By Ameer Ali –
At a time when the entire population of Sri Lanka and the whole world is preoccupied with finding the means to escape with minimum damage from the deadly effects of a health and economic crises, caused by Covid-19, also termed as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) virus by Epoch Times, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa (GR) has picked this moment of despair and despondence to grant a special pardon to an army butcher Sunil Ratnayake, a former staff sergeant, who was convicted and sentenced to death in 2015 after a thirteen year trial, for murdering eight Tamil civilians including four children in Mirusuvil on 19 December 2000. This pardon is mind boggling to say the least, and deservingly met unreserved condemnation from all right minded individuals and institutions, both nationally as well as internationally. It is not only an insult to the families and the community of the butcher’s victims, but also a blatant interference with and callous disregard to the country’s judiciary.
The erosion of the principle of separation of powers, an important pillar of democracy, started in Sri Lanka long before GR came to power. GR’s immediate predecessor Maithripala Sirisena for example, twice granted pardons, first to a Buddhist priest imprisoned for contempt of court, and next, to a murderer sentenced to death for killing a Sweedish teenager in 2005. Now, in the hands of an authoritarian GR, that erosion seems to have reached a new low. His authoritarian measures in handling the Covid-19 calamity, although should have started a few weeks earlier, did, no doubt, receive kudos even from his opponents. Compared to her neighbours Sri Lanka has done well so far. Let us hope that the country would come out of this pandemic with the most minimum damage. So, why did GR decide to tarnish his reputation by pardoning a convicted murderer? Kuma David raised this question, but left the answer in abeyance (“Why Did Gota Pardon Sunil Ratnayake?”, Colombo Telegraph, 29 March 2020).
One could think of two possible reasons, one political and the other personal. Politically, GR is desperate for his clan’s Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led Sri Lanka Nidhas Podujana Sandhanaya (SLNPS) to win the forthcoming General Election with two-third majority. That majority would guarantee him an opportunity to radically revise, if not totally abolish, the current constitution with its controversial 19th amendment. He has been complaining for long how that amendment is restricting his ability and willingness to transform Sri Lanka into a nation of “prosperity and splendour”. GR’s ultimate goal is to be an all-powerful executive president, as originally envisioned by JR. From an authoritarian position GR would emerge as a dictatorial president. This is why he allowed nominations to continue uninterrupted amidst the spread of the Coronavirus. He would love to have the election as soon as possible with less opportunity for the opposition to mount any consolidated campaign.
GR is fully aware of and openly acknowledged the fact that he became a President solely with the backing of Buddhist supremacists. It was their money and campaigning that swayed Sinhala voters to elect him. Even though none of these supremacists now clamoured for the release of Ratnayake, GR’s unilateral interference and meddling with judiciary would have certainly gone a long way to pleasing his backers. As he already announced during the presidential campaign that he would release all those army and police personnel languishing in prison on trumped up charges, more such pardons could be expected from him in the future. Certainly to the supremacists, GR has proved his mettle by the one single and daring act of freeing Ratnayake.
Recently, there was some grumbling and dissatisfaction among a group of maverick monks that the GR-MR duumvirate was not going far enough towards creating a Sinhala Buddhist polity and economy and was breaking some promises it made earlier. These monks have also formed a new far right political party, Ape Jana Balaya Pakshaya (AJBP). GR is trying his best to thwart their attempt and keep intact the Sinhala Buddhist vote bank within the control of SLNPS. Thus, there is politics behind Ratnayake’s release.
Besides, there may be a personal reason behind that pardon. It arises from a feeling of guilt. After all, Ratnayake and other army and police personnel who are locked up in prison are not the architects of their crimes but acted as instruments and carried out orders from a chain of command. At the top of that chain was Gota himself. It was “Gota’s War”, as captioned by Chandraprema, and it was Gota who masterminded how that war was to be fought and won. Therefore why should the architect remain free and become president of the country while the ones who carried out orders be punished? This question must have pricked Gota’s conscience and made up his resolve to free all of them. Ratnayake is his first choice and beneficiary.
The Tamil community of course would be hurt by the President’s actions. To GR however, it is not a problem politically, because very few Tamils would vote for SLNPS. He has also decided already that in his modelled Sri Lanka of ‘prosperity and splendour’, Tamils would be excluded politically if not economically; and, in the eyes of the supremacist backers, Tamils as well as Muslims are not the owners of this country, and therefore they are simply disposables.