Govt. saw dangers ahead

The exercise of power in society by the military over a long period is not in conformity with democratic norms. Under Emergency Regulations the military could take up law and order issues and move freely amongst the civilian population.
by Jehan Perera

(August 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The government’s decision to end the state of emergency, under which the country had been governed for the past six years, has been universally welcomed. The emergency law permitted the government to clamp down on political life at the same time as it strengthened the government in coping with national security issues. Therefore, whatever the government’s motives in removing the emergency, this action will help to open up space for greater democracy. This is why the leaders of Opposition parties and members of civic and business associations have been vocal in expressing their satisfaction at this government move. But concerns have also been expressed that the government may negate its ending of the emergency regime by substituting a repressive new law in place of it or by adding to the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which will remain in force.

While many from the Opposition and civil society have publicly welcomed the ending of the emergency, it is notable that there was not much domestic political pressure on the government to do so. The usual vote in Parliament was invariably lopsided in favour of the emergency whenever it was debated in that forum prior to being extended, which was once a month. There was hardly any fire in the belly of the Opposition legislators who addressed Parliament on this issue. It was only the TNA, which represents the Tamil people of the North and East, who had their constituency firmly behind them when they voted against the prolongation of the state of emergency. On the other hand, the majority of the population would continue to believe in the government’s claim that the LTTE and Tamil secessionism continue to live and their dangerous designs need to be guarded against.

In addition, the very long period going back four decades in which emergency laws dominated political life in the country, has made most law abiding citizens lose the distinction between emergency and normal laws. The extraordinary powers enjoyed by the government and the security forces in terms of the state of emergency have taken on an appearance of normalcy. The people’s fear of a return to violence, their belief in the right of the government to suppress political protest and opposition, the role of the military in standing on roads and controlling public spaces with their checkpoints and the power of the security forces to apprehend and detain suspects has come to be taken for granted by most people.

Main Consequence

The government’s decision not to continue to extend the state of emergency came in the midst of the so-called "Grease Devil" panic in different parts of the country. Angry mobs of people have attacked police stations and military camps in different parts of the country, claiming the involvement of the security forces in the supposed Grease Devil attacks on women. Severe disturbances along with loss of life have taken place in north, east, central hills and west of the country, in which the ethnic minorities are in a majority. This problem would have offered the government a valid reason to continue with the state of emergency to ensure national security in the context of a breakdown of law and order. In fact, the justification given by the government for continuing with the emergency even after the end of the war over two years ago, and for purchasing more sophisticated weaponry was the need to ensure tight national security in the aftermath of a protracted and costly thirty year war.

However, the government seems to have been jolted by the severity of the clashes between the military and civilian population. One of the worst incidents reported was in Navanturai in the North, about one hundred persons have been arrested in the aftermath of a clash with the security forces in which many had been severely assaulted. There was also the brutal killing of an unarmed policeman by a mob in Puttalam in the West and the shooting of an unarmed civilian in the melee. What the ‘Grease Devil’ problem might have demonstrated to the government is that the increase in militarization becomes both dangerous and self-defeating in the context of the breakdown of a loss of confidence in the security forces. It can also lead to sections of the military breaching discipline.

The exercise of power in society by the military over a long period is not in conformity with democratic norms. Under Emergency Regulations the military could take up law and order issues and move freely amongst the civilian population. While the Sri Lankan armed forces take pride in their discipline and professionalism, such involvement in civilian affairs can only be justified in a time of terrorism and war, which in now a thing of the past in Sri Lanka. The most salutary feature of the restoration of normal law in democratic societies is the separation of military and civil power in governance. A far seeing political leadership that has a sure grasp of ground realities will see the dangers ahead. In the light of the allegations and counter-allegations regarding the ‘Grease Devil’ problem, the main consequence of a lifting of the state of emergency will be the restoration of civil authority.

Facing Geneva

On the other hand, the relative absence of a strong public opinion and agitation by the Opposition parties for a rescinding of the emergency regulations has made it natural to assume that the government lifted the emergency as a response to international pressures. From the time the war ended over two years and three months ago, a powerful section of the international community that comprises some of the country’s main trading and aid partners, has been urging the restoration of normal law, justice to victims and reconciliation through a political solution. The existence of a weak civilian administration in the former war zones of the north and east, and the domination of the military in civilian affairs there, has been marked for special reference.

There is no doubt that the Sri Lankan government would wish this powerful section of the international community to be more sympathetic and supportive of it especially as regards the looming issue of alleged war crimes. The UN’s Human Rights Council is scheduled to commence its meetings in September where the issue of accountability of the government in the conduct of the last phase of the war is likely to be canvassed. The government would prefer to delay any international discussion of this issue as long as possible. The government has been putting a great deal of emphasis on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, which is reported to be dealing with some of the most contentious issues, including the authenticity of the videos that have been broadcast on many international television channels and even been viewed in international parliamentary forums.

As the LLRC’s final report is not due until November the government will be hoping to delay any discussion of the accountability issues at the UN’s Human Rights Council until that time. The government is clearly taking the forthcoming sessions of the UNHRC very seriously, as it is planning to send at least four government ministers to bolster the strength and credibility of its team of diplomats. By and large the governments that comprise the international community are understanding of governments that have to deal with issues of terrorism, secession and internal conflicts and are aware of the human rights challenges in them. But they also wish to see processes in play that contain the fallout of such challenges. The withdrawal of the state of emergency if coupled with actions to effectively implement that positive change would be evidence that the Sri Lankan government is following such a process.
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