There are indications that the Sri Lankan coalition government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinhe of the United National Party (UNP), will accede to the demand for special courts to try cases against Buddhist monks.
There has been a growing demand from influential sections of Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese-Buddhist community to set up special courts to try cases against Buddhist monks, following the jailing of the high profile monk, Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera, General Secretary of the radical Buddhist organization Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) for contempt of court.
The monk had abused and intimidated in court, Sandya Eknaligoda, who had filed a case against the military intelligence for the disappearance of her journalist cum cartoonist husband Prageeth Eknaligoda.
Both the SLFP and UNP are amenable to the demand for special courts for monks because they are challenged by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has already established himself as the foremost protector of Buddhism in the country.
The urgency of pleasing the Sinhalese-Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka stems from the fact that the Presidential and parliamentary elections are to take place in January and August 2020 respectively and parties are already on an election mode.
All the three main parties in Sri Lanka (the SLFP, UNP and SLPP) are depending on securing a good chunk of the Sinhalese-Buddhist vote as the Sinhalese-Buddhists are more than 75% of the population of Sri Lanka.
All three parties swear by the constitutional provision on Buddhism which says that the “Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place, and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e).”
The Secretary General of the Asgiriya Chapter of the Buddhist Sangha (organization of monks), Dr.Medagama Dammananda Thera, declared that the “severe action” taken against Gananasara Thera was “an attempt by the government to please international forces and West-inspired Non-Government Organizations”.
The Kandy-based high Buddhist official said that the arrest and jailing of Gnanasara Thera will be taken up with President Sirisena.
Members of the BBS and another radical Sinhalese-Buddhist organization “Sinhala Ravaya” broke coconut at the Seenigama Devalaya, in South West Sri Lanka, cursing those who had disrespected the order of monks and sentenced Gnanasara to imprisonment.
Meanwhile, in Colombo, the Buddhist Affairs Minister, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera, said that he would take up Gnanasara Thera’s arrest and the need for the setting up of special courts for monks, with President Sirisena; the Minister of Justice Thapatha Athukorale; and the General Secretary of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) Champika Ranawaka.
Perera also said the Mahanayakes (the highest functionaries in the Buddhist hierarchy of monks) should be consulted when action is taken against monks.
“There are constitutional provisions to set up special courts for monks and they should be set up,” the Minister said.
Following Minister Perera’s statement, fellow cabinet minister Champika Ranawaka said that special courts should be set up to try cases against Buddhist monks in consultation with the Mahanayakes.
Ranawaka pointed out that while the judiciary sentenced Gnanasara Thera quickly it was dragging its feet in regard very many important cases involving laymen who had looted the exchequer.
Is A Constitutional Amendment Necessary?
According to most constitutional lawyers, the government can set up special courts to try cases involving Buddhist monks under the existing provisions in the constitution and that there is no need for a constitutional amendment.
They point to the constitutional provision on Buddhism which says that the “Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e).”
According to lawyer cum leader of the Pivithuru Jathika Hela Urumaya MP, Udaya Gammanpila, the Presidential Commission on the Buddha Sasana set up during the tenure of President Chandrika Kumaratunga, had defined the term Buddha Sasana very broadly. It could very well include monks, he added.
The pledge to protect the Buddha Sasana implies a pledge to protect the monks too, he said.
However, Prof.Tamil Maran of the Colombo University Faculty of Law, said that setting up special courts for monks would certainly need a constitutional amendment because it will violate the principle of quality of all before the law.
“You cannot have special courts for Buddhist monks without setting up similar courts for Hindu priests and Muslim Maulavis,” Maran pointed out.
“Additionally setting up special courts for Buddhist monks and not for the clergy of other religions, will violate the international covenants Sri Lanka has signed” Maran added.
As he was sentenced on June 14 Gnanasara Thera was taken aback. But only for a moment.
“Minutes later he was on his feet, ignoring the pleas of his lawyer as he launched into a familiar tirade that questioned both the magistrate’s integrity and his sentence.,” The Sunday Observer reported.
“In a court system which rarely convicts clergy, Thursday’s ruling was monumental, with legal experts claiming it may set precedence for similar cases in the future to ensure protection of witnesses and victims of crime,” the report added.
Recalling the incident in 2016 that led to the intimidation case, the Senior State Counsel said it was in the same Homagama court house that Gnanasara Thera had told Mrs.Eknaligoda: “Your husband is a Tiger, go beg on the streets”.
In a statement released after the jailing, Amnesty International called it 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,” said Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for South Asia, Omar Waraich.
Ven.Gnanasara Thera had earned notoriety when he agitated against the branding of food stuffs in the market as “halal”. The branding was done by the Muslim organization the All Ceylon Jamaithul Ulama.
He then took up the issue of Sri Lankan Muslim women wearing the Abaya, especially those who cover their face fully.
In 2014, the Thera’s incendiary speeches led to anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama, south of Colombo. A lot of property was damaged or destroyed as the police looked on.
Suspecting that the rioters had the full backing of the Rajapaksa government, Sri Lanka’s Muslims voted against Rajapaksa in the January 8, 2015 Presidential election. Lacking the support of the minorities, Rajapaksa had to bow out of office.