by Anura Gunasekera
Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, pardoned after serving one and half years of a six-year rigorous imprisonment sentence for Contempt of Court, has been appointed the Chairman of a Presidential Task Force, mandated to study the implementation of the “One Country, One Law” concept, as well as to examine amendments prepared by the Ministry of Justice in furtherance of this rather fluid hypothesis, and to submit amendments to the latter as appropriate.
Basically, a convicted felon has been assigned the responsibility for evaluating the competence of a legal system, which was earlier responsible, after due process, for convicting him. The arbitrariness, the ridiculousness of the very notion is such that at first the news was perceived as a bad joke circulating in social media.
By extension of that patently absurd determination, it would then seem quite logical to appoint Lohan Ratwatte, presently under investigation for threatening select Tamil prisoners with death at gun-point, as the chairman of a committee to study and recommend prison reforms, or ” Wele Suda”, currently in jail for drug trafficking, as head of a task force to advise law enforcement bodies on the prevention of drug smuggling.
An appointment to any important position is, generally if not invariably, preceded by an evaluation of the curriculum vitae of the proposed appointee. The priest from Galagoda first gained prominence as the head of the “Bodu Bala Sena” (BBS), a body inaugurated in 2012 and publicly provided patronage by the then Defence Secretary and now President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Since then, the cleric has been both vocally and physically involved in anti-minority (read Muslim) agitation. Most prominent was his alleged involvement in inciting anti-Muslim violence in Beruwala and Aluthgama in 2014, which resulted in four fatalities, injuries to dozens and the destruction of a large number of Muslim owned establishments. In March 2018, in Teldeniya and Digana, mobs of Sinhala Buddhists ramapaged, unchecked for over a week, destroying Muslim owned property, as well as damaging four mosques. The reported presence of Gnanasara in the area during this period is unlikely to have been accidental.
In June 2018 this cleric was sentenced to a six-month term and fined Rs 50,000 for threatening, in court premises, Sandhya Ekneligoda, wife (or widow) of Prageeth Ekneligoda, a critic of the then Rajapaksa government, who has been missing since 2010. In the same year he was found guilty of contempt of court by the Sri Lanka Court of Appeal but, in 2019, whilst serving the decreed six-year term, pardoned by former President Sirisena, in a politically expedient move obviously driven by the latter’s desire to curry favour with the Buddhist majority.
In between the above mentioned episodes, this renegade, racist monk has achieved both high visibility and notoriety for his belligerent anti Muslim sentiment, expressed on widely circulated video and U-tube interviews, discussions, press briefings and public speeches. He has elevated hate-speech and anti-minority sentiment to a completely new and diabolical level. He was also responsible, a couple of years ago, for inviting and hosting in this country, Ashin Wirathu of Myanmar, another virulent racist in saffron robes, accused of inciting bloody pogroms against Muslims citizens of his country, especially the Rohingiya refugees.
On September 20, 2000, Gnanasara Thero was found guilty by the Colombo 12 Traffic Courts, in a hit-and-run incident which caused injuries to two people. Pleading guilty to nine charges, which included driving under the influence of liquor, speeding, not possessing a valid license and failing to report an accident, he was fined Rs 12,000.00; not an unusual episode in the case of an irresponsible layman but quite extraordinary for a Buddhaputhra.
The above, briefly, is the resume’ of the man selected by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, as Chair of the Task Force to deliberate and pass judgment on legal reforms advocated by the Ministry of Justice!
With the military threat from the LTTE extinguished, despite the subsequent simmering discontent within the Northern Tamil population, the Rajapaksa government needed a different enemy to present to the Sinhala-Buddhist polity, diverting focus from other more urgent issues of governance, and to maintain the support of that polity which has always responded enthusiastically to anti-minority sentiment. Whilst the last Sinhala-Muslim riots of significance, in 1915, have already passed in to history, the animus was rekindled in the 1990s by another evangelical Buddhist preacher, Gangodawila Soma Thero, who was successful in convincing a significant segment of the Sinhala-Buddhist society that the existential danger that Muslims posed to the majority community was even greater than the LTTE peril. He was ably supported by present MP, Champika Ranawaka, in his then avatar as the leader of the Sihala Urumaya.
The Gnanasara-led BBS campaign against the Muslim polity commenced in 2013 with agitation against the “Halal” food convention, a matter which, till then, had been of no consequence in the Sinhala – Buddhist mindset. Soon thereafter, the Nugegoda branch of the “Fashion Bug” chain, a Muslim owned clothing establishment, was burnt down by a mob, reportedly led by Buddhist monks. Since then, till 2019, there have been several acts of violence perpetrated against the Muslim community in various parts of the island.
In a public interview (Hiru TV- 28/05/19) Galgoda Gnanasara, unapologetically, steadfastly, cited the Lord Buddha as the patron of his activism and by means of convoluted logic, attributing his belligerent philosophy to the teachings of the Buddha. As a more recent forerunner and advocate of his brand of nationalism, he has repeatedly cited (Lankan News- 12/08/20) Anagarika Dharmapala who has, historically, been ascribed an active role, either rightly or wrongly, in the anti-Muslim riots of 1915.
In this context the question immediately asks itself; how is it possible for an individual with an avowed, immoderate personal philosophy and a majority-centric public political agenda, function as the chair of an ostensibly impartial body, tasked to ensure the unbiased implementation of law; in short, to ensure just rule for all citizens, irrespective of gender, race and religious or political orientation?
Of course, such atrocious anomalies are not uncommon in this country; “Gonawela Sunil”, alleged murderer and convicted rapist, was released under a general pardon issued by President JR Jayewardene and subsequently made an All Island Justice of the Peace. ” Sotthi Upali”, a well known criminal and a close associate of then minister Sirisena Cooray was appointed a reserve Sub-inspector. “Beddegane Sanjeewa”, an underworld operator linked to several murders was a key member of the Presidential Security Division during Chandrika Kumaratunge’s term.
In another bizarre example of Presidential clemency, apart from the pardoning of Galagoda Gnanasara, in his final week in office, Sirisena outraged civil society by pardoning Jude Jayamaha, then facing a death sentence for murder. More recently, former army staff sergeant, Sunil Ratnayake, under sentence of death- affirmed by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka- for the murder in 2000, of eight Tamil civilians including three children, one aged five, was pardoned by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa in 2020, in his very first exercise of this sacred constitutional right. This was followed a few months later, not unexpectedly, by a similar pardon to death row inmate Duminda Silva, former MP and Supervising MP of the Ministry of Defence. That verdict too had been upheld by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka . Soon thereafter, in an extension of the same aberrant logic and contempt for the country’s judicial system and decent public opinion, Silva the felon was appointed Chairman of the National Housing Authority.
A Presidential pardon, according to article 34(1) of the Constitution, is preceded by a report by the judge (or judges) who tried the case in question, the Attorney General’s commentary on the report and, lastly, the recommendation of the Minister of Justice. Presumably, all responsible parties, intent on rectifying miscarriages of justice, were unanimous in their support of all the cases mentioned above!
The trend of extending political patronage and high profile positions to convicted criminals, institutionalizing the practice as an ancillary to governance, commenced with the J.R. Jayewardene regime. However, whilst Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara’s appointment emulates a tradition of unscrupulous governance, the difference is that none of the other felons cited above, after release, were assigned positions of national importance.
None, apart from Duminda Silva, enjoyed significant political or public visibility prior to their convictions. They were simply professional murderers, thieves, extortionists, drug dealers, habitual rapists or what have you, plying their respective trades and indulging their appetites, largely under the public radar and when called for, carrying out illegal orders of their political masters.
As for the Task Force itself, the absence of Tamil, and Christian (reportedly) representation relegates those minorities to irrelevance. Obviously, in the minds of the government, Tamils and Christians either do not merit a voice or have no grievances, whilst a group deliberating crucial questions of law is represented only by two lawyers. Nor is there a female voice, suggesting that gender issues, if any, will be decided by men only.
Ours is a country in which the law is administered with a blatant lack of equity; convicted murderers walk free, a drunken politician threatens helpless inmates with death without fear of legal consequences and all corruption cases filed against high profile ruling party politicians, and murder cases filed against prominent armed forces personnel, are withdrawn by the Attorney General. But the police question teenager Baghaya Abeyratne for exposing the degradation of the Sinharaja, Sandhya Ekneligoda is still seeking justice a decade after her husband’s disappearance whilst in Navy custody, and the cases of over 20 murdered journalists, from Richard de Zoysa in 1990 to Lasantha Wickramatunga in 2009, remain unsolved. In this scenario, what value does this sanctimonious ” One Country- One Law” carry?
Given the violent, sullied background of the Chairman, with his recently stated intent of using the Task Force to advance the cause of the BBS- the vehicle for his ethno-centric activism- and the blatantly unequal representation and amorphous remit of the Force itself, the project becomes a parody of its self-consciously virtuous title.
In the Orwellian Dystopia that is Sri Lanka today, in which Big Brother and the family run the country as a personal fiefdom and the absurd is portrayed as the reality, and the truth is routinely challenged as being a threat to both the ruling order and national security, it is perfectly rational for Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara to head a force designed to ensure equal justice to all. Whilst most of the world is moving towards 2022, as long as the present regime lasts we are condemned to imprisonment in “1984”.