Earlier this year the New York Times and other media awarded Sri Lanka the number one holiday destination in the world. The news was received with glee by the Sri Lankan government, which, opportunistically, made some mileage in the local media, but also caused uproar and disapproval internationally among the Sri Lankan Diaspora and human rights activist groups.
Undeniably, Sri Lanka is a beautiful island. Miles of coastline, sandy beaches and surf lined with coconut trees, a hill country with spectacular scenery and friendly people. Sri Lanka is also among the worst violators of human rights, dogged by abysmal lawlessness resulting in zero status of its citizens.
Most of the violations and abuse have been blamed on the 30 years ethnic war between the Sri Lankan forces and the separatist Tamils of the North. But according to the Asian Human Rights Commission 2009 Report, the disregard for basic human rights and the heavy handed abusive behavior of law enforcers is widespread and mostly perpetrated in the South, where the war had little, if any, impact.
The report cites the loss meaning of legality; the predominance of the security apparatus; the disappearance of truth through propaganda; the autocratic leadership of an executive president whose powers are above any constitutional accountability; and destroyed public institutions.
Countless cases of police brutality, abductions, disappearances and killings at the hand of the security apparatus make the report a grim read. Basil Fernando, the Director of the Commission, has for years been documenting and reporting on the dismal state of affairs in Sri Lanka. Fernando has also been advocating for the reinstatement of institutional authority in the country, if for not other reason but to give Sri Lankans a glimmer of hope that they can aspire to a minimum of human security.
The obstacles are unswerving nonetheless. The power invested in the police goes too far beyond law enforcement. The Sri Lankan police don’t seem to be accountable to anyone and interpret the law according to their own caprice and interests.
Sri Lankan police, according to the report, do not accept the concept of presumed innocence until proven guilty. Their investigative efforts are not based on the perpetration of crimes, but on the interests of their patrons and the opportunity to extort money from citizens.
Many cases of trumped up charges have been documented, in which the police have threatened and fabricated charges to rid themselves of whistle-blowers or undesirable individuals, and in some cases entire families, who posed a threat to their unfettered authority.
Not everyone in Sri Lanka sees the overbearing presence of the security apparatus as a problem. For Manuje, a young business man from Ambalangoda, there are no problems in Sri Lanka. The victory over terrorism now guarantees peace and prosperity. And if the cost of that peace is the acceptance of a domineering police force and a non-existent legal system with no possibilities for redress, so be it.
Confined to his small Internet cafe’ and IT business, Manuje does not often experience the constant disruptions endured by other Sri Lankans at the hand of their capricious police force. It isn’t unusual for a machine-gun yielding rookie to stop a public bus full of commuters going on their daily business, just to check the driver’s license or motoring documents.
In the South these episodes are almost bearable and less frequent than in other parts of the country. In the Eastern, Western and Northern provinces, people are checked, frisked and searched many times a day. While no travel restrictions are imposed on the local population, a short 100km trip attracts several random and fixed checkpoints where the private becomes public according to the sensitivity of the officers or the passivity of the passengers.
While foreign travellers are subjected to less scrutiny, they are still not permitted to venture too far north or in zones with refugee camps and Internally Displaced Persons, and are often required to present their passport on demand.
In many respects the tropical paradise that Sri Lanka has the potential to become, is an occupied territory ruled by the unquestioned arbitrary power of the state and its military machine with one massive problem at its core—a one man ruling structure. In the words of the Human Rights 2009 Report “The executive president is a person freed from any and every kind of check and balance. He is not under any constitutional, economic or social force. He is a power unto himself”.
For Sri Lanka the more equitable distribution of power and the reinstatement of institutional authorities may well be the difference between a tropical paradise and a failed state.
The Asian Human Rights Commission 2009 Report can be downloaded from: http://www.ahrchk.net