By Basil Fernando –
A 45 year-old woman was gang raped in the early hours of January 23 in Nugegoda (some reports give her age as 47). This gruesome incident only received a few lines in some of the newspapers and in the media. Yet a similar incident that occurred in New Delhi, India, when a medical student was gang raped on a bus, provoked a nation-wide protest for several days and, in fact, the protests continue internationally even up to now. This protest caused the Indian Prime Minister to intervene and take action, not only to ensure medical treatment and justice for the young girl but also to take steps towards bringing in speedy legislation to prevent the re-occurrence of similar incidents. Protests took place also in Nepal when a similar case came to the notice of the public. There too, heavy demands have been made of the government, not only to bring legislation but also to achieve other reforms needed to protect women.
The media and the active participation of the people and women’s movements, including local politicians, both in India and Nepal reflected the active participation of the people to ensure protection and to express outrage at the malfunctioning of the law enforcement agencies which are duty bound to protect the public.
In both countries, the media responded to these protests and ensured that the unfortunate event came to be an occasion for the whole nation to introspect and to discuss the crisis of the law enforcement agencies and the failure of the government to ensure that these agencies act with the required diligence in future. On the one hand, the role of the media represented the problems of the conscience of the public. On the other hand, the media also created a discussion among the people in order to express concern as well as to critically discuss the deficiencies of the government that make it possible for such crimes to occur.
According to the short reports that appeared in the Sri Lankan media, the police reported that the woman who became the victim of the gang rape had gone to the market and having lost her way, made some inquiries as to directions from a three-wheeler driver. Under the pretext of offering help, the driver took her into the three-wheeler and then, against her will, took her near a well and threatened her. Thereafter, several persons who came in another three-wheeler, gang raped her. She is said to be taking treatment at the Kalubowila Hospital. The items discovered from the three-wheelers include some condoms which, according to observers, suggest that the attackers may have been engaged in such activities on a regular basis.
New approach to scandal management under peoples’ sovereignty
In recent times when such scandals occurred, the police filed reports of arrest and this appeased the public by creating the impression that the law was being enforced. However, shortly after arrest, these matters were forgotten. Through all kinds of negotiations and bribery exchanges, or by the intervention of politicians, the process of justice was subverted. The cases of the murder of several persons, together with a government politician, Baratha Lakhsman Premachandra and the recent murder of an elected local government official in Kelaniya are public events which demonstrate this quite strikingly. The murder of a British national and the rape and assault of his Russian companion at Tangalle, allegedly by the Urban Council Chairman of Tangalle and others, was also hushed up. The gang rape of a child by several local area politicians in another rural locality in the South underwent a similar fate. Similarly there were allegations of rape against government member of parliament, Duminda Silva which too, came to nothing. In fact, the list of crimes that have been followed by no real consequences is quite long.
It will not be surprising, if one of these days, the rape victim of this present incident and her family are called to Temple Trees and given some money from the President’s Fund. Such examples of so-called mercy have been evidenced many times, when such scandals happen. After neglecting Rizana Nafeek’s case resulting in her beheading in Saudi Arabia, her mother was called to the palace and some money was given.
Lawlessness and public apathy
In Sri Lanka while there is a public acknowledgement of the existence of widespread lawlessness involving particularly shocking offenses against women, the public itself reacts to these events apathetically. There is no energetic pursuit of justice or demands for accountability from the government.
Such apathy that prevails amongst the public regarding heinous crimes as well as the criminal negligence on the part of the government to resolve the problems of the law enforcement agencies is indicative of the deeper malaise in the Sri Lankan society and the Sri Lankan system of justice.
The collapse of the policing system has been acknowledged. This was the direct result of the politicisation process which in turn is a product of the total control of the state by the executive president which has paralysed the bureaucratic apparatus in Sri Lanka. Naturally, it is not within the capacity of the Sri Lankan president to enquire into all crimes and to deal with them. The task of controlling crime could only take place through the functioning of the law enforcement agencies within the framework of the law. The duty of the president and the government is to ensure that these agencies function and deliver the necessary services to the public. However, the nature of the Sri Lankan system at present is such that the president and the government do not have a reliable bureaucratic apparatus through which law enforcement as well as other aspects of the running of governance can be effected.
The result is crimes that re-occur and the gimmicks that are played by politicians to create the impression of law enforcement while there is no real attempt to ensure protection to the people. This situation has resulted in the creation of a sense of apathy in the society as a whole, even in the face of gruesome crimes such as the gang rape of this woman.
As an independent media is suppressed, there is apathy, widespread cynicism and shameless manipulation of news in the state media which is the only media that is allowed to function without hindrance.
While the rest of the south Asian countries are rising to demand better performance from their governments and the creation of efficiently functioning law enforcement agencies to protect all citizens with particular emphasis on the more vulnerable groups such as women, in Sri Lanka crimes continue to take place with impunity.