Sri Lanka: One law, many problems

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa sets up a task force to look into eliminating personal laws, inviting widespread condemnation, but the move is a ploy to deflect attention from the economic crisis worsened by a bungling regime.

Published : Nov 23, 2021 06:00 IST

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa  addressing the nation during Sri Lanka's 73rd Independence Day celebrations, in Colombo on February 4, 2021.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa addressing the nation during Sri Lanka's 73rd Independence Day celebrations, in Colombo on February 4, 2021.

In an October 26 gazette, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared that “no citizen should be discriminated against in the eyes of the law” and hence, he was establishing a task force that would “study implementation of the concept [of] one country, one law” and prepare a draft legislation. He appointed Galagodaaththe Gnanasara, a controversial monk, to head this task force. Gnanasara is general secretary of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist organisation. The 13-member task force, comprising nine Sinhalas and four Sri Lankan Muslims (who have publicly aligned with President Rajapaksa), will study the material prepared by the Justice Ministry and make recommendations by February 2022. According to the gazette, the task force will “study the draft Acts and amendments that have already been prepared by the Ministry of Justice in relation to this subject and their appropriateness, and if there are suitable amendments, to submit proposal for the purpose and include them in such relevant draft as is deemed appropriate”.

The ‘one country, one law’ concept was a campaign slogan of Gotabaya Rajapaksa in the 2019 presidential election. Soon after he won, the Cabinet decided to amend Muslim personal laws. Sri Lanka also has the Kandyan and Thesavalamai personal laws for Sinhala Buddhists and Tamils, respectively.

An anti-minority monk

Gnanasara, known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric, was accused of instigating the 2014 Aluthgama riots that targeted Muslims. His utterances after the April 2019 bomb blasts (“ Distress and divide ”, Frontline , July 5, 2019) were Islamophobic in nature and a presidential commission wanted his outfit, the BBS, banned. The BBS came into the limelight during the latter part of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency, which ended in 2015. After a brief lull during the presidency of Maithripala Sirisena (2015-2019), it has gained in strength.

However, these issues did not seem to be of any consequence to Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who panders to the Sinhala chauvinist elements among the electorate, when he decided that Gnanasara would head the task force. In Gnanasara, Gotabaya Rajapaksa has found the perfect tool to widen the yawning rift among the three ethno-religious groups in Sri Lanka: the Sinhalas, the Tamils, and the Muslims.

Also read: Which way Sri Lanka?

Gnanasara’s appointment has raised suspicion among the minorities since he has repeatedly made anti-minority statements and has been accused of inciting Buddhists to attack minorities, Muslims in particular. He was also convicted and imprisoned on four charges of contempt of court, but later pardoned by Sirisena—a move that shocked the liberals across the island nation.

Sri Lanka has a variety of laws, some of which are archaic and need reform. But President Rajapaksa is going about dealing with the issue in a simplistic manner. The presidential proclamation said that under fundamental rights, no citizen should be discriminated against in the eyes of the law or given any special treatment on the grounds of nationality, religion, caste or others. Apart from this, the ‘one country, one law’ concept also contains very lofty aims as it promises a method of implementing nationally and internationally recognised humanitarian values that would ensure that all citizens are treated alike under the law.

Protests against the law

In a letter to President Rajapaksa on November 2, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) questioned the need for this concept when the existing laws serve its stated objective. It said: “The Constitution itself provides a framework for the legislative process, which is supplemented by other laws and by the Standing Orders of the Parliament. There already exist, within the framework of the Constitution, the law and standing orders and adequate mechanisms for the purpose.”

The BASL said: “Whilst there is no doubt that the concepts of equality, fairness, non-discrimination, the protection of the law and nationally and internationally recognised humanitarian values are all laudable principles, it is doubtful if the process set out in the gazette and the creation of the task force can make any meaningful contribution to upholding these values.”

The Island newspaper, in an editorial, put it more simply: “It defies comprehension.”

Opposing Gnanasara’s appointment, Tamil National Alliance MP Shanakiyan Rasamanickam said: “Does a country make a common law by appointing a person who violates the constitution and spreads racism and religious bigotry?” Manjula Basnayake, a journalist, asked on Twitter: “Can a person who has been imprisoned for threatening a judge in court lead a ‘one country one law’ enforcement programme?”

The BASL also said that “no useful purpose would be served by the creation and appointment of the task force” which would “usurp the functions of many institutions established under the constitution and the law, including Parliament and the Ministry of Justice”.

Sri Lankan bishops have called upon the government to abandon its “one country, one law” plan. Bishop Winston Fernando of Badulla, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka, said in a statement issued on November 2 that the omission of Tamil, Hindu, Catholic, and other Christian minority groups from the task force was a lost opportunity.

He added: “The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka, following a meeting with Catholic Parliamentarians both from the government and the opposition, wishes to express its deep concern about the erosion of the democratic principles and values in our country. Despite the promise made by the President and the government before and after the elections, the formulation of a new Constitution for the country is put on the back burner with the adoption of the unholy, manipulative 20th Amendment to the Constitution.” He also said that this was “being exploited beyond its limit to the detriment of the well-being of the country”.

Also read: Under fire

Some 24 Muslim organisations issued a joint statement strongly condemning the appointment of Gnanasara.

However, Rajapaksa’s supporters said that a common law was the need of the hour as they feared Islamic sharia law would be implemented sooner rather than later amid a rising Saudi Arabian and Iranian influence in the country and promote Islamist extremism. After the 2019 Easter Sunday suicide attacks on churches and hotels, which killed nearly 300 people, animosity towards Muslims as a group has grown stronger in Sri Lanka.

Personal laws

Sri Lankan laws are largely based on Anglo-Roman-Dutch laws. But when it comes to personal laws, there are is a plethora of laws for specific communities. They include the Thesavalamai law or a collection of the ‘Customs of the Malabar Inhabitants of Jaffna’; the Jaffna Matrimonial Rights and Inheritance Ordinance; the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act; the Muslim Intestate Succession Ordinance; the Kandyan Marriage and Divorce Act; the Kandyan Succession Ordinance; and the Kandyan Matrimonial Rights and Inheritance Ordinance. Then, there is the Mukkuva law, which governs the fishermen community of Tamils in the east, specifically in Batticaloa. In Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s view, all these need to go.

Distraction from core issues

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is under siege from many quarters. The Sri Lankan economy has all but collapsed after the COVID-19 pandemic because tea exports, a mainstay of the economy, plummeted. Remittances from overseas also came to a standstill. Tourism, a major source of revenue, has been devastated. With the economy in doldrums, the bloated Sri Lankan state could not even pay salaries to government staff on time.

The precarious balance of payments position forced Rajapaksa to reach out to India; Sri Lanka even ended up having a currency swap deal with Bangladesh. The country then took the unprecedented step of massively curtailing most imports, leading to a scarcity of many commodities. The well-off sections were concerned and decried the move, but the poor actually bore the brunt as they were forced to pay more for food, particularly ‘pang’ (bread), a staple food.

High food prices are usually sufficient to topple a government, but the fact that the United National Party, the main opposition party, lacks unity and a leader of national stature to take on Rajapaksa is helping the President. Under these circumstances, it is the workers across the country who are voicing opposition, demanding answers from the government.

Also read: Sri Lanka’s food shortages fuelled by COVID, economic crisis

Rajapaksa’s ill-advised, ill-conceived and poorly implemented organic farming push across the country worsened the economic crisis. There is growing unrest and protests in rural areas by paddy farmers, who are demanding chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The President has rolled back this disastrous move, but the farmers are worried that the same policies will be back once the current crisis is over.

The stage is set for draconian anti-strike laws and possible incitement of majoritarian communalism, raising the bogey of Tamil militancy and jehadi terror. The Sinhalese media and social media are adding fuel to the fire. This is an old playbook: every Sri Lankan government since the country’s independence has conveniently used anti-Tamil rhetoric whenever it was faced with a crisis.

President Rajapaksa’s latest rebuff to India on October 5, after a meeting with Foreign Secretary Harsh V. Shringla where he categorically refused to discuss settling the national question or Tamil rights based on the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, is yet another instance of the extreme hard-line approach the Sri Lankan establishment is taking to steer the discourse in an entirely different direction.

When a problem appears insurmountable, minorities have always been a useful target for the government in Sri Lanka, then and now.

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