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One country, one law: World is embracing inclusivity, we are heading backwards: Shanakiyan Rasamanickam

  • Constitution should be acceptable to all citizens
  • Latest PTF is akin to executive powers being vested with a rogue monk
  • Not the ‘one country, one law’ people wanted
  • Very sorry state if Justice Minister was unaware of appointmen

By Asiri Fernando

In the face of an unprecedented pandemic and economic strife, Sri Lankans, like citizens of many other nations, are increasingly looking to each other for support. The Government has called for national resilience to weather the storm.

However, resilient societies are made by strong links and bonds between communities. More than a decade after the end of the nearly 30-year-long conflict, many in Sri Lanka remain distant from the Sri Lankan identity. Politics and power games have made a “Sri Lankan” identity hard to reach.

A growing trend of exclusivity, in place of the much-needed inclusivity, threatens to drag Sri Lanka back into a rabbit hole of unrest. It seems that Sri Lankans are yet to learn from the shortcomings of their past. Some of the complex issues that sustain fault lines between communities can be addressed to an extent by the enforcement of the law without prejudice to all citizens. 

In this context, the recently appointed Presidential Task Force (PTF) on the election slogan “one country, one law” has drawn widespread criticism, with many in minority communities suspicious of what the PTF’s real motives are. The appointment of a controversial monk, who was convicted of being in contempt of court, to lead the PTF has further galvanised suspicions about the move.

In an interview with The Sunday Morning, rights activist and Illankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (ITAK) parliamentarian Shanakiyan Rajaputhiran Rasamanickam discussed constitutional reforms and the Government’s “one country, one law” project.

A new constitution is being drafted. Consultations were held on what should be included. What kind of constitution do you think best suits Sri Lanka and what would you like to see included in it?

I think that it is unfair for us to demand a constitution with what we want. There should be a consensus. It should be a constitution where Tamils in the North and East are able to enjoy devolution of power, and all citizens of the country are treated equally. We need a constitution where the justice system is above everyone, where rule of law is applied equally to all. A constitution should be one that everyone agrees upon, which is why I feel that we should not say “this is what we want”.

I would say that a constitution has to be acceptable to all citizens, irrespective of race, religion, or culture. However, as a Tamil parliamentarian, I would like to see the Tamil-speaking people of the North and East, who make up 82% of the population in those provinces, have political autonomy. It should be within one country – undivided, indivisible, one Sri Lanka; we can share power, so that all citizens enjoy political power.

As of now, our party has not agreed on any constitution that was brought in since 1956. The reason is that none of those constitutions had the consensus of the Tamils in this country.

We get to see that a constitution is being drafted by lawyers. Yes, we have been able to make representations, but, at the end of the day, it should not be 12 lawyers who get to decide the fate of this country. The comments by senior government MP Susil Premajayantha in Parliament recently indicate that it is not only we who are unhappy with the current process.

What we put forward is an idea of what we want in the constitution. The structure should be something we can all agree on as a country.

The President appointed a PTF for the “one country, one law” initiative. Given that a new constitution is already being drafted, what is your view of this task force being appointed?

It is almost like the President had delegated his executive powers to a rogue monk. This monk has previously been convicted of contempt of court, and is out on a presidential pardon. There are recommendations made, regarding him and the organisations he represents, in the parliamentary committee report on the Easter Sunday attacks.

The gazette notes that all government officials, department heads, heads of institutions, and others – basically everyone – are answerable to this PTF. It is a vague delegation of presidential powers.

So, for such a PTF to be appointed, whilst this new constitution is being drafted, makes me wonder if this President has a genuine interest to bring in a new constitution. Is all this “new constitution” talk aimed at buying time till the next election? This could be another chapter in the “Vistas of Prosperity” drama. Given that there are some government ministers voicing opposition to their own Government, they may say “we don’t have two-thirds majority to bring in a new constitution”.

What are your views on the “one country, one law” ideology?

This concept is an idea that the people in this country voted for; 6.9 million voted for it. Even the people who didn’t vote for the President expected that he would enforce the rule of law and that law and order in the country would be equally enforced, even though they knew the democratic value would be less. That is what the people wanted.

For example, recently in Eravur, when a police constable assaulted two persons, I brought up the issue, and he was interdicted. But a few days later, a senior DIG was involved in a similar incident in Kegalle. But the punishment he got was a transfer. This is a great example of how “one country, one law” is not implemented; it shows that for different people, the law is measured differently.

What the President is trying to say is “new country, new law”.

How do you think voters perceived the “one country, one law” concept during the last presidential and general elections?

Recently, there was a man who was arrested for stealing some coconuts, and another for breaking into Sathosa and stealing some packets of milk powder to feed his children, but white-collar criminals are at large.

The Government spoke about bringing the brains behind the Easter Sunday attacks to book; they said the same about the bond scam perpetrators. However, what we see is that all the cases filed against them and their friends have been dismissed. This is not the “one country, one law” that the people and the voters were after. We have good laws in this country, all you have to do is implement it equally.

The PTF has no representation from the Tamil community. Will you be lobbying for their inclusion? Do you think the PTF will be able to deliver what is expected from it?

Nobody knows what is really expected from the PTF. It may achieve its objective because the President has given it enough powers for them to do whatever they want; I am sure the agenda of President Rajapaksa will be achieved. But whether it achieves what the people want, remains to be seen.

In terms of Tamil representation, it is not only in this PTF that the Tamils have been side-lined.

When appointed, President Rajapaksa decided to be sworn in at the Ruwanweli Maha Seya. As he is a Sinhala Buddhist, we have no objections to that, but as the President of a country where nearly 25% are not Buddhists, it is like he is saying “you (citizens of other faiths) are not wanted in this country”; that the President is only for the majority of the country. It’s a similar situation when the Cabinet was sworn in at the Dalada Maligawa.

We have seen the exclusion of the Tamil language in signboards, and we have to keep asking why it is omitted. Recently, the President unveiled a sign board during the Army’s Gajaba Regiment anniversary which carried his name on it but did not respect the national language policy.

When the President has no respect for the country’s national language policy, it is as if we are being told “you are not wanted”. So, on the appointment of the PTF, I don’t think that there is satisfaction among the Muslim community about those who were appointed.

I am happy that they didn’t appoint any Tamils because that would have been an eyewash. It would have been for namesake, and they would not have been able to achieve anything. As Tamils in this country, we are saying that we want to live together, we want to be part of Sri Lanka. But it is almost as if we are being told: “We don’t want you to be part of Sri Lanka.” That is the feeling we get. It leads me to think, is that what the Government wants right now?

What message does the appointment of Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera to head the PTF send to the communities in Sri Lanka?

You begin to think if this rhetoric could be used to say this is a Sinhala-Buddhist country and that Tamils are not wanted. This kind of rhetoric has been used in the past.

We don’t want to feed into that. Having said that, it feels like that is the message being given to us. We are very clear that this country belongs to all Sri Lankans. And this country will not have a future if Tamil’s, Muslims, Burghers, and others don’t have a say in it.

If anybody thinks that Sri Lanka will prosper as a Sinhala-Buddhist-only country, they are really fooling themselves. There is also an example from history, from 1948 to the 1970s; it took 30 years for the war to start. That is because the approach was to solve the political questions through dialogue. But having lost faith in the political leaders, the youth assassinated them after feeling betrayed by Sinhala and Tamil politicians.

It has now been 13 years since the end of the war, and we (Tamils) are still being pushed away. If you keep pushing people away, where do they go? Thirteen years after the war, the Government is running backwards, towards 1956. I have said this from day one of this Government, that it is similar to the Government of Mr. S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. It is built on the ideology of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.

You can use racism to come to power, but not to sustain it.

His (Gnanasara Thera) appointment (to the PTF) has a significant impact on the communities in the country. We were hoping that the President would instruct the Police to investigate the comments the monk made on TV, that a (bomb) blast could happen at any moment in this country. The statement he made was very worrying. Also, he (Gnanasara Thera) spoke much about extremist Islamic groups. It was almost like he was saying that any Muslim person can be extremist and ready to blow themselves up.

Also, Gnanasara Thera has been speaking out against the Catholic Cardinal, instigating hatred amongst the Catholics and Buddhists.

Appointing Gnanasara Thera to lead this PTF is, in a way, legitimising all the allegations and rhetoric of the monk from the past, from infertility pills and kottu meals, to instigating riots from Aluthgama to Digana, and everything in between. This appointment gives all that official status and raises a question if this was a project of President Rajapaksa all along. This move creates distrust and disharmony among all communities.

What implications will this PTF have on the ongoing judicial reforms programme initiated by the Government?

There have been various reports that the Cabinet was not aware of this PTF and the appointment of its chairperson, and that Justice Minister Ali Sabry was also not aware. There were reports that the Justice Minister had wanted to resign over this.

If the Minister of Justice was not aware of the appointment of a person to come up with laws for this country, I think we are in a very sorry state. Then why not run whatever judicial reforms that may be brought forward by Gnanasara Thera? Why not ask Minister Sabry, a National List MP, to resign and hand over the Justice Ministry to Gnanasara Thera and let him handle judicial reforms as well? If Minister Sabry, who is a President’s Counsel, is overlooked in the “one country, one law” initiative, then I don’t think people can have much hope in the judicial reforms put forward by him without the blessing of Gnanasara Thera. It is a very sorry state. I feel very sorry for Minister Sabry. While he is the Justice Minister, his hands are tied.

Gnanasara Thera stated several concerns which he claims need to be addressed through the PTF. What are your views on the concerns he has described?

Well, he has challenged TNA (Tamil National Alliance) MP (M.A.) Sumanthiran to appoint a district secretariat or divisional secretary in Mannar, in his interview with Kingsly Rathnayaka. I don’t understand how that comes under his purview of “one country, one law”. To worry about an appointment to an administrative post from the civil service and to challenge an Opposition MP to do so, shows the level of interference by politicians in the administrative service.

I have no faith in this task force, and I have no faith in the concerns they speak of. I don’t expect anything to transpire from the PTF. Also, what they say may not be what they want from this task force.

In your opinion, does the majority Sinhala community of Sri Lanka have grievances? If so, how should they be addressed?

There are two kinds of issues: economic and social. The economic issues, like food security and the ban on chemical fertiliser use, affect all communities. Similarly, illegal fishing and use of illegal methods for fishing is an issue for fishermen around the island. By using illegal methods, they do get more profits, but it destroys our resources for the future. Both issues will affect the entire country. As soon as there is less paddy, there will be less rice, and then prices will go up, and we also don’t have foreign reserves to import rice.

Social issues are common for all communities, Tamil or Sinhala. There are issues regarding cost of living, housing, unemployment, etc. What the Sinhala majority doesn’t have is an identity issue. We all want to have a Sri Lankan identity, but that does not give anyone the right to demand that some communities should give up their ethnic identity.

In India, people from Tamil Nadu or Bengal don’t say they are from those specific areas; they say they are from India. That is because their identity is not under threat. Only if you ask them where in India will they say they are from Bengal or Tamil Nadu.

Human rights problems are not an issue unique to minorities. Sinhala youth being assaulted and abused in the South is also a human rights issue.

The Sinhalese don’t have to constantly fight to show that they are part of Sri Lanka, but some communities do. Common grievances can only be solved by sharing political power.

What impact do you think the appointment of this PTF under Gnanasara Thera will have on Sri Lanka’s image?

Our international commitments are something we should all respect. The appointment of Gnanasara Thera is a signal that we are heading towards a dictatorship, less human rights, and more militarisation. This raises genuine concerns among those in the international community.

The world is moving on, but we remain in the same place. As the world embraces inclusivity, we are heading backwards. All this is done for political gain, and that is indeed sad.