by Dr Nihal Jayawickrama

It is difficult to comprehend why the Government is seeking to introduce a monstrosity of a Bill, ostensibly to combat terrorism, when it has, and has had at its disposal for several decades, a law with sufficient flexibility to prevent and deal with all forms of threats to the security of our country and its peoples.

The Public Security Ordinance

In June 1947, a few months before Ceylon’s first parliamentary election, the State Council enacted the Public Security Ordinance. It was a time when both the private and public sectors of the country were virtually crippled by strike action. Demanding better living conditions, higher wages, and trade union and political rights for government employees, nearly 50,000 workers had come out in what was then the biggest ever strike organized in the country. On June 5, 1947, the police opened fire on a demonstration in Colombo, killing a government clerk, V. Kandasamy. Five days later, the Minister of Home Affairs Mr. (later Sir) Arunachalam Mahadeva, presented the Public Security Ordinance in the State Council. He did not even attempt to disguise the fact that the Bill he was presenting was motivated by the general strike. Seventy-six years later, that law remains not only in our statute book, but also entrenched in the Constitution.

The Public Security Ordinance enables the President, by merely placing his signature on a proclamation, to declare a state of public emergency if it appears to him to be necessary to do so in the interests of public security and the preservation of public order, or for the maintenance of supplies essential to the life of the community. Upon his doing so, he is empowered to legislate through emergency regulations. An emergency regulation, which may even provide for the detention of persons, has the legal effect of over-riding, amending, or suspending the operation of any law other than the Constitution. It comes into force immediately upon it being made by the President, without the need for its publication.

The Public Security Ordinance has also conferred special powers on the President which he may exercise without declaring a state of public emergency.

He may call out the members of all or any of the armed forces to assist the police in the maintenance of public order in any area.

He may impose a curfew in any area.

He may declare any service to be an essential service, and any person who fails to provide that service, or impedes, obstructs, delays, or restricts the carrying on of that service will be guilty of an offence.

This immense power vested in the President is counter-balanced in several ways. The declaration of a state of public emergency is limited in duration to one month at a time. The making of a proclamation must be communicated to Parliament forthwith. The proclamation will expire after 14 days unless Parliament, by resolution, approves it. No proclamation may now remain in force beyond 90 days unless it is approved by Parliament by a two-thirds majority of all its members. These are some of the safeguards provided for in the Public Security Ordinance against the abuse of the extraordinary powers conferred by it on the President.

The following are some of the threats, or perceived threats, to public security which have been addressed by invoking the Public Security Ordinance.

The Hartal 1953

It was in 1953, during the second Parliament, that the Public Security Ordinance was invoked for the first time. In the budget presented that year by Finance Minister J.R. Jayewardene, the subsidy on rice was removed, postal rates and railway fares were increased, and the free midday meal was abandoned. To protest against these measures, the trade unions and left-wing political parties organized a “hartal” (a general stoppage of work) on August 12, 1953. In many parts of the country there were several outbreaks of violence and much damage to public property. Lorries carrying produce were set on fire, the Manning market was completely gutted, several schools were destroyed, and rail tracks were obstructed. On the same day, on the advice of Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, the Acting Governor-General Sir Alan Rose declared a state of emergency and imposed a dawn to dusk curfew throughout the country. Several left-wing politicians were detained. Order was restored, but not until several deaths occurred at the hands of the military. The responsibilities he had to bear had a negative impact on the health of the Prime Minister who resigned his office two months later.

Communal conflict 1958

Communal tensions that had begun to simmer on the issue of language rights reached a crescendo with the presentation of the Official Language Bill in June 1956 in an empty House of Representatives that was barricaded with banks of barbed wire and guarded by steel-helmeted policemen. On Galle Face Green, Tamil parliamentarians who were performing satyagraha were physically attacked. The violence spread from Colombo to the eastern province, and continuing communal discord took a turn for the worse with a tar brush campaign when the Government introduced the “Sri” numberplate. The Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact brought Buddhist priests and Sinhalese extremists into the fray. In October 1957, a march to Kandy led by J.R. Jayewardene seeking spiritual aid to achieve the abrogation of the B-C Pact led to more violence. In May 1958, a wave of violence broke out in the North and East following the derailment of a train carrying delegates to the Federal Party Convention in Batticaloa. In Colombo, mobs attacked and looted Tamil businesses, set cars ablaze, and killed several Tamil persons. As the killing, arson and looting spread throughout the island like a prairie fire, the Governor-General invoked the Public Security Ordinance, declared a state of emergency, imposed a curfew, proscribed the Federal Party and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna and placed their leaders under house arrest. Over 4,000 Tamils and 2,000 Sinhalese were transported to safety in convoys on the high seas. Peace eventually returned to the Island.

Assassination of the Prime Minister 1959

The third occasion for invoking the Public Security Ordinance was in 1959. At around 10 a.m. on September 25 of that year, Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was shot at his residence by a Buddhist monk and was rushed to hospital, from where he issued a statement appealing for restraint and patience. At 11 a.m. the Governor-General Sir Oliver Goonetilleke, having spoken briefly with Mr. Bandaranaike in hospital, and apparently to prevent an angry multitude embarking on reprisals against Buddhist monks, invoked the Public Security Ordinance and declared a state of emergency throughout the country. At 8 a.m. on the following morning, the Prime Minister passed away. At 11.15 on the same day, following a meeting of the Cabinet at Queen’s House, the Governor-General appointed W. Dahanayake, the Acting Leader of the House, as Prime Minister.

Following Mr. Bandaranaike’s state funeral, a series of bizarre events took place. As speculation about the identity of Bandaranaike’s assassins reached fever pitch, and it was openly insinuated that people in very high places were privy to the conspiracy, a rigorous press censorship was introduced by emergency regulations, covering a variety of subjects including news of the murder probe. Following the arrest of the female Minister of Health and the brother of the Minister of Finance, the government parliamentary group expelled the Prime Minister, and the latter sacked ten of his Ministers. Finally, left with no alternative but to dissolve Parliament, due to a rapid erosion of support in both Houses, Prime Minister Dahanayake revoked the state of emergency on December 3, 1959. At the general election that followed, the Prime Minister was defeated in his own constituency.

Since 1961, the Public Security Ordinance was invoked on numerous occasions, by successive governments, to deal with a variety of governance issues. For example:

Civil Disobedience in the North 1961

On January 1, 1961, the Official Language Act became fully operative. Attempts to reach accord on the use of the Tamil language had been unsuccessful. On February 20. 1961, the Federal Party commenced a “satyagraha” in five centres – Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Batticaloa and Trincomalee, against the language policy of the Government, preventing access to kachcheris and other government office in those districts. When the Federal Party announced the establishment of their own postal service, police service and land kachcheris, the Government declared a state of emergency on April 18 “to take effective measures to deal with the situation”. The Federal Party was proscribed, detention orders were issued, and a curfew was imposed.

An Abortive Coup d’etat

On the night of January 27, 1962, while a state of emergency was in force, the Government received reliable information that certain senior officers of the police and armed forces had conspired to arrest some Ministers and other political leaders and to overthrow the Government. The arrests were scheduled to be made that night. The fact that the Public Security Ordinance was already in operation enabled the Government to arrest the coup leaders and to foil the plot and commence and complete an immediate investigation.

Electricity Department Strike

On March 5, 1964, a 30-day state of emergency was declared to deal with a strike in the Electricity Department. According to the Government, “the sewerage system in Colombo, oil, telecommunications, the loading and unloading of ships in the harbour – all are at a standstill. Many factories have come to a halt”. Following personal service orders served on certain electrical engineers, in pursuance of which they were taken to their places of work and compelled to work, the strike was called off and services restored.

Protests against the Tamil Language Regulations

On January 8, 1966, when regulations under the Tamil Language (Special Provisions) Act of 1958 were presented to Parliament, massive demonstrations organized by Opposition parties took place. A procession of nearly 10,000 persons, led by Buddhist monks, left the Vihara Maha Devi Park and commenced a march in the direction of Parliament. At Kollupitiya, the police opened fire after tear gas and baton-charging had failed. A Buddhist monk was killed, and several others injured. A state of emergency was declared, and a curfew imposed in Colombo and its suburbs.

Reduction in the rice ration

A state of emergency was suddenly declared at midnight on December 18, 1966, and all public meetings were banned, local authority elections were postponed, and demonstrations and processions permitted only with the approval of the competent authority in each district. On the following morning, Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake announced that, owing to a world shortage of rice, the ration of two measures would be reduced to one, and that would be issued free of charge. Matured by experience and conscious of the fact that “rice” was the most sensitive and explosive issue in the country, the Government struck what was obviously a pre-emptive blow. However, other measures were to follow. Devaluation, and the sealing of the “Jana Dina” newspaper were some of them. For reasons best known to the Government, the state of emergency continued to be renewed, with parliamentary approval, until January 18, 1969.

The JVP Insurgency

On March 1971, Governor-General William Gopallawa declared a state of public emergency. Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranaike explained to Parliament that information had been received that secret cells had been formed; that arms, ammunition and other deadly weapons were being collected or manufactured; that a large cache of hand bombs had exploded in a hut in Dedigama killing five persons; nine crates containing hand bombs had been discovered in a shrub jungle in Pindeniya; and that an explosion in the Peradeniya campus, which damaged the roof of Marrs Hall, had led to the discovery of hand bombs and large quantities of explosive material used in the manufacture of hand bombs. Despite this pre-emptive action, the Government was militarily unprepared for the concentrated armed attacks that were launched on April 5, 1971.

With shot guns, hand bombs and locally made hand grenades, a massive attack was launched on police stations throughout the country between April 5 – 11, a total of 93 police stations were attacked and overrun; 35 police stations went under insurgent control, and in these provincial towns and villages revolutionary government replaced the civil administration completely. However, powers under the Public Security Ordinance enabled the Government to bring the situation under control; to accommodate approximately 10,000 insurgents who had been arrested; to secure the surrender of an additional 6,000; to establish a special investigation unit; and to perform all the other tasks required to bring the leadership to trial and release the others progressively in such numbers as not to create any security problems in the areas to which they returned.


The Public Security Ordinance appeared to have lost its relevance when, in July 1979, the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act came into force. That law did not prevent the bloody ethnic conflict which commenced in that year and continued for the next 30 years. It did not prevent, even with all the information made available to the relevant authorities, the colossal Easter Sunday massacre. The fundamental difference between the Public Security Ordinance and the proposed Anti-Terrorism Act is that, while the former may be utilized only when the need arises, the latter will remain forever, not merely as a dark cloud over the heads of all the citizens of Sri Lanka, but as a permanent ogre, watching every movement, every normal act of human behaviour, waiting for the opportunity to swoop down and grab its prey.


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