By Jehan Perera
The government is coming up with many new laws, some of which have been positively viewed and others negatively. Among the positives have been the new anti-corruption law and the truth commission bill with the latest being the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) bill. The negatives, however, outnumber the positives with the Online Safety bill and the Anti Terrorism Act heading the list. They are both meant to suppress protests, both verbal and on the ground. There are other controversial laws hovering in the background, including the NGO control bill and the electoral reforms bill that are still to be presented to the general public or to parliament. What is common to these laws is that they have been prepared without transparency by unknown figures who keep to the background.
The ONUR bill which saw the light of day about a month ago has come without any fanfare. This law should not be confused with the proposed truth commission that the government has been promising to establish for about a year. The ONUR bill is a very broad one encompassing ethnic, religious and social harmony issues. The office that is set up will be mandated to make necessary recommendations to the government and relevant authorities towards achieving national unity, reconciliation, and durable peace in the country and formulate a national policy and national action plan on reconciliation and coexistence. By way of contrast, the truth commission that has been proposed would be focused on the period of the three decade long internal war that was fought most of all in the north and east of the country.
The ONUR bill proposes to establish an office with eleven members. The office will consist of one ex-officio member not below the rank of an Additional Secretary to a Ministry and ten others based on the recommendations of the Ministers. All members are to be appointed by the President. Any individual who wrongfully resists or obstructs any person attached to the office from carrying out duties or willfully provides false information to the office will be considered to be committing an offence of contempt against the authority of the office, according to the bill. Where the Reconciliation Office has reasonable grounds to believe that a person has committed the offence of contempt against the authority of the Reconciliation Office, the Reconciliation Office shall report such matter to the Court of Appeal. The problem is that the members appointed to the office will not be independent by the fact of being selected by government ministers and appointed by the president.
As a result, those who will be selected to be ONUR members can be politically partisan individuals who will use the plethora of powers they are entrusted with for highly partisan purposes. The proposed ONUR office follows the recent pattern of new institutions being created in which those who will head them are to be appointed by the president at his discretion. The Online Safety bill has provision for the five commissioners to be selected by the president at his discretion. They were to be empowered to decide on what constitutes hate speech and causes injury to people and whether they need to be subjected to punitive action. This power of appointment has been challenged in the supreme court where petitioners have sought that the power of appointment be given to the Constitutional Council rather than to the president.
The constitutional council was established to ensure that those selected to the positions of state authority should be politically independent to the extent possible. When it was first established under the 17th Amendment the concept of the constitutional council was welcomed unanimously by parliament. However, when successive government leaders found that the arbitrary powers they once wielded with regard to making appointments to high offices of state was taken away from them, they tried their utmost to undermine the constitutional council. As a result, the 17th amendment suffered repeal on two occasions but has been brought back by the 21st Amendment. Unlike previous governments that repealed the laws that set up the constitutional council, the present government is more subtle in seeking to make its existence superfluous by ignoring it.
It is an unfortunate possibility that even laws that could be used to do good, such as the ONUR bill, can end up being used for partisan purposes. This is what has happened in the case of the ICCPR Act. This was a law that was meant to give effect on the ground to the world renowned International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. However, the manner in which this law has been used is a travesty to human rights that the ICCPR was meant to protect. In Sri Lanka it has been used to persecute writers, journalists and actors who have dared to question the ethnicised Sri Lankan state that gives priority to the majority community. Those who have been victimized by the ICCPR Act have spent months and years in jail without bail on the grounds that they crossed the threshold of hate speech prohibited by the ICCPR Act.
The members selected under the ONUR Act need to be non-partisan as envisaged by the 21st Amendment. There is a possibility of the ONUR Act, which gives the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation broad powers, being abused to harass those who are political and ideological opponents, in the manner that the ICCPR Act has been abused. There are many potential flashpoints that could lead to ethnic and religious tensions unless they are handled judiciously. The possible flashpoints include the archaeological sites that are being discovered in the north and east of the country, with the pressure to turn them into living religious sites, even though hardly anyone of that religion live in the area.
The conflict in Kurundi in the north over a Buddhist temple being built on top of an archaeological site has caused sufficient tension that a judge has fled the country for trying to stop this encroachment. There is also the tension surrounding the issue of grazing lands in the east of the country which are now being claimed by those who come from outside. There have been images of cattle lying slaughtered in the fields, while their owners mourn the loss of their economic assets. It is important that the government takes steps to prevent a recurrence of the past, where those fields became human killing fields in the course of the three-decade long war.
Despite the president having made his position clear on these issues that plague the country, there is no follow up. The president has said that private individuals and organisations have no right to encroach on lands that do not belong to them. However, the problem lies with the lack of implementation. Unfortunately, the president himself undermines his own good intentions by not adhering to the constitutional norms such as respecting the right of the constitutional council to make appointments to high state offices. This serves to undermine the independence of state institutions, the rule of law and the justice this would afford to all. Instead of trying to act on his own, the president needs to forge a multi-partisan consensus with the opposition political parties and civil society to ensure good governance in the country. It is late in the time remaining, but still not too late.
Illegality of Urumaya programme
by Neville Ladduwahetty
The Urumaya Programme, aimed at resolving land ownership issues for over two million Sri Lankans, was officially launched on 5 February in Dambulla by Minister Harin Fernando. During the press briefing the Minister is reported to have stated: “The programme’s aim is to provide permanent land ownership solutions. Over 10,000 land licensees currently holding Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi licences will be among the first beneficiaries of this programme. These licenses will be converted into freehold deeds, granting them full ownership of their land. This move is expected to significantly improve the lives and livelihoods of millions currently struggling with land ownership uncertainties” (news.lk).
Continuing he stated: “Our journey is far from over. Many of our citizens have lost homes, land, and their sense of security. To address this suffering, we have launched a special programme – “Urumaya” Through this initiative, we aim to bring about positive change for over two million people in Sri Lanka. This involves granting freehold land deeds to those who currently hold licenses like Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi. By empowering our people with ownership, we hope to spark a new era of stability and prosperity” (Ibid).
BACKGROUND to the URUMAYA PROGRAMME
“Delivering the 2024 Budget proposals, President Wickremesinghe unveiled the ‘Urumaya’ programme, wherein he noted that the land slots distributed among farmers under the licences of the Land Development Ordinance in 1935 would be handed back to farmers” (The Morning, February 18, 2024).
“Although around 100 years have passed, the ownership of these farmlands has not been handed back to the farmers who own them. We are handing over the lands to farmers who lost the ownership of their traditional lands during the British colonial era. We expect to commence this task in 2024 and complete it within another few years. Two million families will get the ownership of land and farmland. I allocate Rs. 2 billion for this purpose,” (Ibid).
VIOLATION of the CONSTITUTION
The granting of freehold land deeds to over two million people in Sri Lanka raises several constitutional issues. The most fundamental issue is whether the government has the authority to grant freehold titles to lands and its resources to some, while such authority belongs to the Republic of Sri Lanka and ALL its Peoples as an integral component of their sovereignty.
For instance, the Preamble to the Constitution, which some consider to be of little significance, while others consider it to be the very embodiment of the core values of the Constitution states: “The PEOPLE OF SRI LANKA having, by their Mandate freely expressed and granted …. entrusted and empowered their Representatives …to draft, adopt and operate a new Republican Constitution…whilst ratifying the immutable republican principles of REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, and assuring to all peoples FREEDOM, EQUALITY, JUSTICE, FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHTS…”.
Arising from these core principles, Article 3 states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable ….” The fact that Sri Lanka is a Republic is what makes its assets part of the sovereignty of all the People. Furthermore, since it is the PEOPLE of Sri Lanka that have “entrusted and empowered their Representatives to carry out functions on their behalf, such Representatives do not have the right to grant part of the People’s sovereign rights and/or its resources that are inalienable, to a select few. However, it is imperative that a strategy is developed to address the issue at hand without violating provisions of the Constitution.
OPINION of the SUPREME COURT
SUPREME COURT JUDGMENTS RELATING to LAND
S.C. 884/99 BULANKULAMA AND OTHERS v. SECRETARY, MINISTRY OFINDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AND OTHERS (EPPAWALA CASE AMERASINGHE. J.
“The Constitution declares that sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. (Article 3). Being a representative democracy, the powers of the People are exercised through persons who are for the time being entrusted with certain functions. The Constitution states that the legislative power of the People shall be exercised by Parliament, the executive power of the People shall be exercised by the President of Sri Lanka, and the judicial power of the People shall be exercised, inter alia, through the Courts created and established by the Constitution (Article 4)”.
“The organs of State are guardians to whom the people have committed the care and preservation of the resources of the people. This accords not only with the scheme of government set out in the Constitution but also with the high and enlightened conceptions of the duties of our rulers, in the efficient management of resources in the process of development, which the Mahavamsa, 68.8-13, set forth”.
Other Lordships of the Supreme Court have also commented on the fact that certain Constitutional procedures need to be followed when granting or disposing of State Lands or other resources that belong to the People in the Republic. It is the unilateral action taken under the Urumaya Programme without following due process as called for in the Constitution, that makes this Program illegal.
A “Brief Guide on Land Rights in Sri Lanka” states:
“State Land is alienated: • By Permit • By Grant • By the President
“State land is all land that the State is lawfully entitled to, or land which may be disposed of by the State together with any building standing thereon, and with all rights, interests and privileges attached thereto. This also includes lands of various Corporations and Boards. State land is administered at national, provincial, district and divisional levels by the relevant government officials” (Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2014).
“Permits are issued to particular categories specified in the relevant laws such as low-income earners and those who are landless. Permit holders can use the land as specified in the permit including as a residence and/or for cultivation purposes. Permit holders are required to pay a nominal monthly rental to the State. Permits can be issued as an annual permit or also known as ‘LDO permit’ when issued under the Land Development Ordinance” (Ibid).
“(Swarnabhoomi, Jayabhoomi, R a n a b h o o m i, Ranbima – Permit-holders can convert their permit into a grant or a deed, if they meet specific conditions” (Ibid).
By the President
“The President can grant or lease State land at a nominal price or rent it for charitable, educational, religious, scientific or any other purpose” (Ibid).
Therefore, according to the “Brief Guide” State Land cannot be converted to freehold deeds that grant them full ownership of their land under the Urumaya Program without conforming to the above guidelines.
Since State-Owned Enterprises also form part of the sovereignty of the People, the intended proposal to privatise them, also faces the same restrictions. It is reported that the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters have in a letter addressed to the President appealed to him to exercise caution about the sale of national assets such as state-owned enterprises” (The Sunday Times, 18 February, 2024).
The reason for granting freehold deeds is to enable current Permit holders to use the asset as collateral to raise a loan since existing provisions cited above are considered too restrictive. Therefore, it is pertinent to consider what the existing restrictions are and consider what refinements could be made to existing provisions in order to mitigate the administrative impediments as much as possible while conforming to Constitutional provisions.
The strategy adopted by current Permit holders of State-Owned Assets is to form themselves into a Cooperative. Each member of the Cooperative pays a monthly stipend. These are forwarded monthly by each Corporative to the Development Co-Op Society for use by its members to secure loans relating to Paribooga Loan (livelihood) and/or Housing Loan. The process involved to secure a loan is quite rigorous and involves an evaluation of the capability of the member to honour required loan commitments by the Grama Niladhari and members of the Development Co-Op Society. This procedure has enabled members of the Cooperatives to secure loans in the range of Rs. 800,000/= to one million.
The granting of freehold title to current Permit holders, amounts to converting State land on which the asset is cited into Private land. This is a violation of the collective sovereignty of the People. Therefore, existing provisions granted to Permit holders should be revised in a manner where the Permit has a legitimacy equivalent to a title deed for all administrative purposes, except for the land on which the asset is cited.
Furthermore, if Permit holders are entitled to nominate a beneficiary, the interests of the original Permit holder would continue as it would be if the asset has a freehold title. If on the other hand, the original Permit holder did not have a beneficiary of choice, the asset would revert back to the State. Such possibilities should be explored with caution instead of rushing to grant title deeds to People that may have the potential to disappoint them if they find that the deeds they received are not legal.
The intention of the President to correct an injustice by handing back traditional lands belonging to farmers that were taken over 100 years ago during British Colonial Rule, is indeed noteworthy. However, there is a need to be conscious of the present context. That context is that Sri Lanka is a Republic and Article 3 of the Constitution states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable”. That being the case, Sri Lanka’s lands, its assets and resources belong to the People. Furthermore, since nearly all Sri Lankans have endured injustices of one kind or another, it is Illegal to correct the injustices committed against some, at the expense of the rest. This is what the Urumaya Programme is all about.
Therefore, it is incumbent on the part of the President and others associated with the Urumaya Program to act cautiously and revisit the legality of the Urumaya Programme before it is too late. If they proceed regardless, there is a strong possibility that beneficiaries of the Urumaya Programme may have to face disappointment later if it is found to be illegal. A similar note of caution has been issued by the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters regarding State-Owned Enterprises.
Among the Trobrianders: A Personal Journey
By Uditha Devapriya
You are putting me in a hole.
No, I am taking you out of it!
Somewhere in 2016, I lost my first job.I had been working at my old school for two months, and had been led to assume that I would be retained to help them draft a communications policy. I was into PR, had hopes of entering advertising, and was looking for a suitable opening.
All of a sudden, I was told they didn’t need such a person.
I was 23 at the time. I had just completed law school and was waiting for my results.
It was not the best time to be idle. I needed a job.
And now, I was out of one.
I tried contacting friends and acquaintances, clinging to any mutual contact I could find.
None of it worked.
Frantically, I fired off one email after another.
I may have sent tens if not hundreds of emails. Many replied, and some asked me to come over to be interviewed. The interviews, however, all left a bad taste in my mouth. The jobs they had either paid too low or were outside my comfort zone.
Then an ad agency, one of many agencies I had emailed, got in touch. They scheduled an interview in December. There they said they wanted someone with “zero experience in advertising.” They thought I fitted the bill. They took me in.
By now I was freelancing to several newspapers in the country. I was writing on the arts, reviewing films, plays, the occasional exhibition. The pay wasn’t good, but the exposure was: it got me in touch with artists, directors, writers, dancers.
I had always been mad about culture and the arts. At school I had inclined to subjects like history and literature. Though I did not study them for my Advanced Levels – I chose Commerce, a “safer” stream, instead – I did not abandon them. I pursued such fields as a writer and a journalist after leaving school.
There was a problem, however. For more than a decade I had studied mostly in English, and had become ignorant of my language and culture. I came from a Sinhala speaking background, but since I spent six hours at school, two getting back home, and around five or six active hours at home, this did not amount to much.
In my time, the rage everywhere in the country was for English, Western, private education. Our parents had studied in the vernacular: Sinhala or Tamil. Yet after leaving school they had felt it would be better to have their children taught in English.
Public schools used to have English medium classes, but by the time I was born these had been abandoned. As a result, a new type of school had cropped up, catering to an ever-growing demand for English education.
The problem was that while we readily immersed ourselves in English education, many of us allowed ourselves to neglect our languages. Though our parents were concerned about what was happening to us and nationalist groups bemoaned what this was doing to our country and culture, there was little anyone could do about it. It did not help that in the classroom, we were tacitly discouraged from talking in Sinhala and Tamil.
The result was that most of us came out knowing next to nothing about our language, religion, culture, society, even our people. I was no exception. Westernised, though in a half-baked way, I could not relate to the world I had been born to.
Lester James Peries recalled undergoing a similar experience at his school.
Some of us became snobs. Even today, I can’t speak Sinhala properly.
So did Osmund Jayaratne.
If, instead of Latin, we had been given a good grounding of our native tongue, Sinhala, I would have been very happy, but unfortunately this was not to be.
And so did Gamani Corea.
[F]or my generation, the lapse [in Sinhala] was a serious one and a handicap for later life.
These were sentiments I could relate to.
A few months after I began my job, I realized that things would only get worse. I may have been writing to newspapers on local art and culture, but I was writing in English, thinking in English, operating in English, living and breathing English.
My new workplace made me more conscious of these deficiencies. A good copywriter tends to be rooted in his surroundings. He or she tends to be bicultural, if not bilingual, and finds it easy to operate in both English and the vernacular.
My problem was that I was far from being bicultural, in any sense.
It was a hole I needed to get out of, and fast.
My coworkers had, in their own way, stepped in and helped me improve somewhat. Yet they were too busy. I realized I could expect only so much from them.
Someone else had to step in. Someone from outside.
Freelancing has its advantages and privileges. You aren’t constrained by deadlines, and you are free to write what you want to write. You get to associate with people who relate to you. You get to write on them. Often you get to learn from them.
One night in 2017, the Secretary of a school society called me. The society, the Library Readers’ Association, the oldest student-led association at the school, was organizing an exhibition-cum-quiz. They wanted a judge for the quiz, and an article written on the event. Since I had been a quizzer and was a writer, I seemed to fit the bill.
I duly served as judge, and the article, which the boys fortunately liked, duly got published. In Sri Lanka, however, events never really end: they lead to other events. Soon I was getting requests from them to write on other societies and clubs, including sports events. These were not typical press release articles, but full-length human-interest essays, different from the journalistic pieces that get written about such events.
It was then that I realised that most of these boys came from a world completely different to the world I had grown up in. Though they attended what was seen as the leading public school in the island, Royal College, they had entered it through the Grade Five Scholarship, and had been boarded at the school Hostel.
Hailing from villages that lay far away from Colombo – you had to fulfil a distance threshold to be boarded at the Hostel – they represented an antithesis of my personality. They had lived their entire childhood at home. As I talked with them, they regaled me with stories of the culture shock they underwent after they moved to Colombo.
At first our parents were worried. Would we grow up away from them?
The first English song I ever heard was our school anthem.
Some classmates mocked me, they made fun of the way I talked.
Becoming the butt-end of jokes, they adapted by either suppressing their identity or, in the more likely scenario, insulting the insulters.
In our first two years, we mocked those who spoke only in English in our classrooms.
They seemed too nerdy, too polite. They were like babies.
That, however, only heightened their fear of the language.
Of course, we were afraid of English. Some of us avoided it, others tried to master it. A few pretended it wasn’t important until it was too late.
Sri Lanka may be a small island, but it is home to an incredible range of cultures and subcultures. There is nothing monolithic about any of them.
A colourful bunch, these boys came from practically every corner of the country. In the way they talked, behaved, the way they interacted with outsiders and with me, they differed from one another. They were a microcosm of their country. Talking to them, I encountered the societies they hailed from, societies I had grown away from.
Slowly, but surely, our associations developed into friendships. As time went by, we realized that we looked at the world in different ways. Yet in one sense we were kindred spirits: we were all learning and absorbing a new culture.
For them, it was a process of discovery: living in a city, English, Western culture.
For me, it was a process of rediscovery: Sinhala language and literature, Buddhism.
In the end, we ended up teaching one another.
It was almost like Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders. The difference, of course, is that they were as much an exotic Other to me as I was to them.
And like Malinowski and the Trobrianders, there were points of disagreement, difference, and incompatibility between us, often too big to bridge.
I found their views on culture and society intriguing. Yet beyond a point, perhaps because of my cultural conditioning, I found it hard to accept them. As an agnostic, for instance, I couldn’t relate to their religious beliefs, particularly their belief in the supernatural. Still, they expressed such sentiments with a lot of conviction.
Gods do exist.
When we feel them, we believe in them, we give them power.
Come over one day, I will show them to you.
If this is one of the more insightful comments on God-worship in Sri Lanka, or anywhere, I have come across – the notion that it is our belief in them that gives them power – it’s because it was said by someone who spoke his mind, someone who responded instinctively to such matters without intellectual obfuscations.
In other words, these boys weren’t just teaching and guiding me. They were immersing me in their moral code, their cultural universe. It was not exactly an encounter between two worlds. But it was an encounter between two ways of looking at the world.
To be sure, I still have not got out of my cocoon. I am still ignorant of cultural matters. I still make gaffes. There are times when I feel like a foreigner in my country.
Yet, largely through the intervention of these boys, I have acquired a decent understanding about things I was unaware of.
Late last December, describing my attempts at introducing him to sociologists and historians and at getting him to talk to them, one of these boys expostulated:
You are putting me in a hole.
To which I replied:
No, I am taking you out of it!
Life ultimately amounts to the people we meet and the friendships we form.
It is about what we do for one another, the lengths we go for others.
It is about teaching new things and learning new things.
Or, as my friend put it, about falling into holes and getting out of them.
Like what these boys did for me – and like what I like to think I did for them.
Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst based in Sri Lanka who contributes to a number of publications on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He can be reached at .
Tea Library Hikkaduwa comes alive
The Tea Library was opened recently in the heart of Sri Lanka’s most popular beach and surfing town Hikkaduwa. This is another venture of tea industry veteran Malinga Herman Gunaratne best known for ‘white tea’ – probably the most exclusive tea ever produced in the world. The Tea Library adds a new dimension to Hikkaduwa with its three story terracotta exterior and welcoming interiors.
It offers accommodation, a restaurant and a tea shop. The third floor which provides spectacular views of the beach and the Hikkaduwa town, features a mural covering the highlights of Herman Gunaratne’s life in the tea industry by artist Chandana Samarakoon. Architect Shayam Kumaradas has transformed this once derelict building into one of multiple uses and chic interiors. It features hand painted Mandalas by artist Maneesha Sewwandi on the walls of the bedrooms.
Opening times of Tea Library are 9 am – 10 pm daily and you can have an exclusive group tea tasting experience, or use the stunning upstairs restaurant space for events such as book launches.
United Republic Front presents ‘A united step for the country’ to the President
Spinners put England in command on Day 2
Pakistan’s election chaos casts shadow on next IMF deal
‘Dates have the highest sugar content to fight Coronavirus’
Sunday Island 27 December – Headlines
#Sundayisland Sunday Island- 31 January- Headlines
Features7 days ago
PUBLIC TRANSPORT IN THE KANDY AREA IN THE LAST CENTURY
Foreign News5 days ago
Nebraska zoo extracts 70 coins from white alligator’s stomach
Business6 days ago
Huawei unveils expansion of its talent development programme in Rome
Features7 days ago
Recollections of Law, Order and Discipline in the good old days
Features7 days ago
Asian Elections and Anura Kumara Dissanayake’s India visit
Features6 days ago
Africa’s ‘flying presidents’ under fire
Features6 days ago
The story of Wellawatte
Features7 days ago
Transformation, Reinvigoration and Reinvention: The Art and Life of George Keyt (1901 – 1993)