By Rohana R. Wasala
A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within. An enemy at the gates is less formidable, for he is known and carries his banner openly. But the traitor moves amongst those within the gate freely, his sly whispers rustling through all the alleys, heard in the very halls of government itself.
– Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BCE)
According to a popular online Sinhala language news portal (October 31), President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has said that he appointed (Bodu Bala Sena leader) Ven. Galagodaatthe Gnanasara Thera as chairman of the (recently established) “One Country One Law” Presidential Task Force to advise him, but not to make laws. The President made this remark when asked about the PTF at a government party leaders’ meeting. He pointed out that he had the ability to appoint any person to the PTF according to his personal preference. He was also reported to have said that if he tried to consult party leaders about everything, he would have to get their permission about associating with friends! (Aside: As President, he ought to seek advice from sincere, non-politicking people about that, too. RRW)
The President further said that the same sort of objections were raised when he appointed Ali Sabry as Minister of Justice; but now he is performing his duties to the satisfaction of everyone, the President added.
Talking about advice, I think President Gotabaya should take MK Sivajilingam’s demand as helpful advice and immediately disband the ‘farce’ (as the latter correctly describes it) of this one-country, one-law Task Force headed by Ven. Galagodaatthe Gnanasara Thera. The value of Sivajilingam’s request lies in the fact that he cannot have any intention of betraying the president; only close friends can betray a person, but not an enemy or a stranger. Sivajilingam is an enemy at the gate (Pl. see the epigraph above), but an enemy that we know as one of our fellow Sri Lankans (who doesn’t show false friendship), with whom we can easily restore our traditional bonds of brotherhood by sorting out our domestic problems through talks among ourselves without disgracefully allowing outsiders to exploit them for their own advantage and to our common detriment.
The reference in this case is to The Island correspondent Dinasena Ratugamage’s dispatch “Sivajilingam tells President to disband ‘one-country, one-law’ Task Force and solve the country’s problems” (Saturday, October 30) about MK Sivajilingam, former Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Northern Provincial Councillor and close relative of Velupillai Prabhakaran, speaking to the media in Jaffna the previous day (Friday 29). He was reported to have claimed that the Task Force was an attempt to boost President Rajapaksa’s flagging popularity. Sivajilingam recalled the President’s earlier promise of a new constitution to safeguard the rights of every citizen. “Everyone wants the President to come up with a new Constitution. There is pressure to address the issues faced by the Tamil people. However, the President has suddenly appointed a Task Force on “One Country One Law”. The task force is a joke. Appointing Ven. Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thera as the head of the task force makes it a farce,” he was reported as saying. (He’d have been closer to the truth if he said, ‘There’s pressure on the President to address the issues faced by all Sri Lankans, not just by the Tamil people’. But he can’t be blamed for focusing on the community that he represents, in this instance.)
“The task force was not appointed after consulting people. We urge the government to stop distracting people and address the real issues. What we need is a task force to get the country out of the economic, social and political disasters it is facing. The leaders must be smart enough to get the support of everyone. If the government doesn’t show it cares about Tamils, they will keep on opposing the government. A divided country can’t face the challenges we are facing now,” he said. I, for one, agree with him. That bit about caring about Tamils, though justified from his point of view, is a different matter, but the same is applicable to every community, and is not an insurmountable obstacle to the restoration of unity among the communities.
Of course, Sivajilingam may be making this demand or offering this advice, tongue in cheek; he may be calling the president’s bluff. Sivajilingam is a politician and, since all politicians are typically wily, must be handled with care. Having said that, I think his comments should be taken as a piece of constructive criticism that offers an opportunity for opening a people-to-people dialogue involving the north and the south with a view to bringing about an end to the reluctant mutual estrangement between the two communities that has been deliberately created by opportunistic politicians of both sides.
Let me try to put Sivajilingam’s remarks in perspective according to my own lights as a Sri Lankan citizen with a certain degree of hindsight (due to my age), insight (gained through formal and informal education and life experience) and a modest amount of foresight (sharpened by both).
The responsible citizens of Sri Lanka pulled the country back from the brink of national disintegration and general disaster by electing Gotabaya Rajapaksa (his chief attraction was his non-politician image) as president and the SLPP to parliament less than two years ago. In both cases the election was fought on the major platform of ‘One Country, One Law’, in which for completely apolitical reasons, Buddhist monks take an intrinsic interest. But now it looks like Gotabaya has been betrayed and, into the bargain, converted into something even more malleable than his predecessor to the wishes of another. The circumstances (i.e., issues and the government’s authoritarian responses to them) are again pushing the country to the edge of a precipice.
An Extraordinary Gazette notification was issued on October 27, 2021 to the effect that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had appointed a 13-member Presidential Task Force (PTF), using powers vested in him as president by Article 33 of the Constitution, 1. To make a study of the implementation of the concept: “One Country, One Law” within Sri Lanka and prepare a draft Act for the said purpose and 2. To 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 (sic) for the purpose and include them in such relevant draft as is deemed appropriate.
I was deeply shocked and disappointed when my eyes fell on the relevant gazette notification online within a few hours of its issuance on 27 October. My immediate mental reaction was: ‘What a harebrained initiative!’ To be frank, I never expected this sort of frivolous exercise from Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in whom I have had implicit faith. But then, we can only guess that he has done this under constraint.
The PTF was ostensibly established to study how to put into effect the “One Country, One Law” concept and how to bring the ‘Acts and amendments’ already drawn up by the ministry of justice into line with that concept. The committee comprises the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) leader Ven. Galagodaaththe (not Galabodaaththe?) Gnanasara Thera (Chairman) and twelve others including academics, lawyers, and eminent persons (the last category has a maulavi from the Galle Ulama Council and three other Muslims. The Galle Ulama Council is supposed to be anti-Wahhabi, as allegedly claimed elsewhere. The PTF originally had no Tamils or explicit representatives of any Christian or Hindu religious organization. In view of the objectives stated, this was a glaring shortcoming, that would not have been allowed to happen, if the President had any sincere adviser.
This totally erroneous exclusion of Tamils provided a genuine reason for Sivajilingam to complain. However, at a meeting chaired by the President at Temple Trees the next day (October 28), Fisheries Minister Douglas Devananda and Deputy Chairman of Ceylon Workers Congress Senthil Thondaman and several others raised this issue of non-representation of Tamils in the PTF and the President agreed to correct the anomaly. Please treat these Hindu Tamil leaders as well as you treat Muslim and Christian leaders. We need every community’s cooperation to neutralise the looming fundamentalist threat.
In my humble opinion, the appointment of this task force will prove a suicidal move both for the Gotabaya presidency and the SLPP government. The negative image of the monk who heads it, whether justified or not, the apparent mediocrity of the rest of the members, and the suspicion of an anti-Tamil bias generated by the initial imbalance of its communal composition (though set right later) will be major setbacks for its success. The PTF appears to me to be a hastily but cunningly devised contraption designed by a saboteur so as to be dysfunctional from the beginning, and to ultimately kill the project it was purportedly set up to bring to fruition (i.e., the one country, one law project). It seems to be the sinister proposition of an evil genius within the president’s inner circle.
To be continued