Protecting citizens

Wednesday, 6 April 2011 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

DISCIPLINE is supposed to be the backbone of the armed forces, but the incident in Kalutara where a group of civilians were beaten up by STF and Air Force personnel which landed 11 people in hospital questions this premise strongly.

Army, Navy, Air Force and Police are appointed as public servants to serve the people. They are expected to be disciplined, open-minded and fair in their dealings with civilians.

However, the incident in Kalutara South clearly showed, not for the first time, that personal grudges are dealt with use of official force.

In this instance, two STF officials had allegedly been beaten up by a Police constable and two others. Completely innocent residents of the area were caught in the retaliation by STF and Air Force. Around 45 STF and Air Force personnel have been arrested and top officials have promised disciplinary inquires as well as court martial for the offenders. 

Despite an official apology and a meeting with the residents, the latter are still worried about their safety. Newspaper reports have quoted people living in the area requesting security to protect them from possible future retaliations giving a glimpse not only to the tension still in the neighbourhood but of the low faith inspired by armed forces. It is not only this incident but long-standing issues that have eroded public trust and converted public friends into public enemies.

Arbitrary arrests, violence, torture and overall inefficiency has resulted in dismal public relations between the protectors and the supposedly protected. People have little or no confidence in a transparent, legal and fair dealing with them, and as is amply exemplified by this event, there is justification to this sentiment. Even though the strained relations between the armed forces and people are mostly promoted by the Police, there is clearly cause for worry from the other factions of armed personnel as well.

Perhaps this one incident is a classic case of one rotten apple spoiling the entire barrel; but it should also be taken as a warning sign to ensure that a section of people who perform a very important function in society earn the respect that is their due. Good governance, transparency and best practices are not mere buzz words that are limited to the private sector. They would be as important if not more so for a sector that is charged with protecting citizens and implementing law and order.

If the Government is adamant about increasing the size of the armed forces even with the advent of peace, then changes have to be made on their interaction with the people if Sri Lanka is to avoid becoming a military state. On a basic level discipline within the armed forces must be flawless not only internally but in dealing with citizens as well and whatever their grouse, it should be dealt with as the legal procedures allow. Blatant thuggery and violence, even in the briefest of situations, will endanger relations between the armed forces and the people, setting the stage for an even more tragic reality.

In this incident the officials have worked to brush away the severity of the occurrence by pointing out that these personnel worked to end the war. However, on the one hand there is no concrete evidence to support the claim that any of the 45 STF and Air Force officials were part of the war and even if that is the case, then they should hold their duty higher than personal agendas, not bring disgrace upon their calling and earn respect from the people. Generalised praise is not an excuse for individual wrongdoing.