How can Sri Lanka’s law reformers retain even a semblance of sanity?

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Interestingly enough, this week’s Presidential appointment of a controversial monk who once served a jail term for contempt of court, as head of a Presidential Task Force to suggest law reform to bring about ‘one country, one law’ no less, has provoked freewheeling ridicule rather than fury in Sri Lanka.

An unkind blow to the idea of law reform

It is not only the imagery thereof that serves as wonderful inspiration for satirical cartoonists giving unfettered rein to their mockery but also, the very intertwining of two diametrically opposed realities that leads to mirth. More so, the Task Force is directed to ‘study draft Acts and amendments’ prepared by the Ministry of Justice, determine their ‘appropriateness’ and propose amendments to the same.

Indeed, this is an unkind blow that renders ridiculous, at one fell stroke, all the ambitious programmes planned by the Justice Ministry to ‘modernize’ Sri Lanka’s ‘outdated’ civil and criminal laws. In fact, one may well pity those in the seats of Government struggling to retain relevance or perchance, even sanity, in the face of such profound absurdities. How can one talk sensibly of law reform in these circumstances?

Traditionally, contempt of court has not been a power that civil liberties advocates applaud when the Court seeks to have recourse to the same. But the circumstances in question in the Contempt Case against the newly appointed Chairman of the ‘One Country; One Law’ Task Force were so extreme that the Court’s harsh response, contained in a decision of some fifty-six pages was not met with much opposition at the time. General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) was sentenced to six years rigorous imprisonment for contempt ‘in the face of the court’ during the hearing of an application relating to the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda.

That reference to the ‘white man’s law’

Central to the ruling was that the accused had no connection to the case being heard, had no standing to appear but had ‘addressed’ the Court without express or implied permission, to ‘intimidate’ the Bench into granting bail to the suspects (all intelligence officers) even after this was declined. It was proven beyond reasonable doubt that, despite not being a party to the case, the accused had come in support of the suspects deliberately to intimidate and coerce.

Meanwhile, there are worse paradoxes at play. For example, even justified warnings that he had issued regarding the rise of radical Islamist ideologies prior to the jihadist attacks on Catholic churches and temples on Easter Sunday, April 2019 was lost in that crude cacaphony. Thus and unsurprisingly so, the appointment of a Task Force on reconciling a country’s laws, which generally does not lead to much public excitement, has raised shivers on the spines of minority communities.

Cruel ironies and the reality of the lack of justice

On the other hand and in a cruel irony therein, this may also be a warning shot fired across the bow of the Catholic Church as Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith and his senior clergy become increasingly assertive in asking searching questions on the failure of the state intelligence services to prevent the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks and worse. Those laments of the Church were predictable. What remained surprising was the level of incomprehension as to the extreme degradation of our systems, be that at law enforcement or prosecutorial levels.

In other words, that expectation that the truth of the attacks will be disclosed was fundamentally naive. For the contrary was always going to be the case. Sri Lanka’s victims had never got justice for their pain and agony. The 2019 jihadist attacks was not going to be the singular exception to that most bloodthirsty rule. Did the good Cardinal believe otherwise, that as a result of a quite remarkable belief that due to his intervention, justice will ensue in this instance to those innocents killed and maimed while celebrating their holy day? Well, disillusionment was not a long time coming as indeed, is now the case.

Even so, a Presidential Task Force to recommend ‘one country, one law’ in an avatar that invokes contempt and fear in equal if not uncanny parts is not a message that the Sri Lankan people, majority and minorities, will take kindly to. Buffeted by repeated waves of severe economic devastation caused as much by the incompetence and gross thievery of ministers as much as by the global pandemic, this is not a country in a mood to suffer such games. Did this regime, apt to preen itself on being the master of the art of political marketing, think to provide a distraction for the Government’s Sinhala Buddhist vote base?

Still-born strategies and national fury

If so, that strategy may be still-born. For the Sinhala farming peasantry out on the roads in strength protesting against the continuing deprivation of fertiliser for their lands, a Presidential Task Force of this nature is a non-event. When their families lack rice to put into their stomachs, what they want are solid and sensible state policies to address their cries. Drum beats of racist and chauvinistic jingoism will not divert teachers, farmers and trade unionists taking the battle for the country to the streets, roads, culverts and paddy fields against destruction of their fields, the militarisation of education and the selling of the country’s assets.

And it is the very opposite that the world, looking for desperate reassurance that the Rule of Law has yet not wholly forsaken the country, wants to hear. Finally this Task Force will only be a boon to the nation’s excellent humorists venting their energies in merciless caricatures of Sri Lanka’s latest effort to bring about ‘one country, one law,’ in a much needed respite from the despair that is prevalent across the land. Those arrows of dark humour will unerringly find their political targets in this Government, come what may.

It has been said that the greatest enemy of authoritarians is laughter. It is time our politicians remind themselves of this truism.

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Disclaimer: How can Sri Lanka’s law reformers retain even a semblance of sanity? - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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