During the previous regime, the Police to a large extent lost their independence and many people saw Police Stations as branch offices of the ruling party if not torture houses. Regularly it was alleged that Police used excessive or brute force on protesting groups including students, females and monks.
With the election of President Maithripala Sirisena and the Yahapalanaya National Government this year, there were assurances from the new leaders that effective steps were being taken to restore the image of the Police as a people-friendly law enforcement authority. Civic rights advocates have pointed out that when the Police commit an offence or crime it is graver than offences committed by ordinary people because the Police are the long arm of the law.
On Thursday, the new image of the Police and of the Yahapalanaya Government was also severely damaged when the Police riot squad used what many observers saw as excessive and brute force against university students who were following the Higher National Diploma in Accountancy (HNDA) course. The students who say they have many grievances and aspirations including the elevation of the course to a degree level, held a similar protest in December last year and were attacked by the Police. Student leaders say with the peaceful people’s revolution for a Yahapalanaya Government they expected democracy to prevail so that a just and fair solution could be agreed upon. But the students, media personnel and other observers say Thursday’s riot Police response was worse than last year. Police first used baton charges to stop the students from entering the Higher Education Ministry and the University Grants Commission offices at Ward Place. When the baton charge did not work, the Police used water cannons and tear gas to the extent that not only the protesting students but even scores of innocent people including schoolchildren in the vicinity were severely affected by the tear gas while some young school girls fallen unconscious on the road were trampled by others.
Unlike the previous regime, which often condoned or covered up such reckless brutality, the National Government acted fast. Hours after the tragedy Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe called for an immediate report from Law and Order Minister Tilak Marapana who in turn sought a full report from Police chief N. K. Illangakone.
In the United States and other Western democracies also such attacks do happen. This week in South Carolina millions of people were outraged when they saw a deputy Sheriff dragging a teenage coloured American girl out of her class room. The whole scene was seen live on CCTV and video cameras and within two days the Deputy Sheriff was sacked.
This is what we want to see under new Yahapalanaya Government, not just Committees that will drag investigations for months and forget about it. Most people would insist that those who gave the orders to the riot squad and those who used brute force be suspended till the investigations were completed. Deputy Foreign Minister Harsha de Silva, one of the most respected personalities in the new Government, on his facebook page lamented that although Police said they used ‘minimum force’ to disperse the protesters, the photographs suggest that the Police behaved in their usual fashion of beating up protesters. He called on the Government and the newly-appointed National Police Commission to show that they meant business in acting against any Police brutality and were respecting the right to peaceful demonstration. Mr. De Silva also urged the students to act in a responsible way.
The HNDA student union Convenor Dhammika Ruwan charged that the Police carried out a vicious attack on the students while the Inter University Students’ Federation said a complaint would be filed at the Human Rights Commission. He warned they would also give details of the attack to the international community, creating another Geneva issue. The new Government often says it wants to build a new Sri Lanka for the new generation. The thinkers of this new generation those with creative, imaginative and innovative skills are mainly in the universities though there also may be some trouble makers among them. While increasing fourfold the budgetary allocation for next year, the Government also must give priority and respect to university students while the students need to be aware that their rights also are linked to their sense of responsibility.