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Thursday, February 22, 2024

SRI LANKA: The absence of political will to eliminate thuggery

Basil Fernando
For a law enforcement agency the elimination of thuggery is one of the simplest things to do. For thugs are cowards and they crawl and beg for mercy whenever they find that there is a strong enough will on the part of the law enforcement agencies and the courts to deal with crime. Anybody who has been to a High Court where serious crimes are tried will have plenty of stories to tell as to how so-called ‘strong men’ who have been involved in crimes begs for mercy. Many of them pay huge sums to their lawyers to ensure that they would be kept out of jail.

If thuggery has gone to the extent of being a scourge or a serious social problem it only means that the thugs have lost their fear of the law. It means that thugs have got the upper hand in the struggle over those who represent the law.

The strength of the thugs does not lie in their muscles, it lies in their connections. The connections matter only when the law enforcers are afraid of those connections. In times when the spirit of defiance and boldness is strong in the law enforcers and when they dare to do their duty without “caring a damn” as they say for anyone who opposes them, no amount of connections can help the thugs.

Thus, the problem of thuggery is essentially a political problem. Where thuggery is widespread it means that the government in power has shackled the law enforcers. The government has taken the side of the thugs and communicated a very strong message to the law enforcement agencies that they if they try to go against thuggery they do so at their peril.

That is, in fact, what has happened in Sri Lanka since 1978 in particular, and by now it has increased in epidemic proportions. When President J.R. Jayewardene immediately after his electoral victory gave a few weeks of ‘holiday’ to the police, he passed a very strong message to the law enforcement agencies and to the society at large. That simple message was that from that point on the government will resort to lawlessness when it suits its purposes. That simple message is now a political doctrine that is followed by every government that comes into power. Later the same president used one of his ministers, Cyril Matthew, to take the employees of the state transport services to the opposition meetings to attack them. Similarly during the general strike of 1980 the government used thugs to attack the workers. That tale is a very long one and there are graphic records of this patronage of thugs by the government in power over many decades.

It is this same legacy that the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime follows and the influence of thugs has been magnified a thousand-fold. Today it is hard to distinguish an act of the government, which is done lawfully through lawful agencies, and one that is done with the support of the criminal elements.

The problems of the law enforcement agencies are two-fold. If they act independently they get into trouble. There have been reports of death threats even to senior police officers who were involved in investigations into some crimes. And there have been instances when some of them have been killed. On the other hand the law enforcement agencies themselves are so much linked to criminal elements that it is the complainants of the crimes that really get into trouble. Recently, a casino den that enjoyed state patronage was raided by an SSP who is now receiving death threats. In a separate incident it was reported that a DIG warned his officers not to discharge their duties without his express permission. The article stated him as saying, “I am like a snake, even Gota is under my thumb”. The DIG, Anura Senanayake, who is in charge of the Colombo police division sent his warning to all police stations in Colombo.

One could go to the extent of saying that thuggery in Sri Lanka is constitutionally protected. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution amply illustrates the constitutional protection enjoyed by those who take to thuggery. Even the limited attempt taken up through 17th Amendment to the Constitution was removed thus empowering the criminal elements that can now go about their business without fear of a law enforcement agency that may be pursuing them. What the 17th Amendment attempted to do to was overcome the overwhelming problem created by the 1978 Constitution which disabled all the public institutions from performing their duties within the framework of the law. However, the 18th Amendment reinforced the position under the 1978 Constitution and opened the floodgates for the entering of thugs into all areas of life with state patronage.

The central problem in Sri Lanka regarding thuggery is the state patronage extended to thuggery. That is the very reversal of a rational government. The most basic and primary duty undertaken by a rational government is to protect the people from all types of criminal activities. That is exactly what has been abandoned in Sri Lanka. When President Jayewardene made his famous comment that, each person should look after his own protection, it was a declaration of the abandonment of the most basic and primary duty of the government to uphold the law and hold itself responsible for the protection of the people. It is the same policy that is continuing now.

Even the more honest intellectuals in Sri Lanka do not want to face the magnitude of the crisis of the rule of law in their country. They complain about this or that aspect which comes to the surface but are unwilling to face the most obvious crisis that entangles them in almost everything they try to do. They often boast of their pessimism. However, they do not look into the root causes that give rise to such pessimism.

As long as the absence of the political will to deal with thuggery remains unchallenged thugs will reign despite of the songs being sung about people being the kings and the queens. The Duminda Silva episode exemplifies the royal place that is given to thugs in Sri Lanka.


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