Sri Lanka: Reforms in Policing-Work in Progress
Akash Sahu

The unfortunate incident of the police shoot out in Kataragama, a town in Monaragla district of south Sri Lanka on the night of 20th January, 2018, stirred up public protests and raised questions on the use of firearms by the police and related aspects of policing in general.

Very briefly, the incident occurred when a police constable open fired at a motorcyclist during the course of his night patrol. The man on the bike, Pathiranalage Niroshan, succumbed to his injuries. A friend of the deceased, who was also injured in the incident and was hospitalised, informed that they were shot at by the policeman even after having stopped and gotten down from the bike. Media reports also alleged that the police made no efforts to take the victim to the hospital even though he was still alive after being shot. The police however maintained that the bikers did not stop even after a light signal was shown and continued to ride on1.

The incident received a great deal of adverse press coverage with the public expressing support for the family consisting of an old mother, a 22-year-old wife and a young son of three years. The subsequent protests by the people that saw blocking of a road resulted in the police using tear gas shells and arresting more than 50 people. More than 40 vehicles were also taken into police custody. The incident was also raised in the parliament. The Chief Opposition Whip Anura Dissanayake alleged in the Parliament that similar shootings have taken place in the past and that there was need for a proper system to be put in place for the police to stop vehicles. The Minister for Law & Order and Southern Development, Sagala Ratnayaka, tweeted that he has directed the authorities to launch investigation into the incident.

Former Human Rights Commissioner Prathiba Mahanamahewa, according to a story published in the Daily Mirror, called it a blatant violation of fundamental right, adding that the incident amounted to ‘murder’ under the penal code. He connected it to Article 11 of the 1978 constitution which gave the citizens’ right to freedom from inhuman torture and degrading punishment. He further stated that the police action violated the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code which did not permit use of force in excess of what was necessary for the task.

Past Incidents

Several journalists have recalled accounts of other incidents where the police had shown little regard for the public and accused it of unwarranted use of force. Wimlanath Weeraratne, in his article ‘policing Sri Lanka’s police force’ mentioned the case of a 29-year-old Sumith Prasanna who died after allegedly being pushed off the third floor of a building by the police in 2016. The incident took place in Embilipitiya in Ratnapura district. The wife also accused the police of using highly abusive language at gunpoint. The issue at the center of conflict was the use of loudspeakers at Prasanna’s function not being authorised and reported to the police2.

In another incident, Gerald Mervin Perera, a cook at the Colombo dockyards was arrested by the police on suspicion of murder in 2002. He was taken to Wattala police station where he was alleged to have been subjected to immense torture. Perera was hospitalised and put under life support system. Justice Mark Fernando awarded him settlement of the medical costs and gave a verdict against the police officers involved for unlawful detention. Perera was later shot dead in 2004 by unknown persons allegedly having links to the officers pronounced guilty in the case.
In its editorial dated 27th January, 2018 the Daily Mirror raising concerns about the conduct of the police forces in Sri Lanka, referred to another case of Roshan Shanaka, a young garment factory worker who was shot at by the police during a protest at Free Trade Zone at Katunayake in 20113. In a similar incident like Kataragama, Indika Jayasinghe was shot dead by the police in 2014 at Pasyala on the Colombo-Kandy road. He and his friend were stopped for what seemed like a routine check according to eyewitnesses but the police shot at the two on the bike4.

Take of the International Organisations

Asian Human Rights Commission, a Hong Kong based association of lawyers, journalists and civil society activists had earlier published a comprehensive account with a sampling of 1500 cases from the period 1998 to 2011 in Sri Lanka. It had also filed 32 urgent appeal petitions regarding custodial deaths and 181 urgent appeals regarding tortures5. Another report published by Human Rights Watch (HRW) titled ‘We live in constant fear’ had explored cases of alleged atrocities of the police forces in Sri Lanka. The summary of the report stated, “We found that police frequently use torture to try to obtain confessions rather than undertaking the more difficult and time consuming process of gathering evidence through investigations.”6 These speak volumes about the root cause of the problems with police in the country - lack of strong work culture. This brings out the underlying reason for torture deaths of scores of cases that the group has investigated.

The HRW has documented the harsh methods that the forces employ to coerce the detainees into a confession. Electric shocks, use of chili paste, severe beatings, rotating while being suspended from a pole are few examples mentioned in the report. It also gives recommendations so that the conduct of officers towards detainees is governed and regulated by international law of human rights. It observed that use of torture against persons in custody had became an accepted norm during the separatist movement. Experts believe that the method lingers even today in the treatment of persons in custody by police.

Background of Policing in Sri Lanka

The police forces in Sri Lanka was established under the Police Ordinance Act of 1865. By September, 1866 the forces under GWR Campbell took form of the way present policing in the country works. Sir Richard Aluvihare, the first Sri Lankan Inspector General of Police assumed duties in 1947. The department which was then under the Home Ministry, was later brought under the purview of the Defense Ministry. Sir Richard is credited with having transformed the police service and bringing in innovative measures within the department like prevention and detection of crime, women police, rural volunteers, public relations and improvement in the conditions of service7.

The Traffic Administration and Road Safety range was formed at the police headquarters with a view to controlling the growing number of motor vehicles on the roads. According to the Police Ordinance Act of (Section 92), driving in a careless and violent manner can attract penalty of fine not exceeding 50 Sri Lanka rupees and/or a prison term not exceeding three months. This is in stark contrast to what happened in Kataragama where the situation escalated to such a level that a civilian was shot dead without following proper legal procedures. Even Section 79 of the Act lays down due procedure for police action in case of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior which could have been the possibility in this instant case according to police statements. These provisions, however, do not go beyond producing the perpetrator before a magistrate or imposition of a fine or prison sentence.

Composition and Strength of the Sri Lankan Police

The total strength of police is Sri Lanka as on 31st December, 2016, stood at 86,832 which included about 8604 employed in special task forces within the police. The strength of community policing at the same time stands at 14,9998. The composition of the police forces was rather favourably inclined towards the Sinhala community, particularly during the civil war, when the forces consisted mainly of the Sinhalese. The Tamils represented only about 1.3 percent of the total number of policemen in Sri Lanka in 2011. This is minimally low for the Tamil population in the country which is 15.26 percent according to the 2011 census9.

This has sought to be remedied since the war ended in 2009 through steady recruitment of Tamils into the force. The extent of such recruitment is not sufficient and still a significant proportion of the forces comprises of the Sinhalese community. The situation is adverse in the northern and eastern regions where the war was concentrated. The current government of President Sirisena has been under pressure from the Tamil parties for greater efforts in recruitment of Tamils in the police forces.

The lack of adequate number of Tamil policemen in the Tamil majority region has resulted in other problems as well. Due to this representational imbalance, it is noted that crime has risen constantly in the northern areas which was hit the most by the war. Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C V Vigneswaran stated that illegal alcohol businesses, drug smuggling, prostitution etc. had all recorded significant increase. It was alleged that the Sri Lankan army in the north had neglected the trend of rising crime and worse, even colluded with the culprits. He believed that the law and order problem could be solved once the army is removed from the concerned areas10.

Apart from recruiting higher number of Tamils into the forces, the government also plans to place Tamil interpreters in police stations in areas where there is a significant Tamil population and lack of officers who know the local language. Tamil National Alliance MP MA Sumanthiran considers language barrier as one of the major reasons why crime detection and prevention in the northern region has suffered.

Crime conviction and resolution

Such incidents apart, the police force in the country has a fairly decent record in dealing with normal crime and law and order situations. According to the Minister for Law and Order, in a recent report published by the Daily Mirror11, it is mentioned that incidence of grave crimes in the country have reduced by 14,991 as compared to 2014. The Minister stated at a public meeting that a total of 35,971 grave crimes were registered in the previous year and 28002 or about 78 percent of them were solved. This was an improvement on the figures during the previous regime in 2014 when 50,962 grave crimes were reported and only 29,396 or about 58 percent of them were solved. He also gave the figures for the composition of the solved crimes which showed that among the reported crimes, 96 percent cases of physical abuse, 73 percent cases of property offences, 93 percent cases of murder were solved. As a whole, 95 percent of rape incidents, 97 percent of child abuse cases and 91 percent of child abduction cases were also solved. 95 percent cases of riots had been solved last year which marked an increase of 22 percent from 2014.

These figures given by the Minister indicate exceptional performance by the law enforcement agency in the country. This points to the fact that perhaps only a small percentage of cases go horribly wrong and turn the common man against the entire police force. This can be attributed to mishandling of cases and unsophistication in the style of working. This brings in the public demands of the changes that need to be brought in the police forces of Sri Lanka and the work of civil society in this domain.

Work of Civil Society

There have been a number of organisations in Sri Lanka working, post the civil war, on rehabilitation of the war-victims and on ways to enhance streamlining of the state administration in tune with aspirations of common people. The wide gap that exists between the Sinhalese-dominated state forces and the minority communities had been worked upon by civil society organizations since 2009.

A point to note is that the prolonged civil war increased demands for personnel in the police forces. In order to meet the growing demand for increased manpower, recruitment standards were significantly lowered and training period heavily reduced. Between 1983 and 2009, the police force in Sri Lanka grew by 68 percent of its original strength. This took toll on the quality of personnel that subsequently compromised on the professionalism of the service.

One of the most notable organisations working in the field of community policing is the Asia Foundation. The Foundation has brought the issue of community policing to the fore. The research by the foundation12 provides insight into the problems of little police-to-community contact in the country. The forces have followed a more militarised way of policing over the decades of civil strife in the country. The civil war had a big impact in terms of deepening the degree of mistrust between the police and the community.

Understandably, the northern and eastern parts of the country face a higher sense of alienation due to a large ethnic Tamil and minority population living in those areas. A large number of people are still in camps which makes the security management in these areas very complex and compel the police personnel to act as stringent enforcers of law. This mentality often takes the form of traditional methods of ‘brute policing’ which is opposed to the idea of community policing. The Foundation has worked in diverse districts of Vavuniya and Matara highlighting the concept of Community policing, laying stress on the police forces being more engaged with the local communities.
A striking feature of community policing is the ‘bicycle patrolling’ which has been found useful in bridging the trust deficit between the people and the police forces and help in confidence building. According to its surveys, between 2011 and 2013, 84 percent of respondents reported crimes to the police stations rather than anywhere else. This a positive sign as the greater is the interaction of the locals with the police forces, more will be the sensitization of the forces towards community problems. Community Security Committees (CSCs) were also constituted with a view to bringing the community concerns within the ambit of the police. The community interactions as a result, have also increased steadily during this period.

But the program has faced challenges as well. The Foundation in its report observed that the success of community policing to a large extent depended on the Station House Officer and the seniors in the police hierarchy with powers to allocate staff. Language was another major barrier which kept the locals estranged from the police forces. In fact, frequent transfers of senior officers becomes even a greater drawback in places where language was a barrier since the advantages of personal contact and rapport get lost.

The organisational culture of the police also poses a hurdle as it does not train the officers in practical aspects of community policing but only theoretical details. The officers often view the concept of community policing as a tool to gather intelligence rather than as a way to enhancing community interaction with the forces. Again, the place and its relatively evolved civil society makes a difference. The program has progressed smoothly with greater success in the southern district of Matara which has a strong civil society presence as opposed to Vavuniya in the north.

What has the Government Done?

The 18th amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka allows for National Police Commission to have wide ranging powers to entertain and investigate complaints from the members of the public and aggrieved persons against a police officer. Public Complaints Investigation Division has been established with a view to entertaining complaints against the police at the provincial level. The National Police Commission report of 2013 provided for the public to have an opportunity to meet the Chairman or the Secretary of the Commission and present their complaints to them. It states that in providing relief to the public, an open door policy has to be followed. The Commission has introduced a 24 hour hotline to receive complaints from the public.

According to statistics produced by the report13, the major areas of complaints received, related to police inaction, unlawful arrest and detention and abuse of power. On the financial part, the annual budget allocated to the commission a total of 45.38 million Sri Lanka rupees out of which 98.92 percent of the provisions were used in the year 2013. The 19th amendment was enacted to restore the independence of Public Service Commission. The act has been seen as a step forward towards decentralisation by the present regime as opposed to the authoritarian rule of the previous government.

Sri Lanka has the laws in place to deal with cases of alleged misconduct of the police forces. Although it is a positive development, it doesn’t address the root problem. The measure of success of these reforms would be judged by decline in the alleged instances of police atrocity that can happen only with a change in the ways the police operates. Several reports suggest that lack of enthusiasm in the police forces towards community oriented policing originate from lack of incentives in their service conditions. Minimal salary packages and long wait for promotion do little to encourage the forces to cooperate in civil society measures.

The Sri Lankan Police Service, since the days of the civil war, has been controlled heavily by the central government. Since provincial governments have limited power over the forces, they can do little to bring reforms or take innovative measures. Decentralization of the force will allow for the police management to be shared between the center and the provinces that could enhance efficiency in the service. Efforts of the present government to revitalize the police forces will go a long way in ensuring peace in the Sri Lankan society.


1. The Daily Mirror; Shooting incident in Kataragama: villagers look for clues as police allegedly breach law, 29th January, 2018, Piyumi Fonseka.
2. The Sunday Leader, Policing Sri Lanka’s police force, Wimlanath Weeraratne, 2016.
3. Death of Indika Jayesinha, ‘We live in constant fear’ Lack of Accountability for police abuse in Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch, October 2015.
4. The Daily Mirror, Editorial, 27th January, 2018.
5. SRI LANKA: A report on 323 cases of police torture, June 24, 2011, AHRC.
6. We live in constant fear’ Lack of Accountability for police abuse in Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch, October 2015.
7. Police history, Sri Lanka Police.
9. The Daily Mirror; Police Service short of around 10,000 cadres, 28th November, 2011.
10., The New Indian Express; Over 400 Tamils to join Sri Lanka Police in August, 25th June, 2016.
11. The Daily Mirror, Steep drop in grave crimes: Sagala; Thilanka Kanakarathna, 12th January, 2018.
Colombo page; Crimes reduced by 35 percent during the last three years- Law and order Minister, 12th January, 2018.
12. Community policing through bicycle patrolling in Sri Lanka: An incipient post conflict strategy; by Asia Foundation, December 2014. Victoria Chambers, Lisa Denney and Kanniya Pieris.
13. Annual report National Police Commission 2013, Government of Sri Lanka. LK_Police_Ordinance.pdf

(The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct).

Image Source:

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
8 + 2 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
Contact Us