Is this Government comprised solely of underworld characters and law breaking Ministers? We may be forgiven for answering this far from rhetorical question in the positive for a multitude of persuasive reasons.
Witnessing law breakers galore
Week after week, we hear of underworld thugs who violate the law and escape with impunity. The latest is Julampitiye Amare identified by eye witnesses as being involved in the recent attack on a rally of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna in Katuwana where two innocent bystanders were killed. True enough, previous governments had their share of goons laying claim to the most picturesque names to boot but really, was there such a veritable epidemic of government goons running amok as we see now?
Jostling newspaper space with this report was the unprepossessing picture of bail being given to Senior Minister Athauda Seneviratne who had allegedly taken on himself to lead a gang of villagers in attacking government property in Warakapola. Both cases are ongoing.
In the first instance, the character known as Amare is in fact a known criminal in the area who had been absconding under the very eye of the police despite reportedly a staggering number of one hundred arrest warrants issued for him. This very same person had been openly visiting the prisons even with all these arrest warrants and despite being a murder suspect. As stated pithily by a judicial officer hearing the matter, if action had been taken earlier by the police, the murders under investigation may never have taken place. As he asked, ‘is this the way that the police treat a murder suspect?
Government responsibility to bring to justice
We would like to go further and ask in a logical extension of that very same question, ‘would the police dare to behave in this manner if political protection was not given to this murder suspect?’ It may be quite easy to shrug one’s shoulders and protest that one must not jump to conclusions in deciding where responsibility rests.
Yet the string of law breakers being afforded impunity in a context where we are told to rejoice because normalcy prevails in Sri Lanka, presents a damaging picture that cannot be just ignored. In the North and East, where a different reality prevails underneath the mushrooming of new hotels and the spruced up cities, complaints or rape and murder do not even warrant all that much of newspaper space.
In the second instance of a Senior Minister allegedly damaging government property, public shock may perhaps be dulled due to the antics of Minister Mervyn Silva who has boasted shamefully to far worse and who is protected at the highest levels of the party hierarchy despite several disciplinary inquiries against him. But again we ask, are the Government ranks peopled with law breakers?
Dispensing with the paraphernalia of courts
At this rate, Sri Lanka’s overcrowded prisons will surely burst at the seams and the country’s criminal courts, already heavily overburdened with the ordinary case load, will collapse under the strain. On the other hand, since we are living in a country where the law is taken so lightly to account, perhaps it may be best to dispense altogether with the solemn paraphernalia of courts of law? If we can be in such a sorry situation where one hundred arrest warrants are disregarded and a murder suspect is allowed to move about freely until outraged public opinion (for once) demands some action, what else can be suggested?
Coupled with these developments, we were informed of direct intimidation of the head of the Federation of University Teachers’ Association Nirmal Dewasiri who lodged a police complaint this week that personnel claiming to be from the Ministry of Defence had made inquiries about him from his neighbours. Again, the blatantly open manner in which such intimidation takes place is truly shocking. What is the use of the law and the Constitution?
All sound and fury signifying nothing
Unsurprisingly, public confidence in the police investigations that should take place into such incidents is at zero. Last year’s Christmas Day killings in Tangalle have only resulted in the case being dragged on interminably in the courts with no punishment of the perpetrators even though the facts were starkly evident as to what had occurred.
The Secretary to the Ministry of Defence faults the media for excessively reporting on and analyzing the steep increase in the crime rate and the police spokesman pleads that cases of police torture are exaggerated. Such statements would invoke extreme hilarity if the import of the same is not so tragic for the Rule of Law in the country. If at all, the crime rate and the transgressions of the police are under reported. The focus should be on genuine action on dealing with the virtual breakdown of law and order in Sri Lanka instead of weak attempts to shift the blame from the point at which it is properly due.
Indeed, we still await the implementation of a key recommendation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, to delink the Department of the Police from the Ministry of Defence. Suffice it to say that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men will not redress the problem till the excessive militarization of the police is reversed and it is returned to a civilian institution. Rigorous distance needs to be maintained from the political command or from administrative command that is an undeniable replication of political command. We may have special debates in Parliament on the deteriorating law and order situation (one such debate has reportedly been fixed for early July) but this will be all sound and fury signifying nothing if these crucial changes do not take place.
A surreal reality of two worlds
It is as if two worlds predominate in Sri Lanka. On the one hand, we have the ostensibly regular level of functioning and then we have this surreal underbelly of political crime and dissenter intimidation in the South while minority targeted intimidation prevails in the North and East. Dangerously, we now accept this as part of our ‘normal’ reality.
And this Government appears to be luxuriating in the belief that it can do anything, say anything and get away with no consequences. This is a preposterous state of affairs indeed.