By Rajeewa Jayaweera –
The death fast by a relatively insignificant nationalist Buddhist monk turned politician Ven. Athuraliye Rathana Thero MP, of the Jathika Hela Urumaya and a National List MP nominated by the United National Party (UNP) in the current Parliament, ended on the fourth day.
The monk was demanding the resignation or removal of Rishard Bathiudeen MP, and Minister for Industry & Commerce, Resettlement of Protracted Displaced Persons, Co-operative Development, Vocational Training & Skills Development. He is also the leader of the All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC). Others in the monk’s list were Western Province Governor Azath Salley and Easter Province Governor MLMA Hizbullah.
Rathana Thero alleged all three Muslim politicians had links to the now banned Jihadi terrorist group National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ).
As matters evolved, maneuvering and counter-maneuvering by politicians, top-down is abundantly clear. The fact that Presidential and Parliamentary elections are due within the next 18 months makes pragmatic decision making a virtual impossibility.
Public opinion amongst many in the Sinhala Buddhist and Christians communities endorsed Rathana Thero’s public spectacle, carried out in the precinct of the Temple of the Tooth Relic. Electronic and print media carried reports of supportive crowds in Kandy and several other cities. Cries of Sadu, Sadu could be heard to the chanting of Pirith. Shop Keepers in Kandy and elsewhere closed their shutters to express solidarity. Politicians and Religious dignitaries made a beeline to Kandy to show solidarity. The monk’s death fast was a clear case of political blackmail.
This writer could not help but wonder, would Lord Buddha have approved of this monk’s modus operandi and public support for him? Where in Buddhism is it stated, destroying a life, one’s own or of another for whatever reason is permitted?
A theocracy is a state where the priesthood holds political power. Whereas Sri Lanka may not be a theocracy, it does contain many characteristics found in such a state. The influence wielded by religious leaders, especially the Mahanayakes and their involvement in most major government decisions, cannot be denied. All this is a clear sign, ours is not a secular and progressive society and will remain so in the foreseeable future.
The mediocre national leaders of low intellect produced by this country over several decades is a major contributory factor to this unhealthy practice. Religious leaders tend to fill the vacuum thus created, by default. The most recent example was the leadership role played by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. It prevented retaliation against the Muslim community. Meanwhile, all that our impotent political leaders could do was play the blame game.
The monk’s death fast was an act of blackmail to force the hand of a weak government, without the requisite parliamentary majority of its own. The UNP is struggling to survive by appeasing all and ending up antagonizing all instead.
This episode gives rise to another issue in the future. Encouraged by what transpired, what is to prevent others from emulating similar acts of blackmail? Will future governments too, be compelled to do nothing and let governance go to the dogs?
Nine Muslim Ministers, Deputy and State Ministers from the UNP, Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and ACMC announced their resignation from their positions last Monday. Allegations of terrorist connections and interference in law enforcement have been directed only against Rishard Bathiudeen and not against the likes of Kabir Hashim, Rauf Hakeem, MHA Haleem, and five others. Therefore, it is not clear why these politicians have resigned unless it is to blackmail a hapless government to save Rishard Bathiudeen. He is accused of multiple wrongdoings, and a No Confidence Motion (NCM) placed before Parliament.
SLMC Leader Rauf Hakeem, flanked by Kabir Hashim of UNP and Rishard Bathiudeen of ACMC besides serval other Muslim politicians while announcing their resignations to the media made some strange sounding statements and justification for their community based collective decision.
Hakeem requested the government to expedite their investigations and bring a closure without any further delay. He stated, “we expect the government to do this within one month during which we will render out support.”
He has been a cabinet minister almost continuously since 2000 and should be aware, no government investigation can be completed within such a period.
Despite their laborious efforts, they cannot hide the fact, all of them expect to be back in their positions in one month.
The nine resignations is a veiled threat of depriving the UNF government of its parliamentary majority. Besides, the Muslim voter base is essential for Prime Minister Wickremesinghe in the forthcoming Presidential and Parliamentary elections.
The SLMC leader justified their collective decision stating, “We decided to resign from all the portfolios to facilitate investigations to be conducted in a free and fair manner.” Is Hakeem implying they cannot function as Minister without interfering? Does that also mean they have all been interfering with law enforcement until now?
Hakeem also stated, “It is true that the perpetrators of the April 21 bombings were from our community, but from the first day onwards, we have assisted the Tri-Forces in rooting out these individuals and have complied with the government to bring about a change in our community.”
Nevertheless, Muslim ministers and parliamentarians have failed to justify their silence and lack of support to Wijayadasa Rajapakshe. The former Justice Minister in November 2016 announced in Parliament of 32 Muslim youth joining IS in Syria. Community leaders have made very loud claims of having informed senior government officials but being ignored. The likes of Hakeem and Hashim must divulge if community leaders deliberately hid the vital information from their elected representatives, or the politicians decided to remain silent despite being informed.
“Bringing about changes in our community” notwithstanding, was anything done about visible changes taking place over the last several years? According to the Muslim Affairs Director, over 500 unauthorized mosques have been constructed in recent years. Authorities arrested dozens of visa overstaying Imams in mosques raided in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. Introduction of the Arabic language in the Eastern Province including road name boards in Kattankudiya. These are a few of such changes.
Self-regulating and policing is of vital importance, especially in the case of closed communities.
Let alone a thorough investigation of Rishard Bathiudeen, even a cursory investigation into the ten charges put forward by Joint Opposition (JO) MPs in the NCM against the ACMC leader will require not one but several months if not years.
The community based collective decision of the Muslim politicians across party lines is a thinly veiled attempt at blackmailing the Wickremesinghe government. It is a short-sighted act believed to be on the advice of the All Ceylon Jammiyathul Ulama (ACJU), the main body of Muslim religious leaders. It is bound to polarize an already divided nation further and relegate reconciliation to the backburner.
Four days after the resignation announcement, eight out of the nine resigning Ministers have supposedly handed their resignation letters to the President’s Secretary. No information is available if they have handed over their official vehicles and residences and if their personal staff have vacated their posts.
It is believed, all resigning Ministers will continue to sit in the front row in Parliament instead of becoming backbenchers. It is also understood the vacated ministerial positions will not be filled. The stage is being set for those who resigned for altruistic reasons to return after one month.
For argument’s sake, a similar decision by Sinhala politicians on the advice of the Mahanayakes would have disastrous consequences to both the country and minorities.
Politically expedient but ill thought out decisions of the Wickremesinghe government created the opportunities for both Rathana Thero and nine Muslim ministers for their blackmail projects. It has no one to blame but itself.
The government should have permitted a quick debate and the NCM to address the rapidly increasing public opinion against Bathiudeen. Several UNP Sinhala Christian MPs may have supported the NCM. Opting first to bring about a meaningless NCM against the government, followed by a Parliamentary Select Committee investigation to examine JO’s charges against Bathiudeen brought about Rathana Thero’s death fast spectacle followed by the mass resignation of Muslim ministers.
In doing so, the government boxed itself into an unenviable situation. Another two days with the monk’s health failing could have resulted in countrywide mass protests which the government would not have been able to contain. Such a dangerous situation could have easily resulted in another round of anti-Muslim riots of a much larger scale than what took place recently in the North Western Province. That is something this nation needs the least.
The lack of even a few astute and seasoned political strategists in the Prime Minister’s inner courtier and its consequences is abundantly clear. Such are the repercussions of packing the party hierarchy with less educated non-entities and so-called educated ‘Yes’ men. It is a malaise found in both sides of the political divide.
President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and former President Mahinda Rajapaksa regularly pontificate on communal harmony and reconciliation. The fact that their respective administrations failed to prosecute a single person responsible for anti-Muslim riots in 2014 and 2016 disqualifies them from taking the moral high ground. Quite understandably, the Muslim community holds it against the government and even the Sinhala Buddhist community.
The government’s problems are by no means over. As the Muslim MPs have stated, they will wait only for a month. A thorough investigation of charges leveled against Bathiudeen is not doable by any stretch of the imagination.
What happens thereafter is any body’s guess.
The government would do well to develop a strategy to handle any future death fasts, now that a precedent has been set.