In tandem with the euphoria of the successful defeat of the LTTE in May 2009, the country saw President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa vowing to root out the underworld.
This was in order to build a morally clean, disciplined and law abiding society. The strategy to liberate Sri Lanka’s civil society from underworld gangs and the local mafias was four-pronged. The then Inspector General of Police Jayantha Wickramaratne told journalists that key targets would be organised crime, day-to-day unorganised crime, illicit liquor and narcotics, and traffic breaches.
Sri Lanka is infamous for hit squads and paramilitary groups as well as deserters who beefed up the underworld and its raging activities apart from the ‘home grown’ village thug. These elements had their own mutually-beneficial nexus between politicians, drug lords and so on.
Given the sophistication, influential relationships and deep rootedness of the underworld, there were reports that even the Special Task Force would be used in addition to dedicated police teams. The cruel message to the underworld was that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Government was able to crush the LTTE within three years, despite it being one of the world’s most dangerous terrorist organisations, and that taking on the mafia was child’s play, especially with military intelligence.
It must be reiterated that perhaps there was sincere intent in both the President’s and Defence Secretary’s pronouncements and subsequent actions.
The nation, which began to breathe the air of freedom following the crushing of terrorism, saw hope in the so-called ‘war against the underworld’. There were some initial strikes and resulting successes, so much so that few months after May 2009, five alleged underworld gang leaders were killed. This lifted the spirits of the ordinary people who looked forward to a crime free society.
However, as time passed by, perhaps civil society is back to square one. The crime wave of late has returned. Last week there was a big hue and cry in Parliament over the recent spate of killings in Jaffna. This week Sea Street renewed the lament – millions paid in ransom to extortion gangs. Robberies and killings by armed men continue unabated in the rest of the country as well.
Recent spikes even forced President Rajapaksa last week in his address at the National Thai Pongal Festival in Jaffna to reaffirm that the Government would not let underworld groups raise their heads in the south or north of the country.
Rooting out crime in a society cannot be done overnight. In an impoverished society, especially in rural areas and suburbs of the city, it becomes all the more difficult. If there is a strong nexus between the underworld and politicians as well as law enforcement authorities, then the underworld has enough of a lifespan.
Whilst there is intent on the part of the Government, the people need to see consistency and effectiveness in action. The latter also has to do with not just law enforcement strikes, but also addressing the root causes for a thriving underworld, especially with it being a magnet for the disillusioned youth. Post-war Sri Lanka certainly gives better hope for the country to achieve inclusive and higher socioeconomic growth.
The pronouncement of wanting to establish a caring society is good, but it must be realised with none other than the President himself giving leadership by ensuring the ruling party’s politicians do not harbour or patronage criminals or encourage underworld elements. This is critical, especially when the country is bracing for local government elections in March.
It is a fact that elections are heydays for these groups. Politicians at local level need to symbolise the President’s wish of creating a caring and crime free society. Greater awareness as well as a more proactive role by the clergy of all major religions along with a more socially responsible private sector which engages with and empowers the community will reinforce this collective effort in the country.
Every Sri Lankan has a responsibility to root out crime and in a highly-politicised society, politicians have a bigger role. Come March we will be electing our own local political leaders and it is critical to choose those who value lives and are exemplary in creating a crime free society.