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If you live as a foreigner in Sri Lanka, police hassle is likely part of your reality. Indeed, the majority of those who drive their own vehicle have multiple stories of unwarranted interrogation and arbitrary fining.

Sri Lanka is tightening its traffic laws

In July 2018, Sri Lanka Police bolstered its fines for traffic violations, making misdemeanours like driving without a helmet and driving without a license punishable with on-the-spot fines ranging from Rs. 1000 to Rs. 3,000 (about £4/9/13).

It was proposed in January 2019 to revise penalties for ‘major motor traffic offences’—i.e., driving under the influence of alcohol, driving without a valid driving license, entering a vehicle into a railway crossing irresponsibly, driving under-age and driving without valid insurance—to Rs. 25,000. Such offences are the leading causes of road traffic accidents.

The tightening of traffic laws is welcome to those of us who witness the results of unregulated roads every day. Buses, the indefatigable tanks of Sri Lanka’s road network, with crumpled faces; scooters scattered by trucks; bloodied bumpers and men yelling at each other by the side of the road, desperate to keep it from the police. It is par for the course here, to a degree, though that does not make it any less tragic.

Witnessing these roadside set-tos, it is easy to see men squabbling over money as a symptom of petty greed, or callousness. The real issue is that the larger fines and increases in regulation only add a financial burden to those who are accustomed to the old system, without allowing them the benefits. If you are caught out and can’t pay your way, you are penalised. New policies help, but the problem is still endemic.

Why tighter laws don’t necessarily make for tighter policing

Powers granted to police officers include the ability to enter and inspect homes without a permit, use a firearm if deemed appropriate, and seize a driving license without explanation. In addition, the State of Emergency declared by the President after the Easter Sunday attacks gave significant liberties to the police. The highly criticised Emergency Regulations cover censorship, public gatherings, restrictions on publication and the spreading of “rumours” – maintained with any force necessary.

On top of this, extrajudicial acts, like the public humiliation of three suspects in 2013 and assaulting a student protester who had fallen to the ground in 2015, are seemingly swept under the rug. In the former case, the Superintendent of Police allegedly ‘paraded, and […] thereafter cut the hair of three suspects in public’.

While it is becoming increasingly regulated, policing is still conducted by corrupt individuals who act outside the law. Appeals to local police departments against the unjust or inappropriate behaviour of road traffic officers typically end in chaos, humiliation and dead-ends.

Civilians taking the law into their own hands… whose law?

Little reported (though more so in recent weeks) is the way in which Sri Lanka’s Muslim population has borne the brunt of this approach to policing. There are stories rising to the surface of ministers resigning over harassment, and worshippers being harassed, and people being detained for reading the Qu’ran. Following the burqa and niqab ban, Muslim women stayed indoors to avoid abuse. The government recently set up a hotline exclusively for Muslims to report such incidents.

There have been calls to boycott Muslim-owned shops, amid increasing distrust of Sri Lanka’s Muslims. This hostility has been stoked by Buddhist hardliners, led by the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or “Buddhist Power Force”. The group’s chief executive, Dilantha Vithanage, warned that Sri Lankans might be “forced” to deal with what he called “a rise in Islamic extremism” on their own. As quoted in Reuters, he claims “[t]his is a bigger danger than Tamil separatism”.

Buddhist fundamentalism and Islamophobia receives little coverage in the international media – it is drowned out by a focus on and interest in Islamophobia alone. Whether an event is politicised or not depends on which narrative it supports, or undermines. The overarching global story regarding Buddhism is that it can do no wrong; Islam, conversely, is frequently scapegoated. One can see how easy it is for civilians to target Muslims with racist abuse and assaults – they are *protecting their country*.

Radicals scare governments either to submission or oppression.

Ever since independence in 1948, Buddhist fundamentalism has been the driving force behind Sinhala intransigence on the ‘Tamil question’. A Buddhist monk assassinated S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party and the country’s fourth Prime Minister, in 1959. His crime? Making too many (in fact they were too few) concessions to the country’s large Tamil minority had cost him his life and spawned a dynasty. But the deterrent effect worked. Sinhala politicians of all stripes began to pander to the monks. Anti-Tamil discrimination was institutionalised. It was a tragedy for the island. The notion that these warped methods could produce long-term stability is risible.

Tariq Ali 

Militarised Islamic fundamentalism has led to increased security throughout the entire country. Military patrols are ubiquitous, spot-checks frequent, places of worship guarded, transport hubs surveilled, and so on. On the other hand, Buddhist fundamentalism – or, for that matter, attacks by white supremacists (Christians) in New Zealand, the US and Norway – rarely prompts such sweeping policy changes.

Where do foreigners fit in? Context

Understanding the way in which the foreign presence fits in requires a little context.

The 2004 tsunami killed 30,000 Sri Lankans and cost the country’s tourism sector Rs. 26 billion ($250 million). In its wake, Sri Lanka’s tourism authorities sought to spin a torn country into an island of upscale resorts. Bounce Back Sri Lanka, set up in close consultation with the private sector, was an international marketing campaign aimed at restoring tourist traffic. Hotels were rebuilt and beaches cleaned. While funds were funnelled into this, little was done to assist genuine recovery.

A year after, thousands of coastal Sri Lankans were still living hand-to-mouth in camps, uncertain of their future. Seemingly ignorant of this, the Sri Lankan Tourist Board was optimistic:

‘In a cruel twist of fate, nature has presented Sri Lanka with a unique opportunity, and out of this great tragedy will come a world class tourism destination.’

The deflation of prices following a disaster leaves local businesses struggling. At the same time, it makes foreign money all the more powerful.

Where do foreigners fit in? Perception

In a country marred by inequality directly connected to race, cowed by a burgeoning tourism industry, it is understandable that foreigners receive mixed reviews.

While many locals are very friendly, it is hard to ignore the obvious divide in wealth, opportunity and privilege. The real cost of things is unknown to much of the foreign community, and it is well known among expatriates that, for this reason, many tuk tuk drivers overcharge. There are fights between the local drivers and those who use PickMe (a Sri Lankan equivalent to Uber), because it undercuts those who overprice.

When news breaks of attacks on religious sites or conflicts between religious groups, foreigners get together and discuss. When word gets round of a series of houses being broken into, we keep our doors locked and lights on at night.

Foreigners are assumed rich and often are, assumed to be naïve and promiscuous and to be wearing rose-tinted glasses. Indeed, they/we often are.

We do not speak Sinhalese and we do not understand the nuances of the Sri Lankan legal system. We are vulnerable and moneyed and do not wish to be detained in police custody. Indeed, the extent to which we do not wish to be detained is such that we are willing to play the game and accept the fine, well aware that the money will be immediately pocketed. It is a convenient way to avoid the frightening unknown.

Where do foreigners fit in? Policing

On the 10th of May, 2019, I was pulled over, with my partner, by two police officers. We were on our way home from an open mic night. It was about 11pm and the road was almost empty.

One of the policemen talks and the other is silent. Despite a congenial introduction, the charges immediately jump from overtaking on a double line, to driving without a license, to driving while under the influence of alcohol. I must pay fines ranging from Rs. 7,500 to Rs. 25,000. I am told to drive to Weligama Police Station, to be breathalysed and arrested, despite being told I am too drunk to drive. My license is at home but I cannot drive there to show them. Returning to the spot where we overtook them, to check the validity of the first claim, is impossible. I am not too drunk to drive.

The silent officer lunges at the motorbike and seizes the keys. Then, as we are manoeuvring the bike off the road, he lunges again to lock the handlebars. He raises a hand at my partner and threatens to hit her.

When I take out my phone and begin to record the incident, the other officer lurches at me and snatches it from my hands. He raises his baton at me and tells me I cannot have it back.

They get back on their motorbike and tell us to follow them to the police station. They leave. We remain, confused, not knowing what exactly we should do, and wondering which of our Sri Lankan friends might be able to help us. Are we hopeless?

Two minutes later we see them driving back. After a brief exchange, we are told to give them all the money we have, in exchange for my phone.

As we are driving away, defeated, I wonder if anyone has won.

When we get home, we learn that two of our friends were mistreated on the same road within an hour of us—separate incidents.

How to respond

In situations like this it is easy to feel numbed and immobilised. Consulting foreign friends of ours, who have had comparable experiences, we are told repeatedly that there is nothing we can do, that reporting it useless and no action will be taken unless it goes right to the top. Sri Lankan friends advise us that an appeal would lead to us being criminalised by any means.    At this time of year, tourism moves its way east to follow the surf. As a result, those who make their money off tourists – tuk tuk drivers, restaurateurs and, yes, the police – want to make a last buck. Besides the police part, this is unsurprising.

However, the shift is supposed to be gradual. Coming back a few days after the Easter Sunday bombings was like entering a ghost town. Since the attacks, tourist numbers have plummeted. Within a week, net bookings were down 186% compared to figures from 2018—more cancellations than bookings. Combine this with the seasonal decline and what is left is a recipe for hawkish behaviour.

The atmosphere of unease created by the attacks and ensuing raids is compounded by ubiquitous military deployment. Assault rifles guard bus and gas stations, and patrol the beaches.

But the reasons for the increased vigilance are to keep people safe by locating threats, and reassure people by having a uniformed presence. It is a crying shame that figures of authority are abusing the powers granted them in the wake of a national disaster. On that very same night, one of our friends, whom we had been with in the evening, returned home to find that her scooter had been impounded. She had left it on the side of the road for a few hours. Another woman who we met that night was harassed by police on her way home.

What felt like an arbitrary siege on a group of foreigners may have been a coincidence. However, it raises the question of why police feel entitled to abuse their powers at a time when the government needs people to have faith in its policies, and those who enact them. More than ever, Sri Lanka is in the international spotlight. Law enforcers must act with consistency towards residents. On the same note, Muslims have called this country home since the 7th century AD. They, too, deserve to be treated with respect.