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When I began this series, over four months ago, the title may have seemed excessive. And even my good friend Dayan Jayatilleka thought I was being unduly pessimistic about the President’s pulling power when I said that the UNP would poll at least 40% in Badulla. But the results there have shown that the threat is even more serious than I had thought.
Over the next few weeks I will explore how the threat might be averted. But I suspect that that will serve no purpose, for Basil Rajapaksa, who may be the only one of the decision makers who reads what I write, would by then have dragooned the President into having an early election. He did this in 2009 when, as the President then put it to me – with a hint of contempt I think for what he deemed the amateur nature of our advice – only Gota and I told him not to have the Presidential election so soon.
That haste, to entrench not the President, whose popularity was unrivalled at the time, but his rent seeking friends and relations in power, has been the root of the evils we have suffered. Contrariwise, Mahinda Rajapaksa, if left to himself, would I think have gone ahead with the reforms he had promised. And he can still save himself, and his legacy, if he works on reforms such as those so helpfully suggested by Vasantha Senanayake, which aim at strengthening the effectiveness of the Executive, not its power. But even now, understanding that having the Presidential election soon would be unwise, the rent seekers are trying to precipitate an early Parliamentary election. They ignore the fact that Parliament has a year and a half to go, and the President more than two years, ample time for the pluralist Mahinda Rajapaksa to recreate himself, free of the baggage he has been compelled to carry.
But can he do this? Does he have the will and the ability to assert himself again? Sadly, the way in which he has allowed little things to get out of control, through a combination of indulgence and lethargy, suggests that the will is weakening, even if his abilities are still in good order. I will illustrate this in my column this week by exploring the sort of embarrassment to which he allows himself to be subjected, when he forgets that the leader of a country should not let himself get involved in trivialities or in criminal activities. Read the rest of this entry »
I have been mostly away for some weeks, but that is not the only reason I did not talk about the appalling violence that occurred in Aluthgama almost a month ago. I was waiting, because I hoped that this would be a turning point for the Presidency. I hoped that, in reacting to violence that goes against the principles on which he has twice won the Presidency, the President would free himself from the polarizing shackles that have fallen upon him.
I fear that nothing of the sort has happened, and it is possible that my old friend Dayan Jayatilleka was right, if prematurely, in suggesting that the Mandate of Heaven might have passed. He said this a year back, after the Weliveriya incident. Though I did not agree with him then, I must admit that he saw the writing on the wall more clearly than I did. But, like him in his recent claim, citing Juan Somavia, that this man should not be isolated, I think it would make sense to continue to urge reforms from within.
There are signs that this will not be a hopeless task, given the recent visit of the South African Vice-President, which our Deputy Foreign Minister said very clearly in Parliament sprang from an invitation from our President, who hoped to learn from their experience. Wimal Weerawansa will of course claim that his threats have worked and South Africa will not interfere, but his capacity to delude himself, and assume the world is deluded too, is unlimited, and we need not worry about that. Obviously South Africa had no intention of interfering at all, because like all those in the coalition Dayan Jayatilleka built up in 2009, she subscribes to the basic UN principle of national sovereignty. But she has clearly been invited here in the hope that we might be able to move forward, and get out of the morass into which, with much help from ourselves, we have been precipitated.
Soon after I had written last week’s column about improving protection at local levels, I found a structure already in place that was based on a similar idea. This was in relation to the Community Policing that that present Inspector General has instituted.
His determination to establish mechanisms for this is in line with the Mahinda Chintanaya commitment to ensuring consultation at village level. Sadly I don’t think any other government department has moved coherently to implement this idea, and I can only hope that the present IGP does not fall prey, as his most illustrious predecessor Osmund de Silva did, to resentment on the part of politicians who want to provide solutions to all problems themselves. Osmund de Silva found that his efforts to develop a productive relationship between the police service and village communities was looked on with suspicion by the politicians of a newly independent country who thought they were the heirs to all the authority that the British had exercised.
So, whereas the British hierarchichal system, with the police seeing themselves as representatives of a government that was at a remove from the people, has changed in Britain, with greater understanding of the community basis of democracy, it continues in Sri Lanka. And though the IGP has tried to change things, I suspect old habits will die hard in many parts of the country, not least because of the different layers of politicians who insist on controlling things themselves – as was tragically illustrated in the recent reign of terror in Sabaragamuwa.
The recent incidents at Weliveriya raise a number of questions which should not be confused. Most important is the fact that three civilians died at the hands of the army. As the new Army Commander has indicated, this is not acceptable. Measures must be taken for a full and credible inquiry, with appropriate penalties as well as the institutionalization of safeguards to prevent repetition.
But it is also important to look at the way in which a simple problem escalated out of control. The preliminary inquiry of the Human Rights Commission has indicated that there was no coordination amongst the various agencies responsible, both for the technical questions as well as the representational ones.
Several weeks ago I wrote to the President about this situation, and suggested some remedial measures. What I said then is worth quoting – ‘At present there is little possibility of particular shortcomings with regard to basic services receiving the full attention of authorities at a higher level, whether the Province or the Centre. This amendment will focus the attention of local bodies on important services, and allow them leeway to take corrective action if none is forthcoming from other authorities. As Your Excellency has noted, this is vital with regard to transport, but it should also extend to educational and vocational training services, and to basic health facilities.’
I plan to conclude this series on March 25th, since by then I would have written over a hundred columns on the subject. Besides, I see March 25th as a special day, because it is the birthday of Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, one of the founders of the Civil Rights Movement in the seventies.
I will write about him for that date, but meanwhile I would like to spend the next couple of weeks reflecting on the achievements of those who have made some sort of a difference to the promotion of Rights in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately I don’t think people like me who engage in advocacy, such as through this column, have achieved very much. When they do so, it is by engaging the attention of those who have responsibilities for executive action and who take their responsibilities seriously.
That responsibility does not necessarily have to lie with government. There are several agencies that have formal responsibilities that can also take initiatives. Chief amongst them in Sri Lanka is the Human Rights Commission, which has certainly shown itself willing, but which at present does not have enough capacity to push through the reforms it understands are needed. Unfortunately it is not moving swiftly enough on proposing the reforms to its own powers and structures, as envisaged by the National Human Rights Action Plan, which the Cabinet has approved.
The meeting in Sri Lanka in November 2013 of the Commonwealth Heads of Government provides a great opportunity for our government. This can be summed up in one word, Engagement, which Sri Lanka has not been very good at over the last few years.
The principles of engagement, which we need to understand, are very simple. First, we need to listen carefully to what others say. Second, we need to put our own perspectives and practices clearly and systematically. Thirdly, we need to search for common ground between us and our interlocutors, and work towards strengthening those commonalities and developing understanding of how mutual appreciation could be strengthened. Fourthly we need to work out where there are differences, and point out where these are because of inadequate understanding of our situation. Finally, where there are differences based on perspectives, we need to explain our own position clearly, and indicate why changes on our part would not be beneficial to the Sri Lankan people. However – and this is a vital caveat to this last aspect – we must try to understand different positions, and listen to arguments supporting them, and if necessary adjust our own positions if those arguments are clear and convincing.
About each of these, there have been great difficulties in recent years. We do not listen carefully, and we tend to put everyone who criticizes us in the same basket. We then play to local galleries by criticizing them and, since the sincere are generally nicer than those who have a subtle agenda, we are more critical of the decent. This has made us lose credibility amongst those who, even if they have different approaches in some respects, are basically our good friends. The manner in which India is often treated in our media, and even by some in authority, is a shocking example of this absurdity. Read the rest of this entry »
Last week saw yet another example of the slow erosion of systems that makes justice so alien a concept for our people. In Parliament we received yet another Bill cointaining amendments to a previous Bill. It will be taken up only later, so I was not surprised that the original Bill was not available, since anyone interested could look it up in the interim in the Parliament Library. But once again I found that the notes at the side of the document, which are supposed to sum up the content of each clause, simply noted that the clauses were amendments to previous clauses.
The summing up, I should note, had been included at the beginning of the Bill. This does not happen always, so one should be thankful that this time at least anyone looking at the Bill could find out at a glance what was happening where. But I fail to understand why a custom designed for convenience, to allow anyone looking at the Bill to see immediately the impact of each clause, is now ignored. The only place where it still prevails is in the last two clauses of the Bill, where a note on the side tells us exactly what is in the Bill itself. One notable piece of information thus highlighted is that, where versions of the Bill in different languages are different, the Sinhala text shall prevail.
After some depression about not achieving very much with regard to either Reconciliation, or the Human Rights Action Plan, I was heartened by several factors last week. In the four Divisional Secretariat meetings I attended in the Wanni, it was clear that things were improving all the time. Several problems were brought to my attention, but these were largely practical problems, similar to those prevalent in other parts of the country. The impact of inclement weather on agriculture, the need for better roads for rural connectivity, and for better electricity connections, shortages of teachers for essential subjects, are national problems, not consequences of the conflict.
Of course much more needs to be done for the people of the Wanni, given what they suffered, and for the first time I felt sad that I cannot contribute more to education, since the Ministry as it now stands is incapable of increasing teacher supply or ensuring better distribution. But, with regard to the other matters, there is much appreciation of progress with regard to roads and electricity, and also understanding that government paved the way through its support for agriculture for abundant harvests in the last few years, even though this year floods have caused problems.
I should note here the appreciation amongst officials and community organizations of the Japanese Peace Project, which has done much for small scale irrigation works in the last few years. A meeting at the Japanese Embassy later in the week confirmed my view of the intelligence and sympathy of their approach. Equally the Indian Housing Project has generated much confidence that things are getting better, though government must do more to publicize both that and the other large scale housing support provided by the military and other agencies, in particular the Swiss, who also work relatively quietly.