Dr. Jehan Perera examines the need to represent Sri Lanka’s plural society

The appointment of a presidential task force to take the One Country, One Law concept forward has generated a divisive debate, much of it critical. In the lead up to the presidential election in 2019, this came across as a powerful unifying theme to the majority of the population who felt that ethnic and religious minorities have created enclaves – both in territory and law – undermining the country’s unity.

At that time, the Easter Sunday bombings in April 2019 and demoralisation in the face of security failures loomed large in popular consciousness.

The slogan was projected as the rallying call of a strong leader who would unify the country in all aspects. The main allure of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s desire for more centralised governance was the hope that he would institute a strong government – the sort practised in Singapore where decision making is based on merit, rationality and cost effectiveness with corruption outlawed.

Two years into his presidency however, he has yet to deliver on the promise of Singaporean style governance by those with suitable qualifications and zero tolerance for abuse of power in high places.

Such expectations are no longer supported by the present situation. Sri Lanka is beset by many problems of varying intensity, and expectations with regard to the positive and developmental aspects of a strong government have not been met.

The presidential task force has come at a time when the population’s attention is focussed on the difficulties of growing food, feeding their families and educating their children, amid fertiliser bans, teachers’ strikes and economic hardship.

As for the basic concept of One Country, One Law, it needs to be critically reviewed. It ought to mean that the country’s laws apply to every individual with equal force regardless of rank, position, ethnicity or religion.

However, Sri Lanka’s constitution makes exceptions for Buddhism – to which it gives the foremost place – and personal laws applying to Kandyan-Sinhalese, Jaffna Tamils and Muslims.

This has given rise to a perception that the task force and its mandate are in pursuit of reforming personal laws, and targeting minorities. In this context, it needs to be challenged due to the composition and mandate.

The task force led by Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara has caused consternation even among the government’s partisan supporters as he has a chequered reputation, having been associated with anti-Muslim violence and hate speech, and convicted by the courts for contempt, imprisoned and then handed a presidential pardon.

Significantly, the 13 member task force does not include a single woman, Tamil or Christian; therefore, it doesn’t represent the plurality of Sri Lanka’s multiethnic, multi-religious and plural society.

The government needs to take these shortcomings into consideration or they can erode confidence in it, further marginalising minority communities and women when decisions are made regarding laws that affect them without their participation.

It cannot be coincidental that the task force’s establishment coincided with two important government announcements.

The first was that the long postponed provincial council elections will be held early next year. The previous administration manoeuvred to postpone them for fear of being defeated mid-term.

These concerns may exist in the present government too as its performance is still far from what was expected. It may be seeking to reinvigorate its falling voter base through ethno-religious campaigning.

The second announcement relates 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 it will embody the government’s desire to centralise governance for which the One Country, One Law slogan is most relevant and may include a plan to diminish or entirely abolish the provincial councils.

It needs to be noted that at the UN General Assembly in New York City and UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, the president and Minister of Foreign Affairs Prof. G. L. Peiris respectively pledged to energise the national reconciliation process by following principles of accountability and restorative justice among others, and 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 its mandate contradict those pledges. If preserving the GSP+ concession is a priority, this is not the way forward.