By M.A. Sumanthiran –
‘Towards a peaceful environment to live with confidence, without fear of crime and violence.’ This is the current Vision of the Sri Lanka Police, unambiguously declared on its official website.
How many of us live today with confidence and without fear?
The government’s portrayal of the Police in Sri Lanka quite deliberately runs contrary to this Vision. In this article, I wish to examine the underlying message the government communicates to the public regarding the reliability of the Police, and to emphasize the dangers inherent in this message.
Every month, the President issues a statement declaring the inadequacy of the Police in Sri Lanka. The declaration goes unnoticed; yet the portrayal of the Police it seeks to reinforce in our collective conscience is clear. Many of us fail to detect the significance of the monthly Presidential Proclamation issued under section 12 of the Public Security Ordinance. The provision empowers the President to call out the armed forces for the maintenance of public order, if he is of the opinion that the Police is inadequate to deal with circumstances endangering public security in any area. The Army, the Navy and the Air Force are called out to maintain public order in each and every district of this country, signifying, in no uncertain terms, the inability of the Police to carry out this task.
In the context of periodic renunciations by the Head of State, should we dare ask why the Police fails to protect us? Police inaction should come as no surprise. It seems that no citizen in this country truly enjoys the right—even privilege—to be free from fear of crime and violence. The expectation of Police incompetence and the reality of Police inaction appear to be mutually reinforcing.
One of the grave—if not the gravest—threats faced by the minorities of today, comes from the incensed mob, bent on propagating fear and causing destruction. Hence it is Police inaction during mob violence that best measures the state of our society and the protections it affords to those who need the Police most. Police inaction during mob violence is so typical it has become an almost expected element in any incident. Several such incidents come to mind.
In April 2012, a mosque in Dambulla was attacked by a mob. The Police was informed of the impending attack. It not only failed to prevent the attack, it attended the ‘event’ and looked on helplessly as devotees were intimidated and prevented from entering their place of worship.
On 15 February 2013, the displaced victims of the Valikamam North High Security Zone held a peaceful hunger protest. As soon as the Leader of the Opposition left the protest, four Military Intelligence men went amok, attacking protesters and journalists. Yet again, the Police remained passive as the assailants destroyed equipment belonging to journalists and attacked innocent civilians. Despite repeated requests by TNA parliamentarians present at the protest, the Police took no action to arrest the culprits. And last week saw the attack on the TNA office in Kilinochchi by a mob carrying the national flag! I was present on that occassion when concrete stones and rocks were hurled for about half an hour while the Police looked on. Three persons apprehended by the people, including a CID officer, were promptly released by the Police. This was followed by a dastardly attack on the Uthayan Newspaper distribution office in Kilinochchi and employees were badly injured. Here too the assailants got away without any risk of being arrested by the Police.
Also last week, a mob attacked and vandalized a Muslim-owned business in Pepiliyana. Once again, the Police attended, but only to bolster numbers in the audience. Little was done to prevent or mitigate the attacks. In fact, there are photographs depicting Policemen haplessly looking on as the mob, which included Buddhist monks, vandalized the buildings.
One need not possess much imagination to speculate that, in each of these incidents, the Police was under strict orders to do just as they eventually did: remain passive. One might recall the distinct contrast in the brutal response of the Police to the protests led by students of the Jaffna University in November 2012. Hence there is little doubt that Police inaction during mob violence is quite deliberate—in effect, an ‘act’ of omission.
The message appears to be loud and clear; not only in the monthly Presidential Proclamations, but also in the manner in which the Police is repeatedly rendered powerless in the face of serious public disorder. The message is that the Police is incompetent, ill-equipped or simply unwilling to maintain law and order, even in a self-proclaimed peaceful society.
Why should this be of any concern to those who are presently left unthreatened?
The portrait of an apathetic or disempowered Police results in a type of dual psychosis. On the one hand, each Presidential Proclamation of Police inadequacy and each incident of orchestrated Police inaction create fear in the ordinary citizen. On the other, these events embolden the mob and remind them that law enforcement is more likely to be complicit in their deeds than to prevent them.
Lord Byron once wrote: ‘The sight of blood to crowds begets the thirst of more, as the first wine-cup leads to the long revel.’
I have often warned that the grievances of the ‘other’ rapidly become one’s own grievance. Today, the Tamil and the Muslim bear the brunt of impunity. Yet one might ask, how many Sinhalese who fall out of favour tomorrow might confidently rely on the Police to intervene in their moment of need? Take for example, the multi-ethnic, multi-religious group of lawyers who sought to peacefully protest the unconstitutional impeachment of the current Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake in Hulsftdorp in January this year. The Police not only failed to protect the rights of this group, it in fact actively aided a pro-government mob in suppressing the protest.
In conclusion, I ask: is this portrayal of the Police deliberate?
The historical portrayal of the Police as an apathetic or powerless entity has been quite deliberate. It achieves two things. First, it drenches us in fear and reinforces the constructed need for a militarised society. We are forced to be tentative; to censor ourselves when we ought to speak; to stay home when we ought to get out onto the streets. Second, it empowers extremism. The mob is now infused with confidence to proceed with the knowledge of State acquiescence. Without the Police, the mob is merely an unruly gathering, soon to be disbursed. But the pogroms of this era have taught us well that the Police plays its part through carefully orchestrated acts of omission. This regime, with its penchant for identity politics, stands to gain from such extremism. Hence I am not afraid to call this deliberate portrayal. Freedom from fear is the hallmark of any peaceful society. But ours has been deliberately deprived of that freedom.
*M A Sumanthiran – Member of Parliament, Tamil National Alliance