Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa Image Credit: EPA

Mahinda Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka's president, did not tell his ministers why he required them to attend parliament on August 25. But an Indian newspaper put them out of their misery, breaking the news online that he was going to announce a lifting of Sri Lanka's state of emergency.

And yet, when Rajapaksa strode into the assembly carrying a sheaf of papers, even members of his own benches craned their necks to sneak a glance at what they contained.

Sri Lanka has been under emergency rule on-and-off for nearly three decades, most recently since the assassination in August 2005 of Lakshman Kadirgamar, an ethnic-Tamil foreign minister.

The emergency's justification was the long war against the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who pursued their demand for an independent homeland for Sri Lanka's Tamil minority with total disregard for human life.

The emergency was retained even after the final rout of the Tigers in May 2009. It gives the army sweeping powers, including that of investigation, search, arrest and detention. Public marches and meetings can be banned.

Many regulations were repealed or amended in May last year. But international pressure on Sri Lanka to lift the emergency altogether was likely to mount ahead of a meeting in Geneva of the United Nations Human Rights Council from September 12.

So, at the end of a typically bombastic speech in parliament, Rajapaksa said he proposed not to extend it. But he did not disclose when it would end, and officials ventured a variety of dates (it was later announced that the emergency would be lifted on Thursday). Such befuddlement has been a feature of his presidency, which began in 2006.

Disgruntled administrators lament that "only a handful of people" ever know what is going on. They include the president's 20-something son, who is a rising member of parliament, and three of his brothers, all senior politicians.

It was also unclear what would replace the emergency. This meant that the fate of hundreds detained under emergency regulations — and much else — was uncertain. It was not even clear if ordinary citizens would still have to carry identification everywhere in case the army or police stopped and searched them.

Terror bugbear

Frustrated by the lack of information, activists insisted that the government should make public any measures it intended to take.

But Mohan Peiris, the attorney-general, said in an interview that new regulations are to be promulgated under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) to provide for the continued proscription of the Tigers and a fresh regime for holding detainees.

Worryingly, the rules also enable the president or the secretary of defence (the most powerful of those presidential siblings) to pass regulations "as it is deemed necessary".

The evidence suggests that Rajapaksa is not fond of relinquishing power. And with the PTA still in force, Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, a legal activist, argued in her newspaper column, it was a case of Tweedledee going but Tweedledum remaining.

With so much left murky, the worry is that the president will sneak in through the back door what he shoved out of the front. Such fears may well be overblown. But, true to form, he and his government have done little to dispel them.