Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, now busily wrapping the reformist garb of a changed political persona around him, has had the audacity to complain this week that the underworld is now more active than during his Presidency.
Criminals and the Rajapaksa ‘project’
But the truth is that the underworld was ‘managed’ and ‘used’ at the time to protect the Rajapaksa political project. Those inconvenient to the family in power were disposed of while ‘favorites’ were nurtured for use whenever the occasion presented itself. Discomforting details of involvement of senior police officers in the assassinations, assaults and underworld activities fostered with state patronage during the last five years of Rajapaksa rule (2010 – 2014) are now emerging into the harsh light of current-day realities.
These are not casual discoveries that can be shrugged away by a genial smile or hypocritical protestations under the Rajapaksa ‘satakaya’. These atrocities were not brought before the public much earlier due to the power games of the (dis) unity ‘yahapalanaya’ alliance, which have now become the butt of ribald jokes in the popular imagination. Wherever the relativities of the blame may lie for this, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil must shoulder joint responsibility for squandering the richness of the public trust placed in them in 2015. That much is clear.
Following the departure of the Rajapaksa family from the seat of power in 2105, despicable police excesses are no longer linked to the highest levels of the political command in the Government as once was the case. However, systemic reform of the police establishment and credible leadership of the Sri Lanka Police continue to be lacking, leaving law and order to be increasingly imperiled.
Selective or excessive law enforcement
In its absence, we have the IGP absurdly directing his hapless subordinates to compulsorily engage in meditation classes. When communal violence takes place, law enforcement officers turn the proverbial Nelsonian eye to the instigation of agent provocateurs acting with vested political agendas.Worse, they are oftentimes openly supportive as was seen in the recent violence in the Kandy District.
Thus too, when demonstrators take part in legitimate protests, the police reaction is excessively violent as we saw recently in the case of the Thambuttewegama farmers agitating against the proposed use of water in the Rajanagana reservoir for a drinking water project, despite those resources traditionally being used for paddy cultivation.
As in the past, when the police was deaf, dumb and blind in the face of a (toy) pistol wielding so-called mayoral worship of Hambantota(later to be favored by the ‘yahapalanaya’ regime), law and order is not enforced when it ought to be enforced or enforced selectively with excessive force in other instances.
Eye of a calamitous storm
On the other hand, police officers cannot work honourably even if they wish to do so, as their superiors override them. Indeed, such law abiding policemen are punished rather than commended with the National Police Commission appearing to be helpless in redressing these injustices.The notion of public service by the police continues to be a cosmetic trapping.
Presidential promises of advisory committees looking into reform of the Police Ordinance also do not serve any purpose. What we face is a politically undermined police establishment resulting in the breakdown of law and order. No citizen is immune even if one minds one’s own business and keeps out of trouble as is sometimes (mistakenly) believed.
The politicization of the police service has many shameful godfathers, not limited to the Rajapaksas. Similar to the undermining of the judiciary, no political party can piously wash its hands of responsibility. Then again, those who served at the helm of the police and judicial establishments and the country’s ‘thinking’ (or ‘unthinking’ as the case may be) community who compromised on principle and acted on political agendas, continuing a disgraceful tradition which was evidenced in 2015 as well must shoulder a large part of the blame.
The Police as political ‘playthings’
But in the past at least, a minimal balance of institutional credibility was maintained in regard to the police ‘service.’The political leadership of the day realized cannily that such a balance was essential to keep alive, at least the perception of a functional law enforcement system.
Such niceties were however cast to the four winds as civil and ethnic conflict aggravated in the country. In time, the police became a political ‘plaything’ losing even the semblance of democratic functionality. Its role as a buffer between abusive government power and abused individuals was irreversibly reversed. Now police excess is no longer an aberration explained as justifiable in extraordinary circumstances of ‘conflict’ or ‘emergency.’
Daily reports of police inaction or police complicity in gross abuses are accepted as part of ordinary reality. That acceptance is dangerous by itself. We have come to accept the abnormal as normal. It is exactly for this reason that the proposed Counter-Terror Act, which gave police officers the authority to call for financial information of ‘suspects’ from banking institutions without judicial warrant, was opposed so vigorously. And the same objection is true of the recent (and now withdrawn) emergency regulations imposed in the wake of recent attacks on Muslim civilians which conferred powers on police officers to issue detention orders. These are certainly not healthy precedents.
The crisis goes far deeper than loss of discipline
Essentially it must be recognized that this is not a ‘simple’crisis of police officers being subjected to assaults by political goons when the law is enforced. Such incidents are the natural consequences of lawlessness. But the crisis goes far deeper. The institutional victimization of hapless police officers who try to administer the law without favour, speaks to the gravity of the systemic breakdown very well.
Typically, these are the more junior officers just as (at times) far more courageous decisions asserting the Rule of Law are issued by the lower courts than evidenced at the appellate levels of the judicial institution. Law abiding police officers are penalized at the whim and fancy of their superiors acting on vested agendas. This is highly demoralizing where the basic discipline of the police is concerned.
The establishment of an independent National Police Commission under the 17th Amendment was one small step towards institutional reform.Its undermining under the 18th Amendment was reversed by the (unduly) celebrated 19th Amendment. But is the NPC empowered to work actively and effectively? That is a core question.
Still time for redemption
Decades of political undermining of Sri Lanka’s police establishment has resulted in the police becoming part of the very criminality that it is supposed to prevent. This reality must be confronted in all its raw ugliness. This Government must redeem itself in the eyes of its disillusioned voters through ensuring the proper enforcement of the law and the ‘independent’ working of theNational Police Commission. Even at this late stage, there is still time for political redemption if determined leadership is shown. Veritably, there is no other option.