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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Sri Lanka: The Arrest of Tharindu Uduwaragedera – Larger questions

By  Basil Fernando.

On the larger questions raised by the arrest of Tharindu Uduwaragedera, a young journalist of very wide reputation. Tharindu Uduwaragedera who was attending a meeting on Friday (28 July) for the purpose of reporting on the meeting was forcibly dragged out of a three-wheeler, grabbed by his hair and roughly manhandled by a group of Police officers despite the journalist loudly explaining that he was merely present to report on the protest meeting that was taking place.

In fact, he was seated in a three-wheeler, from where he was dragged out in a mean and ugly manner, most unbecoming of members of any law enforcement agency.

Thanks to the available photos and videos, this whole incident was vividly and widely circulated in the country. Accidentally, the nature of the Police behaviour in Sri Lanka found itself vividly expressed by these photographs and videos.

The arrest itself and the manner in which it was done and the manner in which the Police behaved will remain a spectacle for anyone who has any doubt about the utter degeneration to which the Police has been exposed to and the kind of behaviour that the people throughout the country are experiencing at the hands of a law enforcement agency which has gone out of control and shamelessly behaves against the law.

While the conduct of the particular officers who carried out the arrest and whoever that directed them is most reprehensible, which should concern anyone worried for the kind of societal collapse to which the law enforcement agency itself is contributing, this episode will provide lot of reasons for shock and worry about the nature of the country that Sri Lanka has become.

An overwhelming economic crisis has already bewildered the population. Forty per cent of the population lives under the poverty line and a large portion of that population is suffering from serious forms of malnutrition.

Malnutrition and the expressions of acute poverty are the most visible aspects of the life and conditions of the country today. Also, this situation is many times aggravated by the reports of alleged deaths due to the medical negligence of many sorts and these deaths are being reported daily.

The unbelievable tales of sheer neglect either on the part of medical staff or much more on the part of the bureaucracies that are handling these departments are the stuff through which the people are living through.

The manner in which conditions of life is becoming ever more unbearable and difficult need not be described in great detail as every Sri Lankan, including the ones living abroad and receive the daily dose of news, are fully aware of the bewildering reality that is unfolding throughout the country.

If we are a decent society

The larger question that affects all these issues is a total lack of concern by anyone who bears responsibility, legally or morally, being almost totally absent in the present situation. The kind of spectacle that was shown in the arrest of Tharindu would have caused severe reactions in any decent society both from its Parliament, its other political authority and in also those who hold positions of responsibility in the running of the country’s law enforcement and security systems.

Had there been any such concern, such arrests would not have happened at all. There is an underlying encouragement for barbaric behaviour within the law enforcement agencies themselves, encouraged by the top most persons who are responsible for the running of these institutions. It is sad to see that those who are thus in charge think that running the system badly is the way to maintain social control.

Thus, there is a deliberately encouraged behaviour that is quite manifest in this and many other incidents in the country. If we contrast this behaviour of what occurred in relation to the incident to drunken driving by Minister of Justice in New Zealand, we see the contrast between civilisation and barbarism. In New Zealand, after a few drinks, when the Minister was driving his vehicle, he knocked into another vehicle and by the next day morning, he had resigned from his Ministerial post and his position as a Member of Parliament, and also withdrew from holding any public office in the future. He apologised to the whole nation. Contrast that with what happened in terms of this arrest in Sri Lanka and many barbaric treatments in the areas of food distribution, public health, education and every other field.

Barbaric way of ruling 

It is not even a matter of shame any longer to be pointed out that this is the sheer barbaric way of ruling a country. You may repeat such condemnations many times but no one hears these protests. When even the protest against such behaviour is not heard, then, what could and how could anything positive happen within those circumstances. This is where the Sri Lankan society, particularly the more educated, has completely failed the nation.

It is true that except for a brief period of early British colonialism, the kind of society that prevailed in Sri Lanka at least from approximately 8th Century Anno Domini (AD) – 19th Century AD, was a barbaric system based on draconian caste based organisational principles. There were those who proudly proclaimed in the 20th Century and thereafter, that we have arrived in times different from the ones where the principles of caste organisation which were provisions of social mobility and disproportionate and unequal society, were the basis of running the society. Barbarism was then the unavoidable fate of the larger section of the population in both the Sinhala and Tamil communities, the majority of whom were considered ‘lesser’ humans. They did not deserve the protection or to be treated as human beings.

If we were deluded with the idea that reforms have come to this society, democracy has been established and the rule of law exists in this country, then all that is happening belies this belief.

Unless the people themselves intervene immediately to bring about a radical Police reform, Sri Lanka as a rule of law society and democracy have no future at all. The centerpiece for any change is radical Police reform.

Minister should apologise

The first step is that the present Minister of law enforcement should apologise to the nation for what happened and accept responsibility for this incident and others perpetrated by the Police and others connected with illegal actors, as his own responsibility. There should be someone to accept responsibility, without which no State can survive.

Lawlessness is no solution to the worst economic crisis that the country is faced with. If the type of reforms needed for the country to recover, then it is important that the rule of law is restored and stability is created. While it is easy to talk of solutions to problems, such as improved discipline of the economy by various means including privatisation, reforms cannot be achieved so long as there is a violence prone law enforcement agency in the country.

(An Article by the Asian Human Rights Commission)

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