Ministers who had gathered last Tuesday for their weekly cabinet session on the ground floor of the Presidential Secretariat, once the well of the House of Parliament, pondered. They had been asked by President Maithripala Sirisena to hurriedly assemble on the second floor conference room, just steps away from his office. There, he announced, he [...]


Questions on the need for nation-wide state of emergency

Like the curfew, it could have been confined to the Kandy District and enforced strictly - Severe economic consequences; international concern over law and order here; cancellations at Berlin Travel Mart, one hotel loses 2000 room nights - Ministers blame Police Chief for failing to prevent the spread of violence; President and PM unite on emergency issue, but disputes prevail

Ministers who had gathered last Tuesday for their weekly cabinet session on the ground floor of the Presidential Secretariat, once the well of the House of Parliament, pondered. They had been asked by President Maithripala Sirisena to hurriedly assemble on the second floor conference room, just steps away from his office.

There, he announced, he had signed a proclamation under the Public Security Ordinance declaring a State of Emergency throughout Sri Lanka. It was “in the interests of public security, the protection of public order and the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the community.” Except to say the emergency “shall forthwith come into operation” with effect from March 6 it was open ended. Sirisena said the weekly ministerial meeting would be held at 7 p.m. that night and went on to explain the reasons for the emergency, which has been imposed for the first time since the military defeat of Tiger guerrillas in May 2009.

Extremist groups, he declared, should not be allowed to run the country and announced he had got all the plans ready to deal with them. “I would need your support,” he appealed. He said hate crime and hate speech should be dealt with and added “we have to be strong and decisive.” Already posts on Facebook, websites and other social media platforms are being closely scrutinised by intelligence and investigative agencies. Those responsible for messages that incite or promote hate are to be arrested.

Sirisena was alluding to a string of incidents. The origins to these in the Kandy District was an attack by four drunken Muslim youth on a Sinhala lorry driver on February 22. The four were remanded. The victim later died in hospital and the funeral was held on March 7. He was a relative of an outspoken Buddhist monk from Ampara. Violence erupted first that day in the victim’s home town of Udispattuwa, a small hamlet nestled in the hills en route to Rangala, known for its colonial era tea plantations, forest cover and the chilly climate. The area is also home to various wildlife species. Shops, homes, vehicles and other valuables were set on fire. Places of religious worship were attacked. The violence spread to nearby Teldeniya along the road to Mahiyangana. Soon it had enveloped other towns like Katugastota and Balagolla. The incidents came in the aftermath of similar attacks in Ampara only the previous week. Detailed on-the-spot reports of how the incidents played out appear elsewhere in the Sunday Times.

In what seemed a rare show of unity, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe backed Sirisena’s move. This was a marked turn of events particularly after many weeks of friction. Sirisena only last week urged Wickremesinghe to wind up the Cabinet Committee on Economic Development (CCEM). Yet, most of Wickremesinghe’s initiatives were from Colombo. Sirisena flew to Kandy for a meeting with representatives of the clergy. He later spoke to Police and armed forces top brass. Ministers were so consumed with the rising violence in the central hills and had no time to focus on the issue. Sirisena said extremism should be nipped in the bud. Rajitha Senaratne, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Rauff Hakeem, Rishad Bathiuddin and Mano Ganesan spoke. Most of the speakers were strongly critical of Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera. They claimed that if he had acted promptly, it would have been possible to prevent the situation snowballing into a bigger crisis. One is not sure whether all the blame can be fairly and squarely laid on the doorstep of the Police Chief alone. Premier Wickremesinghe flew yesterday to Kandy. He held a meeting at the District Secretariat in Kandy and later visited Digana where he inspected some of the damaged buildings.

The discussion on issues continued just after ministers had finished items on the agenda beginning 7 pm. Some ministers chose to leave but more than 20 remained. Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Admiral Vajira Wijegunaratne and Police Chief Jayasundera were summoned for the meeting. A string of Q and As followed. There was clearly anxiety on the part of the ministers on how long it would take to end the clashes.

As part of efforts to restore ethnic harmony, President Sirisena, is seen in Kandy where he held talks with Buddhist prelates, Muslim leaders and leaders of other religions

Premier Wickremesinghe told Parliament the state of emergency would remain only for a week. The Presidential Media Division also declared that the “the President has declared a state of limited emergency for a period of one week.” This would only mean another proclamation rescinding the declaration of emergency is due coming Tuesday. How this would be done is not clear since the President is now overseas. Five reasons were given by the Presidential Secretariat – (1) The acts of violence and criminal activities that took place in the last two weeks. (2) The deaths and distruction of properties as a result of those violent acts. (3) The resulting religious disharmony and unrest due to those acts. (4) Attacks on properties, religious places and transport vehicles causing damages, and (5) Continuation of these criminal acts unabated.

These five reasons for the unrest in the central hills seemed the Government’s mea culpa. It not only acknowledges that violence and criminal activities took place in the last two weeks but also the fact that it ‘was continuing unabated.’ Here in lay the main problem. Law enforcement at the ground level has obviously failed and that has been clearly diagnosed by the Presidential Secretariat as the cause for the continued escalation. Like in similar incidents, whether there would be accountability and those responsible taken to task for their inaction will remain a critical question in a nation that unmindfully buries one issue to move to another new one.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also visited Kandy yesterday to meet the people and restore stability. He is seen at a news conference with Ministers Rauff Hakeem, Lakshman Kiriella and Central Province Chief Minister Sarath Ekanayake. Pix by Shameera Weerasekera

From early this week, plans have been on the drawing boards for measures to deal with growing violence. There is no gainsaying that a spread of ethnic strife has to be curbed with whatever legal measures a situation warrants. However, a close look at some of the measures, in hindsight, lays bare a string of inadequacies. Firstly, those responsible for the declaration of the State of Emergency and the blocking of different internet programmes including Facebook and WhatsApp. Quite clearly those involved in persuading the decision makers have had little or barely no experience in dealing with a crisis situation. So they made across-the-board recommendations to ensure they erred on the right side. That is being charitable. Of course, there were also those who ignored realities and brought in their own personal philosophies.

One such instance is the declaration of the State of Emergency. The perceptions of such a situation, at least in the outside world, is quite different if one compares it to past occasions. They were always accompanied by allegations of fundamental freedoms, human rights and a host of other issues of abuse. More so, in the case of western nations which are supportive of the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government. A statement from the US Embassy in Colombo underscores this situation. It said, “Rule of law, human rights, and equality are essential for peaceful coexistence. It is important that the Government of Sri Lanka act quickly against perpetrators of sectarian violence, protect religious minorities and their places of worship, and conclude the State of Emergency swiftly, while protecting human rights and basic freedoms for all.” There were also travel advisories from the US, Britain, Canada and several other countries to their citizens.

What made matters worse for the Government was the fact that no one thought it fit to articulate why a State of Emergency was necessary. By their own admission, it was to give legal clout to deploy troops and to confer those powers of arrest. The Colombo based diplomatic community jammed the switchboards at President’s home and his Secretariat seeking reasons. Here again, the Government’s slip was showing. Why then declare a State of Emergency in the Northern Province? That naturally gave rise to fears outside Sri Lanka. In the past years, there have been examples of a State of Emergency being confined to a particular province or even a district. Like the Police curfew, one could argue, it could have been made effective in the administrative District of Kandy. After all, troops and Police were deployed there and the violence was later contained.

Yet, the countrywide state of emergency sent the wrong message and drew the undesired results is one thing. Another aspect was the reluctance of troops and Police to open fire at arsonists though the State of Emergency empowered them. There was fear that in doing so, they were opening themselves for punitive action. Such fears may be unfounded but prevalent, as one senior Police officer in Kandy pointed out. He said they were conscious of the images on television and reports in newspapers of senior colleagues being penalised. For different reasons. Though misguidedly they feared they too could become victims, he added.

Speaker Karu Jayasuriya also in the forefront of the mission to restore ethnic harmony visited Kandy leading an All-Party delegation. Police Chief Pujith Jayasundera, at the centre of criticism, was also with them

One may say, then how do you move troops or confer them powers to arrest miscreants say for example in Colombo or for that matter in Jaffna? The answer lay in the difference between having people who are knowledgeable in the jobs they hold. This includes those in intelligence services who should be endowed with enough intelligence (the human kind) to assess a situation, to identify what the trouble prone zones are and what are not. In hindsight, is it not clear other than a handful of areas in Kandy, there was no major outbreak of violence anywhere else? This is by no means to say the other areas are to be ignored. It only underscores the fact that those who advised the decision makers, unlike in the past, did not make a proper assessment. Obviously, some operatives felt there was an enemy hiding everywhere behind a bush in every part of the country and blanket measures were the only answer.

For example, during racial tensions in Dharga Town, where deaths and destruction were higher, there was no State of Emergency. Nor was it enforced when similar disturbances occurred in Ampara or for that matter in Gintota last year.

That such an approach has not been carefully balanced is reflected in the enormous damage done to the country’s economy. Ask those in the travel trade about the cancellations of bookings for current tourist arrivals in Sri Lanka at the ongoing International Travel Mart in Berlin this week? A Colombo hotelier complained that they had lost 2,000 room nights. This is at a time when there has been no acts of violence in any of the tourism related areas outside Kandy. “It will take many more weeks before we can assess the damage caused to the tourist industry,” said a top official dealing with the subject. He said they were not consulted on the measures being adopted and were taken completely by surprise. The Government just could not tell its story. What of Foreign Direct Investment? There were queries from Sri Lanka diplomatic missions over how long the State of Emergency would last and whether it would affect FDI? All in all, it was easily the most damaging week for the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe coalition.

Then comes the blanket ban by the Telecom Regulatory Commission on the use of Facebook, WhatsApp and other applications. The formal reason given was that these internet facilities were used to incite violence and to post highly inflammatory material. True, there were heaps of such material. In reality the move came as a windfall for the United National Party (UNP), whose leaders were featured in caricatures and comedy skits after the political stalemate. Telecommunication Minister Harin Fernando said that the ban was only for three days but it continues. Would it not have been easier for the authorities to have identified the inciters if the facilities were operational? At least in one instance, the periodic statements by an extremist exhorting people to violence was prominent in his Facebook. However, a politician did not want him arrested since ‘it would make him a hero.’

The flipside of this ban is how it affected budget tourists. Most of them who were trapped in Kandy and its environs due to the Police curfew could not use their smart phones to speak to their friends or relatives overseas through WhatsApp. It would become imperative for the Government, if it is serious about not repeating some of the blunders caused through sheer ignorance, to engage in some soul searching. At least, the Government could prevent them from recurring.

On Friday, President Sirisena and Premier Wickremesinghe briefed the Colombo-based diplomatic community about the incidents in the Kandy District. Both declared that normalcy was fast returning to the area and the State of Emergency would end. Sirisena left yesterday for India to attend the International Solar Alliance conference. He will leave on Monday directly from Delhi to Tokyo for a six day state-visit. Yesterday, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya led an all-party delegation to Kandy. They will call on religious leaders, meet Police, security top brass and visit areas affected by the recent incidents.

The Kandy violence came as a diversion to the political tussles between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the United National Party (UNP). The ‘Joint Opposition’ which had embarked on a campaign to move a Vote of No Confidence on Premier Wickremesinghe slowed down its efforts after realising it did not have adequate numbers. This week, the movers were active and were lobbying different political groups for their support. Yet, they were unable to say when the motion would be handed over.

This is whilst a reshuffle of ministers of the SLFP has been further delayed. President Sirisena declared when he effected the marginal reshuffle of UNP ministers on February 25 that he would carry out the second phase of the reshuffle within two weeks.

It is not only political issues that are affecting the country. The Planning Branch of the Ceylon Electricity Board, which suffered a loss of more than Rs 94 billion last year, has warned that “uninterrupted power supply in the island cannot be ensured due to decrease of hydro storage of the reservoirs associated with hydropower stations during the next six months.” This gloomy forecast covers even the National New Year season and once again highlights the ad hoc plans to procure power when a shortage is projected.

  • In September last year, the Cabinet gave approval to procure 100 Megawatts (MW) of supplementary power through a short-term power purchase agreement by adopting “open international Competitive bidding.” The proposals were:
  • To select a suitable supplier to purchase electricity generators of 100 MW capacity on lease basis through a short-term power purchase agreement by adopting the international competitive bidding proceure to avoid the shortage of power generation due to the insufficient rainfall.
  • To authorise the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) to extend the power purchase agreement for a period of further six months upon the purchase of power for six months, if the power shortage is continuing and include the required condition in to the tender documents for such extension.
  • To authorise the Standing Cabinet Appointed Procurement Committee (SCAPC) to award the tender, subject to the covering approval of the Cabinet of Ministers as this tender has to be awarded immediately to ensure uninterrupted power supply considering the emergency situation that has arisen.

The Public Utilities Commission granted approval for the above procurement. The total of 100 MW was to be procured from Pallekele (22 MW), Hambantota (24 MW), Galle (10 MW), Matugama (24 MW) and Habarana (20MW). Three companies had submitted bids which were called through “Request for Proposals (RFP) approved by the SCAPC.
Power and Energy Minister Ranjith Siyambalapitiya now says that “non-cooperation of TEC (Technical Evaluation Committee) members following “trade union action” delayed, among other matters, the completion date of February 26. He does not say what action he took, if at all, to even have another Committee study the matter.

Now, he has said that the TEC and the Cabinet Appointed Negotiating Committee have placed three sets for ministerial approval. They are:

  •  To authorise the CEB to award the tender and enter into a power purchase agreement with Aggreko International Project Ltd to procure electrical power from 22 MW power plant at Pallekele, 24 MW power plant at Hambantota and 10 MW power plant at Galle for a period of six months with the option of extending it further for six months if the requirement arises.
  • To authorise the CEB to award the tender to enter into power purchase agreement with Heyleys Aventura (Pvt) Limited and SES Smart Energy Solutions Fzco to procure electric power from 24 MW power plant at Matugama and 20 MW power plant at Habarana for a period of six months with the option of extending it further six months if the requirement arises.

According to Power and Renewable Energy Ministry sources the power deficit for which purchases are being made is for the priod 2017. A similar request was also expected for the current year, they said.

Thus, the political stalemate between the two coalition partners, the SLFP and the UNP is now on hold. That it was obscured by the incidents in the hill country is a temporary phenomenon. Issues like the No Confidence Vote on the Premier, the winding down of the Cabinet Committee on Economic Management (CCEM), the proposed reshuffle of SLFP Ministers and a host of other political issues are sure to re-surface in the coming weeks and months.

Making matters worse for the coalition would be issues on the economic front. Fuel prices in the world market are on an upward trend. The Ceylon Electricity Board has painted a gloomy picture about power supply and blamed it, once more, on the drought situation. Economic losses due to the recent incidents in the hill country will total a neat sum not to mention reconstruction costs. For a Government that has two years more to complete, the road ahead is studded with more obstacles. It is some of the basic foundations of yahapalanaya or good governance that is crumbling. One such is the law and order situation, most essential to ensure there is justice, fair play and development. The biggest challenge is whether the Government could meet up to them. The task has been made even more difficult by the two coalition partners losing the local polls badly.

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