Sri Lanka – Nation Building, Devolution and the 13th Amendment — Part 6

Those in the security forces including the police, ought to understand and accept the pluralist nature of our society.

5 mins read
Grandmother with her Granson in Jaffna [ Photo credit Claudia Willmitzer - claudiawillmitzer.com ]

Link to Part 5

Global experiences

International experience shows that devolution of power to the periphery has successfully curtailed demands for secession in a number of countries. Yet, many chauvinist political parties, groups and individuals in Sri Lanka spread misinformation and disinformation about the devolution of power. They state that it would lead to the formation of a separate state for the Tamils in the North and East.

Likewise, there are many police forces in the world, where a central police force co-exists with local police forces in each province, state or territory without controversy. In Australia, France, India, Japan, Spain, the UK, and the USA, there are state, territory, provincial, and central police forces operating under authorities of various political shades and hues. For example, “There are 48 civilian police forces in the UK: 43 territorial police forces in England and Wales, a national police force in both Scotland and Northern Ireland and three specialist police forces (the British Transport Police, the Civil Nuclear Constabulary and the Ministry of Defence Police)” [UK Parliament 2023, Policing in the UK, House of Commons Research Briefing, Published 29 September, 2021; availalble at: https://commonslibrary.parliament.uk/research-briefings/cbp-8582/].

There are significant differences in the level of devolutionary powers offered by each country. In Sri Lanka, devolution of land powers is substantially restricted. Canada has a federal system of governance, with a clear division of powers between the centre and periphery. The Provinces are vested with full powers for dealing with Provincial Crown land using specific laws enacted by provincial legislatures. The Commonwealth of Australia is a federation with a constitution that has a list of powers vested in the centre and the rest with the periphery. Land powers are effectively vested in the States.

Intrinsic nature of the state

The level of devolution of police powers in any specific country has not contributed to toning down their attitude towards non-majoritarian communities in their own country. One could easily witness discriminatory bias and attitudes against minority communities, for example, the treatment of Black communities in the USA. This is despite many black people occupying VIP positions and other high positions of authority in the security apparatus at federal and state level administrations in the country. In Australia, such attitudes are in common display against the Indigenous population as well as the other non-majoritarian communities such as black people from the African continent, brown and yellow people from South Asia, and even the Britishers (Poms) and New Zealanders (Kiwis) etc. Most visible in India are the anti-Islamic attitudes towards Muslim people and discriminatory practices against the so-called untouchables in the country.

So, it is difficult to assume that the extent of devolution of police powers alone would address such biases and attitudes. I have no doubt that a Tamil dominated separate state would have treated the Muslims, Sinhalese and the so-called low-caste Tamils in their area the same way the Tamil people are being treated in the Sinhala dominated areas. Police forces are omnipresent in the modern world; at the same time, their role has become increasingly controversial with their direct/indirect, overt/covert involvement in corruption, brutality, and enforcement of authoritarian rules.

We should note that the police in Sri Lanka under any regime has been an instrument of dominance and suppression. It has remained a body of persons empowered by the state to enforce the law that the ruling elite desired. On the other hand, they are also responsible for ensuring the safety of citizens and their property, resolving disputes, and preventing crime and civil disorder. Yet, enforcement of the law is only one part of policing, as they are engaged in many activities under different circumstances, predominantly when tasked with the preservation of order within the context of maintaining the class system and protection of private property by the ruling elite. In all societies, irrespective of the hue of the ruling regime, the police theoretically hold the monopoly on using violence.

Police are usually kept separate from the military and other security organizations involved in defending the state, particularly against foreign aggressions. However, in countries like Sri Lanka, this distinction is becoming increasingly blurred.

Inherent bias

Police at all levels of devolution need to focus on consistently updating their knowledge about non-majority communities resident in the local area. Awareness training should apply to all implicit or explicit personal and group biases. The currents working toward compartmentalisation and fragmentation of society rather than nation-building have established monolithic cultural units most visible in the armed forces who aspire to maintain their social, cultural, and economic superiority over the others. This would be evident even by looking at the nomenclature used in identifying certain units of the armed forces. The fundamental flaw in this system, which any mode of devolution will not address is the low level professional ethic of suppressing the other on the basis of their background, whether it is caste, gender, ethnicity, language, religion, nationality, or differently abled.

If we look at the socio-economic developmental process in Sri Lanka under capitalism, such barriers become increasingly weaker due to social interactions caused by the processes of urbanisation and the resultant socialisation. During the period of the pre-1950s, such social interaction between most communities in the fields of education, health and employment within the Sri Lankan society was more acceptable. However, in the post 1950s period, with the onset of linguistic, religious and ethnic compartmentalisation of society, many such socialisations came to an end despite continuing urbanisation.

It is imperative to notice that the extent and diversity of the social mix, and the type and frequency of interactions are essential to breaking down biases, negative attitudes and categorisations. Through social and community activities in Australia, I have experienced this by bringing diverse communities together regardless of the politics that create bias in the first place.

Those in the security forces including the police, ought to understand and accept the pluralist nature of our society. The type of social interaction they experience with diverse people of Sri Lanka and its frequency will have a significant impact on creating awareness about the feelings of non-majoritarian communities, particularly at provincial levels. To achieve this, the top levels of politicians, bureaucrats and communities need the dedication and resources to undertake such events with courage and conviction. The most significant factor, however, is the diversification of the forces within each unit, including recruiting candidates from varying social and cultural backgrounds to fill higher positions in the police and other security agencies.

Diversification

This will certainly help diversify the police force, which is more or less a mono-cultural force comprising the majority ethnic and religious population. It will enable police forces to engage in complex problem solving exercises while keeping social order by applying the rule of law, rather than rule by law. Bending legislation to suit political circumstances, as being done currently, starting from the President to the lowest level bureaucrat in the country, does not help the cause.

In Australia, when situations become tense due to various internal and external influences, diverse groups work together to mitigate the tension quickly. For example, when tensions were high against the Sudanese and other African migrants and refugees in the State of Victoria, which was caused by some opportunistic politicians who sought to gain power, multi-cultural community leaders were able to bring together the Sudanese community and other multi-cultural communities, the police, the bureaucrats and business communities over a meal at several cultural functions. This helped to lower the social and political temperature and resolve the issue in a civilised manner.

Ongoing diversity awareness training should include building partnerships and collaborations between non-majoritarian community groups and law enforcement agencies. Combining such objectives may enhance awareness about the aspirations of non-majoritarian communities and diminish preconceived negative biases towards them. Such processes can result in less misconduct and unprofessional behaviour on the part of police in decisive situations.

30 October 2023 

To be continued.

Lionel Bopage

Lionel Bopage was an Editorial Adviser of Sri Lanka Guardian from 2010-2019. He is a passionate and independent activist, who has advocated and struggled for social justice, a fair-go and equity of opportunity for the oppressed in the world, where absolute uniformism, consumerism and maximisation of profit have become the predominant social values of humanity. Lionel was formerly a General Secretary of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP – Peoples’ Liberation Front) in Sri Lanka, and he now lives in exile in Australia.

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