Against whom are the draconian laws?

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: Sunday Times
| Date: 20000514

The government has declared a military rule while the parliamentary election is due to be held before the end of August. The conditions in the coming period might be more serious than those prevailing now, but the government cannot, under any circumstances, refrain from holding the elections.

The presidential election of December, 1988 and the parliamentary election of February 1989 were held in conditions of blood letting on a mass scale. The conflict between the JVP and the government then, were at an extremely critical stage, but the government of the day had to hold those elections.

If the parliamentary election cannot be avoided whatever the existing situation is, the government has an obligation to.its people to ensure that the basic environment necessary for a free and fair parliamentary election is prevalent.

A parliamentary election is a process in which the people elect a group of members to a new parliament through a contest between various political parties. Not only the old political parties but also a number of new political parties, too, are due to contest at the next parliamentary election.

If a parliamentary election is to be held, the contesting parties must be given a reasonable and adequate opportunity to explain matters to the people and to organise them. However, the regulations implemented for administering the country on a military basis appear to have nullified every freedom that should be available for such an election.

If the ethnic problem which has turned into a major war has become the main problem among those the country is facing, then it is inevitable that it should become a main topic of discussion among the people.

But the emergency regulations now in force make any public discussion of such matters impossible and prevents holding any public debate or any public meetings, even in a manner that is not prejudicial to public security.

At the time when an accord was entered into with India and public unrest was expected on the matter, too, similar regulations were enforced and a competent authority for news was appointed. But the censorship of news lasted only a very limited period, and in a limited manner. The emergency regulations too operated only against those who were turning towards rebellious conduct. Even in conditions of very serious bloodshed there was uninterrupted political dialogue. The existing harsh laws were not utilised to impede that dialogue.

Similar repressive laws were used during the insurrection of '71 too. But they were used against the rebels and not to control free expression of ideas.

In spite of severe conditions of emergency in the country, newspapers expressed their views fully and published political criticisms and analyses without being subjected to any control.

However, the situation today is entirely different from all that. There is a real threat to national security from the LTTE, but the repressive laws are enforced not against them but the political parties in the south which have no connection at all with the LTTE and against the free media. A dialogue, an exchange of views, in which the people participate is essential not in peaceful times but in times of national distress like now. The people should know beforehand what is going to happen, whether good or bad. The results of keeping the public in the dark at a time of a massive national crisis like the present, cannot be favourable at any level.

Even before the present crisis arose, the government was considering a project whereby the life of the present parliament would be extended through a referendum and with the help of a selected group of UNP members without resorting to a parliamentary election. It may be that the government strategy is to extend the life of the present parliament by means of a referendum, without going in for a parliamentary election, using the particular circumstances now prevailing, as a pretext. If the conditions in the country are such that no parliamentary election can be held, then there cannot be a possibility of holding a referendum either.

If Sri Lanka is facing a question about the existence of the country then this is the very time in which an election must essentially be held.

It is only if an election is held that the general public will get the opportunity to discuss the context and shape of the crisis that has arisen and broadly consider the question of what kind of administration is necessary to keep the situation under control. It is in times of great national distress that the people's participation in the decision taking process becomes most necessary.

Leading the people out of the discussion making process at such time might lead to the demise of the democratic system and the emergence of a dictatorship. Solutions to the exiting crisis might be found not through suppression of democratic freedoms, but by developing them

Courtesy: The Sunday Times, 14th May 2000