President Mahinda Rajapaksa came to Parliament last Thursday, and this time he brought with him some good news. The Emergency Regulations (ER), last imposed in August 2005, five months before he took office as President, are to end by next month, he announced. It was a move welcomed by Government and Opposition members alike.
It was at the end of his address to Parliament that the President announced he was proposing the lifting of ER. “I am satisfied that there is no longer a need for extending the ER for the administration of the country,” he said.
He cited several reasons why the country could move away from rule under these special laws, one being the absence of terrorist activities since May 2009, until today.
Speaking at the end of the President’s address Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe welcomed the move, but cautioned that, ending emergency rule would not lead to the restoration of democracy.
“We need to find a political solution to the country’s problems, to which the Government and the Opposition should work together towards this end,” he said.
It was the President’s second visit to Parliament last week. The first, the previous day, was to attend the Consultative Committee of the Ministry of Defence, with the heads of the three armed forces in attendance.
The President, in his address, made reference to his visits, saying these demonstrate his determination to forge a closer link between Parliament and the President. “In establishing a very strong connection between the Executive and the Legislature, we have done a great task on behalf of the country, after it was freed from terrorism,” the President said, making an obvious reference to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which compels the Executive to attend Parliament once in three months.
While it’s true, he has been making more visits to the Legislature, compared with his predecessors, he is yet to engage in discussion from the floor of the House, or even participate in debates on subjects that come under the purviews of the several ministries he holds. A true test of the government’s claims that the 18th Amendment strengthens democracy, is, if the President engages with the Legislature in a more proactive manner, rather than the ad hoc manner in which he does now.
While one can agree with the President that, in the postwar period, there have been positive political developments, particularly, with holding elections in the north and east, as well as massive development activities taking place in these areas, his claims that, “at no time in the term of our government has there been a control or censorship of the press under ER, despite carrying out a massive battle against the most ruthless terrorist organisation in the world,” does not paint a true picture of the “unofficial censorship” that was imposed on the media during the war years, and continues to date by way of self censorship, through threats and intimidation against the media.
Abductions, disappearances, killings and attacks on journalists and media institutions have done more damage to press freedom in the country than any official censorship could ever have accomplished.
His remarks that, ‘it is with considerable regret that I state that, this media freedom is being betrayed today to discredit the Humanitarian Operation that we carried out,’ itself gives an inkling of the intolerance of criticism by certain quarters within the government.
These issues aside, the President’s announcement would help lighten some of the growing international calls for the government to restore the civil liberties of people, now that the country is at peace. It would also see a lessening of the growing concerns regarding the military’s involvement in the day-to-day administration of the country.
While the challenge for the Opposition now is to ensure that it puts enough pressure on the government to restore the people’s democratic rights in the post-emergency period, for the Rajapaksa administration, which has governed since it took office in December 2005, under emergency rule, the challenge is to desist from the temptation of using other harsh laws that are still in place, that would prove as effective as the ER, in trampling on the people’s democratic rights.