Sri Lanka's decision to lift the Emergency regulations, as announced by President Mahinda Rajapaksa in Parliament last week, is a step towards creating a positive environment for national reconciliation. The regulations rode on powers granted to government under the 1947 Public Security Ordinance. They have remained almost continuously in force since the 1971 Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna insurgency in southern Sri Lanka, through the years of the armed Tamil militancy in the North and the East. But there was never any real justification for retaining them after the LTTE's military defeat in 2009. The broad sweep and vague language of the regulations struck fear among the Tamil minority, and curtailed the freedoms of all Sri Lankans. Over the years, and especially after the LTTE's assassination of Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in 2005 until the end of the war, the government introduced a welter of overlapping regulations arming security personnel with wide and arbitrary powers to search, detain, and arrest people for “terrorism,” which itself was not clearly defined. Draconian in their scope, the regulations undermined the freedom of speech, expression, and movement. The monthly approval needed from Parliament for their extension was an insufficient cover. With the immunity they provided to officials, the instances of misuse were many, especially in the Tamil-dominated areas of Sri Lanka.
The Sri Lankan government must clarify how it proposes to deal with the people — their numbers are unclear — still detained under the Emergency laws. It also remains to be seen how Sri Lanka will now use the Prevention of Terrorism Act, a law so severe that it more than mirrors the Emergency regulations in its scope and powers; the two were implemented simultaneously or interchangeably. Without losing any momentum, the Sri Lankan polity must now quickly move towards setting up the political framework to address the Tamil question — the just solution to which is wide-ranging devolution of powers within a united Sri Lanka. The 13th Amendment provides a decent start but, as the whole world knows, Tamil aspirations go beyond this. It is certainly time to concretise the ‘plus' in the 13th Amendment-plus to which President Rajapaksa committed his government before the LTTE was eliminated as a military entity. In shaping an enduring political solution, the role of the Tamil National Alliance, which decisively won the recent local bodies elections in the North, is crucial. Thus far it has fallen woefully short of articulating a clear vision of a constitutional solution. It is time it steps up to the task.