During your early political career, I considered you to be one who could contribute to the country constructively within a good team of likeminded politicians. When I wrote that the ‘Young and the bright should lead Sri Lanka’ to The Island, Colombo Telegraph and the Sri Lanka Guardian in September 2012, after calling for a ‘Peaceful Regime Change,’ you were in my mind with some others.
I recollect your visit to my office as the Dean of the Faculty of Graduate Studies (FGS) of the University of Colombo in late 2004, to register for your PhD and our conversations on many matters both academic and political. I also recollect thereafter your visit to present copies of your published books, admirably of a handful, to the faculty and to me personally. I was cautiously impressed by you.
However, when I happened to watch your interview with Hiru TV Salakuna programme (26 June) on YouTube, on the topic of reconciliation, I was completely disappointed and ashamed. However faulty your views were on reconciliation and its root causes, you maintained some decorum during the first 30 minutes of the interview. Then you lost your cool and started attacking the signatories as ‘mad men’ to a statement published against the rising communalism and religious extremism, when questions were asked about that matter.
I was one of the signatories to that statement. As you openly admitted, you had not seen the statement by then! But continued to attack the signatories and the two organisations that sponsored the statement. Is that how you interpret and execute ‘justice’ in your Ministry of Justice? Or is it ‘Summary Justice’ you and your ministry believe in?
The two organisations that sponsored the statement were (1) the National Movement for Just Society (NMJS), initiated by the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero and (2) Purawesi Balaya (People’s Power). Both were key civil society organisations that brought a democratic change in this country in January 2015 and paved the way for the present Government in which you are a key minister. Among the signatories also was Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne who is also a key member of the present Government.
Perhaps you were cornered by the TV hosts who questioned about your inaction as the Minister of Buddha Sasana in protecting the ancient Buddhist sacred sites identified by the Buddhist Commission Report of 2002 which are in peril or danger. That is however not a reason to attack others and vilify people and organisations. I am completely of the opinion that if there is any danger for these sites, those must be preserved and protected. If there is any vandalism, the perpetrators should be punished.
However, none of the above would refute the need to be alarmed by the rising incidents against the minority religious groups and business organisations, particularly of Muslims and Evangelical Christians. That is the message of the statement requesting the Government and the relevant authorities to bring the suspected perpetrators before the law and punish them if they are guilty. There is a clear dragging of feet and hesitation to take measures to implement law and order on these matters. There is no indication in the statement, whatsoever, of ‘summary justice’ as you advocate for the messengers who alarm the country of visible violations. The statement also places these matters within the context of primary need for ethnic and religious reconciliation in the country which you express your cynicism about.
When the statement was brought to your notice, quoting only five sentences and mentioning the names of the two organisations, and the first signatory as Ven. Dambara Amila Thero and Professor R. S. Perimbanayagam as the last in the list, of among 173 signatories, the following was what you said: “There is a need to examine the brains of those who have signed the statement… This is an example for the fact that all those who should be in the Angoda mental hospital are not in there.”
This type of a vilified dismissal of a public statement, primarily without reading it, is shameful of a minister who has pledged for good governance, democracy and freedom of expression. Your objection thereafter was for the number which was mentioned (as more than hundred) in the statement as attacks on ‘Christian prayer centres.’ The statement very clearly mentions the period as from January 2015. I have myself seen the Incident Reports compiled by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) and the number mentioned in the statement is in fact an understatement.
These are matters that Ministers like you, particularly as the Minister of Justice, should impartially consider and inquire and not condemned or vilify off hand, including those who bring these matters to the public attention. Your behaviour shows the nature of the political culture that prevails among the ministers and politicians, whoever they are from the Government or the Opposition.
You dismissed the statement as ‘false propaganda’ (boru prachara) and said these should not be allowed in the country. When a TV host asked the question ‘Aren’t these the ideologies (mathavada) that inflame the country?’ you readily agreed. When the key TV host raised the issue of the civil society statement in the first place, his argument was that ‘while the Government is taking action against some Buddhist monks, no action is taken for these kinds of statements’.
As far as I know, no one is taken into custody or taken action against, for issuing a public statement like what I have signed. Issuing a statement and incitement to violence or insult to courts are two different things, even a person like Dr. Dayan Jayatilleka would agree. The first is part of freedom of expression and the second is part of a possible criminal act. But you didn’t have courage or sincerity to explain the difference although you are a President Counsellor. Or you may be of the same opinion. Even before raising the issue of the statement, you opted to criticise the NGOs, left and right. I couldn’t understand the context. I have not affiliated with any NGO in Sri Lanka. Although I am not affiliated, I consider both the NMJS and Puravesi Balaya as legitimate civil society organisations.
Your accusation against NGOs was about taking dollars from foreign sources. They may be. But I believe that they have to account for those monies. But many of our politicians thrive on and sometimes hoodwink our people’s money. Is this correct or not?
Let me ask you another question. During the interview, you revealed that you are still a practicing lawyer. You said that even ‘today’ you filed a case! Am I correct? Did I hear you wrong? You have two important ministries under your charge. How come that you perform your duties properly as a Minister, if you are still a practicing lawyer? Therefore, to me, there is no wonder why the recommendations of the Buddha Sasana Presidential Commission Report is not implemented.
So, if there is any displeasure or unrest among the Buddhist monks or prelates on the related issues, then you could be primarily responsible for that at present. It is hardly possible that other religions or at least their dignitaries are responsible for that. There can be misunderstandings or even disputes. As I have suggested previously, there should be interreligious dialogues to resolve them. That is what I am suggesting even now.
I also understand that there have been insults levelled against Buddhism and the monks in general in the social media. At my age, I hardly check the social media and therefore I have not seen them. The culprits should be apprehended in the case of insults. The mere criticism or denouncement is not enough. But that should be differentiated from democratic criticism that anyone could express against anyone, including the monks or any other religious dignitary. The proviso is that they should not be insulted. Even in writing signed articles in electronic journals/newspapers, I maintain that we all must be careful.
In your interview, you have given different figures of course to what was mentioned in the statement. According to your submissions, all incidents related to communal/religious nature during the last two years have been only 29. They are: nine against Sinhalese/Buddhists; 15 against Muslims; four against Christians and one against Hindus. Therefore, in your opinion, everything is hunky-dory except misinformation from some ‘lunatics.’ These lunatics included one Buddhist Monk at the top of the list and then a Christian Bishop.
Verify the facts
During your submissions, it was my observation that you tried your best to down paly the ‘incidents’ against the Muslims and the Christians. At one point, you clearly said that ‘one incident against the Muslims was just a stone throwing.’ To substantiate your argument, you quoted a Catholic Cardinal, Rev. Malcolm Ranjith. It may be true that there can be some confusion about the exact figures and the civil society statement has given only an approximate indication. It does not say churches in the traditional sense, but ‘Christian prayer centres.’ However, the NCEASL reports give 223 incidents since January 2015 and reference numbers are given for 29 attacks/incidents. This is far beyond what you have quoted.
The best policy for the Government might be to consult the NCEASL, which I believe legally established since 1952. I also wonder what the Minister for Christian Affairs is doing under these allegations! There can be allegations that he is looking after only the Catholics. This is also a predicament of having different Ministers for different religions. By doing so, the impression is given that the task of each Minister is to safeguard his/her own religion or denomination. As I have mentioned previously, in Indonesia there is only one Ministry, with Directorates for different religions, including for Buddhism. When you have such an arrangement, the Minister is compelled to keep a balance. This is more favourable for interreligious amity than having different Ministers. There are around 25 countries having Ministries for Religious Affairs, but Sri Lanka is the only country that have different Ministries for different religions yet unsatisfactorily.
As the President has told the Inter Religious Council on 31 May, ‘all religious leaders should come to a single stage to solve religious conflicts’. I believe this is correct. Implementing of such an ‘Interreligious Dialogue’ should be your responsibility with the other Ministers, without vituperatively attacking the civil society organisations or those who have come forward to point out some of the extremist campaigns and attacks going around in the country.
My last point
Let me raise a last point. In your submissions at the beginning of the Salakuna interview you claimed that ‘it was Professor A. J. Wilson who drafted the 1978 Constitution’. This is completely wrong. I was also surprised why did you make such a claim and then quoted his book ‘The Gaullist System in Asia: The Constitution of Sri Lanka (1978)’ to say that this constitution would end up in anarchy? Perhaps your ignorance.
Your quotation is correct, but your claim about his authorship of the constitution is wrong. If you again go through his Acknowledgements, you might be able to dispel your misunderstanding. In July 1978, he was asked to comment on the Draft Constitution. I was very close to him at that time. He was extremely polite, but his advice was not taken into proper consideration in finalising the constitution. The constitution was promulgated in September 1978. Please don’t blame him directly or indirectly for this obnoxious constitution.
Dr. Laksiri Fernando
(The writer is a former Senior Professor in Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo.)