This article was published in Weekly No. 314 of 6 September 2018.
Two cases of armed robbery on 11 and 14 August are the straw that broke the camel’s back for the United Chinese Association (UCA) which launched its own “private patrol” on 23 August. Consisting of about 30 martial arts enthusiasts, the UCA Patrol is meant to “assist the police” and act as a deterrent against crime in this historic part of the capital. Weekly met this new private patrol and put them on the spot about taking the law into their own hand and the possibility of having their initiative communally replicated elsewhere.
The UCA Patrol is billed as one of the means of improving security in Chinatown, with the other methods involving crime prevention ones such as sensitisation campaigns and liaising with business owners for better outdoor lighting.
Weekly decided to meet this private patrol and find out how it works. We arranged a meeting with the group at 9pm on Thursday 30 August. We get there at 8.15pm. The Royal Road, which is the main artery of Chinatown, is fairly busy with a constant stream of vehicles leaving the city-centre. The side roads are however quieter and there is no sign of any private patrol. Two police cars from the Southern Metropolitan Division are parked outside the State Bank of Mauritius branch further up the Royal Road. A couple of minutes later, a third police vehicle, from the Roche Bois station, parks just outside the former casino L’Amicale.
“The Royal Road is quite busy, but the side-roads, as you can see, are quiet, dark and unsafe.”
We meet a group of colleagues coming out of a restaurant at Arsenal Street. “We’ve never felt unsafe since we’re always in numbers,” they say, “but it’s true that the atmosphere is quite spooky, especially in streets where there’s a lack of lighting.” Have they heard of the new UCA Patrol? “Yes, but we haven’t met them yet.” They feel that the police do not do their job properly and that this kind of patrol is unfortunately necessary.
We next come across a regular of Chinatown who claims that the historic area “wasn’t too safe before the police started patrolling it a couple of weeks ago”. “The Royal Road is quite busy, but the side-roads, as you can see, are quiet, dark and unsafe.” He recalls that when a Chinese cook was murdered in the neighbourhood in November 2013, the police started patrolling the area and then stopped until now. Having met the UCA Patrol in action “a couple of times”, he reckons that their presence has had “an effect”.
At 9pm, we get a call from our contact who asks us to meet him at the Chinatown gate next to the Jummah Mosque. As we get closer, an impressive scene unfolds. A group of about 25 people, all clad in red T-shirts reading “UCA Patrol at the back, have amassed under the gate marking the entrance to Chinatown. Our contact-cum-leader breaks the group down into smaller subgroups and assigns each one of them a street to patrol. We join the Dr. Joseph Rivière Street subgroup, comprising three middle-aged men, and start chatting. We learn that the volunteer patrollers are aged 19 to 60, and hold day jobs in fitness, freight, the restaurant industry and so on. They concede that they don’t patrol every day and are not always in such high numbers. “We base our action on the element of surprise. If malevolent people come to Chinatown, they won’t know when we’ll be there and how many of us will be there,” they claim. Apart from the fried noodle seller at the bottom of Dr. Joseph Rivière Street, the street is very quiet at that time of night. A couple of motorcycles and cars drive past. With nothing suspicious in sight, we return to the Royal Road and quiz our contact.
“We plan to set up a duly licenced professional private patrol eventually to help the police.”
He denies that the UCA Patrol is usurping the powers of the police by claiming they have no arms, only a mere cell phone to call the police. “The police are doing a great job. They caught the author of [Rachel Brasseur’s] attack promptly.” But isn’t the police’s timeliness due to popular pressure rather? “We do agree there has been pressure which led to the arrest,” he declares.
Contacted, Inspector Shiva Coothen of the Police Press Office argues that more developed countries like Australia and Canada have set up neighbourhood watches too. “The police cannot have an officer at every junction. That’s why we need the help of responsible and willing citizens.” Legally, the Private Security Service Act 2008 makes it compulsory for “any person who wishes to operate a private security service” to “make an application” to the commissioner of police. Isn’t the UCA Patrol in clear breach of the law then since it doesn’t own a licence? Coothen claims that he is “unaware of whether or not the UCA Patrol presents itself as a private patrol”. “When the Chinatown community met the police, it was decided to set up a neighbourhood watch as has been the case in Sodnac, Tamarin and the Ward IV of Port-Louis previously, not a private patrol,” points out Coothen.
Conversely, the UCA Patrol acknowledges that they plan to set up a duly licenced “professional private patrol” eventually to “help the police”. “There currently are regular police patrols which won’t unfortunately be there indefinitely.” Who’d pay for the UCA private patrol? “We’ll talk to local businesses. If they cannot pay, the UCA will step in,” adds our contact.
We also enquire about the composition of the UCA Patrol, and find out that there are no Chinatown inhabitants in it. “Our members come from other areas of Mauritius, but half of them own businesses here,” claims our contact. “There aren’t many inhabitants of Chinatown anymore unfortunately, since the youth have emigrated. The few who are left are old,” he contends.
We then challenge him on whether a group like the UCA Patrol, consisting mostly of Sino-Mauritians looking after the Chinese quarter of Mauritius would not plant communal ideas into the minds of other groups and turn Mauritius into a country patrolled by communal militias. “There aren’t many Sino-Mauritians in Chinatown nowadays,” posits our source. “Today, there are more non-Sino-Mauritians than Sino-Mauritians here. We’ve even got positive feedback from the Jummah Mosque for instance, and we call at non-Chinese restaurants like Rozi Darbarr on Léoville L’Homme Street (outside Chinatown, opposite Chinese restaurant City Orient). Coothen too brushes aside the communal remarks. “There’s nothing communal here. It is the duty of every responsible citizen to help the police combat crime.”
The UCA Patrol officially received guidelines from the police at meetings on how to operate and in what circumstances they are allowed to intervene. “If we witness an incident, we’ll call the police first. Only if the police take too long to call at the spot, or if we see or foresee danger on self, will we then intervene,” said our contact. For inspector Coothen, “If you witness an individual in need of assistance, and can, without endangering your own self, provide such assistance, then you are legally bound to offer assistance. Otherwise, you could be charged with a culpable act of omission.” Furthermore, Coothen remarked that section 16 of the District and Intermediate Courts (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act, provides for a “private person who sees a crime committed or attempted to be committed or a dangerous wound given” to “arrest the offender without warrant”.
After spending two hours in Chinatown on a Thursday night, we witnessed no crime. Heightened police presence offered a greater feeling of security than the UCA Patrol did. The more legitimate authority of the police had a definite role to play there. Some questions remain unanswered though: how long will the police be there and will other, more sectarian groups, emulate the UCA Patrol elsewhere?