Image Courtesy of the President’s Media Unit

The recent appointment of a task force mandated with law reform headed by a controversial Buddhist monk has raised concerns from multiple fronts. Yet, considering recent trends in Sri Lanka, this should not come as a surprise. The practice of appointing task forces comes naturally to the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency, having appointed over 10 such entities in less than two years. Furthermore, the prominence given to Buddhist clergy in recent years is also not new, considering their role in the presidential election campaign in 2019, to subsequent appointments to advisory bodies, task forces, and academic institutions, to name a few. It is the combination of the two and the audacity of such action – the appointment of a convicted rabble rouser with a track record of incitement against minorities in Sri Lanka – which took many by surprise. Added to this is its impact in terms of consolidating Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony and shaping a particular narrative that is deeply troubling and carries significant consequences for Sri Lanka.

The power of task forces

The plethora of task forces appointed by President Rajapaksa covers a broad range of issues from providing essential services, vaccine rollout, economic revival, and poverty alleviation, to the creation of a green socio-economy with sustainable solutions for climate change. The diverse issues covered by these task forces begs the question as to the status of the existing statutory bodies and the possibility of overlapping mandates, and the resources needed to operate and maintain these multiple entities, especially considering Sri Lanka’s mounting economic challenges.

Furthermore, the militarised nature of some task forces is evident with the appointment of two in June 2020 headed by Defence Secretary Major General Kamal Gunaratne – one to Build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous, and Lawful Society, and another titled Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province.

Apart from an increasing tilt towards governance by task forces, the composition of these task forces and their real purpose raise many questions. The latest addition to the collection of task forces mandated with implementing the “one country, one law” concept is worrying, considering its majoritarian slant coupled with members who are either known for their ethnonationalism or others who, at best, are appointed as mere tokenism. All this contributes to the suspicion among minorities who see these moves by the State to further marginalise them and their religious beliefs.

Similar to the latest task force, concerns are also raised with previously appointed task forces. In particular, questions surround the mandate and composition of the Task Force on Archaeological Heritage Management for the Eastern Province. Aside from the question as to why a special entity was created to only protect heritage in the Eastern Province, as opposed to protecting heritage across the country, questions also revolve around the composition of this task force. In addition to the militarised dimension with the inclusion of the Defence Secretary as its Head, it comprises several members of the Buddhist clergy with no seeming involvement of minority communities or subject matter experts from the Province. The fact that the appointment and its operation for over a year continues to be shrouded in secrecy, feeds into the fears and suspicions of minority communities who see this as yet another vehicle to impose ethno-majoritarian policies in the country.

Moreover, fears of the impact of this particular task force are compounded by the work of multiple central government entities that claim to work towards protecting national heritage in the Eastern Province. Discussions in the area and media reports allude to several instances where authorities are involved in demarcating lands in the name of protecting national heritage with limited to no information shared with locals as to the real purpose of such action.

Suspicion is further exacerbated when statements are made by divisive political and religious actors. This raises concern whether activities in the guise of protecting national heritage have a more sinister dimension, with real consequences of appropriating lands belonging to and used by minorities for decades, robbing people of their homes and lands, changing demographics in the area, and transforming the multi-ethnic character of the Province.

Such fears are compounded in the context of statements made by individuals such as Ellawala Medhananda Thera, a member of the Archaeological Heritage Management Task Force, who claimed that 2,000 sites were earmarked in the Eastern Province for archaeological inspection. The fact that prominence is given to protecting Buddhist heritage as opposed to all religious and cultural sites in the area, perpetuates fears of a plan to shape a mono-ethnic identity in the Province.

Despite this culture of governance by task forces, the latest appointment took many by surprise, including, according to media reports, some in President Rajapaksa’s Cabinet. It also came at a time of law reforms initiated by the Ministry of Justice with several committees and processes underway. How this new avatar fits with existing structures remains to be seen, but the fact that the President has resorted to appointing yet another task force answerable only to him, and headed by a divisive Buddhist monk, raises alarm bells.

The role of Buddhist clergy

Much of the condemnation surrounding the latest task force is also linked to its Head, Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, the divisive leader of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), and associated with several past instances of inciting violence against religious minorities in Sri Lanka, particularly the Muslim community. In two specific instances of ethno-religious violence in recent years, Aluthgama in 2014 and Digana in 2018, the Thera was present. He spoke at the respective locations, which was followed by violence, several deaths, and renewing fears for Sri Lanka’s minorities.

My interactions with eyewitnesses during the violence in Digana confirmed the organised nature of violence in the area where Muslim properties were earmarked and attacked. Coincidentally, no damage was caused to properties belonging to the majority community. In addition to these two incidents, the monk was also linked to other instances of incitement including threats to Muslim politicians, clergy, and places of religious worship. In the wake of the hysteria post the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019, he was also instrumental in demanding the resignation of Muslim cabinet ministers and other politicians, and threatening the unleashing of violence if his demands were not met. Most recently, the Thera insulted the Muslim religion whilst being interviewed on a TV channel, and despite several complaints made to authorities regarding his comments, no action is reported to have been taken against him. It is indeed unfortunate that his behaviour over the years, with documentation pointing to his role in several instances of incitement, was not condemned by successive governments nor any action taken to investigate and hold him to account.

Whilst accountability failed with incidents of violence and incitement, the Thera was convicted for contempt of court in 2018 when he threatened the Homagama Magistrate, insulted the State Counsel, and intimidated a victim. Despite the seriousness of his crime and its impact on the judicial system in Sri Lanka, then President Maithripala Sirisena granted him a presidential pardon, a major setback to the rule of law in the country and with it, further emboldening the monk and his support base.

Moreover, all this has propelled him from being a fringe extremist element to mainstream politics, with the latest appointment showing his ability to not only rely on state patronage, but to thrive in it. Such an individual, identified with years of espousing racism and hate, and having acted with utter contempt towards the rule of law in Sri Lanka, is now heading a task force that is to define “one country, one law” in Sri Lanka.

In addition, a press conference was recently organised by the President’s Media Division providing the monk a platform to speak of his official position. This action demonstrated not just the support he receives and the legitimising of his actions, but also the impunity he enjoys. Considering he and the rest of the task force have several months to complete their mandate (the mandate is till 28 February 2022), such publicity stunts will likely follow, with media used to spread his brand of politics, hate, and fear.

All this is within a context when Buddhist clergy are playing an increasingly problematic role in policymaking in Sri Lanka. One notable body is the Buddhist Advisory Council, which reportedly meets monthly to advise the President on key issues and provides political cover for the implementation of programmes that promote Buddhism and Buddhist heritage. This contributes to fears among minorities of the consequences of such action to other communities and religious and cultural sites in Sri Lanka.

All this – the appointment of task forces to push a particular narrative and the involvement and promotion of Buddhist clergy – confirms the special place they hold in society. It is also a reminder that unquestioning veneration often leads to impunity.

The danger of a single story

Chimamanda Adichie, in her popular Ted talk titled “The danger of a single story”, speaks to the impact of a single story and the risk of such a single narrative that can lead to incomplete assumptions and decisions. It can rob one of the nuances and the multiple narratives present in society. She also speaks to the power of storytelling, of who narrates the story, how it’s done, and how it can contribute to a particular viewpoint. In addition, she speaks to how a particular story becomes the definitive story when people are repeatedly told of that one particular story.

Attempts to tell a particular story and shape a specific narrative are not new to Sri Lanka. The immediate post-war period witnessed several attempts by the then Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, which spoke of “zero casualties” and a “humanitarian operation” during the last stage of the war, despite evidence to the contrary. The power of this narrative has worked, with many believing this version of Sri Lanka’s recent history.

Furthermore, post-war Sri Lanka has witnessed new levels of vilification of the Muslim community, with the community branded by extremist elements as the new “enemy”. This particular narrative, and the politics of hate and fear, is supported by the Rajapaksa regime to serve its longevity. In the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks, the power of shaping this particular narrative received a new lease of life. Amidst the chaos, fear, and apprehension, the calls for a strong leader emerged. And the power of a particular narrative ultimately defined a presidential election and present-day politics in Sri Lanka.

The recent task force with an ethno-majoritarian bent in the guise of “one country, one law” is the latest in a string of attempts to shape a particular single story. The power of how it is shaped and how it is legitimised is already underway courtesy of divisive clergy and task forces. Unless democratically challenged, it will soon become the dominant and, with time, the only story in Sri Lanka.