- Twenty-four days after the declaration the government withdrew the control prices on September 27, claiming that the decision was taken to ensure supplies
- The current state of emergency was imposed against a backdrop of steep rise of prices of essential items such as rice and sugar. It was very clear that the price hike was artificial and a result of hoarding by the traders
Has the government achieved the purpose of the State of Emergency that was issued by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on August 30 through four gazette notifications? If it has achieved any, what are they? If nothing has been achieved, are those regulations valid any longer, or would the government withdraw them like it withdrew the gazettes on control prices for rice and sugar on September 27?
Emergency regulations have always been a suppressive tool throughout history, despite it having been primarily imposed to counter armed insurrections/armed conflicts or anti-government coups d’état, or major breakdown of security. They have been used by successive governments to crack down on trade union and students activities aimed at winning over their rights while attempting to achieve their primary objectives.
Usually, the primary objectives of the state of emergency declared so far have been endorsed by a majority of people in the country, though major political parties might be divided over them. Even during the war between the armed forces and the LTTE, the Opposition parties in most of the time had opposed the state of emergency. The reason was that the governments have used them for purposes other than the declared objectives. For instance, President J. R. Jayewardene in 1988 had even amended an Act, the Provincial Council Act under Emergency Regulations in order to administratively merge the Northern and Eastern Provinces, whereas he had to ask the legislature to do so.
Under the Emergency regulations that had been imposed during the first JVP insurrection in 1971, the authorities had been empowered to dispose dead bodies without a postmortem. It amounted to be a licence given to the police and the armed forces to kill anybody. That provision was in force till 1990.
“Therefore, it is now vividly clear that the purpose of the current State of Emergency was lost, with the government stopping raids on the warehouses to prevent hoarding and withdrawing the control prices for rice and sugar”
The current state of emergency was imposed against a backdrop of steep rise of prices of essential items such as rice and sugar. It was very clear that the price hike was artificial and a result of hoarding by the traders. The sugar traders were incurring a highly excessive profit after enjoying a total import duty relief. They were supposed to sell a kilo of sugar at Rs. 85, but the prices climbed up to Rs. 220. Also, the price of a kilo of the lowest variety of rice rose up to around Rs.140 despite a government gazette having set it at Rs. 98.
Since it was a time when the government’s intervention was inevitable, no protests were launched by the Opposition when the President issued these four gazettes imposing a state of emergency on August 30. Yet, interestingly, the list of essential services included even the Sri Lanka Transport Board, postal service and waste management services carried out by the local government authorities.
Then the Commissioner General of Essential Services, Major General Senarath Niwunhella who was appointed under one of the four gazettes issued on August 30 raided the unauthorised warehouses of sugar and rice and “purchased” the seized items according to the new Emergency Regulations, while retired Major General Shantha Dissanayake, the Chairman of the Consumer Affairs Authority issued two gazette notices declaring control prices for rice and sugar on September 3.
But, both actions were proven counterproductive in the face of intransigence on the part of the traders, especially the large-scale rice mill owners. They stopped issuing rice to the market and by the time the raids on the warehouses had also stopped. Groups of monks and farmers protested against the control prices declared by the government, claiming that prices of paddy purchased by the mill owners would drop due to control prices for rice.
Twenty-four days after the declaration the government withdrew the control prices on September 27, claiming that the decision was taken to ensure supplies. Immediately, the mill owners set their own prices which were in between the control prices and the very high prices effective prior to them.
Articulating the objective of the State of Emergency the President in the relevant Proclamation on August 30 states that “I am of the opinion that it is considered expedient to do so in order to ensure the Public Security and well-being and maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community in view of the prevailing emergency situation in Sri Lanka in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic now steadily on the rise throughout Sri Lanka.” Since there were no any new threats to the public security then, it is understood that the State of emergency was primarily meant for the “maintenance of supplies and services.”
In the gazette that explains how the Emergency Regulations would work, the President states “The objective of these regulations is to prevent the activities such as hiding, interrupting the distribution, charging high prices of special food bulks including rice and sugar and causing market irregularities which cause inconvenience to the consumers and the welfare of the people.”
Therefore, it is now vividly clear that the purpose of the current State of Emergency was lost, with the government stopping raids on the warehouses to prevent hoarding and withdrawing the control prices for rice and sugar. Yet, the legitimate trade union actions could be suppressed with it as one gazette states, if failure to perform duty or refusal of duty by a person employed in a service cited as an essential service occurred due to abetting any strike or other organisational activity “it shall be deemed for all purposes that he has immediately terminated his service or resigned from his service” or “in addition, he shall be convicted of an offence.”
At a time when the government’s human rights record is under scrutiny by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and the European Union, the state of emergency might be counterproductive. It must be noted that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet during her update to the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 13 stated “A new state of emergency was declared in Sri Lanka on August 30, with the stated aim of ensuring food security and price controls, amid a deepening recession. The emergency regulations are very broad and may further expand the role of the military in civilian functions. The Office will be closely monitoring their application.”
Disclaimer: A State of Emergency that lost its purpose by M S M Ayub - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view