Checkpoints in Sri Lanka – Know Your Rights.

Santa was questioned so much after the pregnant suicide bomber exploded that he decided to go on a diet.

Recently, checkpoints in Colombo manned by the Sri Lanka armed forces and police have become stricter and more regular. Everybody gets checked at these checkpoints; everybody finds it a pain.

However, Tamil Sri Lankans who get stopped undergo more extensive questioning than any other group. This is due to profiling, an arguably discriminatory practice, which in my opinion is understandable, and perhaps inevitable, when the overwhelming number of targeted terrorists belong to a particular group.

Sometimes, however, the questioning gets a bit absurd, like when my colleague’s brother was asked to produce the receipt of the 6-year-old computer he was transporting to a new address. At other times, it gets provocative, like when an acquaintance who shares the same name as the Tiger leader was asked whether Prabhakaran was her uncle. Worse is when it gets frustrating, like when the same colleague’s cousin from Jaffna was questioned for a day at the police station because he was still staying in student quarters while awaiting graduation. All these people happen to be Tamil Sri Lankans.

At the best of times, checkpoints are a hassle that the public has to put up with as an added security measure against terrorist attacks. They wont prevent two bombs going off in Colombo, but they might stop two hundred. However, at the worst of times, checkpoints make Tamil Sri Lankan civilians feel that the main threat to their own security comes from the personnel manning the checkpoint itself, and not from the danger of being caught up in a bomb explosion.

The Sri Lankan police are not the politest people in the world. Neither are they always the most restrained (as is glaringly obvious in the recent case of the brutal interrogation and death of the Balloonman). I find their manner less than desirable when I commit minor traffic offences. I can imagine I would find a fair bit worse if they suspected me of terrorism, and I could not express myself very well in a language they understood. 

The number of Tamil Sri Lankan civilians who get this treatment from the police and the armed forces must be huge. What it results in is a feeling of alienation in the Tamil Sri Lankan community – “Why am I being treated like this when I have done nothing wrong? Why am I being treated as a second class citizen? Am I not Sri Lankan?”

The end result is a community who feels unprotected, discriminated against, and alienated by the government. To some extent, this cannot be helped. The government is fighting an enemy who uses civilians as shields, and whose political position improves every time a Tamil Sri Lankan is discriminated against. For this very reason, however, it is in the interest of all Sri Lankans to treat detainees with respect. A little politeness goes a long way.  

On Wednesday the 5th of July, the Daily Mirror carried an article on the front page entitled, “Respect Fundamental Rights of People: President Tells Armed Forces, Police”. The body of the article contains an outline of the presidential directive on how civilians should be treated when they are being detained. I am reproducing the relevant parts of the article, in point form, below. According to the article, your rights in this situation are as follows: 

1. Under the directives [given by the President], no person shall be arrested or detained under any Emergency Regulation or the Prevention of Terrorism Act unless they are in accordance with the law.

2. Arrests should be made by a person who is authorized by law to make such an arrest or order such detention.

3. The person making the arrest or detention should identify himself by name and rank, to the person or relative or friend of the person to be arrested.

4. The person to be arrested should be informed of the reason for the arrest.

5. All details of the arrest should be documented in the manner specified by the Ministry of Defence.

6. The person being arrested should be allowed to make contact with the family or friends to inform them of his whereabouts.

7. When a child under 12 years or a woman is being arrested or detained a person of their choice should be allowed to accompany them to the place of questioning.

8. As far as possible, any such child or woman arrested or detained should be placed in the custody of a Women’s Unit of the Armed or Police Force or in the custody of another woman military or police officer.

8. The person arrested or detained should be allowed to make a statement in the language of his choice and then asked to sign the statement.

9. If he wishes to make a statement in his own handwriting it should be permitted.

10. Members of the Human Rights Commission or anyone authorised by it must be given access to the arrested or detained person, and should be permitted to enter at any time any place or detention, police station or any other place in which such a person is confined.

11. The Human Rights Commission must be informed within 48 hours of any arrest or detention and the place the person is being detained.

Please share this information with people you think will benefit from it.

This post was inspired by the Moju meeting on Saturday.   


14 thoughts on “Checkpoints in Sri Lanka – Know Your Rights.

  1. hey ravana,
    thanks. I’ll make sure i acquaint myself with these assurances and pass them on. Not sure whether it’s possible to ensure that the guy who arrests you complies with these regulations though…what do you do if they make you sign something at the risk of getting beaten up…anyway, it’s useful information and may come in handy.

  2. You know honestly, i know about these bloody pain in the ass checkpoints.. im a sri lankan buddhist.. and i go thru s**t so i can imagine whar sri lankan tamils go thru.. God it’s depressing..

    You know till a while ago.. i used to demote this country saying it was hell to live in.. after that i discovered this countrty was beautiful! I can’t get myself to leave since i got back! But then i discovered that although i love this country i hated the people in it. Sri lankans what ever.. just plain Sri lankans.. everyone who holds a bloomin passport or NIC.. They are so self centred and all crap and thats it. I used to think that the sri lankan race was a dispicable race and that there was no use in these people having a fake future. Then i met amazing young people.. and i came to realise that i just hate the OLD b**tards that run this country.. they are so full of s**t and old pathetic f***ed up idealogies and beliefs.. I just wish they’d all just die from some disease for the old country s***w ups..

    ahhhh.. ok.. i feel better now 😀 lol 😀

  3. Like I’ve said a few times, check points are a necessary evil. I feel sick knowing that most army patrol men, upon finding that I am a Tamil, view me differently. However, I can’t say I blame them – they’ve had fellow service men killed in moments where they’ve been less strict. Simply put, I empathize.

    I feel like sharing tale that might be an interesting anecdote in such matters. A couple of months back, I was on my way from Bambalapity to my home in north of Colombo, when we were stopped at check point in Darley Road. My dad is very fluent in Sinhala. I am anything but.

    An hour or so back, I had purchased a copy of Hitler’s Mein Kampf at Vijitha Yapa.

    I have a feeling that out of the four servicemen at the checkpoint, one of them was desperate for a bribe. He asked my dad to open the van, open the cardboard casing that contained our computer, among other things. All well and good. After this, my dad was asked about his business pursuits by the other three.

    Mr. I-am-desperate-for-a-bribe turned his attention to me and began questioning me – what do I study, How long I’ve been a resident of Colombo and why my command of Sinhala wasn’t as good as it should be.

    It was at this point that he saw the copy of Mein Kampf inside the van. This particular edition had a picture of ol’ Adolf on the cover.

    “What are you doing with Hitler mahathia’s potha?”, he asked. Hearing him say Hitler mahathia was the highlight of my life. I explained everything as best as I could, after which he decided that I wasn’t worth it.

    I still laugh thinking of that incident.

  4. I feel said & happy looking at your post.
    I’m happy because I found another person who respects law. I’m said because in Sri Lanka, law is not the approach to protect yourselves – at least not the constitutional law.

    When I was 10 years old I hated school so much, I used to skip school and come back home. One day my father bumps in to me on the way back. He took me directly to the police station. There was a PC at the gate and my father explains what is going on. Well. I know whole thing suppose to be a drama. Anyway what PC told me was “If we found out you skip school again we will hang you in this electricity cables by your ears and electrocute you.” That is the advice our law enforcement had to offer me when I was 10.

    When I was young my mother always told me ‘If you lost or if you need any help go to a policeman.’ More accurately she used the word ‘police uncle’. You know in Sri Lanka every one is ‘uncle’ and ‘aunts’ – that is how we respect adults. When I was 15 or 16, I got lost with my bicycle. I came to a junction wrong way. But I was lucky there was a higher ranking police officer (I noticed the uniform). I walk to him and ask him:
    “Uncle.. I’m lost. How to go to the ….?”.
    His answer was:
    “Tho Wesige Putha! Mama Kohomada Ube Uncle Wune? Tho kohomada ara pare awe” (Yo son of whore! How do I become yor uncle? How yo came in that road?”
    That is not the complete conversation of that nature that day. First time in my life I have been disrespected and disrespected my mother but I had no power to do anything about it.

    When I was 18-19 years old, me and my friends – total 9 boys – stopped for tea at Kohhuwala night tea joint, around 2 in the morning. Boys been boys once we finish our tea, 5 of my friends get in to the van and drive away making us walk. They thought we will run after the vehicle – but we walk slowly talking about girls. Then a Night Petrol police jeep went by and ask us where are we going and so and so. We explain them situation – but even without looking at our identity cards they asked us to get in to the jeep. Then luckily my friends turn back and they also explain the situation. But the policemen had made up their mind we end up traveling with them that night.
    Well. Long story short – we end up in Piliyandala police station. Our friends was already their. They keep us on the bench. One PC came to us and explain they can keep us for 14 days in the cell and how that will effect our future, etc… and advice us to settle the matter with the chief. The only explanation they had was ‘There was robbery in Kohuwala last week – in that case you are not allowed walk at night”. Anyway my friends were able to mention some names and we walk out freely. But the whole intention behind that was, they thought we are bunch of rich kids and wanted to get a ransom from my friends for let us go. Nice.

    At all three encounters I feel discriminated because I’m a Sinhalese. If I’m a Tamil I have hope and I have some to blame. But when I’m Sinhalese I don’t have any.

    Even one time one of my friends got remanded as a terrorist suspect for 14 days just because PC standing behind him asked him to say ‘Yes’ To the question judge asked but he didn’t heard it properly. Later he found out judge’s question was ‘Are you Guilty of this charges?” Well.. I can talk of very awful police encounters whole day. (I don’t say all the police encounters are awful.)

    You can be Tamil, You can be Sinhalese – They may be Colombo Police or NYPD. My advice is when ever police encounter occurred try come out with the same number of tooth you start with.

    Respect the officer – but don’t give in. Think the law enforcement officer as a chained predator. He is not your friend. But he is friend of money – you have money – use them if you need to save your teeth. Stand straight, look straight in the eye and carry on the conversation. Try not to get mad or upset – but collect another story to tell your friends next time.
    Treat your self with an ice-cream after every awful police encounter & carry on your day.

  5. what the police need is training.

    They have a job to do.

    On teh otehr hand, inncocent citizens are quite justly annoyed when their journeys are interrupted by people asking awkward questions.

    The police need to learn how to look at the problem from the point of view of the majority of citizens and learn to approach people politely, tactfully yet firmly.

    I have a shaved head am clean shaven and wear glasses. in my NIC photo, taken in my schooldays, shows me with a shock of hair, bearded and without glasses.

    I have almost never been questioned by a policemen. Not sure how effective these checkpoints are except as a deterrent.

  6. agree with jack point. training is of utmost importance – these guys seriously lack people skills even though they are meant to serve the people. lol. then again most politicians are the same as well!

  7. Agree about the urgent need for training. From the little research we have done on this so far, it appears that the armed forces are given human rights training (probably inadequate) as part of their overall training, but the police are given none at all.

  8. I agree police need training. At least they need training in all three languages. A country as good as it is police. But training alone does not make a better policeman. Look at NYPD or LAPD. They have World’s best training but still not that pleasant people to deal with. But in the other hand English policemen are better than US (at least I think that way).

    I think the policemen in Sri Lanka look at us the same way we look at our neighbor. Only deferent is we try to be nice to the neighbor just because we have to live next the fellow. But policemen do not have to. So he expresses his honest feelings.

    There is other side of the story too. One day I was driving in wrong lane (actually policemen created the situation) and policemen scold at me like nothing. I was angry till I realize I was sitting in my car with my radio and AC but that policemen standing in middle of the road for hours under burning sun with a ugly uniform. I apologize the fellow, he accepted it.

  9. Just a point about security checkpoints, they don’t exactly have the best incentives for success…ie the policeman, soldier who finds a bomber generally dies…that has to weigh on them a bit…

  10. Sam, you said “I think the policemen in Sri Lanka look at us the same way we look at our neighbor.”

    I don’t think “we” look at our neighbours in the same way Sam. What way do you look at your neighbour?

  11. I went to my grandmother’s village after long time back. I was sitting by the road enjoying village green. One drunken guy came and asks me who I’m and my identity card.

    I went to meet one of my friend at night at Waragoda – Kelaniya – another drunken guy – again – came to me hold my hand ask me who I’m looking for and what..

    Recently I went to new place, and lot of my friends and my parents visit us some other reason. My new neighbor paste posters our lane saying ‘Private Lane – no vehicles allowed’

    My old place – road development board fix up the road at day time when every one at work. some neighbors who have no worked to do at day time get-to-gather with the caterpillar driver and dig the lane 4 feet low from normal ground level – just one week after I fix a gate.

    Some time back when I was schooling I had to move to ‘Walasmulla @ Hambanthota’ with my mother. There was only my mother – and three kids stay in new house first night. In the morning when we open the door our new neighbor welcome us with used flower reed from cemetery.

    I can go on and go on like that how we treat neighbors and how neighbors treat us. 🙂

  12. I see. I must say, I’ve had a fairly different sort of relationship with my neighbours, although I must say none of them have ever given me flowers.

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