The Government clamping a curfew and then a State of Emergency to quell the spread of orchestrated violence in and around the hill capital of Kandy was followed by the shutting down of social media networks like Facebook and WhatsApp. There was some justification in all of this lest the Government, already reeling from an [...]


Kandy violence: Overall breakdown in law and order


The Government clamping a curfew and then a State of Emergency to quell the spread of orchestrated violence in and around the hill capital of Kandy was followed by the shutting down of social media networks like Facebook and WhatsApp.

There was some justification in all of this lest the Government, already reeling from an electoral setback, be accused of moving too slowly to put out the fires. Social media have long been abused by a few to spread havoc among the many. With no laws to control its abuses, and gullible folk willingly falling prey to its content, the only alternative seems to have been to shut it down, for a while, at least. If the Government could have got most of the politicians to shut up as well, it would have helped.

Politicians have something to say about anything; the media feed on them and they, on the media. Fortunately, this did not result in a full blown censorship of the mainstream media as that would have fuelled rumours to spread like wildfire making a bad situation worse.
The Government lost no time in indicating that the pro-nationalistic forces of the Joint Opposition were at work in Kandy to fan the flames, and the Opposition was equally quick to react, blaming the Government for its inaction and ineptness in bringing the situation under control faster. Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, he had only just taken control of the Ministry of Law and Order. As if he was bereft of problems, this too came crashing on his already burdened shoulders. In the midst of the violence, he appointed a dedicated Minister for the Police.

The fact that the Police had been pussy-footing when the initial spark occurred is now established. Evidence that the command and control from Police Headquarters is weak is clear. DIGs and SSPs are a dime a dozen, but unlike in the past, many of them leave situations to the OIC of a local station to handle.

The Police have the onerous task of being feared, and respected. But the people neither fear them nor respect them. The Police Service has earned for itself the notoriety of being the most corrupt government institution in the country. They have only themselves to blame. Just last week, people started pelting the Tambuttegama Police station with stones. Top brass are fearful of FR and HR cases against their name, because it could have a bearing on their promotions. Thus, they take the path of least resistance.

At the slightest hint of unrest, the para-military arm of the Police, the Special Task Force (STF), has to be called in and then in Kandy, the Army had to be called in by invoking the Public Security Ordinance and placing the whole country under a State of Emergency. This naturally triggered news flying across the world through international television channels that communal violence had exploded in Sri Lanka once again. The Government’s so-called foreign friends the United States, Britain and Australia lost no time in issuing travel advisories against visiting Sri Lanka, while China did not want to be left out – it asked that its citizens in Sri Lanka, an ever increasing number, be protected.

There is an elephant in the room, so to say, in that there is a real problem of ethnic tension in this country below the veneer of normalcy. It is not much different to other countries that have similar issues. In the US, the African-American communities have its problems – for decades, and want their leaders to know that ‘Black lives matter’, quite apart from deranged people using firearms against innocent civilians. In Europe, anti-immigrant far right political parties are riding high on a popular wave as racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia sweep across the continent.

In Sri Lanka, sectarianism continues to throb. The end of the three decade-old northern insurgency saw heightened anti-Muslim sentiments on the march. This coincided with a surge in religious pride among the Muslim community, worldwide some of it reaching a crescendo with groups looking to carve out their own Caliphates in parts of West Asia. The local reaction to this has been by organised groups which had the tacit backing of the powers-that-be at the time for which they paid the ultimate price by being defeated at the Presidential election of 2015.

Whether these organised groups were instigated by external spy agencies remains a question. These are not fanciful theories given the regular reports that come out on how they work. The job of these agencies is to exploit racial, religious, tribal, sectarian, ethnic, whatever divisions and keep countries inimical to their interests on the boil. Political stability means they are not doing their job. How the Islamic world has been split in two is a textbook case.

Everyone blames a sitting Government when there is an eruption of ethnic violence, for not doing enough to bring people together. The fact is, that in Sri Lanka, many politicians are prepared to wade through slaughter to the crown. Ethno-religious parties, as long as they last, are a source of division in this country – not unifiers. When there is talk of Federalism there is talk of a state religion, and vice-versa; when there is talk of ethno-religious enclaves there is opposition to devolution of power and vice versa. When these issues are in the air, it is a tinder-box needing only to light a match and start a fire. Each blames the other, but refuses to see the beam in its own eyes. There is a major role for the clergy to play in reigning in their charges, at least in the use of hate speech and vituperative language. They are disgracing the religion they profess and embarrass those who follow its doctrines. We, as a nation must learn not to repeat the follies of contemporary history and no Sri Lankan citizen must feel insecure because of his or her ethnicity or religious or political or personal beliefs.

While the incidents in Ampara last week and the surroundings of Kandy this week turned out to be of a communal nature, the breakdown of law and order and the rise of violent crime, especially mob rivalry spilling on to the streets have to be serious problems. Last week this newspaper reported a series of shootings.

Passengers in a bus plying from Matara to Ampara had the harrowing experience of a man boarding the bus and shooting dead a passenger returning after giving evidence in a court case. A 39-year-old businessman was shot dead outside the Hulftsdorp courts last month. At Thalangama a man and his wife were shot dead in their sleep in a case of mistaken identity. At Colombo North on Thursday, there was another shooting.

When a bomb exploded inside a bus carrying military personnel at Diyatalawa recently, the soldier gave some weird explanation of why he had it in his possession. An army investigation pointed out to it not being a military issue – probably an old LTTE grenade now in unwanted hands. Military deserters are among those available on hire for contract killings.

It is not to digress from the communal fallout of the past fortnight, or lessen its importance, for the human cost of such violence passes down to the next generation. And yet, there is no escaping the fact that those events must be taken in the context of the overall decline and breakdown in the law and order situation in the country. That is both, an indictment and a challenge to a Government in office.

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