Police Harassment in Sri Lanka: An Anecdote

Bruno Cooke
Sep 24 · 4 min read

What Can You Do?

11 o’clock and we find ourselves, once again, being interrogated and hassled by two men in uniform. One is lean, the other stout. The charges are overtaking on a double line, driving while under the influence of alcohol and driving without a license. To be clear, I have a license, I am not drunk, and we are not allowed to go back to the spot where I overtook them to check the validity of the first claim.

They asked where we are from, and where we have been. He smells my breath and shouts that I am drunk.

— You are drunk! Drinking, driving!
— I am not drunk.

We have been playing music at an open mic event. We have eaten pizza and calzone, and shared a couple of beers between us over the course of about three hours. We are not drunk.

— Drunk! You cannot drinking and driving. Come with us.
— To where?
Police station, we arrest you.
— But there is no room on your bike.
Drive. You follow us.
— But you said I was too drunk to drive.

Again, I’m not too drunk to drive. But for a police officer to follow an accusation of drunk-driving with a demand that the so-called ‘drunk driver’ drives himself plus passenger to the police station in order to, I suppose, prove that he is driving illegally, seems not only nonsensical but also actually illegal.

— Fine, fine. You give us money.
— But I don’t have any money.
— 7,500 rupees, give us money.
— We don’t have that much.

We have notes amounting to about 1,800 rupees, or eight pounds. Not exactly a great haul, for them. But since the bombings, we figured, they’ll take whatever they can get. Tourists are thin on the ground so they’re targeting those of us who are still here, the residents.

— Come with us. Police station. You drive.
— But that’s illegal.
— We have French breathalyser machine. You know? You breathe, if we find 0.9% alcohol in your blood, we arrest you. Lion Beer is 4.8%. Understand?
— I understand. But — . . .
Maybe you are honestly man driver but she is troublemaker.
— She wasn’t driving. I was.

They keep saying they will arrest us and that we should follow them to the police station, but they don’t make any move to go. So far, the lean man is doing most of the talking, but there is something brewing in the other, rounder of face, out-of-frame man. He’s the meat of the mission, up to his lids in brawn, and he’s biding his time while the first man, the lean man, runs circles with his arrest you/fine you/follow me/take a bus/‘maybe you are honestly man’ talk. It is late and frustrating and we want to go home.

At an opportune moment, Mr Brawn, Portly Brawn, makes a lunge at the keys of the motorbike and yanks them from the ignition. He is revealing himself. I get off the bike and try to reason with the first man, the one who talks. When Laura starts to walk the motorbike in the direction of our house, PB comes into his own, springing to action, rumbling alongside her on his larger, heavier and more functional and altogether more intimidating vehicle. Like a tomahawk he dives onto the handlebars and locks them in place, immobilising Laura & Bike in their tracks.

Laura holds out her hand and asks for the keys back, at which point he raises his hand, as if to hit her. This, oddly, or not, is where time slows down a little. He has raised his hand at Laura. At roughly the same moment, the other man is taking my phone, by force, from my grip. He unclasps his baton from his waist and holds it high above his head, like an executioner.

I ask myself: What is going on?

Peanut Butter wheels his bike round and the other hops on, leaning, lean, bastardly.

— Weligama police station. Come now. You follow us.

And they’re off, bike screeching, phone in hand. Something glints in the sky and our motorbike keys land on the floor in the middle of the road. Someone shrieks. We stare at each other, nonplussed. A quarter of an hour ago we were listening to an Englishman sing the Blues, shaking our egg shakers and feeling merry. Now we are pissed off, a little shaken, and very bored.

Two or three minutes later their headlight crawls along the side of the road and slows to a stop before us. Breath of silence. Almost a shiver, if it weren’t so fucking hot. I’m perspiring but I can’t show it.

Personal Best sits there on his throne, beige khakis, dark helmet, breathing heavily, Darth, Medusa. It is the lean man, the talker, who approaches, hand outstretched. Nothing is spoken. His eyes are glued on something in the distance, but nothing moves. A lorry whistles past us, barely a foot from our cheeks and elbows, but nothing stirs. I dig into my pocket and produce a handful of notes. They are crumpled and assorted, a fist of colour. His eyes drop down shakily and observe it in the dark.

I hand him the money, all of it. His hand touches mine and for a moment I feel his fingers groping for something, clawing. Before he turns I look at his eyes and hold them as seconds pass. They are reddened and his skin is paler, almost black in the darkness. He looks almost able to cry. There is a bizarre sense of deflation in the air, like everybody has lost. He sees it. But then he is gone, and we are left collecting our wits. We drive home without talking, sleep without thinking.

Bruno Cooke

Written by

UK novelist/writer currently based in the Philippines, writing about long distance cycle trips, cultural differences and global politics. Visit onurbicycle.com.

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