Totally unjustified declaration of emergency | Print edition

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Growing public unrest in the country erupted into an outbreak of violence near President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s residence in Mirihana on Thursday evening. It is unclear whether this was one of many spontaneous civil society protests across the country that unexpectedly turned violent or whether an invisible hand infiltrated the ranks of protesters and deliberately provoked violence to undermine the demonstration.

The picture will likely become clearer in the coming days with more facts emerging. However, media reports and visuals that have surfaced so far point to several suspicious features of the incident.

Television and social media visuals show a lone individual highlighting what looks like a police vehicle. There was no sign of a crowd surrounding and cheering him on.

Thus, this act of arson was clearly visible to anyone near the scene. The obvious question in the mind of any sane person is why none of the law enforcement officers present rushed to prevent this destructive act and why the individual concerned was not immediately apprehended.

Questioning the individual concerned would clearly reveal the source of the violence and the hidden hand, if any, behind it. There is also an unconfirmed report that the police vehicle did not have a registration number.

The reaction of the presidential media division made a bad situation worse. Barely hours had passed since the violence in Mirihana, yet the Presidential Media Division (PMD) issued a press release at 6:30 a.m. titled ‘extremist group behind violent behavior’ and attributed the unleashed violence to organized extremist elements.

For good measure, the press release also said that the protesters had called for “an Arab Spring”. The press release also sounded the alarm about whether there had been an attempt to give the protests a community touch.

Public Security Minister Rear Admiral Sarath Weerasekera, however, rejected the PMD’s claim that an extremist group was behind the violence in Mirihana. Minister Weerasekera, who oversees police work and should therefore be in the best position to know the outcome of police investigations, called Thursday’s incident an act of sabotage. Although the PMD claimed that a group of extremists had carried out the attack, the Minister of Public Security said that was not the case.

“I don’t think it was extremist elements. It was just an act of sabotage. They had come to organize a demonstration and started damaging vehicles and public property. This prompted the police to use tear gas,” the minister said in a media report in The Island.

Moreover, the Human Rights Commission has firmly stated that the Prevention of Terrorism Act cannot be used to arrest and detain suspects who have been arrested by the police. As a result, the police were forced to resort to the provisions of the Public Property Act in an attempt to obtain an order from the magistrate of Gangodawila to detain the suspects.

However, the magistrate observed that the B report submitted by the police did not reveal the commission of offenses against the suspects under the Public Property Act and released 15 of the suspects on bail.

The daily mirror reported that, in an unprecedented move, a large number of lawyers led by the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), Saliya Pieris, including several key advisers to the President, voluntarily appeared in court trial of Gangodawila to support the suspects.

The daily mirror also reported yesterday that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has declared a state of emergency under the Public Security Act.

The declaration of a state of emergency is clearly an overreaction on the part of the government and has no justification. There have been protests by citizens across the country in recent weeks without any resort to violence. An incident, such as the Mirihana incident, cannot under any circumstances justify the declaration of an emergency.

Such an act by the government will raise the suspicion that it was committed for a collateral purpose, namely the suppression of demonstrations by people struggling to meet the challenges of shortages and queues prevailing in the country.

The atmosphere in the country is that of an angry population exasperated by what is happening or not happening in the country. People are facing a blank wall with no signs of improvement.

It is up to the government to inspire some confidence in the people in a situation where all layers of the country have lost confidence in it.

The government should establish an authoritative communication system where a designated, high-level government figure holds daily briefings for the media on what is being done and what is planned to alleviate the suffering of population.

At present, the impression among the people is that the government is totally indifferent to their suffering. Stupid comments from some government politicians that the fuel shortage is due to some people going into new businesses, buying the available fuel and engaging in a new business of selling fuel will only piss people off even more.

There are reports that the government has obtained loans and lines of credit from various countries, including India and China, but there are no indications that they are being used to ease the hardship of the people.

It is imperative that the population be kept informed of the immediate benefits of the economic assistance received. Otherwise, people will have to continue to lament as they do now:

kata kiyannada.

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