By Lakmal Harischandra –
When Ven Galagoda Atte Gnanasara (GST)walked out of prison, probably no-one was surprised as it was the end-result of much political behind-the- curtain activities, but well known in the public domain, which led to the granting of Presidential pardon by the head crackpot Sirisena (MS). After the end of the war in 2009, this fiery monk has been used as a political pawn and tool by the Rajapaksas to stay in power exploiting the racist sentiments among the Sinhala Buddhist people and now it appears that MS too, seeing sure signs of doom at the next election is also attempting to use GST for his camp’s political survival. However, the Minister of Buddha Sasana, Gamini Jayawickrama too earlier endorsed requests by religious and political third parties to issue the pardon, and numerous members of the government also have spoken out and acted in support of it for political expediency. Thus, Ranil camp cannot escape responsibility by blaming this decision upon MS alone.
It was thus a sad day for Sri Lanka where the height of impunity went to another appalling low level, signifying a chronic impunity crisis affecting the process of justice in this Dharma Dweepa. When GST was let off the hook and allowed to go free, the last remnants of the rule of law also went vanished. Analysts point out that the pardon specifically signals that some are more equal than others, when some categories of citizens, such as the Buddhist clergy, can expect to enjoy preferential treatment when it comes to obeying the law. It also sets a dangerous precedent whereby properly tried, convicted and sentenced persons can be released on the whims of the President and government. The timing of his presidential pardon in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday massacre is significant as well, where GST’s dubious record as an incessant Islamophobe will play a pivotal role in further exacerbating the hate campaign against the Island’s Muslim population. It is indeed the second rising of the Sri Lankan version of Wirathu of Myanamar. He is already coming out with his version of ‘I told you so’ which appears to echo well with the anti-Muslim hate lobbies barking loud through the social media.
The rogue character of GST came into prominence with the well-orchestrated hate campaign against the Muslims during the second term of MR’s tenure of office. After his (largely mysterious) visit to Norway, his dreaded BBS shot into prominence creating havoc in the civic life in this country, along with their sister hate outfits – Sihala Ravaya and Ravana Balaya – all of whom enjoyed State patronage in their halcyon days. What happened in Sri Lanka, when he went all over the country setting fire to the inner sentiments of the people in the name of Sinhala Buddhism and patriotism were well known. What happened in Aluthgama where GST’s fiery racist speech led to much carnage and damage was also well known. Now, no-one should tell us that this Aluthgama anti-Muslim attack took place because few Muslim youth assaulted a Budddhist monk; for four years after, they were released without charges as there were no supporting evidence. This shows that attacks of this nature are pre planned. Fast forwarding to Yahapalana times, he appeared to tone down his antics, but his visit to the funeral house of the victim in Digana after the road rage incident appeared to provide more impetus to Amitha and his gang to exploit the feelings of the people to engage in the anti- Muslim communal violence.
Be it as it may, the incident in question which led to GST’s jail sentence was not related to his anti-Muslim rampage. This hardline rogue monk was found guilty of having threatened the woman activist Sandya Ekneligoda, who was seeking justice for her husband who mysteriously disappeared during MR time. In 2016, GST interrupted a court hearing over the abduction of this journalist, Prageeth Ekneligoda, in which military intelligence officials were accused. He shouted at the judge and lawyers because the military officials had not been allowed bail, and threatened Ekneligoda’s wife in filthy language. GST also faced a separate contempt of court case over the same incident. When, he was put behind bars, there were wide discourses all over the country initiated by the top hierarchy in the various chapters about the permissibility of disrobing this monk in jail and getting him to don a jumper. This concern was interestingly not shown when many other rogue Bikkhus were arrested and jailed for numerous offences. Amnesty International also then said that the verdict was a victory for human rights defenders in Sri Lanka. “This is an important verdict for all people who fight for human rights in Sri Lanka. A clear message has gone out to those who seek to intimidate, threaten and silence people seeking justice”. However, he was granted bail. Then in late 2018, we commenced his sentence of 19 years of rigorous imprisonment to be completed within 6 years.. It was not even few months behind bars when this fresh concerns were shown to gain his release by way of a Presidential pardon through a concerted social media cum political lobbying campaign led by rogue sections of the Maha Sangha. His receiving pardon stands in contrast with another Sinhala writer who serving a jail sentence for apparently writing a fiction which some monks thought was insulting of Buddhism.
Granting Presidential pardon to GST has made a mockery of the powers vested in the President under the country’s constitution. It is pertinent to quote the statement of the Centre for Policy Alternatives in this regard. ‘CPA stresses that presidential pardons exist to correct miscarriages of justice and are to be exercised with extreme caution and gravity. The pardon of Gnanasara Thero cannot be called a fit and proper exercise of that power by any metric. The trial, conviction and sentencing of the Thero raised no legitimate questions of any miscarriage of justice and there was ample opportunity for the Thero to fully exercise his right to a fair trial by appealing his conviction. Indeed this option was pursued by him at both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court which both duly dismissed the appeals. As such, the pardon itself amounts to an undue interference with the legal process… The pardon raises a number of very serious concerns. First, it legitimises the view that it is possible to act with contempt for the judiciary, be punished through a legitimate judicial process, and then enjoy impunity through a pardon granted on political considerations. Second, the pardon comes amidst the ongoing and extremely tense situation in the country. The pardon, however indirectly, represents a worrying endorsement of such anti-minority sentiment, and can only heighten the anxiety and fear being felt by Muslim Sri Lankans today’. In this context, as CPA statement calls for , the government as a whole must justify, with stated reasons, why the grant of a pardon in this case will not be inconsistent with the Constitution, the rule of law, and the administration of justice in Sri Lanka and will not exacerbate inter-communal tensions. Anything less will directly undermine the legitimacy of Sri Lanka’s democracy.
Sri Lanka’s poor human rights situation is clearly being exacerbated by the weakness of state institutions and the judicial system. Sri Lanka is facing a crisis of impunity. As ICJ Report in 2012 says, ‘It has become a cliché to speak of a ‘culture of impunity’ but the phrase is entirely apt in describing the situation in Sri Lanka, where impunity has over the years become institutionalized and systematized: mechanisms to hold state actors to account for their actions have been eroded; checks on the arbitrary use of power have been diluted, if not dissolved’. We saw impunity in the case of spate of communal violence of 1983, Aluthgama and Digana.
The 1978 Constitution essentially took away much powers of the Parliament and gave the President excessive power, presumably to balance representation with governability. The powers given to one individual in the person of the Executive President has been abused time and again by the various holders of this high office since JRJ. The country saw in October 2018, how MS in a fit of lunacy abused his Presidential powers under the Constitution, not only taking Sri Lanka and the world by surprise, but also put the nation on a serious mode of reflection about the suitability of the Executive Presidential system to Sri Lanka, imposed by JRJ in 1978 and the quality of our Legislature. Prof. S. Sarath Mathilal de Silva- Attorney-at-Law in an article in CDN on ‘Presidential immunity: Scope and application’ (May 2018) commented; ‘It appears that both presidential immunity and other indemnity provisions within the law contribute significantly towards the culture of impunity in Sri Lanka’. Now, MS has shown that his powers to grant pardon too needs serious review. MS should be criminally answerable for all the offences and abuses committed by him during the course of his administration in fairness to the people of this country who are asked to abide by the rule of law.
The timing of granting pardon to GST is also significant when the anti-Muslim sentiments are at an all-time high reaching its’ peak. This is the 09/11 experience for Sri Lankan Muslims witnessing their religion being demonised and being alienated in society. There is deep suspicion that GST will aggravate this dangerous trend and help earn valuable Sinhala Buddhist votes for the MS/MR camp, playing the Sinhala Supremacist card. Already, Muslims have been projected as the bogeyman by rogue sections of the Sinhala media both print and TV- Hiru, Ada Derana and Divaina. Recent media sensationalism as seen in the editing of speeches by Muslim spokesmen and also so-called Sterilization story are causing much concern among the Muslims driven to a corner and put on a victim hood mode. All what is left is for a foul-mouthed GST to lit the pyre- a disaster which a far thinking personality like the Catholic Cardinal has been doing his utmost to avert. This does not mean that Muslim extremism should be pussy footed. It should be confronted . However, to be successful, it is imperative that the Muslim community is fully on-board with the rest of us without making this fight against extremism – a war against the entire community as a whole. It is a fact that the mainstream Muslims are also victims of this growing extremism and radicalism by a fringe group among them.
The laudable efforts of the Cardinal and many leading members of the Maha Sangha in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday massacre to heal a wounded nation and to unify efforts to fight this terror, will be washed away by the fiery uncanny approach of the likes of GST who wants to fight Muslim extremism by another brand of extremism –Sinhala Buddhist extremism, thereby alienating the Muslims. The scheming political forces behind his release are playing with fire and the destiny of our nation. The mainstream Sinhala community should not fall prey to their political machinations at the expense of the unity of our people. Otherwise , there is also a distinct possibility of many Muslim youth becoming ready converts to the evil cause Zahran was espousing. Muslims should be made part of the solution.
Today, the very idea of peace – founded on equality, dignity and respect, taken forward through tolerance and solidarity between and within societies – is being threatened. Violent extremism is promoting fear and division, preaching exclusion and hatred, provoking a split between those who reject living together, and those who believe in humanity as a single community. Extremists usually use ignorance to spread hatred and launch destruction campaigns, Recent Easter Sunday terrorist attacks with global connections remind us that violence recognises no borders, attacking shared values and order in societies across the world. We have seen how social media is being used by extremist groups to propagate hate, violence and terror. We are facing an information war, where fake news, conspiracy theories and misinformation are used to incite the radicalization of young women and men. Extremists use FB, twitter accounts and propaganda videos, making the most of new means of communication. This is the battle of the minds to be fought unitedly across religious and racial divides and therefore making one community guilty by association will be counter-productive.
They say violent extremists are not born, they are made and fuelled. This is a process we disarm, starting on the benches of schools, through new forms of education, media literacy, and new opportunities for youth engagement. The diverse aspects of radicalization still need to be clarified, but evidence shows clearly that education is the most powerful weapon we have to respond with – by undermining prejudice, by fighting ignorance and indifference. We cannot promote the values of inclusion, dialogue and peace if so many are deprived of quality education. There should be a well-planned process of educating our next generation about inclusion and common Sri Lankan identity starting from schools. We need more Cardinals to fight this menace of extremism, and not more GSTs. Fire should be fought with water and not with fire. Pardoning GST and its’ attendant impunity is one disaster for the justice and rule of law in this country. But worst disaster would be using GSTs to exacerbate communal tensions and rekindle racist fires in a country barely recovering from the wounds of war and terror.