20 June, 2024


The Need for A Genuine Change In Governance

By Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

Does one need to possess foreign citizenship to practice basic rights of life, liberty and free expression in Sri Lanka?

The meaning of national sovereignty

This question has become particularly relevant given steeply increased abductions and disappearances in recent months. If Frontline Socialist Party’s Premakumaran Gunaratnam (aka Noel Mudalige) had not claimed Australian citizenship, what would have been his fate or for that matter, of his co-abductee Dimuthu Attygalle? We do not need to search far for this answer. The still unknown whereabouts of other disappeared individuals, including a detainee who was abducted from the court premises itself, stares at us in response. This column has said more than once; the Government cannot simply shrug off these incidents and profess to a bland denial of the same. In the heavily monitored and militarized society that Sri Lanka has become, despite the ending of active conflict three years ago, bare denials do not suffice. They merely become acutely laughable.

So what pray, is this ‘sovereignty’ that Ministers and public officials, are fond of pontificating on? Is national sovereignty limited to the right of local politicians to abduct, kill, torture and slander people, to plunder and lay waste to the land? What rights does the common person possess, minorities or majority? As the Supreme Court has affirmed in countless (now useless) judgments, even a common criminal has the right to be dealt with in terms of the law. This is a basic principle of legality. So while the public has sufficient common sense not to treat Gunaratnam quite as a ‘gentleman’ as one Minister was heard to loudly warn, legal procedures need to be observed. Yet the law is degraded almost irretrievably, the courts are rendered passive and judges are reduced to mere bystanders. To horribly pervert Winston Churchill’s ringing call to the English people to suit the local context, never before was so much power wielded by so few and so blatantly against the common good.

And it is this very Government which, through its discarding of the law and of the Constitution, has opened up this country to internationalization of its internal affairs though its political leaders may roar to the contrary.

Explanations are masterpieces in foolishness

Furthermore, the explanations offered by government authorities are themselves baffling. For example the statement circulated to all diplomatic missions by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs this week following these most recent abductions is a veritable masterpiece in sheer foolishness.

Its main thrust is that Gunaratnam was deported from Sri Lanka as he had breached immigration laws by overstaying. So now are we to believe that every individual overstaying his or her visa or using a passport issued in a different name to that which appears on his/her birth certificate, would be liable to be bundled up, abducted by armed men in a white van and spirited away from the country? Is there not a legal procedure available in precisely these circumstances? Why is the Ministry of External Affairs so conspicuously silent on this point, though the same would be immediately evident to any common man or woman on the street?

The Government belatedly attempted to justify its actions by claiming that Gunaratnam’s spiriting away was because of a request made by the Australian High Commission and that similar compromises had been arrived at with other countries, for example, in the case of fishermen trespassing beyond Sri Lanka’s territorial waters. However, this purported justification raises more questions than answers. Could this heavily controversial abduction cum deportation be likened to the case of a few fishermen lost at sea? More to point, are we to believe that the law has been circumvented purely because a diplomatic mission, which has remained remarkably if not cannily quiet on this entire imbroglio, has requested it? Perhaps that is stretching credulity too far.

And by the way, it was not so long ago that a prominent ex-militant turned political supporter of this Government was permitted to use a forged official passport with Government blessings in his efforts to enter the United Kingdom some years ago. The moral outrage that we see on the part of the Government in regard to Gunaratnam’s (alleged) actions is therefore scarcely convincing.

An explanation that invokes disdain

The statement by the External Affairs Ministry is ludicrous in other respects. Quite apart from the near desperate attempts to ferret out minute contradictions in the version of events given by Gunaratnam and Attygalle, the delay (ranging from 12 hours in one case to close to a day in the other) in making a complaint to the police, is said to be damning. As the Ministry would have it, ‘it was obvious that a genuine abduction would have been reported to the police far more swiftly.’

But is this assertion made under the mistaken impression that we are living in some other hemisphere of the world? In the shadowy circumstances of these abductions, it is a miracle that a police complaint was even made in the first place. Nitpicking over the delay of a number of hours in making the complaint is likely to be laughed off by the ordinary citizen possessing an objective mind, let alone diplomatic missions.

The statement calls for objectivity and fairness to be shown in assessing allegations against the Government. That is only reasonable. But on that same principle, explanations issued by state authorities must themselves be fundamentally commonsensical for that same courtesy to be observed in turn. Disdain can only be the natural result when commonsense is lacking. It is no excuse to maintain, as some commentators have done, that the incumbent in the office of the Minister of External Affairs has no say in the issuing of such inane statements given the peculiar political realities of the day. If so, the Minister should ask himself the question as to whether there is any point in his remaining further at his post.

The entrenching of naked dictatorial power

These abductions and disappearances also teach us certain unmistakable lessons of their own. The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) was condemnatory of similar happenings during its time period of inquiry. Yet after its Report was handed over to President Mahinda Rajapaksa, these incidents have increased exponentially. What further proof do we need that this Government does not intend to take serious note of the LLRC’s Report?

The LLRC recommended that Sri Lanka should enact an offence of enforced disappearances. This predicates the necessary step that such an offence would carry with it, suitably serious penalties. There is a wealth of international and comparative law standards that can be drawn from, for this purpose. However, as against a Government that denies even existing legal safeguards, sophisticated law reform becomes a mockery. Even the time tested writ of habeas corpus is futile to all intents and purposes against outright denials of defence authorities. The duty of the State, in the minimum, to properly inquire and investigate abductions and disappearances is disregarded. It is heartening that some calls are being made to this effect by religious leaders but more public outrage must be evidenced.

Notwithstanding, it is a sobering reflection in this Sinhala and Tamil New Year that ‘state terrorism’ is now clearly projected at entrenching dictatorial power in the hands of a select (elected and unelected) few in Sri Lanka’s defence and political establishment. Unlike earlier, there is now no war or internal conflict to offer even as a minimum excuse. Greater social, economic and political devastation can only inevitably follow. In the absence of vociferous public opinion demanding a genuine change in the way that this country is governed, (or the lack thereof), such a consequence is merely a matter of time.


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  • 0

    By the way NAK, read the below to have some idea as to where Pinto lives, since you appear to be interested I am curious to know where exactly YOU live – someone living in SL cannot be this blind to what is going on?

    Or maybe I am being naive and underestimate to what extent some people can be blinkered…


    Columns – FOCUS On Rights

    Sunday August 15th 2011


    An unbelievable collapse of confidence in law enforcement
    By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

    Alongside a picturesque stretch of coastline between Akkaraipattu and Pottuvil in Sri Lanka’s East Coast, a tire burning brightly in the centre of the road is etched starkly against crisp morning light. Given Sri Lanka’s history, when bodies burning on top of tires were once a common sight across the country, this was an unsettling reminder that the past is inclined, more often than not, to repeat itself.

    This time around, the burning tire was no commonplace accident. It was a deliberate sign of civil unrest, pointing to mystifying encounters that frightened villagers have had with ‘grease devils’ or men who were repeatedly attacking homes and stabbing women, particularly young girls and drawing blood from them.

    Categorical dismissals of government explanations

    That area, including the villages of Komari and Urani were in uproar this Friday. A day before, at Thirukovil in Akkaraipattu, an angry mob had stormed the police station demanding that effective action be taken against these ‘grease devils’.

    They wanted five suspects in the custody of the police to be handed over to them as they did not trust the police to bring the suspects before the law. In the melee, one person died. Juxtaposing the truly surreal with the farcical, angry and fearful villagers of the hamlet of Urani had caught more ‘grease devils’ Thursday night and were not mollified by loud protestations of the authorities that these were officers of the Wildlife Department trying to conduct the elephant census. As one grizzled old farmer sipping morning tea at a wayside boutique said categorically ‘what were Wildlife officers doing on the top of trees in the middle of the night and with black masks on?’

    Just a few kilometres away, curfew was soon imposed in Pottuvil itself where fierce altercations had taken place between the police and area residents, resulting in the death of one person. The ensuing commotion did not bode well for a much publicised international surfers competition due to be held at Arugam Bay mid month. The ordinarily carefree beach atmosphere of the area had transformed overnight to a tense wariness on the part of locals and foreigners alike.

    A resident of the area and long time legal practitioner in the courts of the eastern province put the matter well when he told me that the police were not able to take any action and that the area people had no confidence either in law enforcement or, to put it simply, in the law itself. Mob violence, he said, was the order of the day. Villagers were arming themselves with clubs or with whatever else came their way and forming themselves into vigilante groups.

    It was an unbelievable collapse of public confidence in law enforcement. In the eastern town of Ottamavadi which was also gripped by this same fear, the complaint of the people was that the police should not have released a suspected ‘grease devil’ who had been handed over to the police station by area residents. Dark suspicions were articulated and rumors were rife as to why no action was being taken against these attackers.

    Disturbing patterns of attacks across provinces

    Yet those inclined to lackadaisically dismiss these incidents as the typical happenings of rural and superstitious country folk should do well to take a step back and think afresh. The virtual epidemic of ‘grease devils’ across most parts of the country (excluding the Southern and Northern provinces from which no reports have originated up to now), testifies to a profound problem with law enforcement. The areas affected sweep across wide swathes of the Uva province, the North central province, the Sabaragamuwa province, outlying corners of the Western province and now, the heart of the East. More than five deaths have occurred, as a result variously of the women being attacked and of the men who have been caught up in the crossfire when the police reacted to mobs storming the police station.

    This problem cannot be brushed aside by the police blaming the media for highlighting the stories or indeed, merely by arresting those who attack the police stations as a result of deep dissatisfaction with police actions. This leads us to another disturbing facet of the recent incidents. It has now become customary for the police to fire using live ammunition into crowds without first using other tactics to quell unruly crowd behaviour. This was seen at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone protests and is seen increasingly and disquietingly frequently now.

    Stressing foremost duties of the police

    These are not tactics that are likely to win public confidence. There are too many incidents of women being attacked across the country in order to be complacent that this is just another manifestation of Sri Lanka’s long standing problem of chronically ineffective maintenance of law and order. Certainly, these incidents are not localized but rather, form uncannily similar patterns across distinct provinces. They call for a deliberate and sober response on the part of law enforcement authorities if they are to avoid the impression that they are also complicit in the bizarre happenings.

    Rather than reacting defensively, it is the foremost duty on the part of the police to put an end to this veritable hysteria by prompt and effective investigation resulting in the apprehending of whoever is responsible for the attacks.

    This hysteria has led at times, to innocent individuals being hacked to death as was the case in Haputale a few weeks back when two travelling salesmen were killed by area people in the belief that they were ‘grease devils’. Has Sri Lanka regressed centuries back to a mind frame of superstitious savagery in which the law has come to naught and where ordinary people believe that justice can be brought about only by taking matters into their own hands? What is the role of the law enforcement machinery and of the legal system? These are fit questions to ask ourselves at this point.

    What is needed is de-politicization of the police

    These are, of course, not the only incidents where mob rule has predominated in recent times. On Friday itself, enraged community residents in Kantalai attacked a private bus after its reckless driver killed a schoolboy and seriously injured several others. It has always been a puzzle as to how speeding and reckless bus drivers are still allowed to run riot on Sri Lanka’s roads when traffic laws are in place and ordinary motorists are caught and pulled over for the most minute traffic violations. The simple explanation as to how habitual offenders of the law manage to escape scot free is that the police are in their pay. The Kantalai incident is just the most recent of such incidents.

    To tackle this problem effectively, it is not new enough that more and more recruits are drafted into the police or that new tags are pinned onto its public image. Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary had reportedly stated yesterday at a public function that Sri Lanka’s police would soon become a community based police. However, for this to happen, it is imperative that the police must be freed from political interference in the performance of their duties.

    It is also relevant to question as to what has happened to the appointment of a National Police Commission? Are we to assume that even the façade of such a Commission (similar to the façade of the other Commissions appointed under the 18th Amendment) is not to be maintained? In the alternative and in the absence of Sri Lanka’s police service regaining the confidence of the public, we may rest assured of seeing more and more incidents of mob violence, ranging from ‘grease devils’ to speed devils.

    Ordinary people resort to self help measures when they see no other option open to them. Mob violence is certainly not justifiable nor should this be tolerated in a law abiding society. But it is time and more that the government addressed the exceedingly severe problem of public confidence in law enforcement by concrete measures rather than only by rhetoric. It is not the people alone who are to blame for the current rash of attacks on police stations.

  • 0

    “Smashing pots in the abounded house”.The “Sole representatives in terrorism and human rights” [Edited out] We will all be happy!Vacancies for clowns.

    • 0

      Thanks CT.

      • 0

        Max take it easy you are becoming paranoid now, calling everyone else with a different view point as a Terrorist. You are even accusing Kishali Pinto Jayawardene also as a Terrorist supporter. Please do not be unfair for someone presenting facts. You are so disturbed that you are making mistakes in writing abandoned as abounded in the above post. Becareful if you allow the situation to deteriorrate, you might even take offence on your own comments very soon, which the others are justifiably protesting already. You are going to extents, to thank CT for publishing your comments as above. Why do you want to thank them for? They have kept this blog for that purpose, is it not? CT derives their popularity by the number of comments for the news they provide, for which we are all grateful, that is all. If my kindness is killing you, please do not take note of it, just allow it to happen.

      • 0

        WOW see… how happy this max [Edited out]….

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