The occupation of President's House by the Aragalaya (people’s movement) and further occupation of other state buildings used by the President and Prime Minister has been followed by the fleeing abroad of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa early this morning. The occupation of the Prime Minister’s official residence and the Sri Lanka Rupavahini Corporation, and the attempt to reach the parliamentary complex highlight the continuing crisis in Sri Lanka and the loss of faith in existing political institutions. Unfortunately, we have often witnessed near violent behavior of many of our legislators in recent months which eroded the faith in democratic institutions.
The economic crisis in the country continues to worsen with queues lengthening, prices rising and essentials unavailable. The general expectation after the rise of the Aragalaya protest movement was that a small and interim all-party government would be formed to specifically deal with the economic crisis, stabilize the economy and to conduct fresh elections. But this has not materialized. Governance is the essential element of the state, and good governance is not merely the exercise of power but the safeguard of the rights of each individual and the welfare of all.
The people are undergoing unprecedented hardships at the current time. There is a disjuncture between what government leaders have been saying and what is materializing. Assurances are being made that shiploads of fuel have been unloaded. However, many service stations remain closed and those open have lines stretching for kilometers even overnight. The small 15-member interim government drawn from all parties that was promised by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to resolve the present crisis was not appointed. Now the government appears to be heading towards a large sized one dominated by the ruling party with a full complement of ministers and state ministers.
Sri Lanka has a new prime minister but there is controversy over the choice. There is criticism that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa continues to use his presidential powers in an arbitrary manner in a continuation of practices that have led to the present crisis. In facing the unprecedented economic and political crisis that grips the country, and widespread public protests, President Rajapaksa pledged to set up an interim government in consultation with party leaders in parliament. However, he did not do so but appointed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister much to the consternation of all opposition political parties and thereby ended efforts of other parliamentarians to form a national unity government.
The government’s decision to temporarily default on sovereign debt repayments, akin to a declaration of bankruptcy, will deal another major blow to the country’s economy and credibility. It comes at a time when mass protests are spontaneously taking place in all parts of the country on account of the economic hardships that the people are being put through. The resignation of the cabinet nearly two weeks ago and the failure to appoint a new one is indicative of government paralysis which is injurious to the country.
The declaration of a state of emergency by the president in the context of the ongoing public protests against the government cannot be the answer to the ongoing campaign of public protests against the government. These are a culmination of over many months of extreme economic hardship that have resulted in power cuts of up to 13 hours per day, steep increases in prices of essential commodities and shortages that have resulted in long queues on the roads.
Sharp increases in prices of basic commodities, accompanied by shortages, have severely impacted upon the standard of living of the general population and even prompted the government to call out the army to maintain social peace where queues have formed, as at petrol stations. The All Party Conference (APC) presided over by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has taken place in this context of an unprecedented economic crisis in the country.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has issued a directive that the police should not use the Prevention of Terrorism Act as a shortcut to dispense with investigations under the criminal procedures code and to use it only if there are clear links to terrorism. This presidential directive comes at a time when the government’s proposed amendments to the PTA have been criticized as being inadequate by UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in her report on Sri Lanka, by international human rights organisations and challenged in the Supreme Court by national organisations.
Freedom of speech and expression is a constitutionally protected right. The Foreign Ministry statement contradicting the views expressed by the Chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, Ambika Satkunanathan, brings up issues of the limits of legitimate public criticism of government policies and actions. We do not agree with its content and tone or with the personal targeting of Ms Sathkunananthan.
FURTHER AMENDMENT OR REPEAL OF PTA IS NECESSARY
The Prevention of Terrorism Act was introduced to the Sri Lankan legal system as a temporary law to deal with a growing armed insurrection. The PTA is being amended today in a time of peace and circumstances very different from when it was first introduced.