Policing For Powers – the recruitment of Tamils in the nation’s police force

N Sathiya Moorthy

The Government’s decision to increase and improve the recruitment of Tamils in the nation’s police force should be welcome, especially by all those that have only complaints in the matter and those of the kind. It would still be worthwhile to see or find out as to what the Tamils want to do in the matter join the uniformed services, ‘serve the nation’, take home a decent pay and dignified status, both of which the war-ravaged community can do with, or continue to complain from the sidelines.

Post-war, the Government did initiate a programme to recruit Tamils in the police force, and later in the armed forces also. In fact, the recruitment of Tamils for the police force commenced not long after the war ended in the East and the final war was yet to commence in the North. Once the war concluded in the North, and normality was seemingly returning, the recruitment drive was extended to cover those people, rather their youth, as well.

Likewise, the armed forces too started recruiting Tamils. There were even talks or suggestions for the forces to create a Tamil regiment or corps or whatever. There were also alternate suggestions after the conclusion of the war in the Eastern theatre that an Eastern Corps could be set up immediately, and follow it up with another or expand and re-name the existing one after the war ended in the North as well. It is not known as to what happened to this idea in particular.

Uninformed, but…

The recruitment of Tamils into the police force was in a way an unmitigated disaster, at least at that stage. The Tamil youth wanted jobs, and could have done with whatever was on offer, but would be often persuaded (by who?) not to join the uniformed services, lest…

Today, the Sri Lankan State structure might be better placed to find out as to who were the ones dissuading the Tamil youth, both boys and girls, not to join the uniformed services, whose ‘Sinhala Only’ personnel had killed, maimed and destroyed their brethren. There were also reports of ‘neighbourhood youth’ with (possible) LTTE links from the immediate past, telling the boys and girls intend on making a career of the Government’s proposal, not to face the same fate as many others before them, 10 or 15 years down the line.

The under-pinning and unsaid suggestion was that yet another round of ‘ethnic war’ would return in its time and that these youth holding out these threats would ‘remember’. If they had belonged to the LTTE, as was feared, the organisation’s ‘memory’ was too well known to forget. Its international reach too was not to be ignored yet, despite the heavy losses suffered on the home front. Family members living and working overseas, wherever, would be taken to task, the LTTE way – was the hidden message, or was it as ‘open  the message’ as it used to be, through the war years and decades?

Yet, a thousand or so Tamil youth did join the police force, but not many are believed to be staying back. The common complaint was that post-training, they were being posted only for ‘menial’like’ jobs, or at best made to take the sun all through the day as traffic constables. “Engata pillaiykala mariyada-kuraivana vellaiylla ellam than poduran…” was not an uncommon refrain. Many were believed to have left the police, hence – but to do what?

Less said about the Tamil recruitment to the forces the better. After the first batch of over 100 Tamil girls were recruited and trained post-war, suddenly motivated sections of the social media was flooded with claims and charges that they had all been gang-raped by their Sinhala officers and the rest. When some of those girls came out in the open, and denied it, the social media claimed that they were being forced to say it, under further and new threats.

Even Tamil social and political leaders who would deny such unsubstantiated charges in private were not bold to come out in the open and say so in public. Were they afraid of memories of the erstwhile LTTE retribution visiting them? Or, were they complacent enough not to do the right thing by the nation even if they knew the truth?

Forgotten past

In this background, the Government could revisit the earlier recruitment drives and attempts, fix the inherent holes and loopholes, before launching new programmes for Tamil socio-political rehabilitation of the kind. The past should both be a marker and teacher, and should be treated as such if similar programmes of the kind were not to flounder and fail.

But it is convenient for every stake-holder concerned to forget the past, or refer to the past in instalments. The Tamils who talk about the atrocities committed by the armed forces and hence the Sri Lankan State would not want to remember or mention the attack on a police station in the East where 600 policemen were killed in one-go.

The Tamils would not want to be reminded that even Bastian Pillai, a fellow-Tamil and police officer that the infant LTTE killed for displaying ‘extra zeal’ (!) too had a family, just as the ‘missing LTTE cadres’ and other ‘missing Tamil civilians’ have/had. But the memory of their elimination remains in the minds of Tamil youth as an act of great valour, and in the minds of their parental generation as an existential threat to the lives of their children and the entire family.

All those that continue talking about the near-total absence of Tamils in the armed forces would not want to recall how the LTTE and earlier other militant groups, to a much lesser degree, had threatened fellow-Tamils in uniforms, to quit or face the consequences. Such consequences could well visit upon the family members of those men in uniform, either in the LTTE-infested Tamil areas in the country, or in the West where those families had ‘secretly’ migrated and had been re-located.

The international community that keeps talking about the visible absence of Tamils in the armed forces would not even know the past, nor would they want to be confronted with inconvenient truths, especially when they had not known it. If the Tamils became suspects in the eyes of the authorities, the latter could not be blamed either.

Instances like the suicide-bomb attack on then Army chief and present day politician and Minister, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka, should be an eye-opener.  A Tamil woman, pretending to be pregnant and visiting the army hospital, would blow herself up in front of the convoy of Fonseka, then Army chief. He survived the attack, but it was enough to launch the final war.

Language issue

There can be no denying the need and urgency for the Tamils to be recruited into all forms of uniformed services and accommodated with due respect as individuals and communities. For that to happen and for the understanding between the Tamils and the rest in the uniformed services to flower and grow, language could still be a problem. It is not only that the Tamils have a case when they say that the police stations in their region are manned by those who did not know the local language. When posted to non-Tamil areas, their youth in uniform too would not know the local language.

It is unfair and improper to expect the Government to recruit Tamils to serve only in their regions, and the Sinhalas in theirs. Where would then the Muslim and Upcountry policemen go? Any right-thinking policy-maker and political leader (unbiased as they should be) would shudder to think of the consequences, especially in a nation still limping back to normalcy after a long war of mutual suspicion and hatred that went beyond the uniformed services, and well into daily lives and general lifestyles.

Can the Government consider introducing the ‘Three Language Formula’ with greater vigour in the uniformed services, where men and women in services have a tradition of trying to do their best in terms of taking orders and training themselves better and more purposefully in the larger cause of the nation? Yes, there will always be serving men and officers, who may be found wanting, and who may end up transferring their limitations in their ability to learn a new language or languages, to the people who belong there.

It is not a problem that the authorities could not surmount. Maybe, they can start with the language training programme at all recruitment level training academies of the police and the armed forces, and also to the Sri Lanka Administrative Service (SLAS) and other training programmes for civil servants at all levels, and extend it to the rest of the country, through a planned and phased programme. If anything could help, it should.

Politically sensitive

Empowering the Tamils through policing jobs for their youth that would help address their ethnic concerns, and not just ‘Police’ powers for the provinces. In the latter case, after a time, the Tamil society would start complaining after a time that their own politicians were using the ‘police’ force to harass their own people, though not in ways that was being done through the decades-long ethnic agitations, war and violence.

But the Tamil political class does not care, as they are talking only about ‘Police powers’ only for themselves to lord over their own people, and not to give those powers to the people, too. If the ‘policing experience’ of and with the LTTE and other Tamil militant groups before it established its hegemony is anything to go by, the consequences of ‘Police powers’ for the Tamil provinces has to be discussed and debated even more seriously than otherwise – not certainly, left to chance and to the future.

The Tamils cannot demand re-merger of the North and the East, and also ‘Police Powers’ for themselves. Granting that Provinces get ‘Police Powers’ and there is re-merger too, the Muslims and Upcountry Tamils would feel ‘unprotected’ and provoked into demanding not only separate political entities to call their own, but also ‘Police Powers’ for themselves, too.

It could open a Pandora’s Box of similar demands from Tamil and Sinhala Catholics in due course, and Burghers and whoever else that claims and feels ‘alienated’. Yet, they all would be politically and sociologically correct in doing so, and their political class could also try and convince the UN, UNHRC and the rest of the international community that they were after all right and justified in making those demands. All of it may sound hypothetical just now, but not when they unfolded.

In due course, Sri Lanka should be happy and thankful if the numerically minimal ‘Veddhas’, the aboriginal people of the nation, do not then stand up for their rights, and like counterparts in Australia and the US, among other more ‘civilised’ nations and ‘enlightened people’ ask the rest to get out, or pay reparations, or both. Who knows, a Sri Lankan Supreme Court of their times might just rule in their favour. That has also been the progress and progression that human rights causes have been travelling and traversing over the past decades, elsewhere.

For all this, however, ‘Police Powers’ is still a politically sensitive subject in contemporary Sri Lanka. The Tamils, Sinhalas and the Sri Lankan State all have their views and takes on the subject. Accommodating the Tamil aspirations in this regard is inevitable, but then they too do not seem to be clear about what they wanted and what they would settle for in the larger Sri Lankan context and levels and layers of acceptance.

It is this discourse that the nation should have had, and could still have, before they could and would talk about a new Constitution, now or ever, if they were not to return to the drawing board every other decade, every other season – all with altruist intentions, yet with newer components and considerations, which are not always reflective of ground realities, then or later. Recruitment of Tamil policemen can at best be a beginning, not an end to the ethnic issue over ‘Police Powers’.

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