Pardoning Gnanasara Thero will send out a dangerous message By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham

When the Colombo High Court sent the Buddhist monk and general secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero to prison two months ago, it was expected that intense efforts would be made to get him out as soon as possible.

The Chief Prelates of Sri Lanka’s three main Buddhist Chapters have jointly written to President Ranil Wickremesinghe to pardon him and release him on the occasion of the Vesak festival. The day after this news was published, it was also reported that Gnanasara Thero’s name was not in the list of prisoners to be released on the occasion of Vesak. So it doesn’t seem possible for him to come out soon.

If someone else had been the President, perhaps Gnanasara Thero would have been released from prison last week. But it seems unlikely that the current President will show any urgency in this matter. During the reign of the Rajapaksas, Gnanasara criticized Wickramasinghe in words that cannot be put in writing.

Earlier a request for pardon and release of Gnanasara Thero was made by a state minister within days of his imprisonment. But his appeal did not receive much attention in the public domain.

It can be hoped that many people would not have failed to consider the views expressed by the Mahanayake Theros about Gnanasara Thero in the letter written to the President in the context of public opinion about him.

The Mahanayake Theros mentioned in the letter that Gnanasara Thero raised his voice for the Sinhalese Buddhist nation and informed the security forces about extremists in the country.

“He acted as the chairman of the Presidential Task Force set up to draft an Act to implement a common legal system – the One Country, One Law’ concept. He presented valuable recommendations to the government and worked with a good understanding of national unity. He played an important role in certain Sinhalese nationalist organizations and worked to win the hearts of society and strived for social cohesion,” Chief Prelates said in the letter.

This is not the first time Gnanasara Thero had gone to jail. He trespassed into the Homagama Magistrate’s Court eight years ago when the trial of officers of the Military Intelligence Unit for allegedly abducting journalist Prakeeth Egnelikoda was going on.

After that incident, in August 2018, the Court of Appeal sentenced him to 6 years in prison for contempt of court. The Supreme Court rejected his appeal against the verdict.

However, nine months later, on May 21, 2019, the then President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Gnanasara Thero and he was released from prison exactly a month after the Easter Sunday bombings. The former President did not give any reason for his release.

The pardon granted by the President drew strong condemnation from human rights groups, civil society and legal organizations. Tamil National Alliance (TNA) Member of Parliament M.A. Sumanthiran described that the pardon had taken majoritarianism to ‘another level.’

As far as President Sirisena is concerned, one doesn’t know if he thought that pardoning Gnanasara Thero was a great service to the Sinhalese Buddhist community.

Next, on March 28th this year, the Colombo High Court sentenced Gnanasara Thero to four years of rigorous imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 rupees in a case filed against him for denigrate Islam and the Muslim community at a press conference held in a famous Buddhist Temple in Kurunegala district in 2016. The judge rejected his lawyer’s plea to release him on bail citing illness.

Former President Sirisena pardoned Gnanasara Thero nine months after his first imprisonment. But now when he went to jail for the second time, the Mahanayake Theros are appealing to the President to release him even before two months have not passed.

What is the message the Chief Prelates are conveying through that request? Is it that it is proper to allow those who carry out virulent campaigns that incite violence against minority communities and insult other religions to go unpunished just because they wear a saffron robe?

In Sri Lanka, there have been several Buddhist monks who have held negative views against minority communities and engaged in inciting violence. They could not have acted so brazenly without a strong political backing. The Mahanayakas were not unaware that the conduct of these monks brought the Maha Sangha into disrepute.

The Mahanayakas could not stop a substantial section of the monks from behaving completely contrary to Buddhist principles and getting involved in politics.

Many a Buddhist monk has been at the forefront of communal violence in Sri Lanka. Hate against the minorities is not something new in the country. It is an obnoxious trend that has grown parallel with the evolution of ethnic majoritarian politics in modern Sri Lanka.

If it is to be prevented, the Sinhalese polity should recognize the legitimate political aspirations of the minority communities and come forward to find an amicable political solution to the national ethnic problem. But even after the end of three decades of civil war that brought havoc to the country, the Sinhalese polity has not understood the urgency for such a solution. There are no progressive forces in the South that can carry out healthy political activities to make the Sinhalese people aware of that need.

Last week’s events in the North and the South’s of the end of the war highlight the deepening of the ethnic divide.

After the end of the Civil War, racist forces of the South needed a new ethnic enemy to continue their regressive politics. Finding that enemy in the Muslim community, the racist forces brought Gnanasara Thero to the fore to launch fanatical propaganda campaigns.

There is no need to revisit here the disasters caused by sectarianism which escalated twelve years ago on the steps of the Colombo BMICH with the inaugural convention of the BBS. The politics of putting the Sinhalese Buddhist community into a siege mentality by creating a false impression that there is a threat to the Sinhala race and Buddhism from the Muslim community was carried out in full swing.

Former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent comment in his book that the competition between the interests of the Sinhalese Buddhists and the interests of all the non-Singhalese and non-Buddhists brought him to power is a telling admission of the Rajapaksas’ racist approach to returning to power.

Gnanasara Thero had made a huge contribution to it. So he was able to say anything without fear of the law during the Rajapaksa regime.

One cannot help but ask the question whether Gnanasara Thero would have met the present fate if there had not been a regime change. Gnanasara Thero was so useful to the Rajapaksas that he was appointed as the head of the Presidential Task Force entrusted with drafting a law to implement a common law for the entire country.

Buddhist monks have long had the full patronage of the political elite, engaging in activities that may tarnish the principles of Buddhism and the Maha Sangha.

A few months ago, in Batticaloa, the Sri Mangalaramaya Buddhist Temple chief priest stood in the middle of the road and shouted aggressively in front of several police officers that he would cut the Tamils living in southern Lanka into pieces. But someone should have warned him about the possible consequences. He released a video the next day or so apologizing for his actions.

But his tirade is not simply to be forgotten with a mere apology. How would the law enforcement agencies have treated a clergyman of another religion if he had done the same? What would the law have done to him?

If Sri Lankan society does not separate religion from politics, the country has no future. But it is a matter of great concern that conditions in Sri Lanka do not offer any hope for that.