‘V’ Day was marked recently with a low key but dignified ceremony by the new Government notwithstanding the lockdown due to COVID-19. Yet the 30th anniversary of the cold-blooded murder of 634 policemen on June 11, 1990 in the Eastern Province unfortunately went by without any remembrance, save for a floral tribute at the memorial [...]


State of the Police and a Police State


‘V’ Day was marked recently with a low key but dignified ceremony by the new Government notwithstanding the lockdown due to COVID-19. Yet the 30th anniversary of the cold-blooded murder of 634 policemen on June 11, 1990 in the Eastern Province unfortunately went by without any remembrance, save for a floral tribute at the memorial for fallen servicemen at the Ampara Police Headquarters.

That was the single biggest debacle the Police Service had suffered in all its 150 plus year history. Those policemen had surrendered on orders from Colombo only to be frog marched and executed — because the Government of the day bent backwards to appease the LTTE, not wanting to disrupt ongoing peace talks with the terrorist group.

There’s nary a word about them from international human rights agencies even if this was a blatant and flagrant violation of the rules of war; the Geneva Convention on prisoners and detainees.

The LTTE never respected such international treaties, one reason it was declared a terrorist organisation throughout the world. But for the Government not to have a memorial for these 634 men who went into the ‘Valley of Death’, at least in this 30th anniversary, is unfortunate.  Tennyson’s poetry depicted a similar situation during the Crimean War; “Was there a man dismayed; Not tho’ the soldier knew. Someone had blundered”.

That said, the role of the Police has come into increasing focus worldwide these last few weeks, particularly in the United States. In the aftermath of the murder of a black man by a white cop, much of the country has revolted.

Demonstrations are still continuing, as are clashes with the Police. The US Congress has been forced to introduce a ‘Justice in Police Act’ banning certain policing procedures. The hardline US President, however, has rejected moves to restrict the hand of the Police depicting himself as a Law and Order President.

Ironically, in Colombo there was a virtual replay of what is happening in the US. A political group, admittedly anti-US, protesting the happenings in America opposite the US embassy was roughed up like never before by the local Police. There were similar protests in other world capitals too, but the way the Sri Lankan demonstrators were manhandled seemed as if the local law enforcement officers here had got their training at a US Police Academy. The irony is that the US embassy never objected to the protest.

The heavy-handed Police treatment meted out to men and women could not have been a mere over-reaction. It had to have the blessings of the top brass and/or been backed by a policy decision aimed at sending a message to future demonstrators of what to expect. It is good to hear that the Cabinet of Ministers had condemned the heavy handed response of the Police.

The Eastern Province slaughter of the policemen must be a textbook case study for the Police, seen from the angle of having to carry out an order that was not only just patently unfair by the 634 men, but one that subjected them to pay the ultimate price for the sake of political expediency.

Today, an Independent Police Commission is in place, but its role is limited to appointments and transfers. It has no say in ensuring the independence of the Police Service. In the meantime, the Government has launched a house-to-house and business house-to-business house campaign to collate personal and commercial information that will be fed to a Police IT database.

As each household already has its residents on an electoral list, the aim seems to be to keep a tab on temporary occupants. Police say it is a security matter.

Constables going door-to-door quote some section of the Police Ordinance to frighten householders into filling the questionnaire. Political activists of the ruling party have been spotted accompanying the policeman on these rounds and complaints have been lodged with the Police Commission, for what it is worth.

Business houses are querying why the questionnaire requires details of the work their executives are engaged in as this could be commercially sensitive information that could leak into the wrong hands given the reputation the Police have in society.

The security of the state is clearly paramount. And yet, in the light of growing chatter about recent trends towards what is loosely called the increasing militarisation of the Government, any further talk of an emerging ‘Police state’ will not help the democratic credentials of the new Government.

The independence of the EC

 the Election Commission (EC) has been under unprecedented scrutiny and pressure over the past few months; a tug-of-war between a cock-a-hoop Government breathing down its neck for an early general election and a bedraggled Opposition crying “COVID” asking to delay the poll.

Not that two of the three Commissioners did not invite criticism upon themselves. What should be an independent, above the board institution was enveloped in controversy by their own verbosity and seemingly irresistible urge for the spotlight.

An Independent EC was a welcome move because unlike past Election Commissioners who were not browbeaten by sitting Governments, in more recent times, the pressure has mounted. Not long ago, an Elections Commissioner went ‘missing’ for a few hours during a count and it was only on retirement did he refer to the immense pressure he had been under during his tenure. He said no one would understand what he had to undergo.

A three-member EC made applying such pressure that much more difficult. Just that two of the Commissioners did not follow in the footsteps of their predecessors who kept their private opinions to themselves – their utterances were limited to the work at hand. The fact that successive Governments were changed over the years spoke for the independence of the office.

This EC is already under fire by the ruling party and there is no one to defend it, even if the commissioners have brought some of that criticism upon themselves by their transgressions totally unbecoming of public servants. On the other hand, there can be no better certificate of independence than being criticised by the ruling party.


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