Colombo October 27: The Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa on Wednesday appointed a Presidential Task Force (PTF) to study the implementation of the “One Country, One Law” concept and prepare a draft Act to bring about one law for all Sri Lankans, irrespective of religion or ethnicity.
The move to get everybody to obey the same laws is laudable. The concept “One Country, One Law” is a hallmark of modern democracies. But the appointment of the militant anti-Muslim monk, Venerable Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, as the Chairman of the Task Force, has made many liberals and human rights workers in Sri Lanka wonder if the PTF will be even-handed, render justice to all communities, and respect their distinct cultures and sentiments.
Apart from Ven.Gnanasara Thero, the PTF comprises Prof. Dayananda Banda, Prof. Shanthinandana Wijesinghe, Prof. Sumedha Siriwardana, N.G. Sujeewa Panditharathna, Attorney-at-Law Iresh Senevirathne, Attorney-at-Law Sanjaya Marambe, Eranda Navarathna, Pani Wewala,, Moulavi Mohamed of Ulama Council in Galle, Lecturer Mohamed Inthikab, Kaleel Rahuman and Azeez Nizardeen.
The tasks assigned to the PTF are: (1) Formulation and implementation of laws that are “fair by all, as set out in the Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.” (2) Ensure that no citizen is discriminated against in the eyes of the law and that no special treatment on grounds of nationality, religion, caste or any other consideration is given to anyone. (3) Ensure that the laws made under the “One Country, One Law” concept are in accordance with nationally and internationally recognized humanitarian values.
The PTF is tasked with studying the draft Acts and amendments that had already been prepared by the Ministry of Justice in relation to this subject, examining their appropriateness and making suggestions.
While the objectives stated in the gazette reflect a universal yearning for equality before the law, there are major concerns given the ground reality in Sri Lanka. Firstly, there is no Tamil in the PTF. In other words, the PTF has no representative of the island’s second largest ethnic and religious community. Secondly, the Cabinet has already decided to ban the Muslim Qazi courts and amend the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, a decision Muslim leaders oppose tooth and nail. Thirdly, doing away with community-specific laws could be deemed a human rights violation by the UN Human Rights Council and the European Union.
Based on the government’s action, the EU could withdraw the GSP-Plus tariff concession to Sri Lanka which is coming up for review shortly. Withdrawal of the EU GSP-Plus trade concession will adversely affect Sri Lankan exports to Europe and impact the working population in Sri Lanka.
Ven.Gnanasara Thero’s Appointment
Lastly, and most importantly, the Chairman of the PTF is the Ven.Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, an extremely anti-Muslim Buddhist monk who is the General Secretary of the militant Buddhist organization, the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). Ven. Gananasara Thero has been very close to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. He is also close to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) leader and former Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena. If fact, when Ven.Gnanasara Thero was sentenced for six years in a contempt of court case, the then President, Maithripala Sirisena, pardoned and released him.
The pardoned given to the monk on May 23, 2019, evoked protests from human rights activists because it violated all legal norms and procedures and was in direct contradiction with the concept of “equality before law” and a “common law for every Sri Lankan.”
The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) pointed out that the monk was convicted by the Court of Appeal on 8th August 2018 and sentenced to 6 years in prison. The Supreme Court rejected his appeal. The CPA stressed that Presidential pardons exist to correct miscarriages of justice. But in the monk’s case, there was no miscarriage of justice as both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court had duly dismissed his appeals.
“As such, the pardon itself amounts to an undue interference with the legal process,” the CPA said in a statement. It further said: “The pardon legitimized the view that it is possible to act with contempt for the judiciary, be punished through a legitimate judicial process, and then enjoy impunity through a pardon granted on political considerations.”
The CPA pointed out that the pardon specifically signaled that some categories of citizens, such as the Buddhist clergy, could expect to enjoy preferential treatment when it comes to obeying the law.
The pardon came at a time when extremist Buddhist mobs instigated anti-Muslim riots across North Western Sri Lanka, resulting in the death of one Muslim man and the damage to a large number of Muslim residences, businesses and places of worship, the CPA said. Ven. Gnanasara Thero had played a “documented role” in the past as Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena in spreading hate speech and inciting violence towards minority communities, particularly Muslims.
“The pardon represented a worrying endorsement of such anti-minority sentiment, and could only heighten the anxiety and fear being felt by Muslim Sri Lankans,” the CPA said.
In 2014, Ven.Gnanasara Thero had instigated mobs to attack Muslim houses and business estabishments in Aluthgama town, south of Colombo. Prior to that he had campaigned against the wearing of the face covering by Muslim women in public on security grounds, and had agitated for the abolition of Halal certification for food products.
Ven.Gnanasara’s has a fixation about Islamic terrorism and propagated the notion that Sri Lankan Muslims tolerate extremists in the community. On September 13, 2021 he told Hiru TV’s Salakuna program that there could be another attack similar to the Easter Sunday bombings on April 21, 2019 in which more than 260 died. He further said that the bombs were ready to be detonated at any time; that he knew the groups involved; and that the President had also been informed.
This spread deep concern among Catholics. The Catholic church, which has been bitterly complaining about the government’s tardiness in getting to the bottom of the Easter Sunday attacks, demanded an urgent inquiry to ascertain the truth.