On the evening of June 1, two Red Cross volunteers who had attended a training program in Colombo were abducted from the Central Railway Station, in the presence of several of their colleagues, by men claiming to be police officers. They were told they were wanted for questioning. Their colleagues lodged reports with the inspector general of police and other Sri Lankan authorities, giving descriptions of the men and details of the van in which they were traveling.
The next day the bodies of the two Tamil men, S. Shanmungaligam, 32, and K. Chandramohan, 27, were found near Ratnapura, 40 kilometers southeast of Colombo. They had both been shot.
The Sri Lankan Red Cross issued a statement in which the organization’s chairman, Jagath Abeysinghe, condemned the killings, and the statement also explained how the work of the Red Cross could be disastrously affected by this act of violence. The secretary-general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, also demanded a thorough investigation.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government issued its own statement denying its involvement in the killings and announcing that it had appointed a team to investigate the crime. To demonstrate the government’s innocence, President Mahinda Rajapaksa visited the funeral parlor in Colombo where the two bodies had been taken. The government further claimed that the killings may have been organized to embarrass the Sri Lankan government while crucial talks are taking place in Geneva on the country’s dismal human rights record.
In recent months government spokesman Minister Rohitha Bogollagama has explained away abductions and disappearances in Colombo as the work of underground criminal elements and not the police, military or those linked to them. The implication is that the government would be absolved of any responsibility if the abductions and killings could be attributed to criminal elements.
Behind this seemingly innocent explanation is the failure of the government to accept responsibility for upholding law and order. The position of the government appears to be that such violent incidents are beyond its control. In fact, abductions and disappearances have been taking place for many months, and the government has not shown any willingness or capacity to deal with them.
The government has created the impression that it is the secretary of defense, Gotabya Rajapakse, that is now running the country and that it is unable to bring him under control. The editor of a leading newspaper, the Daily Mirror, complained of personal threats to her life by the secretary, and earlier an editor of another leading newspaper, the Sunday Leader, informed the media that he was under imminent threat of being arrested, a remark that brought an immediate response from the media to defend the editor.
Moreover, there are allegations that many people are being arrested for no reason and held at the Boosa Detention Camp. Police officers who have questioned the policy of arresting people without reason have allegedly been threatened with removal from their positions if they insist on reasons for these arrests.
No government is entitled to claim that law and order is beyond its control. In the abduction and killing of the two Red Cross volunteers, complaints were made immediately after the alleged arrest and abductions. Even the details of the van in which the two people were taken, including the vehicle registration number, were provided by colleagues of the deceased who made the initial complaint. Despite the reports and information and even pleas made to higher authorities, no action was taken to protect the two volunteers, whose bodies were found about 40 kilometers away from Colombo on the next morning.
Such a negligent approach on the part of the police and the government is a factor contributing to such crimes and can even be regarded as making them complicit in these crimes. Tacit approval for abductions and disappearances has been part of the Sri Lankan policing culture for the last few decades. The point of view that poison should be handled with poison has given rise to tolerance of various practices under the guise of dealing with crime or terrorism.
It is well documented that during the late 1980s many “agencies” grew up within the policing and military system. These created death squads in which criminal elements were absorbed. Such approved agencies were referred to as the Black Cats. No one really had control over them. While one agency denied its involvement in a particular abduction, another agency might actually carry out the operation. In this manner, the government and top-ranking officers could plausibly deny involvement and defeat their direct and indirect enemies.
It may be that the collapse of the system is so advanced that state agencies have lost control of law and order altogether. Even by 2001, there was a realization that the maintenance of law and order in Sri Lanka was critically flawed. It was this awareness that led to the introduction of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution and the creation of independent bodies that might be able to arrest further deterioration of law and order in the country. However, the present government has suspended the operation of these independent institutions.
It is the government’s responsibility, however, to uphold law and order. If the irrational policies of the past have reaped and harvested insanity, the question now is whether the government will take adequate steps to return to a state of sanity and face up to its obligations. Obviously, the insanity is so advanced now that without adequate support from other countries it will not be possible to overcome this problem.
The dysfunctionalism of the Sri Lankan policing system is no longer a problem that can be ignored. The voices of civil society must demand a return to sanity and an end to the nation’s further decline into peril. Under the present circumstances, in which the state is apparently incapable of maintaining law and order, there is no shame in seeking assistance from outside the country. The Sri Lankan government has done so in the past, and other governments have done so as well in times of great peril.
It is in this spirit that discussion at the U.N. Human Rights Council about Sri Lanka should be tackled. Not to face up to the unrelenting human rights violations in Sri Lanka is to persist along the path of peril that has already brought so much disaster to the country and that manifests itself every day with new horrendous acts.