SRI LANKA: Facing up to the dark legacy of state-sponsored riots

July 2004 is the 21st anniversary of the government-sponsored riots against Tamils in Sri Lanka. The month became known as Black July. Similar state-sponsored violence took place in Gujarat, India in February 2002, when the state government organised and instigated massive attacks on Muslims there.

When a government sponsors an assault on a part of its own population it goes against the fundamental principles underlying the relationship between the state and people. The role of the state is to maintain order, such that all persons may live peacefully and carry on their usual daily activities. When the state itself sponsors a riot, then it is engaged in creating disorder. Such an act creates a massive sense of helplessness, not only among the victims, but among the wider population as well.

When the state creates disorder, law enforcement agencies are used for this purpose. In both Sri Lanka in July 1983 and Gujarat in February 2002, the law enforcement agencies and security forces supported the riots either directly, or through their failure to enforce the law. When law enforcement agencies and security forces permit and participate in flagrant violations of the law and acts of brutality against part of the population, the entire legal system is deeply affected. People develop a cynical attitude to these agencies. Proper investigation of what has occurred is impossible, as the investigating bodies are also complicit. Without investigations, the judiciary cannot intervene, as cases are not filed. Thus extremely cruel acts are neither investigated nor prosecuted. A dark legacy grows within the policing and security system, as officers begin to realise that they can enjoy impunity, regardless of their actions. Demoralization and indiscipline follow: corruption spreads, internal controls decay.

Such developments can be erased only with deliberate attempts at reform. However, in neither Sri Lanka nor Gujarat has there been any serious attempt to this end. Privately, there may be admissions even at the highest levels that something went radically wrong, but nothing significant is done to alter the course of subsequent events. Thus the dark legacy lives on. The result is that the rule of law deteriorates to a very serious degree. Law enforcement agencies become unable to cope with the increase in crime, which requires a high degree of competence and morality. Such morality cannot exist in the shadow of state-sponsored riots left unaddressed.

In Sri Lanka, the extent of this degeneration can be seen in the endemic torture that is taking place against innocent civilians in almost all police stations throughout the country. In January this year, the High Court of Colombo sentenced a Sub-Inspector of Police to seven years rigorous imprisonment with a fine for torturing an innocent civilian. About forty more cases under the Convention against Torture Act are said to be pending in High Courts throughout the country. It is sad to note that the group now producing the highest number of criminals in the country is the police force.

The depravity of some Sri Lankan police officers is illustrated by tragic cases. At the Wellipena Police Station a Sub-Inspector forced a TB patient to spit into the mouth of a tortured suspect, thus exposing the man to this deadly disease. Other officers of the same police station killed a young man only months later, in a dispute over a woman. In Kandy, a police officer poured boiling water on a young man’s thighs, causing him serious injuries. There are many reports of extrajudicial killings on pretexts like ‘failing to stop a vehicle when commanded to do so’. Persons have been killed after being arrested on charges of stealing bananas. Some have been tortured to the extent of ending up in comas for several weeks after being arrested because of mistaken identity. Even a lawyer who merely tried to intervene in the arrest of a neighbour was recently assaulted and remanded.

How do we understand and repudiate the legacy created by such state-sponsored attacks in the minds of the people involved? How do we address the damage caused to law enforcement agencies? Repudiation must begin with acknowledgement of what has happened as a result of these earlier events. But acknowledgement can come only if there is open discussion. Media agencies invariably practice self-censorship rather than face up to the grim realities of a bloody past. Such practices must be abandoned to contribute to healthy debate. Civil society organisations must provoke and engage in discussion at every opportunity, critically examining and exposing the role of various institutions in perpetuating, rather than opposing, this legacy.

Words like ‘peace’ and ‘conflict resolution’ are meaningless if detached from the rule of law. When there is lawlessness there cannot be peace. Peace lobby groups must necessarily recognise the exceptional collapse in the rule of law brought about by state-sponsored violence if their work is to have any significance. They must face up to the dark legacy that they too share, and engage in genuine debate on these matters, if they are to realise their objectives of peace, social reconciliation and stability.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-20-2004
Countries : Sri Lanka,