In his policy statement presented to Parliament on August 20 President Gotabaya Rajapaksa outlined his Government’s plans for the forthcoming year.
Among the measures he proposed was the one relating to the removal of the 19th Amendment as a prelude to enacting a new Constitution.
The President in his satement to Parliament expressed his intention in the following words:
“The basis of the success of a democratic state is its constitution. Our Constitution, which has been amended 19 times, since 1978, has many ambiguities and uncertainties, presently resulting in confusion. As the people have given us the mandate we wanted for a constitutional amendment, our first task will be to remove the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. After that, all of us will get together to formulate a new constitution suitable for the country. In this, priority will be given to the concept of one country, one law for all the people.”
“An unstable Parliament that cannot take firm decisions and succumbs to extremist influences very often is not suitable for a country. While introducing a new constitution, it is essential to make changes to the current electoral system. While retaining the salutary aspects of the proportional representation system, these changes will be made to ensure stability of the Parliament and people’s direct representation.”
One of the proposals made by the President which can have far reaching and dangerous implications for the country is the statement that in drafting a new Constitution “priority will be given to the concept of one country, one law for all the people.”
In the debate that followed at least two Members of Parliament Chief Opposition Whip Lakshman Kiriella and SLMC Leader Rauff Hakeem took issue with the Government on the President’s intention to give effect to the concept of one country, one law. This concept, as vigorously articulated by hardline elements on various platforms, is understood to mean the removal of personal laws such as Kandyan Law, Thesavalamai Law and Muslim Law.
The main focus however has been on the Muslim personal law which is being advocated by various groups involved in hate campaigns against the Muslim community since last year’s Easter Sunday attacks.
The Muslim personal laws in Sri Lanka relate only to marriage and divorce as well as intestate succession and have been in the satute books of the country from British times. They relate only to these limited areas of a Muslim’s private lives and have no impact on other communities or the rest of society.
There has been no evidence that these personal laws contributed in even a remote way to the events of April 21, 2019. In such a context, attempts to remove Muslim or other personal laws is both ill advised and illogical. The removal of the Muslim personal laws under the concept of ‘one country, one law” would therefore amount to an assault on the dignity of the Muslim community.
It will be akin to the Government’s refusal to allow the bodies of Muslims who died due to the Covid-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka to be buried and insisting on cremation instead, despite World Health Organisation Guidelines permitting the burial of Covid-19 deceased. In that instance too there was no reason given by Government for taking such drastic action that hurt the feelings of the Muslim community. In fact their pleas were simply ignored.
A move to implement a “one country, one law” principle is at variance with the beautiful mosaic of diversity that the world has recognised Sri Lanka to be. It has been a proud boast of the Sri Lankan nation that we celebrate diversity and consider it a sign of strength that the followers of four great religions have lived in harmony from the time of the Sinhala Kings.
In his speech in Parliament, Lakshman Kiriella outlined the historical role played by the different personal laws in the lives of the people of this country and stated that abolishing such personal laws would be a difficult task. He went on to say:
“There are certain laws which people practice in their personal capacity. The Kandyan law which is practiced in areas such as Kandy, outlines how property should pass from one generation to another. It will not be easy to do away with such laws. The situation is the same when it comes to the Thesawalamai law and Muslim law.”
One of the leading authorities on Sri Lankan Law H. W Tambiah has described the rich tapestry of Sri Lankan law as follows:
“… In Sri Lanka, there are five systems of private law. The Roman-Dutch law, as modified by statutes, and interpreted by the courts, is the general law of the land. English common law applies to commercial contracts and commercial property and has been tacitly accepted in many matters. English law was also introduced by statute and as such forms the statutory law of the land. The Thesavalamai is both a personal and local law…. Similarly, Kandyan Law applies to the Kandyan Sinhalese, and the Muslim laws, to the Muslims, in [matters relating to] marriage, divorce, [alimony] and inheritance. “
Any attempt to remove the personal laws of the country for no reason will not only dismantle a legal system that has stood the test of time but also have an impact on minority rights and the freedom of religion.
In his speech during the debate in Parliament, Rauf Hakeem went on to draw attention to the fact that the President’s call at the end of his statement for all sections of the community to join hands with him was at variance, with what the President had said elsewhere in his speech where he had referred to his intention of implementing the one country, one law principle.
Quoting Kamala Harris the Democratic Vice Presidential nominee who had accused President Donald Trump of turning tragedies into political weapons, Hakeem posed the question whether the same was true of Sri Lanka. He referred to the Easter Sunday attacks and how it had been used in election campaigns to repeatedly demonise the Muslim community for the heinous acts of a few. He said what the Government should do was to bring those who were involved in the attacks before the law, instead of keeping the people in eternal fear by beating the drums of communal disharmony.
He also lamented that those who had stood for democracy had been unfairly accused of helping the terrorists who had launched the dastardly Easter Sunday attacks.
The duty of the State and Government is to unite and bring the communities closer together to face the challenges of the future. Any attempt to impose a one country, one law will only have the opposite effect and alienate sections of the community from the State. The Government should therefore rethink any moves in the direction of one country, one law. One can only hope that such rethinking will result in better sense prevailing.