Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama, now retired in Sri Lanka, wrote an article we published on this page last Sunday questioning why this country needed a “monstrosity of a Bill ostensibly to combat terrorism when the government for several decades already had at its disposal a law with sufficient flexibility to prevent and deal with all forms of threats to the security of our country and its peoples.” This law is the Public Security Ordinance enacted by the then State Council before Independence which has since been used by governments of all political complexions to deal with Emergency situations and ensure the maintenance of public security and the preservation of public order as well as supplies and services essential to the life of the community.
The controversial Anti-Terrorism Act, teeming with many obnoxious provisions, which has now been gazetted but not yet presented to Parliament is clearly an attempt to deal with a post-aragalaya situation that may in the future threaten the government’s existence. The regime is therefore seeking to arm itself with draconian laws to deal with protests, street demonstrations and agitations of the sort which last year compelled the resignations of both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. Although the heat and tempo of the protests today is not what it was last year, thanks to the Ranil Wickremesinghe administration being able to address issues such as the petrol/diesel and cooking gas shortages, as well as the fertilizer issue that drove farmers to the streets, many matters yet remain unresolved. These can be a potential powder keg although a semblance of normalcy has now been restored. Government obviously seems to be wanting to arm itself against such an eventuality and by all accounts is using the proverbial sledgehammer to kill a gnat.
Whether the proposed Anti-Terrorism law, which some believe is a distillate of laws enacted in the UK and the U.S. following the London bombings and 9/11 is an overkill or not remains to be seen. Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, the father of the gazetted Bill, has indicated a willingness to water down some of its harsher provisions during the process of its enactment. It is likely that it will also be challenged before the courts and a determination must be awaited. The government commands a comfortable SLPP majority in the legislature, and there is no risk whatever of laws it presents to Parliament being defeated. Given the attacks on the property of government MPs including their homes and political offices during the terminal stages of the aragalaya last year, a large number of government MPs affected will surely be staunch supporters of the proposed legislation.
A major problem besetting the government today is the lack of trust between itself and the people. The people believe that much of what the government does is for its own good rather than for the good of the people. It now looks certain that the local elections that were due and were aborted by the device of starving the Elections Commission of the wherewithal to hold that poll, is unlikely this year. The Wickremesinghe – Rajapaksa combine which went through the pantomime of handing in nominations was under no illusion about how it would perform. A countrywide defeat was very much on the cards for what its opponents call the Ranil – Rajapaksa government. Most analysts and commentators were of the view that such an election would have redounded best for the JVP-led NPP anxious to send a signal to the electorate that it was well placed to succeed in at a national election down the road.
It now appears that the President is likely to seek an elected term of office for himself once he serves out the balance Gotabaya term. He is constitutionally empowered to dissolve Parliament any time he now wishes and that is a gun that he holds against the SLPP’s head. He is unlikely to pull the trigger because his UNP, unless it mends fences with the SJB, will be unable to make a respectable showing at any parliamentary election in the near term. In any event he will be hard put to credibly explain to the country how a parliamentary election, the last thing most incumbent MPs want, will be affordable if local elections are not.
The government has been under pressure both internationally and locally to repeal the PTA. It has given undertakings in Geneva to do so but has, in fact, used its provisions to deal with even the post-aragalaya situations. It will become clear in the near term whether the government will press on with the ATA as gazetted or dilute some of its harsher provisions. The fact that the Public Security Ordinance is strong and flexible enough to deal with challenges down the road has been credibly urged by Dr. Nihal Jayawickrama in his already mentioned article last Sunday. He has pointed out that among critical challenges faced by different government in our contemporary history, the Hartal of 1953, the communal conflict of 1958, the Bandaranaike assassination of 1959, the abortive coup d’etat of 1962 and the JVP insurrection of 1971 among others were adequately addressed using the provisions of the Public Security Ordinance (PSO).
Among the more obnoxious features of the proposed ATA are provisions relating to powers granted to DIGs Police for detention of persons. Today there are over 30 DIGs in various parts of the country. Older readers would remember a time there were only four and a single SP headed the police in each of the nine provinces. The politicization of the police is a malady besetting the country today and strengthening their hand on matters such as detention would mean strengthening of political hands. It must also be remembered that the numbers of police and security forces today is streets ahead of what they were when national security problems were addressed using Emergency laws under the PSO in the past. This would mean that such laws can be more effectively enforced today than in the years gone by.