By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
Police brutality is not a concept that is new to some parts of the country, but it can be said that Colombo has remained somewhat untouched by excessive force at the hands of law enforcement. During the past few months, and especially during the last few weeks, police brutality has become more commonplace, with peaceful protests or gatherings often ending in tear gas and arrests.
What is police brutality?
According to Amnesty International, police brutality can include beatings, racial abuse, unlawful killings, torture, or indiscriminate use of riot control agents at protests. This is a human rights issue because, at its worst, “unlawful use of force by police can result in people being deprived of their right to life. If police force is unnecessary or excessive, it may also amount to torture or other ill-treatment”.
Amnesty International adds that unlawful force by police can also violate the right to be free from discrimination, the right to liberty and security, and the right to equal protection under the law.
Local and international organisations have condemned police violence in Sri Lanka, with the Child Protection Alliance on 10 October issuing a statement on the violence against women and children during a peaceful, unarmed protest at Galle Face Colombo the previous day by the Sri Lanka Police.
“Numerous research around the world has shown the severe psychological trauma to children who are exposed to violence with many suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in adulthood,” the Child Protection Alliance states.
In Sri Lanka, there is a sense of respect that the uniform demands, making the police somewhat untouchable. This perception seems to be changing, especially given recent events in the country, as well as global incidents that have sparked trends and movements against police departments, such as “Defund the Police”. Looking at the “aragalaya” and other protests in the country and the manner in which the Police responds to these, The Morning Brunch reached out to various individuals to better understand the changing perception people have of law enforcement.
Kaushalya shared her personal opinion, which she stressed did not reflect that of the organisation she is attached to, saying: “As an academic attached to a university, I have been doing human rights training for police since 2011. After the ‘aragalaya’, I decided to stop my lectures/training, over the general displeasure about their behaviour.”
She added that contributing to this decision was the belief that system change should come from structure. “Our individual attempts make less impact in a corrupt structure, so I will use my time for more useful things.”
One social media user said: “Our law enforcement is a law unto themselves. Police and justice reforms are urgently needed,” while Helarisi said law enforcement has always been unprofessional and thuggish here. “Violence by police is taken for granted. But the brutal responses to peaceful protests brought it into the limelight.”
Law enforcement and respect
Meanwhile, Emma said that Sri Lanka’s law enforcement has always been a tool of politicians, and that nothing has changed about this, except for the police now being aggressive towards a larger percentage of the population.
“I don’t think there was any real respect for them. Fear, maybe, because they bend the law to suit their purposes.”
Chameera explained that his opinion of the Police went from bad to worse, adding that the Police and, worse, the people, seem to accept that the Police can beat people up as they please. “Well, guess what, they can’t. And the Police seem baffled and angry when people stand up for their rights, which ends up with the people being arrested.”
When asked if his perception of the police has changed with the ‘aragalaya’, Nat said it hasn’t, but that it was not a high bar to begin with, so he was not surprised at all. Vishan echoed these thoughts, saying his opinions about law enforcement have dropped even lower.
Sharing similar views was Stephanie, who also said her perception of law enforcement has not changed. “Coming from the minority, we were taught from a young age to fear law enforcement authorities. We knew what they were capable of. Even when the Army was on the roads after Easter Attacks, we didn’t feel safe,” she said, adding that they felt scared of them instead.
“At least I know I did. Same with cops: They were never seen as our pals waiting to protect us. Respect should be earned. It shouldn’t be attached to a uniform.”