SRI LANKA: Does the President have the will and capacity to enforce the law?

The President has addressed the nation and stated that the law will be strictly enforced. He has also called upon the police and other agencies to enforce the law. That is certainly a good thing to do. However, the critical question is as to whether the President has the will and the capacity to enforce the law. As the saying goes, diarrhea cannot be stopped by wearing tight underwear.

In an interview, the monk involved in the very first incident which ultimately led to the violence in Aluthgama and elsewhere illustrates this point thus: he said that initially there was a small altercation between him, his driver and about three other people, one of whom shoved him once or twice. He said that the matter was immediately brought to the notice of the police and he personally went to the police station. He said that one of the people involved in the incident was brought to the police station while the other two were not. When the monk asked for the other two to be brought to the station, the police did not act quickly enough. The distance between the police station and the place where the incident happened could have been covered in ten minutes but the police did not care to go and bring those two persons. Had that been done, he said, the incident would not have gone beyond that point.

That is not only the complaint of this monk but of almost everyone who gets involved in any incident that requires immediate intervention by the law enforcement officers; it invariably does not happen. If the President is serious about his call for effective law enforcement he should inquire into the causes of the police failure to act when they are required to do so.

A few days before the Aluthgama incidents, a speech the IGP made at a meeting of security officials was reported in the press. The IGP clearly referred to a statement made by the Secretary of BBS Galabada-Atte Gnanasara Thera in which he had said that the BBS is acting as the police when it comes to matters of national interest. The IGP pointed out that the speeches and the attitudes of this monk and the BBS indicate an imminent threat of widespread violence. The reported response of the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence Gotabaya Rajapakshe was that the monks say all kinds of things and that the IGP should just ignore it. That kind of duality of vision within the top layers of the security management is always disastrous.

However, such duality has deep political causes. The whole approach of the government regarding the police has been to deprive this important institution of its independence. A professional police force is a monolithic institutional in which command responsibility is exercised from top to bottom. It is by way of command responsibility that the police are able to act in the manner that they are required to act in order to enforce the law. Whenever there is a failure to do this it can be attributed to the failures of the top management of the police. However, an institution acting on that model does not exist in Sri Lanka anymore. The President knows, as does everyone else in the county, that the system is politicized, which means that this institution’s internal structure has been destroyed. Among other things, the 18th Amendment to the constitution has caused this situation. Everyone knows the narrative on the manner in which the policing institution came to a catastrophic end in Sri Lanka.

The STF and the military cannot take the place of the civilian policing institution. These other paraphernalia can be invoked at times. However, if the malaise is in the policing institution itself, these other security services cannot fill that vacuum. Unfortunately whenever the security situation is acute the words that come to the President’s mouth immediately are that he will call the military to intervene. The paramount importance of the civilian policing institution is something that does not even enter his head. That simply means that, beyond rhetoric, the President cannot offer a real solution to the law enforcement crisis in Sri Lanka.

That is a dangerous situation when dealing with a dangerous organization such as the BBS. The BBS is not merely its Secretary, who is obviously a person who does not know how to observe the basic ethics of responsible speech. That alone is not the problem. The BBS is also well organized. Its well-trained cadres can quickly be called upon to engage in serious violence. These BBS cadres are well indoctrinated and trained to act in brutal ways. They include some groups of monks, such as those who attacked Watareka Vijitha Thera. The reported cases of attacks on old women, pregnant mothers and babies are clear illustrations of the kinds of mentalities nurtured among the youth who act as cadres for the BBS. When questioned about the violence, the BBS Secretary says that he is engaged only in an ideological struggle and has not himself partaken in any violence. But he does not speak about the well-trained cadres in his organisation.

How is the President to deal with this situation? Are we going to see another spree of enforced disappearances, the kind of retaliation seen many times in Sri Lanka’s recent past? That, however, is not law enforcement. The result of such actions would be to destroy whatever is left of the basic infrastructure of the law enforcement capacity in Sri Lanka.

The choice before the President is a difficult one. That choice is whether or not to steer himself away from the very political strategy that he has been engaged in ever since he became the President. Before he became President, he, like every sane person in Sri Lanka, spoke about the need for a fundamental change from the approach initiated by JR Jayawardene. Like all politicians then, he had understood the disastrous impact of politicizing the policing system. He was also well aware of the ill consequences of weakening the country’s judicial system. He then shared what has become the essence of the common sense of the Sri Lankan people. As President, he acted against these expressed political convictions. Is he now in a position to go the opposite way? That is of course asking a lot. But if he is to save the present situation from degenerating into something much worse, that is all there is left for him to do.

Through the President, or by other means, if Sri Lanka is to save itself even at this late stage from going down the path to a deeper abyss, the only way out is a change of direction in politics. The paralysis of law enforcement is politically caused. It can only be cured politically. Starting some time ago, the question that has often been asked is: if our protectors have failed, who will protect us? Back then, the reference was to the security agencies. Now the question has been further extended to a section of Buddhist monks. If they are hell bent on destroying unity among Sri Lankans, then who is there to save this situation?

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-123-2014
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Administration of justice, Right to redress, Right to remedy, Rule of law,