Normalisation of violence one of many effects of war

By B. Mohan

The opponent body-slammed the weaker rival onto the floor, driving him into the foetal position; the former then jumped with all his weight onto the defeated man. Akin to that of a wrestling match, this commentary was of an incident involving a Police Constable (PC) and a lorry driver in Pannipitiya on 28 March.

Whilst such behaviour has been attributed to stress and work pressures, factors such as violence being entrenched in the institution, discrimination of marginalised communities, and impunity afforded to public servants in positions of power, are more likely the root causes.

The PC started physically abusing the lorry driver after the latter hit the Maharagama Police Officer-in-Charge (OIC), who was taken to hospital due to the injuries sustained. The PC was suspended and then arrested that very night. Does that mean the issue has been put to rest? On the surface, it would seem so, as people haven’t taken to the streets in Black Lives Matter style; online outrage has died down, and keyboard warriors have moved onto the next big absurdity – the Mrs. Sri Lanka World fiasco perhaps?

Police brutality is not new to Sri Lanka, or the world for that matter. The same can be said about the lack of justice. Ongoing is the George Floyd trial, where the ex-police officer – Derek Chauvin – is facing charges of third-degree murder, second-degree unintentional murder, and second-degree murder. The murder last year sparked outrage amongst citizens resulting in action that was a result of the culmination of numerous incidents of police brutality against the African American community.

Whilst there is a dearth of information on the early days of police brutality in Sri Lanka, it can be said with confidence that it emerged during the civil war – a 26-year-long conflict that did not come without its long and short-term effects – and continues to date, 12 years on.

The normalisation of violence is one of the many effects of the war, stated former Commissioner of the Human Rights Council of Sri Lanka Ambika Satkunanathan, in conversation with Colombo Gazette.

Cases of police torture and brutality are abundant even after the end of the war, and testament to this was the 2015 Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, titled “We live in constant fear”: Lack of Accountability for Police Abuse in Sri Lanka, which documents such instances.

Some of the instances included “severe beatings; electric shocks; use of stress positions, including suspending detainees from ropes and iron bars in painful positions; the rubbing of chili paste over the body, including the genitals; and disorienting detainees by rotating them while they are suspended from a pole, a torture technique known as a dharmachakra”.

Notably, those were excluding cases related to the armed conflict, or ostensible anti-LTTE operations since, as the causes and remedies for these are usually different, the report stated. 

Work pressures cause violent behaviour?

Meanwhile, speaking to a local newspaper with regard to the Pannipitiya incident, Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekera revealed that traffic police officers are under a lot of pressure.

He added that 72 had been hit on the road so far this year, out of which 18 died; last year, 253 were hit, out of which 28 died.

However, he was quick to state that while he was not justifying the incident, he would like to invite the public to understand the pressure these officers work under.

Asked about whether the pressures of the job and its psychological impact could possibly be a reason for the PC’s actions, Satkunanathan stated, “Whilst there is no doubt that these would have an impact, they are not the root causes.”

Key reasons for violence within the Police

Drawing from the “Prison Study by the HRCSL”, which was conducted while Satkunanathan was the Human Rights Commissioner of Sri Lanka, she stated, “Firstly, violence is entrenched within the institution and becomes normal. As a result, the institution has evolved into one which does not respect the dignity of human beings; there is only respect for hierarchy, authority, and violence. Employees of institutions, such as the Police and Prisons Department, are also overworked, underpaid, and have bad working conditions. All these factors create an eco-system where the use of force becomes the default option.

“Secondly, it is often certain discriminated against and marginalised communities or groups of people in society that become the target of police brutality. For example, in the US, it would be the African Americans,” stated Satkunanathan, adding: “If you take Sri Lanka, it would be the poor or minorities, or a person who uses drugs or is drug-dependent. If you are a person who has been to prison once, then you might be more vulnerable. So, in society, you can see that it is always the people who have been discriminated, marginalised, and are poor, who are subjected to police violence, and this is very similar to many other countries as well.

“In a way, people accept the use of violence if they feel the person being subjected to violence is ‘bad’…It is only if they are personally affected do they think it is a problem. It is also about how we view public servants and people in positions of power – we think they can use their power with no control or oversight; people in positions of power also think the public are their servants!

“Thirdly, officers who perpetrate violence are not held to account. Here, in Sri Lanka, they might just transfer them; sometimes people file FR (fundamental rights) petitions where the officers have to give compensation and the Police Department is asked to take action against the officer. But sometimes the Department doesn’t take action. Additionally, punitive measures can have only limited impact in changing behaviour. You cannot change the behaviour of human beings mainly through fear or fear of punishment.

Asked about how we can look to address these concerns, she stated: “It can’t be solved only by prosecutions, a new law, or a new commission – we have tried all this and it has not worked. It is about changing values in society.”

Several attempts over many days to contact Public Security Minister Sarath Weerasekera to ascertain the plans to address these issues, proved futile.