It is regrettable, sad and unpardonable for the failure by the Law Enforcement Agencies primarily the Police Department, in periodically, allowing the attack on the minority Sri Lankans by the majority Sri Lankans. Even though I abhor drawing a distinction between the majority and minority communities in Sri Lanka, I am compelled to refer to [...]

Sunday Times 2

Communal violence: When Police failed to act


It is regrettable, sad and unpardonable for the failure by the Law Enforcement Agencies primarily the Police Department, in periodically, allowing the attack on the minority Sri Lankans by the majority Sri Lankans. Even though I abhor drawing a distinction between the majority and minority communities in Sri Lanka, I am compelled to refer to such distinction to emphasise on the pattern of communal violence that has happened and is happening periodically, where the Police mysteriously and miserably failed to act according to the law.

Police Department Order A 19 commands police officers to use firearms to quell mob violence

The Police Ordinance stipulates the duties, responsibilities and liabilities of a police officer, irrespective of the rank.

Section 56 of the Ordinance referring to the ‘Duties and Liabilities of Police Officers’ clearly states that it shall be the duty of every Police Officer:

I To use his best endeavours and ability to prevent all crimes, offences and public nuisances;

II To preserve the peace;

III To apprehend disorderly and suspicious characters;

IV To detect and bring offenders to justice.

In 1958/1959 large scale communal violence resulted in the minorities residing in Colombo and other areas being sent by ship to Jaffna and Trincomalee. For this purpose, the then Governor General Oliver Goonetilleke commissioned some cargo ships which were in the Colombo harbor. He ordered the Police and Army to bring all those who were in the refugee camps to the Colombo harbour.

While Police officers in many parts of the country, especially in Colombo and the suburbs, failed miserably in taking control of the situation and implement the law against the perpetrators, the late D.S. Ranasinghe, who was then the Senior Superintendent of Police in charge of Anuradhapura Division, took correct steps and with a posse of Police Officers under him prevented thugs from Padaviya proceeding towards Colombo to attack the minorities. He warned them not to proceed. The crowd was adamant and disobeyed his orders. This resulted in SSP Ranasinghe opening fire. The unruly thugs ran for cover. His action saved many lives and damage to property in Colombo and the suburbs.

A similar incident took place where somewhere in 1965 or 1966, if I remember right, when the Sri Lanka Freedom Party was in power, commuters protested against the train delays. At the Pattiya railway station in the Kelnaiya division, the commuters became violent one morning, damaged railway property and blocked the track by placing the furniture they had damaged.

The late Lionel Senanayake was the SSP Kelaniya at that time.  He, along with a group of police officers, went to the Pattiya junction to quell the riot.  In the process the Police had to open fire. This resulted in the death one person.  The area’s UNP politicians politicize this issue. If I remember right, the late Shelton Jayasinghe, who was always seen attired in coat and tie, with a few of his supporters came to the Pattiya junction and confronted the Police. They carried the body on a stretcher and staged a protest march to Parliament building, demanding justice. A few Special Police Branch officers who were in the crowd were observing what was happening, and reporting to the Special Branch.

When the march approached the roundabout near the Kelaniya new bridge, a police truck, known as the Riot Squad truck from Field Force Headquarters, was heading towards them on the dual carriage road. Somewhere near the power house, the truck stopped. A posse of police officers with guns and helmets descended from it and formed themselves into a line across the dual carriage road.

The late Arthur Herath, Senior Superintendent of Police, who was then attached to Field Force Headquarters, was in charge of the riot squad. Having set the armed party in place, he used a megaphone to warn the marchers and ordered them to disperse.  But the crowd did not heed his orders.  When his repeated warnings were not heeded, he opened fire in the air.  On hearing the gun shots, the rioters dumped the body on the main road and ran for cover. Among them was Mr .Jayasinghe in his coat and tie. He was seen running across a keera kotuwa.  The police officers picked up the body, put it in the truck and drove away.  This was an example where mere firing in the air had dispersed an unruly mob.

As to why the Police do not act in this manner nowadays to control mobs is a mystery.

I also recall incident. The late DIG Sydney Zoysa, a brave Police Officer, was out of the country when the communal trouble flared up. He cut short his foreign trip and returned to Sri Lanka.  The same night he got into an open jeep and visited all the police stations in Colombo and reprimanded, in the choicest language, the police officers who were in the stations. He drove them out into the city to confront the rampaging thugs who were attacking innocent Tamils and damaging their property.

DIG Zoysa visited the Wellawatte Police Station where the OIC was much older than him. He too was scolded for not having opened fire from the station which was facing the Galle Road. Many vegetarian restaurants and plantain boutiques, right in front of the station, had been set on fire and several people had been killed. The OIC was told that he could have opened fire from the Police Station premises itself and killed a perpetrator or two. He could have stopped the riots without even going out of the Station. As a result of this dereliction of duty, the OIC was transferred to KKS with immediate effect. Mr. Zoysa, thereafter, took over the command and the situation was brought under control, with police officers going out fearlessly and opening fire on the perpetrators when they defied the Police order.

Here I would like to mention that every police officer, rrespective of rank, who undergoes training at the Police Training School/College, is taught what is known as “Police Firing Orders”.  They are made to memorise this and in mock demonstrations, Police Officers are trained on how to deal with violent mobs.

The Firing orders, based on the Penal Code, are in respect of defence of persons and property. The Police Departmental Order A 19 states, “To ensure that all Police Officers are thoroughly cognizant of their powers in using firearms, they are required to learn by heart and to repeat the following order, which forms a précis of their powers for the defence of person and property as defined in sections 93 and 96 of the Penal Code:

“If I see a mob committing or attempting to commit any of the following crimes:

Murder or grievous hurt;


Burning or damaging by means of explosives (vide sections 96, 418 and 419 of the Penal Code) houses, shops, stores, or places of worship, which are used for the custody of property, or in which there are persons living;

Breaking into houses, shops, stores, or places of worship by night;

Attacking houses, shops, stores, or places of worship at any time, by day or night, in such a way as may cause the death of or grievous hurt to any inmate, and if there is no person in authority from whom I can get orders and if there is no other way to stop the mob,

I am entitled to fire upon the mob to protect the persons and property in danger. Before ordering fire to be opened, I should consider whether immediate action is necessary, or whether the mere presence of the armed party will not be sufficient to cause the mob to desist”.

This clearly spelt out provision empowers any police officer to open fire on unruly mobs if they continue their criminal acts disregarding the presence of police officers or the warning given by them.

In spite of such legal strength and the power, it is regrettable to note that police officers have failed miserably in almost all the communal troubles – from the 1958/59 troubles and the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom to last month’s anti-Muslim violence in the Kurunegala and Gamapaha districts — where the minorities were the victims.

It is regrettable that not a single police officer had been questioned and dealt with departmentally or otherwise with regard to their failure to use their powers.

It is well known that in the Beruwela area, a senior police officer who took action according to the law was transferred to Police headquarters.

During the 2018 Ampara anti-Muslim violence, the attacks took place in the presence of a large number of police officers, but none of them has been departmentally or otherwise dealt with for their neglect of duty.

In Digana, the scene of yet another communal violence, a senior Officer from the Kandy Division was promoted and allowed to retire with full pension rights.  Even in this case none of the Police officers has been departmentally or otherwise dealt with for neglect of duty.

The recent attacks on the Muslim community are a shame and a black mark on the Police Department.  If the Police had acted according to the law, I am certain that the rioting mob would have decamped without causing much harm to the people and damage to the country’s international reputation and that of the Police Department.  In this incident, the senior Police Officer in charge of Kuliyapitiya, has been transferred out, but no disciplinary action has been taken against any of the Police Officers for neglect of duty.

It has been alleged that the attacks took place when the curfew was in force.  What a shame that the Police could not protect the minority Muslims. As a result of their failure, Sri Lanka is being seen as a country where minorities cannot live in peace. The failure of the law enforcement officers will have an adverse political and economic impact, which our country cannot afford to face, especially at a time when it is trying to overcome the blow to the economy in the wake of the the pro-ISIS group’s terror attacks.

Many thought the attacks could unleash a communal clash between the Catholics and the Muslims.  Fortunately the Church leadership prevailed upon the Catholics to restrain themselves, underscoring the message of reconciliation and peace.

The Sri Lanka Police, as it is known now, has to maintain law and order, irrespective of race, religion or language.  Unfortunately, the inaction of the Police to curb the communal violence has generated doubts in the minds of the minority communities that the Sri Lanka Police are there to safeguard the interests of the majority community only.  Let the Police Department, once and for all, erase this image, by acting, without fear or favour, without considering the ethnicity of those who commit offences.

(The writer is a retired Deputy Inspector General of Police)


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