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Mahinda Rajapksa’s Belated Decision to Create a Ministry for Internal Law and Order Should Help in the Transition

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N.Sathiya Moorthy

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s belated decision to create a Ministry for Internal Law & Order should be welcomed for more reasons than one.


Ceremony held at the Ministry premises in Chatham Street with the participation of distinguished gathering and Major General (Rtd) Mallawarachchi recently-pic: Defence.lk

The appointment of a veteran top-soldier, former Army Chief of Staff, Maj-Gen Nanda Mallawaarachchi (retd), as the Secretary of the new Ministry, with the President holding the charge at the politico-administrative level, should help in the transition period, again for the same reasons.

The Government has attributed the new creation to the LLRC report. The timing is such that critics would link it to the ‘Weliweriya episode’. At Weliweriya, the local Sinhala population reportedly had a ‘taste’ of what the Tamils had been dubbing for decades as ‘army excesses’.

In this post-war era, there is a larger and more imminent case for revisiting the war-time arrangements for the uniformed forces than what the Government was ready to accept and act upon. It was unfortunate that the ‘Weliweriya episode’ occurred the very day Lt-Gen R M D Ratnayake took over as Army Commander on 21 August. He lost no time in constituting a board of inquiry. Before the month was out, he had already ordered disciplinary action against four officials, obviously named in the inquiry.

It’s the pace that the Government can set for clearing worse complaints from Tamil civilians on ‘war-time excesses’. Independent of the findings in individual cases, such a course could have a salutary effect on the Tamils’ perception of the Sri Lankan State, and the international community’s acceptance of the Government’s claims in the matter, now and later.

Broadly speaking, contemporary demands have led to nations creating multi-layered structures for ensuring the safety and security of its citizenry, and also the nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Law & Order policing and defending the nation’s sovereignty from external enemies are two different things.

Nations like Sri Lanka have discovered the third, intermediate dimension, first with the advent of JVP insurgency and later the LTTE insurgency. The Sri Lankan State was caught unawares by the spate of insurgencies. The absence of a paramilitary force(s) trained, in physical and psychological terms, to handle the emerging situation may have been badly felt at inception. Once successive governments pushed the armed forces into service to neutralise the JVP insurgency on the one hand and the Tamil/LTTE insurgency on the other there was no going back.

It should be left to a security historian to analyse if the number of human casualties could have been different if the nation had a non-militarised paramilitary force at the turn of Independence, and ahead of the insurgencies. The study could postulate if the ever increasing role for the armed forces –compelled by the circumstances – may have contributed to the escalation of adversarial action and preparation, for instance, by the LTTE.

It is not to blame the armed forces, post facto, but to prepare the political and administrative leaderships for the future – that one hopes is never as bloody as the past. There is a need for such an institutionalised understanding during peace-time for the politico-administrative leaderships to take the right decisions, if and when future occasions so demanded. The Sri Lankan State could not be caught napping one more time.

In the absence of having specially-trained men doing the policing job in post-war Afghanistan and Iraq, the US-led forces have not been able to win over the masses (much as they may claim that the local populations wanted war against their leaderships). In neighbouring India, for instance, the armed forces have resisted public/political pressure for their induction in taking over internal security operations.

The Naxalite violence/terror is one such problem, just now. After a solitary occasion decades ago, post-Independence India has refused to use aerial targeting of militant citizens. The cause and effect of the sage decision should show if it had contributed to escalation or de-escalation of insurgencies, even if those insurgencies had outlived their relevance and utility for the local population after a time.

Weliweriya or not, the creation of an L&O Ministry should now encourage the administrative apparatus to go back in the nation’s contemporary history and evaluate L&O policing in the pre-war era, to make the existing machinery relevant to the post-war, 21st century demands. ‘Human rights’, for example, was not an issue in the pre-war period, but not anymore.

Just as governments across the world have equipped themselves to provide for environmental consciousness of the world around them, they are also now learning to acknowledge ‘human rights’ as a part of their policing efforts. Should it be extended to their armed forces, which have a different set of tasks and adversaries, is a question that the post-war Sri Lankan Government should be asking itself.

The alternatives, if needed, have to be looked into. It cannot be left to the indefinite future, either, lest existing schemes instead get institutionalised, as became inevitable in the post-Independence past, for no fault of anyone. The insurgents did not give the Sri Lankan State and apparatus time to settle down and take a fresh look at the administrative methods and machinery that they had inherited from an alien ruler.

Most post-war protests against the police, and criticism of the incumbent Government on the policing front, owe to the distinction that the politico-administrative apparatus has not come to appreciate still. It mostly owes to the war-time demands on the security forces, and the consequent improbability of successive administration to observe and absorb ‘international best practices’ in policing, among others.

The society, on the other hand, is aware of their rights that were unavailable to them under a succession of foreign rulers for centuries. The civil society in the contemporary context is not keeping quiet either. In the final analysis, it is the media, as the self-designated voice of the people, and not the Opposition polity (that knows where the shoe pinches) that has complaints.

Defused as they are, the high-voltage media campaigns target the people in their drawing rooms and kitchens, over the head of the existing systems. Left outside of it, the Government does not know what has hit it.

It is often argued that a small nation like Sri Lanka cannot afford multi-layered power-sharing arrangements of the 13-A kind. The demands of a modern politico-administrative machinery is functional, not structural, as is being made out under the present scheme. Thus, L&O policing should not be confused with internal security requirements. Nor should the two be confused with the role of the armed forces in the contemporary world.

For instance, the L&O job is a grass-roots level requirement, with grass-roots level understanding, application and consequent sensitivity. The methods employed too should be thus distinctive, at times localised, if the administrative apparatus were to understand – and have understood – local variations, imposed by circumstances.
Different purposes demand differentiated approaches and attitudes too. As Maj-Gen Mallawaarachchi has reportedly pointed out after appointment as Secretary to the new Ministry, there is a need to build a strong bond between the public and the police so that intelligence gathering would be strengthened in each police station, especially to get information on hard core drug dealers and other criminals.

That way, yes, crime-investigation too is multi-layered as L&O policing, all of them demanding multi-layered apparatuses in the place of a unified set-up. Such a unified set-up has often led to structured, template approaches.

They do not – and cannot – provide for sensitivity in policing at different levels, which has also been the hallmark of successful policing across the world.

There is also a simultaneous need for the Government to move away from the current ‘transitional arrangement’ for Police leadership, both at the political and administrative levels. Elected democracy provides for layers of politically-responsible positions accountable to the people and Parliament alike. It also provides for differentiated responsibilities and accountability at all levels, and for all times.

By retaining the new L&O Ministry under his care, alongside his existing ministerial responsibilities of Defence and Finance, President Rajapaksa could not but stop critics targeting him directly for any (often times inevitable) lapse elsewhere down the line.

Likewise, there is also the inevitable need for recognising talent from within the Police force, to elevate people with the domain and institutional knowledge to be made the administrative head of the L&O apparatus.

Better still, a civilian administrator, who could hold the L&O bosses accountable should be tried out in due course – as it used to be once upon a time!

(The writer is Director, Chennai Chapter of the Observer Research Foundation)

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