Photo courtesy of Hiru News

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has embarked upon yet another journey to marginalise minority communities in post-colonial Sri Lanka.

The decision to establish the Presidential Task Force is one that depends upon the overarching presidential powers of President Rajapaksa, who appointed a 13-member Task Force headed by the right-wing Buddhist monk Galagodaaththe Gnanasara, known for his anti-Muslim stance and instigating recent anti-Muslim riots. The Task Force has an instrumental  role to play in the establishment of the One Country, One Law concept and to prepare a draft Act.

Pandering to the Sinhala electorate

One Country, One Law was an election slogan of President Rajapaksa in 2019 when he was elected president with an overwhelming support from the country’s Buddhist majority.  

In fact the goal of harmonising laws in the country aims to stipulate legal hegemony and intertwine the political with the legal. Sri Lanka is a majoritarian country deeply entrenched in religious-nationalist Sinhala-Buddhism narrative since its independence in 1947. Different laws and policies have succeeded in furthering the marginalisation and normalisation of Sinhala prioritisation and hegemony. One might recall the Sinhala Only Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The slow aggression towards the The Otherhas resulted in the legalised harmonisation of the majority. The  One Country, One Law concept is a resembling echo of the past. The absence of Tamil representation on the Task Force while having some Muslim scholars reveals a common tactic: outplaying one minority against the other while simply applying tokenism for the power hegemony of the majority.

Against this background, Rodney Coates writes: “Through the transfer of military and/or industrial instruments, the imperial elite also promote ideologies of their own racial superiority. Ideologies of racial superiority also include the elevation of select indigenous elite at the expense of other indigenous groups. It is important to remember that racial hegemonic structures are uniquely defined by the specific colonial situation. As the exploitative relationship becomes more established, so also does the establishment of a racial hegemony enforced by a military and/or administrative control center.”

Post-colonialism has created a situation where the external coloniser was replaced by an internal coloniser. Moreover, M. Sornarajah makes an important intervention when he writes: “The ethnic minorities resent that the benefits of resource exploitation are sucked up by the elite groups in power while they are not only denied the benefits of the resources of their own lands but have to bear the environmental costs. Yet, these groups which resist cannot do so in terms of a right to secession which is denied them by dominant ideas in international law. The contest in the area for the recognition of the right to secession and the right to resist the domination of elite and majority groups within states is a contest between neo-conservative ideology which sees in the recognition of individual rights the solution to ethnic problems and minority groups which seek to have the right to secession recognised as a sanctioning right against the gross abuses of a state.

Aligning with international standards or creating hegemony?

The Sri Lankan government has invoked the United Nations and the international standards as their point of justification on why they have to amend and even abolish laws. As a matter of fact, they are not wrong. In 2017 Sri Lankan government appeared before the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, which issued its concluding observations, according to which: (…) 13. The Committee draws attention to the links between articles 1 and 2 of the Convention and Sustainable Development Goal 5, target 5.1 to end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls. The Committee reiterates its previous recommendations (A/57/38, para. 275) and 2011 (CEDAW/C/LKA/CO/7, para. 17) and further recommends that the State party accelerate its law reform process, with the full participation of women, and ensure, within a specific time frame, to review and repeal all discriminatory laws that violate fundamental rights, in particular the following:

(a) Repeal discriminatory provisions of the Land Development Ordinance in relation to succession, inheritance and joint ownership; and,

(b) Amend all Personal Laws, including the Muslim, Kandyan and Tesawalamai Personal Laws, to remove discriminatory provisions regulating ownership, inheritance, transfer and disposal of land and property, as well as provisions regulating legal capacity, marriage, divorce, and child custody. (…)”

The international legal  engagement is a fig leaf. It enables and emboldens the ruling elite in mastering and catering towards the needs of their electoral base. Interestingly, this happens at a time when the government is at loggerheads with the international human rights mechanism. But what is more frustrating is the fact that the United Nations has failed to take into account the manifold human rights narratives in the country. Family laws cannot be unilateral and universal, however the United Nations rather sets the conducive environment for a country that has a long standing story of unilateral intervention through law. It is a form of imperialism which is not  “(…) a historicalphenomenon that can be cordoned off somewhere in the past. Imperialism consists, instead, of a multifarious set of asymmetrical arrangements and forms of conditional integration that have travelled across time and space, and through many scales and sites of governance from the international to the national and the local; from the public to the private; from the ideological to the material; from the human to the non-human, and beyond. These constraining and detrimental forms of ordering make and remake our surroundings and indeed ourselves on a daily basis.”

The international human rights mechanism are offering aid to the construction of legal hegemony while it becomes evident that the United Nations is a hegemonic institution itself, forcing the universal doctrine of human rights.

This process of political marginalisation of minorities is accompanied by legal hegemony of the majority. The erosion of diversity in a multicultural post-colonial country is not only worrisome but it is further frustrating any efforts towards reconciliation and fails to take into account that laws, especially family laws, need to be diverse to represent the multifaceted nature of the country. Amending is one aspect but creation of ethnicised power hegemony is another.