27 January 2016

Law and Order is part and parcel of Quality of Life

This was written in January 2011 and published in the Sunday Island.  There is reference to the disappearance of Ekneligoda, the murder of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the attack on Poddala Jayantha and of course Namal Rajapaksa's 'special privileges' at the Law College.  Since then there's been regime-change.  We are still not out of same-old, same-old though.

There are people who complain about the law and order situation in the country.  They talk of crime, lapses in systems to prevent crime, laxity in bringing criminals to boo. They talk also of selective indulgences and of course selective prosecution. I am in agreement.

The imperfections, however, need to be contextualized.  We forget that not too long ago this nation was in the midst of what seemed to be an unending war.  During war it is natural for the law to lapse into all manner of silences. This makes for a natural proliferation of loopholes which naturally encourage the worst elements of society to make a killing, metaphorically and literally.  A culture of impunity settles in snugly on the throne called ‘Business as Usual’.  Apathy becomes Chief Consort of King Crime.  

Not all lawlessness can be attributed to the war.  There has been a perceptible and steady increase in crimes of all types over the past few decades. This is not surprising since we had a Head of State, no less, inviting the robber barons of the world to visit and loot our nation. That was probably cue to all crooks.  The highest in the land have been implicated in all kinds of illegal deals that short-changed the general citizenry.  ‘Bucks for self and friends’ has been and still is the prime motivator for entering politics. State assets were virtually distributed among friends and family by all regimes. Tax policies were designed to bail out friends and family. 

We also went through a bloody insurrection that cannot be attributed to the megalomania of two individuals but was for a great part a product of social, economic and political developments that included a privileging of impunity and apathy.  It gave a boost to general lawlessness.  The underworld seized vast swathes of operating territory, physically and otherwise.  Top notch criminals and criminality secured the protection of big name politicians. Someone were so close that they were given high ranking positions in the law enforcement establishment while others rebranded themselves as politicians. That process did not end with term-end or regime change.   

Pickpocketing, burglaries, arson, assault and battery, rape and murder.  There was also the less talked of crimes, or those that don’t leave dirty fingers, disheveled bedrooms or broken locks.  Pilfering public funds, bribery, corruption and then the least talked of and least acknowledged type: corporate crime. This has been going on for years and long before the Ceylinco F&G scandal. There were Sakvithis and Danduwam Mudalalis who were quite respectable and considered the staunchest pillar of society. There still are.   

The war helped but this is not to say that had there been no war we would have been a crime-free society.  What war did was to make it that much harder to deal with crime after the clash of arms ended.  Clean up is hard.  Takes time.  There seems to be some movement in the matter of getting things organized with the installation of superior surveillance systems.  There are stories about the underworld being cleaned up and one treats these with mixed feelings for it appears that due process is not very important to those charged with the task of cleaning.  Perhaps that’s something we have to live with given the close nexus between politicians and criminals, almost to the point where the categories are indistinguishable.  In a country where one regime armed a terrorist group and another facilitated the shipment of weapons to the same outfit while going out of its way to legitimate as well as help procure equipment that could enhance operative effectiveness, it is perhaps inevitable that the law book has to be shut to obtain enough clear ground to rebuild. 

The above would be the generous view.  I do not subscribe to the end justifying the means thesis.  Due diligence to script and innovative techniques of circumventing obstacles is something that needs to be stuck to. Failure reflects poorly not just on law-enforcer, but law-maker and elector as well.  The litmus test lies in law-makers showing commitment to correcting systemic flaws so that effective mechanisms can be developed to plug the loopholes.  Important too are indicators that there is a strong commitment to upholding law and order, zero-tolerance of all crimes, regardless of perpetrator-identity and manifest zeal in pursuing culprits. 

I received an email from someone who could be considered an expert on combating criminality.  He offered the following observation:  ‘I am afraid we cannot crow about our status where more criminals are out than in, including some in Parliament, and other provincial and regional legislatures! The commission to counter bribery and corruption is effectively emasculated.  I think our law and order situation is not something to be proud of.’

Grim. True. Prageeth Ekneligoda remains missing and failure to uncover any clues about his fate is a sad indictment on the capabilities of the Police.  Lasantha Wickramatunga’s assassins are yet to be brought to justice.  No one knows who attacked Poddala Jayantha.  Now these individuals are not exactly saints in my book.  All the more reason, I feel, that investigations should be more zealous, for to the extent that the President is all-powerful and as such deserves all credit for all achievements big and small, so too will blame accrue to him for all failure. 

Then we also have the spate of killings in Jaffna.  Murder is not the only crime being committed in the Peninsula. There’s illegal sand mining.  There is impunity.  Is it because big name politicians (some touted by some commentators as the embodiment of ethnic reconciliation and some with close connections to the highest in the land) are implicated that such things go unreported and remain uninvestigated?

It took two years to apprehend the person who attempted to kill the Defence Secretary, who is also the President’s brother. For this reason it would not be fair to demand a quick resolution of all such cases, but still, when there is manifest inaction in one instance and prompt arrests in another, talk has to be expected and expected to be nasty. 

Sarath Fonseka happily wore a garment called ‘national security threat’ and ‘asked for it’, as they say.  On the other hand, he is not the only ‘national security threat’.  The courts are yet to establish guilt in wrongdoing, but the selectivity of indictment leaves a poor taste in the mouth.  It is not about Sarath Fonseka’s heroics in the battlefield or how big a role he played in defeating terrorism. Heroism in one instance does not give license to wrongdoing in another.  The question is whether or not anyone else under suspicion of committing similar crimes is being treated in the same way. 

There seems to be utter sloth in upholding the equality principle.  Mervin Silva (Dr) ties a person to a tree but there is no charge.  Namal Rajapaksa is allowed to sit an exam under conditions that other candidates do not enjoy.  He seems to be an intelligent young man with a political future that need not draw from the fact that he’s the President’s son.  I doubt he would have done worse had he sat the exam along with his fellow candidates.  What such selectivity does is to wither away the credibility of the President and compromise the integrity of the overall system.  The fact that this was a law exam makes it even worse. 

In short, there’s no movement whatsoever on the part of the regime to correct systemic flaws pertaining to law and order.  What we see instead is a manifest preference for being Big Brotherly about it (and that too is a generous reading), considering the drama associated with butt-kicking the spirit of the 17th Amendment and an effective dismantling of what vestiges there were of independence in the Police and other Commissions. 

The citizens are clearly not doing their part in shouting out error and where this does happen, the screamers are themselves so heavily compromised by past and present operations and associations that they make the regime look quite lovely.  On the other hand, there is some logic in wondering why anyone should uphold the law when law-makers themselves treat it with utmost disdain and violate it at every turn. 

There is systemic error, no one will dispute this.  It is to eliminate error and improve systems that people are put in positions of power. It is not easy to do all this in what is still the immediate aftermath of a war, especially given a long history of flaw, flaw-exploitation and flaw-exacerbation. On the other hand, ‘immediate aftermath’ (less than two years is ‘short’ compared to the length of war and crime) does not preclude the manifestation of signs that things are moving in the correct direction. There are signs. They point in directions other than those one would consider worthy in the matter of re-establishing and strengthening the law and order apparatus.  

If politics is about enhancing quality of life, let politicians and the general citizenry remember and remember well that law and order is one of its essential and non-negotiable elements. 
We have a long way to go Mr. President.  You’ve not really started and it is quite late in the day already.  

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at malindasenevi@gmail.com