By Rajan Philips –
“Not consorting with fools, consorting with the wise, paying homage to those worthy of homage: This is the highest protection.” ~ Maha Mangala Sutta
The gazette announcement that Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera will be heading a new Presidential Task Force to study “the implementation of the concept, One country; One law, and prepare a draft Act for the said purpose,” was more befuddling than it was shocking or infuriating. “It defies comprehension,” said The Island editorial on Thursday. Many also found the announcement somewhat hilarious while mindful of its ominous implications. The hilarity stems from this government’s seemingly unlimited capacity to be ridiculously irrational in political tactics, even as it is utterly incompetent on matters of policy. Comprehending the government’s actions is not the problem. Fathoming how far the consequences of those actions will go and how damaging they will be to the public good is the challenge.
With another three years to go before next pair of elections, it is virtually impossible to change the government. That is why I have been trying to suggest – changing the ways of the government, as a rational alternative. How can anyone suggest anything rational when the President seemingly out of the blues appoints Gnanasara Thera to head a presidential task force? That is why the gazette announcement has been generating more cynical laughter than outright condemnation.
When news about the newest task force broke out, a politically astute former Peradeniya Engineering Professor chimed in that regardless of ‘one country, one law,’ Sri Lanka is being dragged from a state of ‘one country, no law,’ to a new situation of ‘no country, no law.’ Another Engineering alumnus, paraphrased the old Colvin gem to coin a new one: ‘one law, two states’; two laws, one state.’ Then he cited the first stanza from Maha Mangala Sutta, where The Buddha counsels whom to consort with and whom to pay homage for “the highest protection.” There are higher mortals than I in Sri Lanka to say if Gnanasara Thera and his twelve Task Force followers are not the fools, but the wise, and worthy of homage by the President of Sri Lanka to secure for the state of Sri Lanka “ the highest protection.”
But it is not the protection of the state that is at issue now. It was the issue that was orchestrated to loom large between the Easter Sunday bombings in April 2019 and the presidential election seven months later, in November 2019. The echoes of Easter Sunday are still reverberating and that may be one of the reasons, if not the only reason, why Gnanasara Thera has been given a presidential platform at this time. To mount a counter pulpit to that of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.
Over the last two weeks Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, his clergy and his laity have become vociferously critical of the government’s failure to meaningfully respond to their calls for accountability for the breakdown of security on Easter Sunday in 2019, on the one hand, and for justice for the victims of the Easter attacks, on the other. A Presidential Commission of Inquiry appointed by former President Sirisena has produced a report running into six volumes including a whole chapter on recommendations. One of the recommendations is apparently to consider punitive legal action against the former President himself for negligence of duty and his failure to act on prior intelligence information about Easter bombings.
People have gone over this before. But they will keep going over it again, and again, so long as the government remains inactive and unresponsive. The Government’s inaction has been fuelling speculations about who knew what, who did what, and who failed to do what – before, on the day of, and after the bombings. Rather than being transparent with information, the government has been trying to rain down speculations. And it hasn’t worked.
To make matters worse, President Rajapaksa is reported to have told Cardinal Malcom Ranjith that he (the President) would become very unpopular if he were to act on the recommendations of the Presidential Commission. Herein might lie some clue to presidential thinking. Indicting people makes the President unpopular. So, he pardoned Duminda Silva to become popular. And the President’s popularity might be getting a real boost from his spineless Attorney General who is redefining his job as one of withdrawing indictments rather than arraigning criminals and trespassers.
With nothing working to stop the Catholics from making too much noise, the government has started letting loose the CID on them. Priests and activists are summoned by the CID to explain their public statements on the Easter tragedy. A Catholic Priest, Fr. Cyril Gamini Fernando, and a lay activist, Chirantha Amerasinghe, have become special targets after speaking out. The case of Fr. Fernando is unsurprisingly curious. He has been summoned by the CID on a personal complaint lodged by the Director General of State Intelligence Services. Fr. Fernando has asked for time and has pointed out if the Director General has anything to complain he should go to court instead of ordering the police. A smart and very legitimate move.
Ten years ago, Fr. Fernando may have been hauled up in a van and even ‘disappeared.’ Priests in the north have ‘been disappeared.’ Now, it might be just a little too difficult to bring back the old methods. Not with expatriate Sri Lankan Catholics joining the local clamour. And not with the Permanent People’s Tribunal beginning its hearings in The Hague on the case of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the slain Saudi journalist, and the murder of Sri Lanka’s Lasantha Wickrematunge. Stand implicated in the two cases are the Saudi Crown Prince and Sri Lanka’s former Defence Secretary.
Vistas of Despair
It is against this broader backdrop that the setting up a new Presidential Commission headed by Gnanasara Thera ‘defies comprehension.’ But it makes sense when the elevation of Gnanasara Thera is seen as a counter challenge to Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. Whether or not it is the calculation of either the President or his congenitally ill-advised advisers, the new Task Force will give an official platform to Gnanasara Thera. And it will not be long before the two religious pulpits confront each other at the country’s political centre. Sparks are going to fly. It is not a question of who among the two is going to get burnt more, but how many others will be unnecessarily caught in the fire.
The government may be overlooking another detail. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith is not the old ‘Latin Bishop’ of the 1960s, but a multilingual Catholic prelate who is also a consummate exponent of the culture and nationalism of the Sinhalese. He cannot be dismissed as the missionary of an alien faith, for he can articulate the essences of Sinhala culture far more eloquently and more pleasingly than anyone in the government or anyone in the President’s new task force, including Gnanasara Thera. If that is the game that gets to be played by the new task force, it will be revealing to see how the national audience shapes up in responding to the Catholic Cardinal and the Head of the President’s new Task Force.
Apart from being a counter pulpit to the Cardinal, what else are Gnanasara Thera and his twelve Task Force apostles going to achieve by undertaking the “study of the implementation of the concept, One country; One law, and prepare a draft Act for the said purpose”? The concept of the dog, as the old saying goes, doesn’t bark, let alone bite. So how is the concept of one country, one law, going to be implemented – to make it bark, and even bite? We can stay tuned for the Task Force’s monthly reports and its magnum opus by February 28, 2022.
In the meantime, the onus is on all the other task carriers and the more enlightened supporters of President Rajapaksa to help us make sense of this latest precipitous action. The onus is specially on the Committee of Experts incubating the new constitution. How are they going to find common ground, or even reconcile, between their labour for constitutional law and Gnanasara Thera’s one-law voyage to discover nothing? Will one telescope into another? Or will it be for the President to set up another t-force or committee to integrate the two outcomes? Will the Task Force Report, if one ever comes out, be incorporated as standalone Chapter in the New Constitution?
Just days before being thoroughly blindsided by the President’s task force gazette announcement, Foreign Minister GL Peiris took it upon himself to announce that the Experts Committee work on the constitution has been completed and that it will be presented to parliament in January 2022. That effectively rules out the possibility of the committee’s experts taking a second look at their own role and potentially withdrawing themselves from the committee. They have all the reason to do so after the announcement of the One Country-One Law Task Force. The constitutional experts cannot be unaware of the spate of resignations by other principled experts and professionals from their high-post placements in public service. Nor can they be unaware that history will smile very approvingly on those who chose to leave their high-post jobs rather than being a party to everything that is going on. More importantly, the country will be spared of an unnecessary new constitution.
Last week alone, there were resignations by the heads of the State Pharmaceutical Corporation, Consumer Affairs Authority, and the Paddy Marketing Board. Whether they are fleeing a sinking ship or escaping ethical torture makes no difference to the obviousness of the government’s desperation. The announcement of the One Country-One Law Task Force is a clear symptom of desperation. There are no more vistas of splendour. Only vistas of desperation. And a shipload of un-organic Chinese manure.