They were most inhumanly “treated” by the Police on 29 October when they marched to the UGC with their grievances. Photos and video clips that stole the day via traditional and social media of this ruthless and inhuman police attack on HNDE and university students suddenly jolted the Colombo middle class from their comfort zones since electing a President and a Government they expected to be at least decent and civilised in their rule.
The demand now is to have an impartial inquiry and punish those who are responsible for this intolerable Police action. To find out who is responsible for the order to have the Riot Police out there at Ward Place and to go after the students in a savage way.
In the rush, the Minister of Higher Education made certain he is no different to his predecessor, also from the Kandy District. For him it was an unnecessary protest. He claimed he met with student leaders and agreed to have their demands met, implying such unwanted protests are destined to meet with Police repression.
Challenged by student leaders who denied any meeting with the Minister, two days later the Higher Education Minister was on a ‘mission impossible,’ trying to salvage his tattered image. An official was made a scapegoat this time. Had the official informed students of the Minister’s decision to remedy the error in Higher National Diploma certification, that unnecessary incident could have been avoided, the Minister said. No more claims of meeting student leaders, but he condemned the Police attack instead.
Much to be desired
This irresponsible attitude loaded with lies of the political leadership of this “Yahapalana” rule leaves much to be desired, even if inquiries are held and reports sent to the PM as called for. This is no different to what we have been hearing during the Rajapaksa era. Call for impartial inquiries, reports handed over to President Rajapaksa and then the next tragedy follows to be investigated the same way.
That string of brutal attacks on protesters and agitators during the Rajapaksa era includes deaths of Roshen Chanaka in Katunayake, Anthony Warnakulasuriya in Chilaw, and three including a student in Rathupaswala between 2011 May and August 2013.
In between, many protests and agitations were ruthlessly suppressed on the streets of Colombo. At times even using men with rods and poles and in civvies. Dozens were treated for injuries each time. The Police Spokesperson went on record a few days ago to justify all such excesses as within law, with journalists merely copying what was said.
It goes to prove this as an issue that needs very serious and far-reaching reforms and not just inquiries, reports and scapegoats to tell the public the students were served with justice. A statement issued by university academics and artistes thus stressed: “…the need to conduct these investigations impartially and make their findings public and that Police officers, and those who issued orders to the Police to act the way they did, are held publicly accountable.”
The statement also required the President and the PM to “…reveal their stance on how the Government plans to deal with dissent and public protests in future and explain to Sri Lankan society how they plan to prevent incidents like this from being repeated.”
Sincerity apart of those who signed that statement expecting some decency in governance, such will not end impunity and repeats for the issue is far more complex and factors for heavy decay of the law enforcement system being very much deep-rooted. Promises and pledges from this Government to bring an end to Police excesses and brutality would therefore end as cosmetic treatment.
Leaving aside reservations on this hybrid Government’s sincerity and commitment, this country needs disciplined, efficient and responsible State agencies before everything else on democracy. The Police Department comes out way ahead of all others in wanting far-reaching reforms. From everything we have been reading and seeing in media, the past few months alone prove the Police Department is a heavy burden and an unwanted and intimidating weight on the people.
From end to end, Police inaction in delivering a decent and efficient service is all about unending torture, coerced and forced statements, fabricated evidence, unjust detentions, custodial and contract killings quite lavishly served with bribes and extortions. This brutality of the attack on HNDE students is nothing new to the Police and only the last so far till the next comes as “breaking news” in a long endless list of such reported ruthless attacks on protests, on individuals, on both Sinhala and Tamil detainees, on women and even mentally-retarded youth.
The Police Department that is meant to and has to function as a civil department is no longer that; it has moved out of and away from its social responsibility since the 1970s and society has to take blame for that.
The 45-year socio-political life since the failed 1971 JVP insurrection in this country had left the country under lengthy periods of Emergency rule than under normal law. All governments were happy ruling with Emergency powers than without them. The socially-powerful urban segments and the organised society never made Emergency rule an issue.
Not just Rajapaksa but all governments justified Emergency rule among the majority Sinhala constituency by projecting the armed conflict with Tamil “separatist rebels”, gradually turning them into “Eelam terrorists” and a violent armed conflict. Sinhala dominance in all political decision making therefore allowed the PTA to be included in law enforcement.
When the Rajapaksa regime transferred powers from Emergency regulations to the PTA after the war was declared over, that too was not challenged in society with the UNP then in Opposition pandering to the Sinhala majority vote. In short, over the last few decades the Sinhala society accepted all extra powers the Police were vested with in the name of national security and as against Tamil separatism. With that the Police Department was turned into an auxiliary force that assisted the security forces fighting a “separatist” war.
We thus have a civil department that should police society acting and behaving as a paramilitary force. Unlike the security forces, the Police Department over the past decades has been heavily politicised to the extent that local politicians decide transfers and promotions.
Every single employee now serving in this decayed and degenerated Police Department has joined the department during the past 45 years that allowed all this chaos. They have been trained and posted to serve in a gradually dying service. Emergency powers and the PTA are what they know of and have got used to in their job. Impunity for them is part of their job description and lives with a political establishment that believe it should be so. It is therefore now about a common “psycho” who has nothing to do with law and order, ethics and morals but one defined as using physical power the way the Police wish.
This was briefly touched upon by Kishali Pinto Jaywardne in her Sunday Times column ‘Focus on Rights’ on 1 November, where she rightly says: “What Sri Lanka needs now is well-thought-out structural reform of deeply-corrupted systems and institutions, including most importantly, criminal justice reform encompassing the three institutions of the Police, the Attorney General and the Judiciary.”
We need those structural reforms to have the Police Department back again as a civilised and efficient law enforcement agency. Again the big question is: “Can the Independent Police Commission stand up to such responsibility and are they mandated for such work?”
Despite wishful thinking that ‘all should go right now’ with the Police Commission in place, I beg to differ. The Police Commission is only there to look after administration; appointments, promotions, transfers and disciplinary work. Therefore requests for complaints should not be interpreted as complaints that could ask for reforms. Nay, they are complaints any one could have made to the IGP or to a senior SP against a police constable or an officer.
The only thing that is new is that complaints can now be made to the Commission that is expected to be “independent”. Unfortunately the very approach and commitment of establishing “independent” commissions by this “Yahapalanaya” Government smacks of “Rajapaksa flavour” and should be challenged.
Therefore it is time to use this savage attack on HNDE students to go beyond demanding inquiries and reports and in a loud collective vice ask for well-thought-out structural reform that would take up the whole justice system including that of the Police Department. For the Police Department alone cannot be reformed.