By Jehan Perera –
The great hopes of a leap forward to a new era that came with the end of the war have now been dispelled. The anticipated prosperity and inter-ethnic reconciliation that was expected to be Sri Lanka’s after the war has still not materialized. The continuing bailouts of loss making government enterprises and the impeachment of the Chief Justice are but two examples of the failure of governance. The mobilization of the country to win the war has not been accompanied by a restructuring of the state to deal with the challenges of winning the peace. Life continues to be hard for the vast majority of people and competition is intense due to limited economic opportunity within the country.
This is the context in which the dispute over admissions to the Law College has taken on an ethnic dimension. The statistics show that a disproportionate number of successful applicants has come from the Muslim community. This has led to allegations that there has been cheating at the examinations and Muslim students have been the beneficiaries. In a context in which political power is seen a source of patronage to constituents, the fact that the Minister of Justice is himself a Muslim has been used to give a communal and conspiratorial interpretation to the matter.
An organization called the National Intellectual Council (NIC) has urged the authorities to cancel the Law College Entrance Examination results and hold the examination again. They have said they suspect the students to have received the paper with the support of hierarchies in the Ministry of Justice. In addition, a Member of Parliament of the mainstream opposition UNP has been reported in the media saying that the party suspected a fraud after it was found a group of influential candidates had held on to the top 50 slots in the rankings. All these students are alleged to have studied at the same institute and taught by the same teacher.
The Justice Ministry has responded to these accusations with a lengthy statement. The minister’s media secretary has said that results of the Law College entrance examination to admit students for the year 2013 have generated much discussion and have now developed into a controversy involving a number of organizations making allegations against the Minister Rauff Hakeem. He has pointed out that the Law College is managed by an independent Board which is under the supervision of the Council of Legal Education headed by the Chief Justice. The examination is itself carried out by the Department of Examinations, which is not under the Justice Ministry.
Under normal circumstances, the Justice Ministry’s explanation should suffice to quell suspicions of a conspiracy. However, the recent actions of the government that undermine the independence of state institutions demonstrate the need for such institutions to be truly independent of political manipulation. The Chief Justice who heads the Council of Legal Education is in the process of being impeached in a manner that violates the basic requirements of due process. Even if the members of the Council of Legal Education score high on personal integrity, the larger political environment is hostile to their independence.
Sometime ago the administration of the Law College came in for criticism on account of the way it held its final examinations. A son of President Mahinda Rajapaksa was alleged to have been given special consideration by sitting for his examination is a separate room away from the rest of the students. It is circumstances such as this that creates unnecessary doubts in the minds of the general public about the manipulation of examination results due to the weakness of internal administrative systems. The 18th Amendment to the Constitution that gave to the President the power to appoint anyone he desires to the topmost positions in the state apparatus has contributed to the politicization of the public service and to the erosion of standards in it.
The breakdown of confidence in the Law College examination has occurred soon after a similar incident that affected the Ordinary Level examination, which is of crucial importance to hundreds and thousands of school children. Many of them were similarly affected by a leak of one of the question papers in the Science subject. Police investigations have revealed that the science paper was leaked to a tuition teacher who in turn coached his students to obtain excellent results in that subject. In this instance, the suspect was of Sinhalese ethnicity and presumably most of the beneficiary students were also of Sinhalese ethnicity. The Minister of Education nor the Commissioner of Examinations under whose purview the Ordinary Level examinations are held are also of Sinhalese ethnicity.
It is relevant to note that no voice has been raised that the cheating that took place at the Ordinary Level examination was a Sinhalese conspiracy. Rather it was a criminal action and the accused tuition teacher and his accomplices in the Education Department have been arrested. The communal interpretation given to the alleged acts of cheating at the Law College examinations need to be challenged. They appear to be part of a larger campaign against the ethnic minorities. The deliberate fostering of Sinhalese nationalism by politicians to suit their political agendas is a recipe for trouble in the coming period.
Recently it was reported that the Muslim Council of Sri Lanka together with the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the apex religious body of is Islamic Theologians, met Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to explain the situation. They had explained that around 19 websites identified by them are spreading anti-Muslim ideas in the country. In addition, there are Facebook and SMS campaigns also against Muslims. According to the news report the Defence Secretary had assured them that the rising incidents of extremism were not the stands of the government, Sinhala society or the Buddhist monk community and the government would not allow disrupting the hard built peace in the country. This promise is to be welcomed. It is alleged that some of the extremist Sinhalese nationalist groups enjoy unofficial government patronage at the highest levels.
The three decade long war, and especially its last three years, saw an unprecedented mobilisation of nationalism on both the Sinhalese and Tamil sides. Both the government and LTTE engaged in nationalist mobilization of the human resources at their disposal. But what was deemed to be necessary in a time of war must not be permitted to continue into the future is proving to be divisive and counter-productive to the government’s efforts to reunify the country and develop the economy. The diversity that exists in the country, and the different links that each of the ethnic and religious communities have with different sections of the international community must be made an asset and a strength, and not be made into a liability.
So far, however, the portents are not positive in this regard. It seems that whenever government leaders are at a loss for new ideas or explanations for the difficulties that face the country, they speak about protecting the country from anti-Sri Lanka groups working abroad and their collaborators within the country. As all the major religions practiced in Sri Lanka are universal ones, it is inevitable that the religions practiced by the minorities will have large numbers of adherents abroad. This becomes a source of threat to Sinhalese who have a historical memory of repeated foreign invasions that lay waste to the ancient kingdoms and to the suppression of Sinhalese civilization. This sense of threat in turn prompts them to take action against the minority religions, to the point where there have been several attacks against Christian churches and Muslim mosques.
The great pity in all of this is that inter-ethnic and inter-religious relations between people at the community level are largely amicable and free of animosity. Those who have experience of inter-religious work will speak of the positive response they get from adherents of all religions, and in particular the Muslims. As they are generally bilingual and conversant in both Sinhala and Tamil languages, the Muslims can be a bridge between the Sinhalese and Tamil people. They also share the Tamil apprehension about the erosion of minority rights; at the same time they share the Sinhalese commitment to a united and undivided country.