Emergency removal timed to generate good publicity
Two years after its decisive victory against the Tamil rebels in Sri Lanka, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government has announced its intention to allow the state of emergency in the country to lapse.
The country, which first had emergency declared in 1971 amid fears of a Marxist takeover of government, has been under martial law intermittently for the past three decades and continuously since 2005 after the Tamil rebels carried out a spate of assassinations. The withdrawal of emergency — which gave sweeping powers to the administration to arrest and detain people without trial and deny them basic freedoms — was expected, and fervently hoped for, after the end of the war in 2009, but the Rajapaksa government refused to comply.
The extension of the emergency regulations since then, month after month, have kept alive and fed on fears of the “enemy” amid the people. The law has allowed the Rajapaksa government to throttle dissent, mug the media and justify the concentration of power in its hands. It has done nothing to further the cause of peace or the normalization of ethnic ties in post-war Sri Lanka.
Hence the repeal is bound to be welcomed by the critics of the government, by the people of the country and by the international community. Read together with the holding of the recent local council polls in the strife-torn north and east of Sri Lanka, the lifting of emergency can even be seen as indication of the government’s determination to allow democracy free play.
But the lifting of emergency alone does not guarantee that. There is suspicion that the Rajapaksa government’s move has been timed to generate good publicity for the government on the eve of the meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva next month.
There are also fears that whatever the government stands to lose by its munificence can be made up for by the use of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. The Rajapaksa government has made itself vulnerable to mistrust and allegations of deceit by its steadfast refusal to investigate wartime atrocities and unwillingness to go for a political solution of the ethnic problem.
Unless the government backs up the withdrawal of emergency by assuring its people of greater freedom and guarantees the ethnic minority security and their rights as citizens of the country, its moves will always run the risk of being seen as opportunistic.