The continuation of the state of emergency does not augur well for democracy in the country. The argument that the extra powers are needed to maintain law and order in the country almost sounds comical given some of the incidents of the past two weeks. First, the office of a staunchly anti-government website Lanka-e-News was set on fire by “unidentified persons” and days later a protest march by the UNP was set upon near Punchi Borella by a group of thugs who blatantly ignored law enforcement officers who were present and went about their business of assaulting the protestors, smashing up vehicles and turning on media personnel who were covering the event.
These incidents came into focus when Parliament debated the extension of the emergency on Tuesday. Prime Minister D. M. Jayaratne who opened the debate spoke at length on the continuing pro LTTE activities taking place abroad which have led to a move to bring a resolution against Sri Lanka at the upcoming Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva. The Prime Minister also explained that there has been a crackdown on LTTE operatives in both Switzerland and Canada, but there was little in his speech to show why all the existing emergency laws were still needed, particularly those that stifle peaceful and democratic forms of protest and suppress freedom of expression.
Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe referred to the attack on his party supporters as well as the attack on Lanka-e-News and accused the government of using the emergency to suppress its opponents.
“Why is the Government extending emergency rule if it cannot use these powers to control thuggery? The sovereignty of the country is under threat now because of the manner in which the emergency laws are used,” he charged. He also spoke on the recent Supreme Court ruling which recognized that the court martial, which sentenced former Army Commander to a 30 month jail sentence, as a competent court. He said the Army Act of 1881 has been recognized by the Supreme Court in its determination.“Some of us were in Parliament when we enacted the 1978 Constitution and we did not want the power of the British Monarch. So, if that is so, how can the Supreme Court now go and recognize this Act of 1881, just to keep General Sarath Fonseka in j ail?” he asked.
The Opposition Leader said it was the same law that was used against two Sri Lankan patriots by the British. “The Army Act of 1881 - this imperial statute - was then used and caused the death of Edmund Hewavitharana. The same law was used to execute Henry Pedris and it is now being used to jail General Sarath Fonseka.”
Health Minister Maithripala Sirisena however came down hard on the UNP for losing focus on the burning issues facing the country and using trivial issues to criticize the Government. “Today two thirds of the country is under water and 2.5 million people have been affected by the floods. But what has the UNP done to help these people?” Has any of the UNP MPs visited these areas and looked into the welfare of the people,” he asked.
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) A Vinayagamoorthy said in spite of the Emergency Regulations some of the worst crimes and robberies have taken place. “Within the last two years, 27 media personnel including Lasantha Wickrematunga had been killed and the Government should take responsibility for it. If terrorism has been wiped out as the Government claims, why are the emergency regulations still in place,” he asked.Similar allegations were levelled by DNA MP Anura Kumara Dissanayaka who said the Government is unable to rule the country under normal laws and hence is using the emergency to control the people.
There was also a verbal clash between UNP Kurunegala district MP Dayasiri Jayasekera and UPFA parliamentarian Thilanga Sumathipala as they traded charges over the attack on the UNP protestors with the UNP MP accusing the UPFA parliamentarian’s supporters of being behind the attack.
While Mr, Sumathipala vehemently denied the charge, he accused UNP members of instigating some of the people who were present and of disobeying police orders which resulted in the deplorable behaviour.
An adjournment debate on the situation that had arisen as a result of the flooding too was taken up with opposition legislators calling on the government to declare a state of national emergency so that affected people can be given proper relief.
A Bill to provide for totally-or-partially visually impaired persons as well as those suffering from physical disabilities which prevent them from validly marking a ballot paper, was also presented to Parliament on Tuesday.
The Elections (Special Provisions) Bill presented by the Leader of the House Nimal Siripala De Silva enables a disabled person to vote by producing a Certificate of Eligibility in the format provided for in the Bill and to be accompanied by a person of over 18 years of age to the polling booth.
The Bill will be taken up for debate on a later date.