Two incidents of lawlessness and violence last week highlight a dangerous breakdown of the Rule of Law. The first was a mob attack on a political meeting of the opposition TNA in the northern town of Kilinochchi. Although the official security personnel assigned to protect the four MPs were all present in addition to local police, they did nothing to stop the mob that disrupted the meeting. The police are by law required to prevent any acts of violence which take place within their sight. The second incident was a mob attack on a clothing store in the vicinity of Colombo belonging to a Muslim merchant.
In the first incident the inaction on the part of the police gives rise to questions about the identity of those who instigated the mob. The TNA has accused the government of shielding the attackers if not worse. The Government can dispel this allegation only by enforcing the law against the attackers. In the second incident the failure to press criminal charges against the suspects raises concerns that it may give a sense of impunity to wrongdoers. It is to be noted that this incident took place in a context in which Muslim-owned businesses are being slandered and also coming under attack by Buddhist religious factions who appear to have government patronage.
While the Sinhala Buddhist culture and religion need to be protected it does not give any group of persons to take the law into their own hands or engage in violence. Although several suspects were arrested in this case, they were subsequently released after being given a warning with the consent of the victim injured party. It must be noted that criminal actions are actions that cannot be compounded without the consent of the Attorney General. Private parties – the offender and the victim are not permitted to settle cases where a criminal offence is disclosed, which is an offence against the general law of the country which the State is required to uphold.
The failure to take action in the name of preserving communal peace will only encourage the offenders to repeat their performance. Such acts which come within the ambit of the criminal law, if not punished will encourage the offenders to further violation of the law and also bring the law into disrepute. It sets a bad precedent which may be followed in future where criminal acts are motivated by religious extremists. The failure of the police to take deterrent action and arrest those who have been responsible for attacks and instead to resort to sham settlement under duress will create an acute sense of vulnerability among the victims of the minorities since they would consider that it would be better to settle criminal cases rather than seek justice.
The lack of support by the government and its media to those who wish to counter the lies and half truths of extremists is a further source of encouragement to violence. It is especially disconcerting that a little less than four years after the end of a 30 year war, the signs of a repeating cycle of violence against the minorities is once again making their baleful appearance. This issue needs to be taken up by the Muslim leadership, especially those within the government, and also by the opposition political parties and the legal fraternity who must call for accountability from the government and thereby halt the erosion of the rule of law.
Press release issued by the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka