by governing party politicians at the funeral of Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra.
For far too long, the Police have been forced to look the other side when thugs with political patronage unleashed violence on those who dared to challenge the political establishment. This suited the establishment well. This applies to politicians from both main political parties – the SLFP and UNP. The Mafiosi that were behind the politicians cared little for the Rule of Law when their patrons were in power. The Police were helpless because the hierarchy in recent years were willing tools of the political establishment. The officers and even the rank and file who wanted to do an honest job were not able to do so because they knew they could not rely on the backing of their superiors. As a former Senior Deputy Inspector General, whom we quoted last week stated, the politician treated the Police as his or her private security service. Naturally, the Police culture was to serve the politician and not the people by upholding the Rule of Law and tackling lawlessness. This was also the thrust of the speeches of the government Ministers at Wednesday’s funeral.
Every person, including the Police, will have their personal political biases. But, like the rest of the public service including the Judiciary, they should discharge their duties without allowing their personal biases to override their duty to the public. A large number of senior police officers were involved in the aborted 1962 coup d’état. It may be true that nearly all of them had right wing or conservative political views and would have had a political bias against the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1962. But it is this columnist’s view that their primary purpose in attempting the putsch was their increasing dismay, over the years, at the rise in acts of lawlessness and contempt for the Rule of Law which they perceived as receiving political patronage. There was perhaps some truth in this perception though the putsch was no way to deal with that. If successful, it would perhaps have created more law and order problems than then existed. By way of an aside, there are still among the living some junior officers who were involved in the attempted coup d’état. It will be interesting to hear from them the thinking behind the planned putsch from the point of view of those leading it.
Now is the time to change the Culture
Getting back to the politicisation of the Police, it is good to hear government ministers call for a change in the political culture that leads to violent deaths. It is not surprising that this call comes only in the aftermath of a bloody battle between two underworld factions of the ruling political coalition. Now then is the time for IGP Illangakoon to bring about the necessary changes to Police culture. He will no doubt have the backing of civil society as well as senior members of the government if he asserts himself in trying to restore some kind of professionalism within the Sri Lanka Police. If he does so, it is the duty of the senior members of both the opposition and the government as well as responsible members of civil society to support him. The changes that should be at the top of his agenda is first to stop politicians treating the Police as their private security service and secondly for stop the Police torture and mistreatment of ‘suspects’ in their custody. The Police must learn that the end never justifies the means. Violence in dealing with miscreants only begets more violence. Brute violence can earn temporary peace but never in the longer term.. The government and the Police must bear this in mind.
K Kanthasamy was a lawyer and human rights activist who was abducted and presumed killed in 1988 by one of the many militant groups then operating in Jaffna. In a memorial lecture to mark the first anniversary of his abduction, Regi Siriwardena spoke on the subject of Violence and Human Rights. He dealt in his lecture with violations by the agents of the State in the name of democracy or of the protection of the society and integrity of the country. He also dealt with violence by militant groups in the name of national or social liberation. It would be evasive and dishonest, Siriwardena said, to deal with one and not with the other. He referred to the cycles of State violence and anti-State violence and stated that only conscious decisions by the different political actors to avoid considerations of short term expediency in favour of focussing on the wider and long term consequences can reduce the level of violence.
Siriwardena referred to two instances from our history: “On that fateful day in 1956 when the Official Language Bill was introduced in Parliament, Tamil opponents of the Bill staged a peaceful satyagraha on Galle Face green, and were assaulted by thugs who had been transported there. The head of the government not only permitted this to happen but ordered the police away when of their own volition they had arrived to keep the peace. This was the first of a series of occasions in the fifties and sixties when peaceful protest by Tamil political groups would be met with violence.” Over fifty years later, we seem to have come a full cycle and seem on the verge of a repeat of history.
The other instance Siriwardena referred to were several cases in 1978 and 1979 where striking and picketing workers and demonstrating students on the university campuses were attacked by thugs, sometimes with extreme brutality. “The right to picket and the right peacefully to demonstrate had until then been regarded as normal democratic rights. They were now met with violence.” Here again, are we seeing a repeat of history?
Siriwardena continues: “What was the thinking behind those in power when they dealt in this manner with minority satyagrahis, workers and students? Perhaps they said to themselves, ‘We’ll teach a lesson they won’t forget!’ But the lesson learnt was very different from the one intended. The leadership of the Tamil political movement and of the working class and student movements had been drawn from parties and organisations which worked within the constitutional and democratic framework. The effect of the violence used against them was to undermine their credibility. By crushing democratic and peaceful opposition, it promoted the belief that the only effective weapon against a State ready to resort to violence was counter-violence….Thus, in both North and South, State violence actually promoted extremism and strengthened those whose methods of dissent were the AK-47 and the T-56.”
A Wake-up Call
The government and Police must treat the murders at Mulleriyawa as a wake-up call to change the way they deal with dissent or with protests, in addition to upholding the Rule of Law at all times. They need further to be firm with all who break the law, irrespective of whether they have political or any other clout. One recalls with horror the infamous statement made by the previous Police spokesperson at a media conference. There was a peaceful picketing protest taking place at Lipton’s Circus against the Police shooting in the Katunayake FTZ which resulted in one death. A group of thugs armed at least with poles and sticks were seen marching towards the picketers. When questioned at the media conference what action the police took against those thugs the Police spokesperson perhaps thought he was being clever when he stated that there was no law against carrying poles and sticks; those persons may have been carrying them in case some dog tried to attack them on the road. IGP Illangakoon must know that the Sri Lanka Police can do better and will have greater credibility with the public if they do not display the attitude and mentality of such spokespersons.
Newspaper reports indicate that a large amount of guns and arms were found by the Police at the home of one of the suspects in the Premachandra shooting. The question arises whether all these guns were licensed as they need to be by law. Either way, this suspect will need to explain how he came to possess and what need he had for so many guns. It is a widespread public perception that the Firearms Ordinance is observed in the breach and the Police turn a blind eye to the many unlicensed guns in the possession of undesirables who enjoy political patronage. It is time that the provisions of the Ordinance were strictly enforced. Of course, this will not prevent thugs carrying poles to beat away stray dogs on the road, but it is at least a start that we will be spared pistol- packing thugs who brazenly shoot and kill political opponents in broad daylight.