Saying No to Emergency Laws
With lack of clarity at the end of a prolonged state of emergency, Sri Lanka continues to struggle under the façade of peace and freedom.
Since the end of the civil war in May 2009, the Sri Lankan government was under domestic and international pressures for removing the emergency regulations as a step towards normalisation and national reconciliation process in the country. The Sri Lankan government argued that emergency regulations were required to control the comeback of LTTE ‘ remnants.’ Recently, while repealing the emergency regulations the government rejected the impression that it was doing so under international pressure, but rather because the security situation in the country had improved and the LTTE had been destroyed. The Sri Lankan President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, announced the lifting of the State of Emergency on August 25. In his statement in the parliament President Rajapaksa said, ‘There have been no terrorist activities since the end of the war in May 2009 … I am satisfied that an extension of emergency is not required any more so I inform (the parliament) that we will not extend the emergency any more.’
The emergency regulations comprise two pillars - one is the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) 1947; and the other is Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) 1979. The regulations imposed since 1983 gave the state and government authorities overarching powers of search and arrest resulting in arbitrary detentions, torture and enforced detentions. During the state of emergency, various international human rights organisations reported that thousands of people had been detained in official and unofficial detention centres without trial. Human Rights Watch (HRW) in its February 2010 report documented the detention without trial of ‘more than 11,000 people’ suspected of affiliations with the LTTE. Even after the end of the civil war in May 2009, according to a HRW report, nearly 3,000 suspects were being detained. Adding to this were enforced disappearances of a large number of people, still to be accounted for, suspected of having links with LTTE.
The lifting of the emergency regulations has been welcomed by state officials. UPFA General Secretary and Petroleum Industries Minister, Susil Premajayantha, said that the government by lifting the emergency has shown ‘its genuine willingness to give peace dividends to the people.’ Senior Minister for Human Resources, D. E. W. Gunasekera, said that the decision of the government ‘would strengthen the democratic process and the confidence of the people.’ Construction and Engineering Services Minister, Nimal Weerawansa, welcoming the repealing of emergency regulations said that the decision ‘proved that Sri Lanka is a peaceful country which has assured the democratic rights of the civil society.’
Despite the welcome statements, as reported by Sri Lankan media, the repealing of the emergency regulations has not resulted in a major political change. Many of the ‘draconian laws’ still exist in the form of a ‘new set of rules’ issued by President Rajapaksa just a few days after he announced the lifting of emergency regulations on August 25. Under the new set of rules most of the regulations under PTA are still in force. President Rajapaksa issued four proclamations on August 29 which include the continuation of the ban on LTTE and detention of Tamils as ‘Tamil suspects’ in the rehabilitation camps. President Rajapaksa issued a second proclamation on September 3, declaring the state-owned Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) as the ‘essential service’ thus banning strikes by CEB unions and its employees.
Those engaging in strikes or inciting others for strikes will have to face stiff punishment. President Rajapaksa informed the parliament on September 7, that he has issued a third ordinance under the Public Security Act (PSA) directing the three armed forces
to deploy officials in all 25 districts of the country ‘for the determination of public order.’ The PSA gives sweeping powers to the military for search and arrest and also allows the government to maintain ‘wartime security checkpoints and street patrols.’
The re-introduction of the emergency regulations in the form of new laws has generated suspicions, uncertainty and criticism by the international community. Amnesty International stated, ‘The Sri Lankan government must follow up its repeal of the State of Emergency by removing repressive legislation such as the Prevention of Terrorism Act.’ Brad Adams, Director, HRW, in his statement issued on September 7, said, ‘Governments that have called for the repeal of the emergency powers should not be fooled by this cynical “bait and switch”.’ Mr J. C. Weliamuna, Executive Director of Transparency International in Sri Lanka commented on September 19, ‘the President has withdrawn the Emergency Proclamation but has made measures to keep the “emergency legal regime” going. I do not think there is evidence to establish that the government has taken any steps to remove the “emergency hang-up,” though the emergency has lapsed.’
Domestically, the deceitful move by the government has caused suspicions and mistrust. Sri Lanka’s former Attorney General, Mohan Peiris, while speaking to reporters said, ‘the lapsing of the emergency regulations will not mean a change in detention practices.’ While condemning the government’s decision the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), an independent organisation in Sri Lanka, in its statement issued on September 23, said, ‘We believe that the re-introduction of regulations of this nature … is dishonest and wholly incongruent with the President’s promises to Par- liament.’ The disillusionment is quite obvious by the statement of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Member of Parliament, M.A. Sumanthiran who categorically said on September 4, that TNA ‘will challenge the new regulations in a court of law soon.’ The government is holding talks with the TNA for finding a political solution to the problem in the Northern and Eastern region but the government’s re-introduction of ‘draconian’ emergency laws will have a negative impact on the dialogue process.
If the Rajapaksa government is committed to its efforts for normalisation and national reconciliation in Sri Lanka, there is a need to act rationally and not indulge in policy moves which develop suspicions, insecurity and mistrust.
Will emergency regulations ever end?