India and Western nations on Friday praised Sri Lanka’s lifting of tough wartime emergency laws but an opposition party said it was merely a ploy because the government still has the power Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) at its disposal.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa lifted the emergency laws on Thursday, saying they were unnecessary after the two years of peace Sri Lanka has enjoyed since his government defeated the Tamil Tiger separatists in a 25-year civil war.
Immediately after the war, the government resisted pressure from ally India and Western nations to lift the laws, which gave the government the power to arrest people without charge.
Rajapaksa’s administration has rejected criticism the laws were used to silence political opponents.
“This, in our view, is a welcome step,” Indian External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna told India’s parliament on Friday. “We hope that this will be followed by effective steps leading to genuine national reconciliation in the country.”
Britain, Australia and the United States also welcomed the decision. All three countries had pushed Sri Lanka to drop the laws, saying it would help ethno-political reconciliation after a three-decade civil war fought on ethnic lines.
“This is a significant step towards normalizing life for the people of Sri Lanka,” the U.S. embassy in Colombo said in a statement.
Sri Lanka still remains heavily militarised, with some checkpoints in place across the country and many soldiers out on the streets, especially in the former war zone in the north.
The opposition Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, a Marxist party that fell out with Rajapaksa, said the PTA’s existence meant democracy was still at risk.
“The government should abolish PTA immediately. It has given extraordinary power to the government and military, superceding the normal civil laws,” JVP legislator Anura Kumara Dissanayaka told reporters.
MILITARY STILL ON STREETS
The PTA allows warrantless arrests and searches of anyone suspected of involvement in “terrorist activity” and the defence minister — which is Rajapaksa — can order detentions of up to 18 months. Suspects do have a right to trial but not by jury.
Residents in Jaffna, a primarily Tamil city which has been under military control since the army wrested it back from the Tigers in 1995, said there would not be much change.
“The Prevention of Terrorism Act still exists. So I don’t see any freedom for us in this open military prison,” a Jaffna resident told Reuters on condition of anonymity, for fear of angering pro-government elements.
Three other residents expressed similar sentiments.
Rajapaksa has promised political reconciliation, but progress has been slow. Many northern Tamils are sceptical the president, who is Sinhalese like three-fourths of Sri Lanka’s 21 million people, will deliver it.
All of Sri Lanka’s governments since independence in 1948 have been run by a Sinhalese leader, and minority people including Tamils and Muslims have often complained of discrimination.
Sri Lanka remains under heavy pressure from rights groups, Western governments and well-funded pro-Tamil Tiger groups in the Tamil diaspora to probe alleged war crimes in the conflict’s final months.
(Writing by Bryson Hull; Editing by Ed Lane)