by 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 demoralisation 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 experiencing in growing food, feeding their families and educating their children in the midst of fertiliser 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.
The main allure of President Rajapaksa’s desire for more centralised governance has been the hope that he would institute a strong government of the sort practiced in Singapore in which decision-making 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 centralised power and reduced the independence of state institutions from political control.
The task force being headed by the Ven Galagodaaththe 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 marginalise 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 centralisation 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.
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 centralise 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.