Gotabaya’s Emergency declaration sparks wide criticism in Sri Lanka

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s move declaring a state of emergency late on Friday has sparked wide criticism within Sri Lanka, as well as from the international actors who contended it was unhelpful and counterproductive, coming amid peaceful citizens’ protests.

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Government critics and civil society groups fear that the emergency regulations, which give sweeping powers to the police and armed forces, could be used to quell public dissent that has intensified in recent days. Several thousand Sri Lankans are agitating on the streets relentlessly, blaming the ruling Rajapaksa brothers’ “misgovernance” for the island’s unprecedented economic downturn.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka, a professional body of lawyers, expressed “grave concern” over the move. “Declaration of a state of emergency is not the answer to the present situation in the country including the spate of public protests and strikes which have occurred. We re-iterate that the state of emergency must not be used to stifle peaceful protests and dissent or to make arbitrary arrests and detentions. The protests in turn must not be violent and must remain peaceful at all times,” it said in a statement.

Even before the Emergency came into effect from Friday midnight, police unleashed water cannons and tear gas on students protesting outside Parliament on Thursday and Friday, neither of which seems to have deterred demonstrators going by the crowd since.

The Colombo-based NGO Centre for Policy Alternatives said it is “alarmed” by the “violent”, and “intimidatory” tactics used by authorities, with the declaration of state of emergency “being the latest move to crush dissent and other democratic rights”, despite peaceful citizens mobilizing peacefully.

Canada’s High Commissioner to Sri Lanka David McKinnon said in a tweet: “Over the past weeks, the demonstrations across #SriLanka have overwhelmingly involved citizens enjoying their right to peaceful freedom of expression and are a credit to the country’s democracy. It’s hard to understand why it is necessary, then, to declare a state of emergency.”

Echoing the sentiment, the European Union said: “A month of peaceful demonstrations has shown how Sri Lankan citizens fully enjoy their right to freedom of expression in the oldest democracy in South Asia. State of emergency will certainly not help solving the country’s difficulties and could have a counterproductive effect!” Several other Colombo-based diplomats took to twitter to question the President’s decision.

Unfazed by the criticism, the government defended the Emergency, saying it was imposed “to ensure political stability which is a vital condition in overcoming the current socio-economic crisis in the country thereby assuring public safety and uninterrupted supply of essential services.”

Issuing a statement on Saturday, the Department of Information said: “The current agitations being held throughout the country including the capital for the last several days have posed a grave threat to the security of public life,” although the protests have remained peaceful. There have been no reports of demonstrators resorting to violence or damaging any public property. They gather in public spaces and chant anti-government slogans together. People desperate for fuel and cooking gas have at times blocked roads, causing traffic snarls. Protesters’ resolute challenge to the government has drawn celebrated artistes, progressive scholars, professionals, business leaders to the movement.

Curiously, the government claimed that essential services, including the distribution of fuel, were “interrupted”, public transport was “crippled”, and the daily functioning of hospitals was “disrupted” by the protests, apparently referring to Friday’s Hartal. Transport in Sri Lanka has been affected for months owing to a persisting fuel shortage, and hospitals have been struggling to find essential drugs, and are repeatedly putting out appeals for help.

This is the second instance of the President declaring an Emergency in the last five weeks, after a similar move early in April. The declaration would need to be ratified by the Parliament within 14 days, or it will lapse. The Parliament is adjourned till May 17.

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