Columns - FOCUS On Rights

An unbelievable collapse of confidence in law enforcement

By Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

Alongside a picturesque stretch of coastline between Akkaraipattu and Pottuvil in Sri Lanka’s East Coast, a tire burning brightly in the centre of the road is etched starkly against crisp morning light. Given Sri Lanka’s history, when bodies burning on top of tires were once a common sight across the country, this was an unsettling reminder that the past is inclined, more often than not, to repeat itself.

This time around, the burning tire was no commonplace accident. It was a deliberate sign of civil unrest, pointing to mystifying encounters that frightened villagers have had with ‘grease devils’ or men who were repeatedly attacking homes and stabbing women, particularly young girls and drawing blood from them.

Categorical dismissals of government explanations

That area, including the villages of Komari and Urani were in uproar this Friday. A day before, at Thirukovil in Akkaraipattu, an angry mob had stormed the police station demanding that effective action be taken against these ‘grease devils’.

They wanted five suspects in the custody of the police to be handed over to them as they did not trust the police to bring the suspects before the law. In the melee, one person died. Juxtaposing the truly surreal with the farcical, angry and fearful villagers of the hamlet of Urani had caught more ‘grease devils’ Thursday night and were not mollified by loud protestations of the authorities that these were officers of the Wildlife Department trying to conduct the elephant census. As one grizzled old farmer sipping morning tea at a wayside boutique said categorically ‘what were Wildlife officers doing on the top of trees in the middle of the night and with black masks on?’

Just a few kilometres away, curfew was soon imposed in Pottuvil itself where fierce altercations had taken place between the police and area residents, resulting in the death of one person. The ensuing commotion did not bode well for a much publicised international surfers competition due to be held at Arugam Bay mid month. The ordinarily carefree beach atmosphere of the area had transformed overnight to a tense wariness on the part of locals and foreigners alike.

A resident of the area and long time legal practitioner in the courts of the eastern province put the matter well when he told me that the police were not able to take any action and that the area people had no confidence either in law enforcement or, to put it simply, in the law itself. Mob violence, he said, was the order of the day. Villagers were arming themselves with clubs or with whatever else came their way and forming themselves into vigilante groups.

It was an unbelievable collapse of public confidence in law enforcement. In the eastern town of Ottamavadi which was also gripped by this same fear, the complaint of the people was that the police should not have released a suspected ‘grease devil’ who had been handed over to the police station by area residents. Dark suspicions were articulated and rumors were rife as to why no action was being taken against these attackers.

Disturbing patterns of attacks across provinces

Yet those inclined to lackadaisically dismiss these incidents as the typical happenings of rural and superstitious country folk should do well to take a step back and think afresh. The virtual epidemic of ‘grease devils’ across most parts of the country (excluding the Southern and Northern provinces from which no reports have originated up to now), testifies to a profound problem with law enforcement. The areas affected sweep across wide swathes of the Uva province, the North central province, the Sabaragamuwa province, outlying corners of the Western province and now, the heart of the East. More than five deaths have occurred, as a result variously of the women being attacked and of the men who have been caught up in the crossfire when the police reacted to mobs storming the police station.

This problem cannot be brushed aside by the police blaming the media for highlighting the stories or indeed, merely by arresting those who attack the police stations as a result of deep dissatisfaction with police actions. This leads us to another disturbing facet of the recent incidents. It has now become customary for the police to fire using live ammunition into crowds without first using other tactics to quell unruly crowd behaviour. This was seen at the Katunayake Free Trade Zone protests and is seen increasingly and disquietingly frequently now.

Stressing foremost duties of the police

These are not tactics that are likely to win public confidence. There are too many incidents of women being attacked across the country in order to be complacent that this is just another manifestation of Sri Lanka’s long standing problem of chronically ineffective maintenance of law and order. Certainly, these incidents are not localized but rather, form uncannily similar patterns across distinct provinces. They call for a deliberate and sober response on the part of law enforcement authorities if they are to avoid the impression that they are also complicit in the bizarre happenings.

Rather than reacting defensively, it is the foremost duty on the part of the police to put an end to this veritable hysteria by prompt and effective investigation resulting in the apprehending of whoever is responsible for the attacks.

This hysteria has led at times, to innocent individuals being hacked to death as was the case in Haputale a few weeks back when two travelling salesmen were killed by area people in the belief that they were ‘grease devils’. Has Sri Lanka regressed centuries back to a mind frame of superstitious savagery in which the law has come to naught and where ordinary people believe that justice can be brought about only by taking matters into their own hands? What is the role of the law enforcement machinery and of the legal system? These are fit questions to ask ourselves at this point.

What is needed is de-politicization of the police

These are, of course, not the only incidents where mob rule has predominated in recent times. On Friday itself, enraged community residents in Kantalai attacked a private bus after its reckless driver killed a schoolboy and seriously injured several others. It has always been a puzzle as to how speeding and reckless bus drivers are still allowed to run riot on Sri Lanka’s roads when traffic laws are in place and ordinary motorists are caught and pulled over for the most minute traffic violations. The simple explanation as to how habitual offenders of the law manage to escape scot free is that the police are in their pay. The Kantalai incident is just the most recent of such incidents.

To tackle this problem effectively, it is not new enough that more and more recruits are drafted into the police or that new tags are pinned onto its public image. Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary had reportedly stated yesterday at a public function that Sri Lanka’s police would soon become a community based police. However, for this to happen, it is imperative that the police must be freed from political interference in the performance of their duties.

It is also relevant to question as to what has happened to the appointment of a National Police Commission? Are we to assume that even the façade of such a Commission (similar to the façade of the other Commissions appointed under the 18th Amendment) is not to be maintained? In the alternative and in the absence of Sri Lanka’s police service regaining the confidence of the public, we may rest assured of seeing more and more incidents of mob violence, ranging from ‘grease devils’ to speed devils.

Ordinary people resort to self help measures when they see no other option open to them. Mob violence is certainly not justifiable nor should this be tolerated in a law abiding society. But it is time and more that the government addressed the exceedingly severe problem of public confidence in law enforcement by concrete measures rather than only by rhetoric. It is not the people alone who are to blame for the current rash of attacks on police stations.

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