1 December, 2021

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Task Force To Fuel Ethno-Religious Nationalism

By Jehan Perera

Jehan Perera

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a presidential task force to take forward the concept one country, one law that proved to be an effective slogan at the election campaign that won him the presidency in 2019. Of course, those were different times. At that time the country was still trying to recover from the shock and demoralization of the Easter bombing that had taken place six months before. The Muslim community came under special scrutiny as the suicide bombers had been Muslim. The concept of one country, one law came across as a powerful unifying theme to the majority of the population who felt that ethnic and religious minorities had created enclaves, both in territory and in law, which undermined the unity of the country.

In a context in which the previous government leadership had failed to act cohesively, the candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa was projected as being that of a strong leader who would unify the country in all aspects. However, the situation that exists at the present time no longer supports such expectations. The country is beset by many problems of varying intensity and the expectations that people had with regard to the positive and developmental aspects of strong government are no longer being met. The appointment of the presidential task force has come at a time when the attention of the general population is focused upon the difficulties they are having to grow food, feed their families and educate thelr children in the midst of fertilizer bans, teachers strikes and economic hardship.

The basic concept of one country, one law continues to be welcomed by the ethnic and religious majority population who see in it no specific threat to their identity or to their interests. The principle of one law, one country is upheld by the constitution of the country, which however makes an exception for Buddhism which is given the foremost place and for personal laws that apply to Kandyan Sinhalese, Jaffna Tamils and Muslims. This has given rise to the perception that the recently appointed Presidential Task Force and its mandate for one country one law is in pursuit of reform of personal laws and is actually a targeting of the minorities. However, the concept of one country one law is more profound and ought to mean that the country’s laws are applicable to each and every individual with equal force regardless of rank or position, ethnicity or religion.

Blighted Hopes

The main allure of President Rajapaksa’s desire for more centralized governance has been the hope that he would institute a strong government of the sort practiced in Singapore in which decisionmaking would take place on the basis of rationality and cost effectiveness with corruption outlawed. The early statements of the president that he would select only suitably qualified persons to positions of state and end practices of nepotism were widely welcomed. However, two years into his presidency, the president has yet to deliver on the promise of Singapore-style governance by those with suitable qualifications and with zero tolerance for abuse of power in high places. Unfortunately, the contrary has been the case with a minister who went inside a prison and threatened prisoners with his gun not taken before the law and the resignation of several suitably qualified persons who were appointed to high places and were not permitted to perform their duties.

In this context, the appointment of the presidential task force on one country one law needs to be challenged due both to the composition and mandate. Even today no one is above the law if the law is implemented, which calls for strengthening of institutions as was attempted by the 17th and 19th Amendments and effectively dismantled by the 18th and 20th Amendments which centralized power and reduced the independence of state institutions from political control. The task force being headed by the Ven GalagodaAtte Gnanasara has caused consternation even among partisan supporters of the government as he has a checkered reputation having been associated with anti-Muslim violence and hate speech and being convicted by the courts for contempt, imprisoned and given a presidential pardon. Significantly, the 13 member task force also does not include a single woman, Tamil or Christian and therefore does not represent the plurality of Sri Lanka’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious and plural society.

The government will need to take these shortcomings into consideration or else it can erode confidence in the government and further marginalize minority communities, and women who are a majority in Sri Lanka when decisions are made regarding laws that affect them without their participation. In addition, in implementing the concept of one country, one law there needs to be provision for plural laws under the 13th Amendment by provincial councils which have been provided with devolved powers which they might use differently owing to the different circumstances that prevail in each of the provinces. However, a government leadership that seeks centralization of power and control over other institutions of governance, as manifested in the 20th Amendment, is likely to have a different agenda in which the devolution of power cannot be a priority.

Rescind Gazette

The establishment of the presidential task force coincides with two important government announcements. The first is that the long postponed provincial elections will be held in the early part of next year. The previous government maneuvered to have those elections postponed for fear of being defeated at mid-term. The same concern may exist within the present government as its performance is still far from what was expected. The government may be seeking to reinvigorate their falling voter base through ethno-religious campaigning. The second important governmental announcement has been with regard to the proposed new constitution of which little is still known. In the absence of an articulated vision, and the direction set by the 20th Amendment, the supposition is that the constitution will embody the desire of the government to centralize governance for which the one country, one law slogan is highly relevant.

Despite the appointment of the presidential task force the government appears to be continuing with its effort to take forward, even in a subordinate manner, a reconciliation process through the state mechanisms that have been established. This past weekend the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) held an international conference on the theme of “Reconciling Differences through Understanding: Sustainable Peace, Security and Reconciliation in Modern Society”. This event was conducted with the backing of the Ministry of Justice under which all reconciliation mechanisms, including the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reconciliation have been placed. Justice Minister Ali Sabry was part of the conference where he delivered speeches both at the opening and closing ceremonies which demonstrated a continuing government commitment to the work of those institutions.

It needs to be noted that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the UN General Assembly in New York and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva pledged to energise the national reconciliation process by following principles of accountability and restorative justice, among others, and to work in cooperation with the UN and international community to these ends. On the other hand, the composition of the presidential task force on one country, one law and the mandate given to it are seriously contradictory to those pledges. It appears that the government is following a multi-pronged strategy in which it will engage in reconciliation activities intended to impress the international community, civil society and sectors of the population who are able to secure benefits from these initiatives. At the same time it will seek to re-invoke the ethno-nationalist mandate it received at the presidential and general elections. Civil society needs to take the position, as proposed by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, and call on the government to immediately rescind the gazette notification on the establishment of the presidential task force on one country, one law and adopt a more democratic and consultative approach to governance.

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Latest comments

  • 2
    1

    If anything could be termed ‘sloganeering’ it is this ‘one country, one law’ fuss. Let the laws in place are acted upon the same way for every citizen. If anybody is guilty of not discharging the laws to the letter and spirit it is our President.

    • 1
      0

      Correction:
      Let the laws in place are acted upon the same way for every citizen.
      s/b
      Let the laws in place be acted upon the same way for every citizen.

  • 3
    1

    The utterly unpopular Rajapaksas have hired two Buddhist monks to their “New Laundrette” to dry-clean and remove stenches of their corruption and betrayals.
    One Buddhist monk is to dry clean Gotabhaya’s dirty linen of ethinic riots/ethnic terrorism and the other Buddhist monk is to dry-clean Mahinda’s dirty linen of corruption and betrayals.
    The new launderers are Ven. Galabodaaththe Gnanasara Thero and Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thero.

    • 3
      1

      Ven. Gnanasara Thero and a group of mobs carried out a political contract of Gotabhaya to initiate continuing ethnic riots bringing disrepute to the Sinhalese Buddhists who were not party to violence against minorities. Now this Thero is appointed by Gotabhaya to head a task force named after his own slogan ‘one country-one law’ to officially target minorities to incite a new line of religious riots.
      Gotabhaya and Mahinda have already started the campaign against the Sinhalese Buddhists through Tamil/Muslim politicians and Catholics.
      Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thero, who recently held a series of press briefings to condemn the Rajapaksas’ mega sale of national assets, deforestation and betrayals, is bribed with the post of Chancellor of the Colombo University. (This position is wrong. It should be Vice-chancellor, not Chancellor, as the President is the Chancellor of all universities by law.)
      Both Ven. Gnanasara Thero and Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda Thero proves the point that Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka are sold for money and that they will do any dirty work of politicians if they are offered money, glorified positions, vehicles and mansions. I suggest they wear trousers to work. They don’t deserve to wear the yellow robe.

  • 5
    0

    This writer is verbose. His sentences are unnecessarily long and meander along with many vague statements that are couched in “good” English words. There is something wrong in his mind-set. He wobbles along on words picked to make his essay long. I cannot imagine whether it is deliberate, to give the impression of depth in understanding or whether he cannot express himself directly. Either way, it does not make for good reading as his points are all over the place, lacking continuity or coherence. He should read writers who make their points clearly and strongly, and maybe refine his style.

    • 0
      0

      His fortnightly report to the funding source to prove that he is active.

      Soma

  • 3
    0

    JP,
    “The appointment of the presidential task force has come at a time when the attention of the general population is focused upon the difficulties they are having to grow food, feed their families and educate thelr children in the midst of fertilizer bans, teachers strikes and economic hardship.”
    —-
    One Country One Law has no connection at all with the other problems that you have mentioned or do not depend on solving the other problems you mentioned. The people who are connected with OCOL issue are a different set of people. They do not have to wait until fertilizer problem or teachers’ pay issue or children’s’ education problems are solved. These activities can continue as parallel activities.

  • 3
    1

    “This has given rise to the perception that the recently appointed Presidential Task Force and its mandate for one country one law is in pursuit of reform of personal laws and is actually a targeting of the minorities.”
    —-
    Two of the controversial laws, MMDA and Thesawalamei are linked to minorities. Those who want to retain these privileges they have been enjoying thanks to colonial rulers can say the Government is targeting the minorities and exert pressure on the Government to stop this. This is the usual game played by minorities in this country.
    Those who are hell-bent on retaining these more than equal status are the ones who make hue and cry saying that the majority Sinhalayo are not treating them as equal citizens. What Sinhalayo say is scrap these customary and religious laws brought to this country by foreigners and bring them to the same status as indigenous Sinhalayo. That should not be misinterpreted as discrimination against minorities but consider as removing a discriminatory situation that prevails against indigenous Sinhalayo and Vedda Eththo.

  • 1
    2

    One country, one law was imposed by Britain, in 1833. Britain merged the Chankilian’s Kingdom with Kotte and Kandy. Kandy was ruled by Tamil Kings, Kannuchchamies, with Sanskrit surnames. In 1833, according to Lord Colebrook’s directorate the Kingdoms were merged, and some parts of the Kandyan Accord were imposed on all cultures. The “Don Stephen- Soulbury Constitution” of 1948, made Ceylon a Sinhala Country and deported part of the Tamils to India. To consummate one country, Sinhala Only was imposed by Solomon West Ridgeway and Siri Ma O. Siri Ma o made it as Buddhism only country. In the past, the Comedy Cardinal Insisted that Buddhism is the only legal religion in Lankawe. He opposed the country becoming secular, which means freedom to practice any religion without bending the local & international Democratic & Human rights laws. All Christian and Catholics opposed Cardinal on that. Muslim politicians were the major supporters to the Cadinal’s “Buddhism is the legal religion“ preponement.

  • 1
    2

    Now, when Rome increases the heat, Cardinal has changed him into a cobra in front of the piper. The Cardinal is the most dishonest politician (Not a religious leader) in the whole country. From 1948, Tamil Christians were the leading freedom fighters for Tamils, except Duraiappa and Sumanthiran. Father David died because the Tamil’s Library was set on fire by the Rapist Army. Sinhala Christians- Catholic never identified them as a separate group until 4/21. That was the Reason Sinhala Yahapalanaya cabinet planned only Tamil Churches and Foreign Tourist Hotels to bomb on 4/21. It was like until yesterday Cardinal was dumb on 4/21. The tourist Christian’s issue is the one setting fire on Cardinal ‘s chair to respond to 4/21. There were Western Christians too who died in that massacre. Remember, the Old King’s men killed Khuram Shaikh, the UK tourist, in Tangalle. It is going to be difficult for the Cardinal to dodge on 4/21 because it is not just Tamil Churches that were destroyed by Yahapalanaya.
    Jayawewa for comedy Cardinal!

  • 3
    2

    Reconciliation and National Unity.
    Do not expect indigenous Sinhalayo who were the victims of war declared by Tamils against them to waste their money and time for reconciliation. Now reconciliation is in the court of Tamils who were the aggressor. If Tamils want to live in peace with indigenous Sinhalayo they should give a public apology for the heinous crimes committed against Sinhalayo for three decades to grab their land and make public statements to the effect that they are willing to live with indigenous Sinhalayo peacefully in a Unitary State.
    While saying they have not given up their objective to create a separate State and saying ‘Sinhalayo are not welcome in the North’, ‘Cannot build temples or Buddha statues in the North’ talking about reconciliation and national unity is a farce.

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