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One country, one racist agenda?

By Hilmy Ahamed

“The Constitution and Penal Code of Sri Lanka protects religious freedom and prohibits discrimination on the grounds of a person’s faith, and the law recognises the four religions of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity.” 

Muslims in Sri Lanka are dismayed at the President’s gazette notification appointing a 13-member Presidential Task Force on “one country, one law”. The task force has been vested with studying the implementation of the concept of “one country, one law” within Sri Lanka.

Said task force is chaired by the twice-convicted Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS). His appointment as head of a panel to review legal reforms is an insult to lawmakers, the legal fraternity, and all citizens of Sri Lanka. 

The Ministry of Justice, during the last two years, has drafted a number of legal amendments towards improving the justice system and delays in concluding cases in courts of law. What knowledge, expertise, or experience does this priest have to review judicial reforms that have been undertaken by the Justice Ministry under law reforms with the assistance of eminent legal luminaries? 

According to Minister of Justice Ali Sabry, over 50 laws have been reviewed by his ministry, and proposals for reforms have been completed. The legal fraternity, including the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), should protest the appointment of this priest who has no knowledge of the law, and has breached the law many times in the past.

The Presidential Commission of Inquiry (PCoI) that probed the Easter Sunday attacks of 2019 has, in Chapter 22 under the heading “Contributory Factors”, recommended that the Attorney General consider whether criminal proceedings can be instituted against Ven. Gnanasara Thera. It had also recommended that the BBS be proscribed, because its actions pose a threat to religious harmony. Observing that the Thera’s actions and hate speech contributed to Muslim youth taking up to extremism and joining Zahran Hashim, the PCoI said: “It was in evidence that Zahran used the speeches and actions of the Thera to rally Muslim youth to his extremist ideology.” 

With no respect for his own commission, this violent monk has been tasked to preside over a law commission by the President himself. 

With the end of the long protracted separatist war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in May 2009, there was a re-emergence of ethno-religious majoritarianism and anti-minority hatred, especially towards Muslims and Christians in Sri Lanka. Threats and intimidation became the norm when minorities tried to practice the fundamentals of their faith. 

Muslims have had to endure unprecedented violence from certain Buddhist extremist vigilante groups, mostly led by men in yellow robes. They are all crimes under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the country’s laws, but the State and the Police have chosen to ignore these crimes, perhaps out of reverence for the robe, emboldening these elements to continue their attacks overtly and covertly with impunity.

The first architect of this hate and terror campaign is none other than the controversial monk Ven. Gnanasara Thera. His anti-Muslim campaign resulted in violence in Aluthgama, Gintota, Digana, and Ampara, which cost lives and several billions in damages to the Muslim community.

The immunity offered to this violent monk by successive governments proved that there was no equality before the law when the perpetrators happened to be Buddhist priests and their cohorts. We see the “one country one law” rhetoric as an attempt to destroy the multi-cultural, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic fabric of Sri Lanka. Perhaps their objective is to obliterate plurality, and enforce and establish the identity of the majority on all citizens; in other words, assimilation. 

The appointment of the Presidential Task Force to create “one country, one law” comes after a February 2021 Cabinet decision to amend the country’s Muslim personal laws. Sri Lanka also has the Kandyan Law and the Thesawalamai Law, pertaining respectively to the upcountry Sinhalese and the Northern Tamil community. The four Muslims included in the committee are suspected to be “handpicked” by Gnanasara Thera. They are widely known to have been working with him to vilify the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama, the country’s foremost group of Islamic scholars. One of them was in the forefront to close down the Muslims’ only degree-awarding institute, which offers general degrees in addition to theological studies. 

These representatives belong to a particular sect, and in no way represent the Muslim community in its entirety. Since the election of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a small section of people belonging to this sect has been in the forefront in dividing Muslims on ideological grounds. 

This Thera, who is the unfortunate choice of the President to head the “one country one law” Commission to advise on law reform, has been convicted in courts of law multiple times. He has been fined Rs. 10,000 for drunk driving and causing bodily harm to a three-wheeler driver in a traffic accident, in which he, a Buddhist monk, was driving under the influence of liquor. In 2018, he was convicted on four charges for contempt of court and was given a six-year jail term, of which he served only nine months until former President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned him, in a move which was widely criticised. Gnanasara Thera was allowed to cause terror and hate with impunity against Muslims during the previous rule of President Mahinda Rajapaksa from 2005 to 2015. There are several other cases where he managed to buy time because of immunity offered by ruling politicians. 

The Muslim community has lodged over 150 police complaints in various Police stations across the country against this monk for many incidents of intimidation and violence. 

There is deep suspicion that Gnanasara Thera has been continuously used for political strategies in the run-up to elections in Sri Lanka. With the pressure exerted by Indian high level political visits, the 13th Amendment to the Constitution will be implemented to the letter in the near future. Therefore, the provincial council elections can be expected in early 2022 or before. There could be a renewed attempt to merge the North and the East, a subject which is deeply contentious in Sri Lanka.

The Gnanasara trump card is being used again. He has been given hours of air time on two state television networks, as well as another Government-friendly channel, to spew hate against the Muslims in which Allah (SWT) was blasphemed as the mastermind of terrorism. The political isolation of Muslims, and thereby winning Sinhala Buddhist votes, seems to be the strategy of the incumbent Government once again.

In the 2020 General Elections, the Muslims were deprived of any nomination by the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna, with only one Muslim (a friend of the President) being given nomination to contest the general elections in the Kandy District. The core campaign in the presidential race was about the threat to national security from Muslim terrorists. This campaign was carried out mostly through Buddhist temples spread across the country, and they succeeded in making the Buddhist majority believe in this yarn. 

They are now attempting the same by putting Gnanasara Thera on the pedestal to abolish Muslim personal laws and the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), creating the impression that Muslims don’t belong in the country.

With the 6.9 million votes they received, and the betrayal of democracy by six Muslim MPs, the President acquired the two-thirds majority that was needed to abolish the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which had a number of good governance legal provisions. The “wheeler dealing” of the Muslim MPs has also caused immense displeasure in fellow Buddhist countrymen who believe in social justice and democracy. 

There were huge expectations that President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa would steer the country to development and prosperity as the “Lee Kwan Yu of Sri Lanka”. Alas, people are disappointed that his efficient administration and direction during his tenure as Defence Secretary in the past has fizzled out.

Although this can be due to the pandemic and other economic challenges that have befallen the country, his total disregard of law and justice as seen by this task force and the persons appointed to it is simply not acceptable. The appointment of the most controversial monk to review and advise the Justice Department’s attempts at law reforms is a total blunder. 

As he has reversed many of his gazette notices, we pray wisdom will prevail and this gazette notification too would be withdrawn. Let us stand together for a just and equitable Sri Lanka that would see peace, development, and prosperity for all.

(The writer is the Chief Executive Officer of Young Asia Television)

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the writers, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.