03 December 2013

The rule of lawlessness

Bertold Brecht once wrote about the impact of continuing and escalating violence.  At first there is horror and protest, but as the violence continues and the number of victims grows, a strange silence covers all, he said.  This country was forced to learn to live with violence for several decades.  Two insurrections and a full blown armed conflict benumbed society to the point that other types of violence including murders hardly raised an eyebrow. 

Post-conflict one would expect general indifference to disappear gradually.  It has not.  Just the other day, a key suspect of the brutal murder of a police officer and his wife in Kamburupitiya, was killed.  It is alleged that the suspect, ‘Commando Ajith’, while leading investigations to an arms cache, had picked up a weapon and attacked the relevant police officer. He is said to have been killed when the police ‘shot back in defence’. 

Two other suspects, handcuffs and all, are said to have tried to flee their captors, again while leading them to an arms cache.  The two had jumped into a reservoir and had drowned.  On Saturday, the body believed to be that of the main suspect, ‘Ketayam Chinthaka’, was found floating on the Nilvala.

This is a familiar script, that of suspects being shot when they try to best the police.  It comes with one of two officers being admitted to hospital to obtained treatment for wounds sustained in the scuffle or crossfire that is said to have taken place.  It’s so familiar that few would believe it to be the truth.  It is truly farfetched to think that a person who is handcuffed would think he could get away by jumping into a reservoir.  

The gruesome murders that precipitated the subsequent killings caught media attention and held it for several days.  That might could as ‘horror’.  Perhaps it is due to the nature of the crime that few questions are being raised about the fate of the suspected murderers.  On the other hand, it is perhaps also an indictment on the efficacy of the legal process that what transpired is socially accepted as equivalent to ‘court justice’.  Still, what are we to make of the fact that villagers in the area lit firecrackers at Commando Ajith’s funeral?  Some kind of cathartic relief, would that explain it all? 

Some time ago, there was a spate of such ‘crossfire killings’, the victims being key figures in the underworld.  The word in the street was that if they were arrested, the best legal support would be obtained to secure release.  It was whispered also that the nexus between underworld figure and politician insulated the criminal from possible punishment.  If true, that would say a lot about the country’s judicial system.  The general public, however, did not seem to mind these ‘crossfire killings’; perhaps it was thought that if that’s how it can get done then that’s how it must be done.   That’s an end-justifies-mean kind of logic.  The problem is that when such measures become the norm, it shows that the law, law enforcement and indeed the entire judicial system makes up a monumental sham. 

‘In war the laws are silent,’ is an oft quoted ‘out’ employed by those in power.  It is used not only to justify excesses in the battlefield but to play down transgressions elsewhere.   But we are now in post-conflict Sri Lanka.  While a reasonable adjust-period can be understood, it is legitimate to expect and demand progress in the right direction.  What we are seeing is the opposite, both on the side of the law and consequent or otherwise on the side of the general public as well.  

Can this thing called ‘due process’ be suspended forever? 

About a decade ago, one M.G. Quibria in a paper titled "Growth and poverty: lessons from the East Asian Miracle revisited," argued that there is no relationship between democratic social institutions and economic prosperity. This is something that people have known for a long time. Importantly, though, Quibria shows that what is critical to decent development is rule of law!

"Rule of law" refers, according to him, "to a society’s adherence to its existing rules and regulations; it implies a legal system where laws are public knowledge, are clear in meaning, and are applied equally without any arbitrariness and that the government is embedded in a legal framework that constrains arbitrary actions on its part". Key to the argument is the following: "the precondition for establishing the rule of law is a strong judicial system that is fair, competent, and efficient and not subject to political manipulation!"

That’s a benchmark.  If we were honest in assessing ourselves against it, we would not light any firecrackers.  We ought to, instead, start stitching a white flag.  



Gilbert Abeygoonaratne said...

The answers to a problem that threatens the very foundation of Democracy has been eloquently presented! But does it fall on deaf ears, can we find solutions and if by whom? Malinda I lap up every word you write with a quill that flows so righteously!and I am hungry for more! and my hunger will remain until the people of Sri Lanka can sleep in Peace !
No society can progress nor can we have an exemplary youth, or a future in an environment of Lawlessness !