The hero seems strangely familiar. He brandishes his weapons of choice in each frame: effortlessly: fearlessly. Built like a nondescript, he wields his truncheon like a ninja.
In one, he’s a Spartan holding the pass at Thermopylae against hordes of invading Persian barbarians. In another, a soldier of the Holy Roman Empire or the Kingdom of Gondor – singlehandedly keeping the murderous Huns or those Mordor Orcs at bay – like Horatio held the bridge.
In other less war-like captures, he’s a champion World Cup footballer gyrating the athletic dance of leaping over opponents to get at the ball; dribbling, passing. Or an oddly khaki-clad ‘Maori’ leading the victorious All Blacks on to the rugby field. And elsewhere, helping Miley Cyrus to, er, twerk herself.
But in real life, which inspired the rash of Facebook memes above, our hero is hardly gallant; or valiant; or a hero at all even. He’s simply a Sri Lankan policeman demonstrating how the use of ‘minimum force’ can crack open skulls, cause recurring head pain for female students with headaches enough of their own, and baton-charge an unarmed student protest until there’s bloodied faces like it was Richie McCaw taking a boot in the head at the recently concluded rugby World Cup finals.
Memes are fun. They amuse and entertain. But the larger-than-life original photographs which inspire them challenge stunned viewers and – hopefully – will teach our society that all is not well in our country as it is.
Pass the baton
One might have thought that it would be better than this... By now – After nearly 10 months of righteous rule (or ‘good’ governance, as some say it is). Defenders of this much-vaunted #yahapaalanaya will rush to issue an apologetic, which will no doubt run something like this... Police using necessary (if minimal) force is an occasion-driven street tactic and cannot be attributed to strategic-level state policy; If there was unwarranted action involved in containing the student protest, it can and will and probably shall be investigated; The National Police Commission (NPC) has been tasked with investigating the incident anyway, and the Prime Minister (PM) has commissioned another special committee of investigation also... so let’s just wait and see anyway, shall we?
The usual problem with ‘wait and see’ (what happens) is the standard appointment of the regular investigative probes. It is the same problem as the traditional issue of committee work... A committee, they say, is where – after all has been said and done – more has been said than done! Far be it from anyone critical to attribute apathy to the first serious commission given to the all-new NPC. But to cynical observers it all smacks of cunctatory (or customarily delaying) tactics in the first place. The PM asks the Minister of Law and Order (MOL) to start a probe. The MOL instructs the Inspector General of Police (IGP) to conduct an enquiry. The IGP orders his senior officers to institute an investigation. (And the seniors hold a press conference where they absolve and exonerate their juniors – and their mutual state/service department – of any wrongdoing, or blame for it.)
Can it be that the buck (oops, the baton) is being passed? Or is this more than a SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) to Cerberus – being, in truth, the way that things need to be done if indeed the probe into what happened last week is to be properly conducted? Point is that this is the way that the baton (sorry, the buck) was also previously passed under autocratic and antidemocratic regimes not too long gone... So the average citizen will be forgiven for their smidgen of scepticism (which resonates with the Inter University Students’ Federation’s own expressed cynicism) that probes will get to the bottom of the problem at all – if ever...
Probes in this nation rarely have in the past. Probes under even this present administration probably never will. QED? We hope!
Hold the bacon
Probes usually serve to sustain and further the status quo. Name one recent investigation into excessive police action that has found the accused guilty of anything – from the wanton manslaughter of suspects in custody allegedly attempting to flee... to the unwarranted use of maximum force? No. The names of the games played are >Pass the buck, >Pass the blame, >Pass the ammunition so that we can rid the country of one more egregious criminal. And even when a piece of action, legislation, or policy seems to be challenging the status quo, it is most likely either a. accentuating the need for the status quo to remain in situ... or b. issuing a challenge so that contenders of the state’s qua (the way things are in government) can change the status quo to their own narrow (partisan or personal) advantage.
In the world at large, the global authorities appear to be coming to their senses – in some respects, at least; and long after common sense or conventional wisdom has reached the same conclusions. Take, for instance, the recent UN-endorsed WHO-issued warning against a virtual delicatessen of processed meats being bad for you at bottom and carcinogenic on top of it all. Ham is bad. Bacon is worse. Salami is to be shunned. Really! And where were these conclusions when Western medicine and Eastern cuisine had been finding this out for themselves in a plethora of cancer cases and/or digestive, circulatory, and/or muscular-skeletal prognoses and diagnoses? Truly, WHO is so slow on the uptake! Or, is an alternative way of looking at it to see the hidden hand of a lobby or a power group with an agenda working behind the scenes to further vested interests and stymie the opposition or competition? In similar vein, is Sri Lanka’s law-enforcement arm a slice of pastrami that is being banned and badly panned, so that actors with their own esoteric purposes can gain an upper hand in the Law and Order (LO) dominion in the land? Or is the principal player in the maintenance of Law and Order in the Land (LOL) being dominated in the media, simply for being ham-fisted in their modus operandi and pig-headed about defending their indefensible actions?
Pigs might fly
Could it be that the IGP and his cohorts are right: that the police did, in fact, use minimal force; and that baton-charging a retreating group of peacefully protesting students is par for the course under the new democratic aegis we voted in? Should it be the norm, from now on, that riot police are called in to tackle unarmed protestors with stick/truncheon/baton – rather than barrier/teargas/watercannon? Would it be reasonable to defend – even exonerate – the heavy-handedness of the iron-fisted response on the grounds that a velvet glove (worn by God knows who) had approved – now, before, even again – the use of any and every means possible to contain student protests (for God knows what reason these velvet glove-wearers have against student dissent contra state imperatives)?
Not everyone has pussyfooted around the police brutality issue. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera – whose Facebook page’s cover photo encourages people in our country to “Come out! The reign of terror is over...” – has condemned the attacks on unarmed students in the strongest terms possible for a sitting Cabinet minister. TNA MP M. A. Sumanthiran – who has been out there encouraging and supporting victims of terrorism in all forms, even at the height of the war and with the regime of state-sponsored terror in situ – has been equally unequivocal in castigating the use of violence in this instance.
Less salutary have been two pusillanimous examples of government-shakers and opinion-leaders tiptoeing around calling a spade a spade and a pig a pig.
Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva – who singularly failed to steal a leaf from his boss’s book – had this to say in his social media outlet: “I am saddened by the photographs I saw on what seems a brutal attack on protesting university students by the police. I am made to understand that the PM has asked for an immediate report on the matter while the police have said they used ‘minimum force’. While I do not know exactly what transpired, the photographs suggest that the police have behaved in their usual fashion of beating up protesters. I am certain that the Government will take action to deal with this issue and also the newly appointed independent Police Commission will have to show us that it means business. I on my part will do what I can to ensure that such is not repeated. However, protesting students also will have to abide by the laws of the country.”
Sir, are you “saddened” by the photos or by the facts? Is it only what “seems” to be a “brutal attack”? Will you strive to find out “exactly what transpired” while doing what you can to “ensure that such is not repeated”? Are there any other categories of hardened criminals apart from poor “protesting students” you would include in the police-net of people island-wide who are required to “abide by the laws of the country”? If you are “certain that the Government will take action to deal with this issue”, we are glad… Because to us, YOU are the Government! It was because of previously outspoken parliamentarians like YOU who don’t mind speaking plainly about “what seems a brutal attack on protesting university students by the police” that WE voted for regime change at all. So what happened?
Even less muscular-skeletal was this sophisticated statement from Deputy Minister of State Enterprise Development Eran Wickremaratne: “The media has highlighted an incident surrounding the university students’ protest where the police are accused of using excessive force resulting in severe injuries to several protestors. I am happy that the PM promptly called for a report on the incident. If the police are found to have used excessive force they must be held accountable. The rule of law applies to all – all are subject to it. This is the change we fought for, and must achieve. Achieving it may not happen overnight, but our journey must be steady even if it is slow.”
Sir, is it merely the case that “the media has highlighted an incident” where “the police are accused of using excessive force” – or did something bloody and brutal actually take place out there in the real world? Are you simply happy that “the PM promptly called for a report on the incident” or will you rejoice equally readily when – or “if” – “the police are found to have used excessive force”? It was because men of their word – like YOU – promised US change, and change as quickly as possible – that WE exercised our civic duty to rid the republic of a corrupt and yet-to-be prosecuted criminal regime… But now YOU tell US that this change will take time… How long, sir? Or is it beyond your scope to nominate a timeframe for it? It is not the “steady” and “slow” “journey” that interest US now, but a speedy arrival at the destination!
You might feel that we are being unfair by the gentlemen taken to task above. Well it is precisely because they are both indubitably gentlemen and men of their word respectively that we presume to address them in the first place. We would not dare waste our time on politically correct time-servers and posterior-polishers who toady up to the powers that be, as under previous dispensations, where the politicians of good character and conduct were battered and bowed under despots and tyrants who bent good men to their wily ways and perverse will. It used to be the case that Edmund Burke’s always oh-so appropriate axiom – “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing” – applied to civil society. Today that aphorism is more applicable to men and women with a conscience, a spine, and a tongue, in the ranks of the country’s thought- and action-leaders who sit there making safe, altogether proper, politically judicious statements that will save their bacon.
Speaking of which, it is no wonder that Chief Opposition Whip Anura Dissanayake got worked up in Parliament day before yesterday when Higher Education Minister Lakshman Kiriella told the House that there was evidence to suggest an outside force had influenced the students of the Higher National Diploma in Accountancy (HNDA) during their now-controversial protest. The Minister alleged that there had been unidentified people among the protestors outside the University Grants Commission office. He further alleged that the protestors were aware that the Government had taken steps to reactivate Circular 46/90 on awarding degree status to HNDA qualifiers, pointing out that this could be confirmed in the statement issued by the students’ union convener.
According to him, “it is nothing but a joke for the students to stage a protest when the Government had already decided to meet their demands”, claiming that the present crisis was to be blamed on the previous regime which rescinded the degree status of this diploma course. This caused what media reported as a “heated argument” between the Minister and the Chief Opposition Whip, with the latter charging that the decision to revalidate the circular was made only after the students launched their protest campaign.
So the blame game takes on political overtones and it is little wonder that all talk of multiple probes – including national, prime ministerial, and special police committees – now reek of a cover up (“there was only minimum force”) tainted with strains of justification (“the riot police were called in because it was an unlawful/unauthorized protest that would hold up traffic/disrupt city life”, etc).
So which is it, sirs? The freedom to carry your riot-approved truncheon at a peaceful unarmed protest ends where rights-respecting citizens’ heads begin!
Normal? Necessary? Naughty? or Nasty?
In the meantime, there are several optional prisms through which we can ingest the pig’s breakfast that has been made of law-enforcement in recent times. For the purposes of this piece, let’s treat both past and present regimes as being cut of the same cloth as far as the use of police force goes… For the string of brutal attacks on protesters and agitators during the Rajapaksa era (which included the deaths of a protestor in Katunayake, another in Chilaw, and three including one student in Rathupaswela – between May 2011 and August 2013) appears to be no different on the surface from the demonstration on 29 October 2015 and the police responses to it. You be the judge which of these is the right lens through which to see a law-and-order machine that has made a spectacle of itself and so much processed meat of sundry dissidents, dissenters, and demonstrators:
A. Use of police force is a creation of the police force
This would be the default mode of thinking of most average citizens. Only politicos like UNP spokespersons making cover-up statements to a strategic forum would invoke agent provocateurs as being responsible.
B. Use of police force is a creation of the politicians and policymakers
The less naïve and more realistic one is, one would point the finger of blame – and, more importantly, the hand of responsibility – at the powers that be, of successive regimes. After thirty years of beefing up the PTA-fuelled, Emergency-driven police department with STF, TID, and the likes of it, there’s little if any doubt that a brutalized police force are prosecuting not the rule OF law (the SOP of regular democracies) but a rule BY law (selective application of the criminal code – usually at the behest of presidents, prime ministers, and ministers having to instruct the police to do their duty).
C. Use of police force is a creation of the media
Come sir, nobody really believes that those photos were faked – do they? For shame, sirs!
D. Use of police force is a creation of subversives in society
And therein lies the rub. We can’t completely rule out sabotage. But even that hardly justifies the jackboot.
Much ink has been spilled on why LOL is so boorish (bureaucratization of the thug culture, brutalization by long years of civil war) that the problem is now academic. The need of the hour are meaningful solutions that can be implemented. A probe here and a probe there will get us nowhere. After all has been said and done, something needs to be done.
The onus for this rests squarely on state actors. Time past for Good Governance to stop talking the walk, and pass its values firmly and fairly down the line to the rank and file. Values are of no use if they don’t become principles for practice in the daily life of the republic. However, civil society cannot entirely absolve itself from a share of the blame. A mantle of responsibility falls on our shoulders also… to be law-abiding citizens above all, to affirm law-enforcement when it is right and accede to its rightful demands that the law be observed, to critically engage the powers that be if and when they fall short of exemplifying the principles they espouse which don’t translate into values.
In the final analysis, our police force is a warped-mirror of the type of society we have become: aggressive against perceived offenders, ill-informed about the panoply of problems facing the proletariat and the plebeian masses, all-too-ready to point the finger of blame away from ourselves. If we want police brutality to stop, we may need to examine our own mind, heart, conscience. Is there any one of us who hasn’t wielded an imaginary truncheon against personal enemies?