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Statement on Gazette Invoking Emergency Regulations under the Public Security Ordinance

by Ravinath Wijesekara

On the 30th of August 2021, President Gotabhaya Rajapakse invoked Section 2 of the Public Security Ordinance No 8 of 1959 (as amended by Act No 6 of 1978 and Act No 28 of 1988).  Since this Gazette has wide ranging implications, the Jathika Jana Balawegaya believes that it is important that the public is made fully aware of its contents and the intents of this regime in its latest move to amass power. 

Section 2 of the Public Security Ordinance allows the President to declare a State of Emergency under two conditions.  These are, when in the opinion of the President, there is a need to invoke such powers:

  1.  In the interest of public security and the preservation of public order; or
  2. For the maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community. 

In this instance, President and his government has stated that it is necessary to invoke these special regulations since there are disruptions to the maintenance of supplies and essential services.  

As we know, during the last several weeks, people have been experiencing shortages of food items such as sugar and milk powder as well as gas. It is quite possible that with the current import restrictions that there will be other shortages as well in the near future.  The position of the government has been that these shortages are due to the hoarding of these goods by traders and unreasonable demands to raise prices by traders.  There is no doubt that people of the country have been facing many disruptions to community life as a result of restrictions related to COVID 19 as well as difficulties with obtaining essential goods. This is not a recent situation but one that has been in the making for well over a year. However, it is noteworthy that the Government has not declared a ‘state of disaster’ under Section 11 of the Disaster Management Act No 13 of 2005 even though Section 25 (k) of that Act defines a ‘disaster’ to include and ‘epidemic’.  This Act also allows for the setting up of a Council for the management of the disaster. 

Rather than follow the existing provisions in the law for a more consultative and collaborative effort to manage the COVID epidemic, the President saw fit to set up 3 Presidential Task Forces to respond to COVID – one to direct, coordinate and monitor the delivery of continuous services for the sustenance of overall community life, another relating to Economic Revival and Poverty Eradication and a third to deal with education. These Task Forces are accountable only to the President – even in financial matters.  Yet, it is despite these Task Forces that the people of this country are facing challenges with obtaining even the most basic of services during this COVID pandemic. Rather than admitting to the failures so far in the systems that have been put in place, and seeking a more collaborative approach to managing a national disaster, the President has invoked the Public Security Ordinance, giving himself even more powers.  These powers enable the President to:

  •  Make regulations (hereinafter referred to as “emergency regulations” as appear to him to be necessary or expedient in the interests of public security, preservation of public order and the suppression of mutiny, riot or civil commotion, or for the maintenance of essential supplies and services.
  • Authorize and provide for the detention of persons; authorize-  the taking of possession or control, on behalf of the State, of any property or undertaking;
  • The acquisition on behalf of the State of any property other than land
  • Authorize the entering and searching of any premises.
  • Provide for amending any law, for suspending the operation of any law and for applying any law with or without modification;
  • Make provisions for the apprehension and punishment of offenders and for their trial by such courts, not being courts martial, and in accordance with such procedure, as may be provided for by the regulations

It should also be noted that this act states that emergency rules to prevail over all other laws (section 7) and that no emergency regulation, order, rule or direction made or given thereunder shall be called in question in any court (Section 8).  In short, the President has amassed to himself an extraordinary and in our view, an extremely dangerous amount of power in the guise of ensuring essential services and supplies to the public.  It is also worth noting that many of these powers go over and above what is necessary to ensure the efficient distribution of essential goods and services.

The people of this country are well aware by now, that the disruption to services and supplies in the country as well as the growing numbers of COVID infected people and deaths in this country is not due to the President or this government lacking any necessary powers.  In fact, with the 20th Amendment to the Constitution, this President already had many more powers than any other President in history, as well as being supported by a government with a healthy majority in parliament.  Rather, the difficulties, disruptions and growing health risks that the people of this country have been facing are due to the incompetence of the President and his government as well as their prioritising protecting the interests of the regime and its allies rather than the people of this country. 

For instance, the shortage of sugar is because first the government drastically reduced taxes on the importation of sugar; then allowed an artificial shortage of sugar to come about; and with a major hue and cry, ‘discovered’ stocks of sugar.  The end result of all this drama for the consumer, was an increase in the price of sugar.  The fact that the government lost millions due to unfair advantages taken by close allies after the sudden reduction in tax and that none of the traders who hoarded sugar have been held to account seems to be immaterial. 

Thus, it is clear that the President has not invoked the Public Security Ordinance with the welfare of the country in mind.  Rather, it is yet another step forward in a relentless desire to amass power.  These new powers place the democratic rights of the people and the rule of law in this country already under assault, at further risk.    

The Jathika Jana Balawegaya reiterates the fact that it is the regime’s incompetence and disconnect with the needs of people that has led to an alarmingly chaotic situation in and certainly not any lack of Presidential powers.  In our view, invoking the Public Security Ordinance at this point to unleash emergency powers, is a sign of a failing regime desperately trying to cling to power at all costs.  The chaos that has been created by the mismanagement of the COVID epidemic is being used by this government to weaken democracy in our country.   Therefore, we will do our utmost to force the government to reverse its decision and we call upon the public to join us to protect our democratic rights and the future of our country.    

Jathika Jana Balawegaya

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