Kishali Pinto Jayawardene
Competing for top billing for the most ghastly news headlines this week has been public outrage over rampant robberies and murders by notorious underworld gangs along with feverish speculation over the (possibly apocryphal) list of politicians who accepted money from tainted financier Arjun Aloysius and a fracas over Chinese funding of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election campaign.
And as always, the tussle is on who is to blame rather than contributing to a concerted national effort to address key failures of the Rule of Law.
Human tragedies trodden underfoot
But it is uplifting to remember that even despite horrific violence which has now become the norm in Sri Lanka, acts of incredible bravery occur every day. Last Friday, as a jewellery shop was robbed at gun point by underworld gangsters, a policeman who tried to stop them was shot at immediately after which, three civilians rushed forward to help him even in the midst the murder and the mayhem.
Here were two outstanding examples of courage (literally) under fire which cannot fail to touch our hearts over and above the mundane irritants of everyday life. Police constable (later promoted to Sergeant) Suranga Pradeep Weerasinghe died later in hospital, leaving behind a young family who said that they did not want a police hero but only wanted their father back alive.
These are human tragedies that are trodden underfoot in the rush of politicians seeking to capitalize on such happenings. Those in the group of the former President hold forth in hypocritical floods regarding the breakdown in law and order while ruling parliamentarians point delightedly to the nurturing of the South’s feared criminals and underworld gang members by the Rajapaksa Presidency at the time.
The criminalization of Sri Lanka’s communities
But this passing of blame does not really help anguished and unfortunate citizens. Putting aside the vexed question of corrupt politicians and monitoring campaign finance for the moment, the fact remains that the country’s law enforcement process remains crippled by politicization, corruption, inefficiency and sheer idiocy, that last rider being compelled by the preposterous direction to the police by its chief, the Inspector General of Police to compulsorily engage in meditation.
In the midst of such chaos and with the police service generally being reviled rather than commended, one can only feel a considerable measure of pity for brave policemen such as Suranga Pradeep Weerasinghe who died in the course of carrying out his duty. But this has in fact, been the lot of any honourable officer who chooses to serve in the police service. Bereft of institutional discipline and the sense of pride that should be the backbone of a functional law enforcement agency, the Sri Lanka police is in a dolorous state. The ugly underbelly of the nexus between organized criminal gangs and some individuals within law enforcement has been exposed for quite some time. Even as Government politicians state that the underworld would be dealt with in terms of the law, the hollowness of those reassurances is plain to see.
If law enforcement had been the priority of the Unity Government during the past three years, what we face now would be vastly different. Given the spate of arrests that has taken place, including family members of the underworld suspects, it is not difficult to see the extent to which the criminalization of communities has occurred. The underworld members who were imprisoned had been welcomed and feted with gusto by other inhabitants within the prison walls. All this speaks to the overall impunity that prevails.
Notion of summary justice
That being said, the shooting of one of the main suspects in the Matara robbery by the police while he was being taken in police custody to recover a hidden clothes bag, even as we hear that familiar story that he was killed while trying to lobby a grenade, is not reassuring. The fact that this was a person wanted for a number of murders and robberies has been offered by the police as an assumed justification for the killing.
But if one subscribes to this theory, we are leaning perilously close to the doctrine of Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte who has issued ‘shoot on sight’ orders for drug traffickers. Resulting in death tolls that has included innocent civilians labeled as “collateral damage”, the lethal force employed has been more a political ploy rather than yielding actual results. Duterte has also famously said that he would have his son killed if drug trafficking allegations against him were borne out and that he would ensure non prosecution of the police officers who carry out the killing. These are astounding statements coming from an elected leader but have gained him enormous support from Philippine citizens terrorized by drug violence.
Is this the savage state that we want for this country? That is a good question to be asked from those who applaud police killings of suspects in custody and go to the extent of calling for a return of the white vans in this country, without any appreciation of the dangers in this reasoning. This too is a facet of the breakdown of the Rule of Law as much as the dastardly acts of underworld gangs.
No quick solutions are possible
However it is inescapably true that where the Government fails to govern, summary justice will become the order of the day. We saw this to a large extent during the Rajapaksa Presidency. And it is wholly ironic if not worrying that these happenings continue without apparent consequences under the ‘yahapalanaya’ administration. That must be stopped. It is this failure that ties into public demand for a political ‘strong man’ to lead the country, which has attracted support in some constituencies. The best way to undermine that support is to show concrete results in terms of leadership, without quarreling over who is to blame in regard to what.
Importantly there must be a concerted effort to roll back the criminalization of Sri Lanka’s communities and a strengthening of law enforcement which cannot be accomplished through renaming the Department of the Police or giving its officers, shiny new uniforms. The reform must come from within the institutional structures and must be a laboured and carefully thought out process. No quick solutions are possible at this stage.
Absent that effort, we may resign ourselves to living in a land where summary justice reigns and will almost inevitably, in the nature of all things, come to our own doorstep.