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UNP silent on Gnanasara Thero’s pardon

UNP trying to hunt with the majority hounds and run with the minority rabbits.

By Arjuna Ranawana

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe/ PM’s Media

It is mystifying that the United National Party is yet to articulate its position on the release of the Sinhala Right-Wing demagogue Galagodaththe Gnanasara Thero from jail, through a Presidential pardon.

The UNP has neither publicly supported nor condemned the pardoning of this Monk, who has for over a decade been at the forefront of leading Sinhala Buddhist supremacist ideology.

Instead it remains silent.

That silence is deafening. This seeming inability to take a position on such a fundamentally important issue reveals a governing party that has tied itself into knots and has become immobile.

President Maithripala Sirisena has pardoned Ven. Gnanasara. It is also a known fact that Sirisena in looking for a possible second term is flailing in the dark, looking for a savior. He may be hoping that freeing the Thero would win him some votes.

One of the President’s senior staff told this columnist, “it will make some Sinhala Buddhists happy.”

But by pardoning a man who has been accused of repeatedly instigating mobs to attack minorities, particularly Muslims, Sirisena has legitimised anti-minority violence and hate-crime.

Sirisena’s narrow political interests
President Maitrhipala Sirisena meets Glagodaththe Gnanasara Thero and his Mother at the President’s residence on Thursday/ President’s Media Division

The President of the Methodist Church Bishop Asiri Perera correctly observes that the move was “for narrow political interest.”

In the past decade or so Gnanasara Thero has been publicly warning the authorities of Islamic extremism. After the Islamic state-inspired Easter Sunday attacks, and his release from jail, Gnanasara has become a Prophet.

But the UNF and Wickremesinghe cannot dump the entire responsibility on Sirisena.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) quite rightly pointed out that although it is the President who has granted the pardon “the wider government” must accept responsibility.

In a media statement immediately following Gnanasara’s release, CPA points out that the Minister of Buddha Sasana, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera had “earlier endorsed requests by religious and political third parties to issue the pardon, and numerous members of the government have spoken out and acted in support of it.”

“Accordingly, 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” the statement added.

At a time when communal tensions are high releasing a high-profile Sinhala Right wing activist such as Gnanasara is surely ill-advised and likely an incendiary act.

It is a time where there is widespread paranoia about Muslim Sri Lankans. They have faced many threats since the Easter Sunday attacks.

Anti Muslim paranoia at its highest
Mobs attacked Muslim-owned businesses in Minuwangoda destroying 28 shops and damaging nearly 65/ Pathum Dhananjaya RepublicNext

One such instance is of a Muslim family involved in the textile business who are currently in protective custody following a threat from a mob that accused them of having for sale cloth which seemed to depict the robes of a Buddhist monk.

Police inaction in the face of anti-Muslim mobs is legion. The Human Rights Council is the latest body to fault the police in this regard after the anti-Muslim violence in the Kurunegala and Gampaha areas which erupted earlier this month. The HRC has said that there was evidence that the Police watched as the mobs rampaged.

In an egregious case police have arrested a wealthy Obstetric Surgeon whom the Nationalist Sinhala daily Divaina has accused of sterilizing “thousands of Sinhala Buddhist women” without evidence or complainants. Professor Hemantha Senanayake Head of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Colombo calls the accusation “implausible.”

At the same time the Minuwangoda police have failed to arrest the Deputy Leader of the Pivithuru Hela Urumaya, Madhumadava Aravinda whose role in inciting the May 13 riots in that town is clearly gathering evidence.

There is great disquiet amongst the legal fraternity about the release of Gnanasara.

As the CPA points out the pardon “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” it adds.

Methodist Bishop Perera did not mince his words. The pardon he said is “direct ridicule hurled against the independence of the judiciary carried out by the executive of this country. Such acts of the executive of our country are repeatedly pushing peace-loving citizens to utter frustration.”

No wonder Justice Minister Thalatha Athukorale “is incensed. She threw a fit,” multiple sources in the government said. Athukorale had gone up to Wickremesinghe and demanded that something be done. But the Prime Minister had demurred and said the government would allow the pardon to go ahead.

The action has deeply affected the minority communities.

The Tamil National Alliance which has stood by Wickremesinghe through No-Confidence Motions and other travails says “it makes the minorities in the country feel that they are no longer safe.” The alliance also accused the government of allowing majoritarianism “to take to a new level.”

Ranil admits people have lost faith in politicians and parties
On Saturday the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe met leading Civil Society figures/ PMD handout

On Saturday Wickremesinghe met with leading Civil Society figures. They were Dambara Amila Nayaka Thera, Dr. Wickremabahu Karunaratne, Dr. Paikaisothy Saravanamuttu, Dr. Jehan Perera, Prof. Chandraguptha Thenuwara, Saman Rathnapriya and Raja Uswetakeyiyawa.

All powerful folk who had thrown their weight behind the Yahapalanaya idea at great personal risk.

At the meeting, Wickremesinghe admitted that his government is aware that “a lot of people have lost their confidence not only in the government but in the political system, we have to win your trust back not only in the way we do things also in the measures we take and the results you see on the ground. Party politics have become a dirty word today to many of our average voters.”

When the participants addressed the Gnanasara issue Wickremesinghe had implied that it was up to civil society to take action.

So why has the UNP not addressed the Gnanasara issue head on?

If Wickremesinghe thinks that it will win him support from the Sinhala Buddhist majority, he is wrong. That vote is pretty firmly secured by the Podu Jana Peramuna. Political actors such as the Sinhala Right-Wing parties led by Udaya Gammanpila and Wimal Weerawansha ensure that.

On the flip side the UNP’s silence has spread disquiet among its minority allies.

In an interview with the Sunday Observer published yesterday (26) UNP stalwart Minister Malik Samarawickrama says the UNP is a “democratic party and will choose a Presidential candidate” through a democratic process.

So is the decision to remain non-committal over the Gnanasara pardon also a democratic one? Has a majority of the party-members or its leadership decided this is the best way?

Or is it that the party leader Premier Wickremesinghe has decided on his own and his word is law.

It is also a cowardly decision. The UNP wants to hunt with the Gnanasara hounds and run with the minority Rabbits.

Wickremesinghe may have a vast vision for Sri Lanka’s future. But his small mind is killing the little hope there is of saving this nation that is fast hurtling towards an undemocratic one!