On the evening of 12 August 2009, police in the coastal village of Angulana, about 15 km south of Colombo, arrested two young men. When their bullet-riddled bodies were discovered the next morning, the village erupted in fury. The deaths had obviously occurred in police custody and, having concluded that to wait for the police to probe the criminal deeds of their own would be an exercise in futility, the villagers surrounded the police station and attacked the officers on duty. Taken aback by this spontaneous outpouring of popular anger, the authorities responded with sobriety and foresight. The suspected policemen were arrested and, after a speedy investigation, were indicted in the Colombo High Court for murder. Two years after the murders, in late August the court returned a guilty verdict, sentencing four of the accused to death.
In September, however, the defence authorities moved to criminalise any public protest targeting security personnel. According to a military spokesperson, ‘It is wrong for civilians to attack an army camp or police station. Those who do that are terrorists. We will take action against them under the Prevention of Terrorism Act … It doesn’t have to be Tamil Tigers. Anybody who attacks the military is a terrorist.’ This statement is ominous for two reasons: the nebulous nature of the term attack with no qualifying adjective (such as ‘violent’ or ‘armed’); and the expressed intent of using the PTA rather than the normal criminal law. This will enable the authorities to use excessive violence against any civilian protest. Had this new regulation been in place two years ago, the Angulana protesters would have been labelled ‘terrorists’ and arrested en masse, and the uniformed killers would most likely have escaped justice.
The new decision also has an unstated subtext: it is aimed primarily at the minorities, at least for now. Spontaneous public protests against the police are not uncommon, but until recently these had been limited to the Sinhala-majority south. This ethno-geographic factor might explain the relatively mild manner in which the authorities have responded to such protests in the past. This changed in August, however, when spontaneous public protests erupted in the Northern and Eastern provinces in reaction to a growing collective phobia about ‘grease devils’ – anonymous nocturnal intruders who allegedly daub themselves with grease and attack women. In many areas, Tamil and Muslim villagers have reported that the intruders, when discovered, have vanished into the nearest army/navy camp or police station. The belief that the ‘grease devils’ are actually security personnel has begun to gain ground among Tamils and Muslims – almost certainly a manifestation of a sense of discontent, insecurity and powerlessness. In such a situation, it behoves the authorities to act with caution and consideration, taking all possible steps to reassure the minority communities, as was done with the Angulana villagers.
However, the opposite seems to be happening. After the outbreak of protests in the east, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse (the president’s brother) summoned several imams and told them that the army would act against anyone making trouble. The official reaction to protests by Tamil villagers in the north was even harsher. In August, for instance, the villagers of Navanthurai had surrounded the nearby army camp in search of five ‘grease devils’ who were believed to have sought refuge there. The army responded by going into the village and assaulting the inhabitants; about 100 men were arrested.
Protests against ‘grease devils’ were non-political, as were the Angulana protests. The regime’s hostile reactions indicate that the Rajapakse regime is disinclined to tolerate any act of dissent, however non-political or peaceful, on the part of the minority communities. This is an intolerance that will inevitably eventually extend to the Sinhala majority too. Given this official phobia, the much-touted end of emergency rule – after nearly three decades, including continuously since the August 2005 assassination of then-Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar – is unlikely to result in any real democratisation in the north or east.
‘Omnibus empowering provision’
The Rajapakse regime’s seemingly visceral opposition to sharing power with Sri Lanka’s minorities has rendered a consensual peace impossible, and it seeks to implement a compulsive peace enforced at gunpoint. This internal compulsion towards repression runs counter to key external compulsions, since the West has stepped up its pressure on Sri Lanka on the twin issues of human rights and devolution. Though loath to push Colombo into the arms of Beijing, New Delhi might see some value in others arm-twisting the Rajapakses. In his statement at the conclusion of the Rajya Sabha debate on Sri Lanka, Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna reiterated New Delhi’s concern about human-rights issues, saying, ‘The issue has not come so far in the formal agenda of any of UN inter-governmental body for discussion. We are waiting so that India can take a position.’
Ironically, India might have to take a stand on Lanka’s human-rights record sooner than anticipated. On 13 September, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon formally forwarded the Darusman Report to the UN’s refugee agency and human-rights commissioner, reportedly due to strong Western pressure. The US in particular has hardened its stance, manifested in its expressed intention to ask for an ‘interactive dialogue’ on Sri Lanka at the March 2012 sessions of the UN Human Rights Council. Colombo, while expressing its opposition to such a move, seems to have realised the need for some internal reforms to pacify its international critics. The ending of Emergency Rule was thus not a result of an internal compulsion towards reform and democratisation, but an attempt to satisfy at least a segment of the West (and India).
The manner in which the Rajapakses have dealt with the devolution issue is an excellent indicator of the modus operandi they generally use when caught between contradictory (internal and external) compulsions: deflect attention and buy time by making promises or implementing facile measures. To go back to 2006, President Rajapakse appointed an All Parties Conference (APC), ostensibly to come up with a political solution to the ethnic problem. As subsequent events demonstrated, however, the real purpose of this exercise was to buy enough time, especially in New Delhi, to finish off the LTTE. Once the war was won, the APC was consigned to oblivion. This year, the president announced the creation of yet another all-party committee to craft a devolution proposal, clearly as a sop to both Tamil Nadu and New Delhi. Subsequently, the mandate of this APC II was changed into the far more nebulous one of promoting ‘national unity’. In the end, this APC too will be used not to grant devolution but to evade it. Though the war has ended, the ethnic issue that gave rise to the violence remains unresolved. Thus the necessary task of reconciliation cannot be accomplished without granting a degree of devolution to the minorities, especially Tamils.
The latest developments indicate that the removal of the emergency might be a similar exercise in deception. Even as the emergency officially ended on 31 August, the regime put in place other laws to prevent any real political liberalisation. A new Presidential Order has authorised the deployment of the armed forces ‘for the maintenance of public order’, island-wide. This also empowers the president to break strikes by declaring any public utility an essential service. As an anonymous political columnist at the Sunday Times pointed out, ‘The reasons for the countrywide deployment of troops … are for ‘circumstances endangering public security’. However, the government has not explained what incidents have endangered public security warranting a countrywide deployment of troops’. In addition, to the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which remains in place, a new law called the Emergency Consequential Provisional Bill (ECPB) is to be presented to Parliament soon. Emergency by any other name, it seems, will be equally undemocratic.
Post-emergency, the manner in which the regime has dealt with the issue of high-security zones has demonstrated the deceptive nature of this much-touted reform measure. The HSZs were established under the emergency and, with the emergency’s ending, these zones ceased to exist – yet were immediately re-established using other regulations, including an augmented PTA. In an interview with Lankan journalist Namini Wijedasa, the outgoing attorney-general, Mohan Peiris, explained the post-emergency roadmap this way:
There will be an omnibus empowering provision that enables the secretary of defence or the president himself to pass regulations as it is deemed necessary, such as for the creation of high security zones in various parts of the country. The regulations will be put in place under Section 27 of the Prevention of Terrorism Act. But they will be temporary until a new bill that provides for consequential provisions to be made after termination of the emergency is submitted to parliament … The lapsing of the emergency is not to be misinterpreted to mean that anybody could do anything that he or she wills. That’s a complete misunderstanding.
By Rajapakse, for Rajapakse
The ending of emergency rule will not amount to a great leap towards democratisation and normalisation. Especially in the north and parts of the east, life will continue as before, restrictive and controlled. A test case is the fate of those detained under it during the past several years. The relatively liberal wing of the Colombo regime was convinced that with the ending of the emergency, these detainees would gain their freedom; many leaders said as much in public. Even the justice minister, Rauff Hakeem, announced that around 1200 detainees would be released once the emergency ended. But clearly these were nothing more than pious hopes. Defence Secretary Rajapakse declared that not a single detainee (‘terrorist’) would be released when the emergency came to an end. Soon after, the present attorney-general, Shanthi Eva Wanasundera, confirmed this, explaining that a further-augmented PTA would be used to continue to detain these prisoners.
Notwithstanding the ending of the emergency, the Rajapakses remain as firmly committed as ever to their anti-democratic trajectory. In fact, the possibility that the proposed Emergency Consequential Provision Bill will be an even more repressive piece of legislation than the emergency cannot be ruled out. This is particularly so because the new law will be made by the Rajapakses and for the Rajapakses. And as Defence Secretary Gotabhaya made clear, subsequent to the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) landslide win in the 2010 parliamentary election, the main task of the new regime is to ‘thwart a fresh attempt by separatists operating abroad to throw a lifeline to the LTTE [backed by] a section of the international community … The new government should go all out against any local element promoting separatist sentiments regardless of political consequences.’ He urged the promulgation of ‘new laws to meet [these] security requirement’.
Will the proposed new law be in line with this vision? If so, the removal of the emergency will be tantamount to replacing the bad with the worse, the substitution of a repressive piece of legislation with another that is even more anti-democratic – and one made to order to ensure the success of the dynastic project of the Rajapakse family.