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Goonda

The venerable colloquialism 'goonda' doesn't refer to parliamentarians or other elected representatives of the Sri Lankan people - yet. The way things have been going these past several decades, it may well do so soon. Unless, that is, a bold new idea by the Government is put into action and is effective.

The association of politics with thuggery in Sri Lanka now has a considerable history. Political thuggery has held sway over much of our post-Independence life. It could be interpreted as being a precursor for the much larger scale political violence that later swept the country ending in insurgency, counter-insurgency, and secessionist war.

Political thuggery, or, the deployment of thugs by politicians, began to emerge as a notable phenomenon in the late nineteen sixties and seventies, as the political contest for power intensified in the post-Independence era of competitive electoral politics. The intimidation of rival politicians, coercion of political supporters, vengeance against political rivals and their followers, the physical destruction of rival politicians logistics and facilities, and the physical obstruction of the normal electoral processes, are some of the purposes for which thugs have been deployed by politicians ranging from the lowliest Pradeshiya Sabha to the Provincial Council and Parliament.

This kind of thuggery has involved verbal abuse and threats, beatings, knifings, shootings, abductions, torture, mutilation and murder.

Successive governments, involving all major political parties, have either shown a blind eye to political thuggery or, arguably, have directly benefited from it. The nurturing, thereby, of this form of inherently anti-democratic behaviour has seen the firm establishment of thuggery as a standard fixture of Sri Lankan politics. It has become so part of Sri Lankan political life that not only are goondas deployed by politicians, but they are also known to be actually in the permanent employ of some.

Today, the practice of political thuggery is so severe, so blatant and, so widespread that the association of politicians with thugs is now considered as almost 'natural' and the norm rather than the exception.

Now, the ruling United National Party proposes a bold new measure that may just be the answer to this 'normalisation' of political thuggery. The party is exploring the feasibility of withdrawing the authorization currently given to Members of Parliament, and Provincial ministers to maintain permanent units of bodyguards and other security arrangements.

This removes the facility for politicians to have, at their beck and call, gangs of goondas whom they could deploy in acts of political thuggery. Only a very few top politicians whose official status, or active role in peace-making renders them potential targets for political violence, will be allowed to maintain permanent security units. The rest will have to make do with a security escort on particular occasions for specific functions.

If this idea becomes reality, in one sweeping action, the Government will be able to reduce the large private armies of goondas and thereby reduce the possibility of such thuggery. While this move is likely to be unacceptable, for security reasons, to most parliamentarians and other politicians, such an initiative will be most admired and appreciated by all those wanting to see an end to this shameful behaviour.

The UNP is understood to be preparing to decide, shortly, on this course of action. If this is efficiently and equitably implemented, this shedding of goondas will certainly do our national body politic much good. Like in all other political exercises, this too must ensure that neither major political party uses it as a means of undermining the others power and effectiveness.

A failure to implement this idea or to take any action on this problem could eventually see the blurring of the images of both politician and goonda. And if parliamentarians end up as thugs and thugs as parliamentarians, how will the rest of the citizenry behave?

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