Miles to go to restore democracy

The Government has, at long last, decided to lift the Emergency Regulations, promulgated under the Public Security Ordinance, thus bringing the curtains down on the 40 year saga of Emergency rule in this country.

The truth is, Emergency regulations in a way, had come into being contemporaneously with the dawn of independence. The then State Council hurriedly passed the Public Security Ordinance on the eve of the (then) Ceylon’s independence to meet the threat of general strike led by the powerful leftist trade unions of the day. For the next quarter century, the same ordinance was invoked intermittently by successive governments to confront threats posed to national security as well as in times of internal crisis. Emergency Regulations were brought in by the governments of the day to deal with situations arising from the communal riots of 1958, the alleged conspiracy behind the abortive coup of 1962 and JVP’s armed insurrection in 1971.

It is argued that emergency regulations had to be imposed to deal with exigencies of the situations given the specific nature of the crisis faced by governments of the day. While this may hold water in truly extraordinary situations, in reality these have often been exercised for purposes well beyond the ambit of national security and had much to do with sheer political advantage to the ruling parties.

A classic case of abuse of power under these regulations was the sealing of the Independent Newspapers Ltd (publishers of “Davasa”, “Sun” and “Dinapathy” group) in the early 1970s.

As far as Tamils – the minorities – are concerned, the thousands of cases of abuse and misuse of power suffered by them during the last 30 years bear ample testimony to the ruthless and wanton use of Emergency regulations against defenseless citizens.

The regulations were brought into force in the late 70s, ostensibly to confront and subdue Tamil uprising. Ever since then, the country has been under the yoke of Emergency regulations, save for very short periods of a few months, now and then, in 1990, 1995, 2002 and 2005.

The country has been under Emergency rule for so long that those of the last generation, still alive, have only dim memories of life under normal rules of law.

Under Public security ordinance or Emergency regulations, the President has the powers to call out the armed forces, order curfew and grant authority to officials to detain people even without charges.

It is important to note that those now in the service of the armed forces and Police are those who received this authority flowing from the President and accustomed to exercising it for a long time, The entirety of the service personnel comprising the three armed forces and police now in service are those who can only count a maximum of 35 years experience or under. The emergency regulations, now to be withdrawn, had become operational before they entered service. In the circumstances the question arises whether such personnel, long accustomed to exercising unbridled power of emergency regulations throughout their service period, can now reconcile themselves to carry out their duties under the normal rules of the country.

Optimists may welcome the revocation as a welcome move believing it would pave the way towards national reconciliation. T.

Pessimists and skeptics – and there are many – would perforce treat the announcement with a degree of understandable caution because another dreaded prevailing law – The Prevention of Terrorism Act (1979) – will continue to remain in the statute books. This pessimism stems, in part, from past experience. When the Emergency Regulations were allowed to lapse, in 2002, in the hope of building understanding between the then government led by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe and LTTE, the continuation of the PTA saw little change in the Emergency regime set-up on the ground. Silva Pc, a legal luminary and leading expert on constitutional law, once said that the PTA is as effective as the Emergency Regulations and that it covers almost 90 percent of what could be done under the Public Security Ordinance. From the constitutional view point, therefore, there’s hardly any difference between the two – the PTA and Emergency Regulations. The PTA leaves the field open to the same oppression and suppression as under Emergency.


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