The Indian journalist Sathiyamoorthy, one of the sharpest – and also I think most sympathetic – commentators on the Sri Lankan scene, wrote recently on questions in connection with the army and the police in the North. With regard to the latter, he seems to be of the view that the police should not come under the Ministry of Defence, which is not an argument I accept.
My main reason for this is the very simple belief – on the basis of a principle known as Occam’s Razor – that one should not create entities unnecessarily. Unfortunately Occam’s Razor is unknown in Sri Lanka, where we multiply entities endlessly, as with Ministries and layers of government. In affirming the need to keep the police under the Ministry of Defence I believe we should also extend the principle more widely, but that is another question, and requires more thought and strength of mind than is usually applied in this country.
Sathiyamoorthy thinks a division between the police and the Ministry of Defence would help ‘in recapturing the imagination of the police as a civilian force, easily approachable by and comforting to the civilian population. Not just the Tamil minorities, but even the Sinhala population in the run-up to the JVP insurgencies had felt alientated from and by the police, for possibly no fault of theirs’.
That last phrase is characteristic, because this is a balanced writer. However experience on the ground – which sadly I think only I possess as someone who has been visiting the North regularly over the last four years for free discussions with the citizenry in small groups – would have shown him that the police are now considered eminently approachable. This is a contrast from the situation not even two years ago, when several people were wary of the re-establishment of the police as the main source of security.
Two areas where I have now been at three Reconciliation meetings illustrate this point. In Puthukudiyirippu, where much needed to be done in the aftermath of the war, there was universal criticism of the police about a year back. However the Inspector General was I think aware of this, and made some changes, so that last time round there was recognition that things were better. In January, it seemed that relations were good, and the requirement that one or two policemen be assigned to each Grama Niladhari Division was being fulfilled satisfactorily.
I have a simple test to see if this is working, which is to ask Grama Niladharis the names of ‘their’ policemen. Familiarity in this case breeds trust, and first name terms generally indicate mutual confidence. I should note however that there are areas where there are failures for my test, as in Maritimepattu in the Mullaitivu District where the scheme is in successful operation only in some GN Divisions.
The explanation for this, provided by a generally positive OIC, was that the area was vast, and the police allocated to distant areas had difficulties in travelling. This did not seem to me an acceptable excuse, but it cannot be rejected out of hand unless the Ministry of Transport (or the Provincial Ministries) get their act together.
I am increasingly of the view however that that is a vain hope, because Central or Provincial control of Transport is a recipe for disaster. Until we get more practical about such matters, as far as the police is concerned, the answer is the opening up of more police posts with residential facilities in areas too far from the principal stations.
This has happened in the other area where community relations with the police have developed by leaps and bounds since my last visit. This was Kandaveli, in the Kilinochchi District, where last time the people had complained about the need to deal with police in Kilinochchi for anything serious. There had been a post at Dharmapuram, but that had generally to refer matters to Headquarters. The OIC seemed to be doing his best, and was indeed able to provide satisfactory answers to claims about cattle theft and illicit liquor – though we noted that it would be useful to keep the community in the picture about court cases that had been initiated, since without such knowledge the impression was that nothing had been done about complaints that had been made.
However there was clearly some distance between the police and the people, caused largely it seemed by the inadequate facilities at Dharmapuram. This had led also to the police there seeing their primary obligations as lying elsewhere. However with the station refurbished, with decent living quarters, and an energetic new OIC who seems to have implemented thoroughly the requirement for deploying his men in each GN Division, there was general satisfaction about the services the police provided.
I should note however that, while I believe the situation in the North is very positive as far as the police are concerned, I cannot say the same for what happens in the South. Sathiyamoorthy is right to draw our attention to this element too, but his polite reference to the past masks the fact that even now there is a sense of alienation from the police.
In part this is because the police in the South have more masters whom they have to serve, given the various layers of politicians who all exercise authority with regard to the police. While obviously one needs greater awareness about the responses of the public to the police than I can provide, given that my mandate is restricted in area, on first principles one can deduce that the police have greater difficulties about working to objective criteria than face them in the North. With respect to Sathiyamoorthy then, the solution lies in increasing the professionalism of the Police, not in changing the structures through which they operate.