Better late than never | Daily News

Better late than never

Often, the calibre of a government is tested by the manner in which it faces challenges and right now, the government of National Unity is confronted with many. Causing the most concern are the floods and landslides that have led to hundreds of deaths with thousands more displaced.

As the government and its agencies struggle to cope with the ongoing natural disaster, questions have been asked about its preparedness for such an eventuality. While the opposition will attempt to utilise every opportunity that presents itself for political gain, it goes without saying that the government cannot be blamed for natural disasters. However, where it can be found fault with, is in its response to the crisis- especially if it is found wanting.

Even as most ministers and agencies of the government were busy grappling with this issue, another matter was also earning the attention of government authorities: the action of the extremist Buddhist organisation, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and its firebrand General Secretary, Venerable Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera.

That Venerable Gnanasara Thera was a rabble-rouser is well known and the BBS had been in an existence since 2004. However, it was during the tenure of the Rajapaksa administration that it first grabbed national headlines. Indeed, although formed in 2004, it was not a very active organisation at the height of the battle against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). It was only after the conclusion of the Eelam war that the BBS and Venerable Gnanasara Thera began their campaign in earnest.

Throughout, the BBS’s theme has been that Sinhalese Buddhists are being marginalised. It has focussed its attentions mostly on the Muslim community and Islam although other communities and religions have also been targets from time to time. Neither the BBS nor Venerable Gnanasara Thera seems concerned about the fact that theirs is a racist campaign intent on creating communal disharmony- in fact, they appear to thrive on it.

In 2012, the BBS was creating unrest in the country, carrying out various campaigns against other communities and religions, so much so that it attracted the attention of the then government. As a result, President Mahinda Rajapaksa and government ministers met with the BBS in January 2013. After the meeting, the President issued a statement which urged the BBS and other monks to avoid conflicts with other religious communities. A month later, the BBS also formally met with the United National Party (UNP), which was then in the opposition.

Muslim communities

Despite these meetings, the BBS did not abate its campaigns. In February 2013 the BBS started a campaign against the halal certifying system in the country and the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) which carried out the certification, leading to the government announcing changes to the process of halal certification. The BBS claimed its first victory.

The BBS next hit national headlines in June 2014. Seizing on an incident at Dharga Town in Aluthgama in the Kalutara district, Venerable Gnanasara Thera made several inflammatory speeches in Aluthgama, Beruwela and Dharga Town, all of which have sizeable Muslim communities.

That led to widespread rioting that left at least four people dead and 80 injured. Hundreds were made homeless following attacks on homes, shops, factories, mosques and a nursery.

An estimated 10,000 people, both Muslims and Sinhalese, were displaced by the riots. The BBS denied any involvement in the riots and was not charged for inciting racial hatred.

At the time, there was the criticism of Rajapaksa and his government for not cracking down on the activities of the BBS and on Venerable Gnanasara Thera in particular. The monk was acting with impunity, making a mockery of the law in staging his protests and campaigns- without any consequences for his actions.

This was the time the country was inching towards a presidential election. No doubt Rajapaksa was aware of the potential political consequences of such a course of action. Never being popular among the minority communities in the country, Rajapaksa relied heavily on the Sinhala Buddhist vote as his political base, a tactic that served him well in the 2010 presidential election.

Therefore he did not wish to be seen as being harsh on the BBS, an organisation that claimed to ‘save’ Sinhalese and Buddhists. In hindsight though, it was a costly error in political strategy. In the absence of a government crackdown, the BBS stepped up its rhetoric against the minorities which completely alienated them from Rajapaksa.

The results of the 2015 presidential election show that, outside of the North and East, Rajapaksa did firmly well in other areas. However, the swing against him in the North and East was so massive that it completely offset the victories in the rest of the country and handed President Sirisena a comfortable victory by almost a half a million votes.

Since the advent of the National Unity government, it has not been all plain sailing for the BBS and Venerable Gnanasara Thera. The monk has been charged, produced in court and remanded. In May 2015, he was arrested for defying a court order and staging a protest but was released on bail shortly afterwards.

In January 2016, the Homagama Magistrate ordered Police to arrest and produce Venerable Gnanasara Thera before the court. The Magistrate issued the order against the monk on three charges, including obstruction of court proceedings after he defamed the court by allegedly threatening Sandhya Ekneligoda, the wife of missing journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, whose case was being heard in the court. Venerable Gnanasara Thera was arrested and remanded but that led to more demonstrations and protests outside the court.

Racially inflammatory statements

More recently, in April and May this year, the BBS has again stepped up its campaign against minorities, leading to a spate of attacks, mostly on the Muslim community and mosques by the BBS and its followers. In parallel, Venerable Gnanasara Thera has been making racially inflammatory statements.

Last week, the courts issued an arrest warrant on Venerable Gnanasara Thera. The Thera has now gone into hiding and the government has announced that several Police teams are on a manhunt for him. That has however not deterred Venerable Gnanasara Thera from speaking out. Providing a newspaper interview purportedly from his hideout, he claimed that his life was under threat and that there was a plan to assassinate him after his arrest. He went on to make more inflammatory statements in the interview, mostly against Islam and the Muslim community.

While there is general agreement within the government that Venerable Gnanasara Thera must face the consequences of his actions and that the BBS must be subjected to the rule of law, ministers are also very aware of the politically sensitive nature of the issue. If the matter is mishandled- or indeed, perceived by the public to be mishandled - it could face a backlash from the majority community. That would only play into the hands of the opposition which is hell bent on courting the majority community on a nationalist agenda anyway.

On the other hand, to ignore the BBS and the antics of Venerable Gnanasara Thera would only aid and abet the creation of more racial tension and disharmony in the country. Indeed, if Sri Lanka is perceived to be a country that is “anti-Islam”, it could even potentially be a breeding ground for Islamic terrorism, which the country has been spared of thus far.

The government is conscious of the sensitivity of all this but is at the same time determined that it should not create conditions that encourage unrest in a particular community, as it happened with disaffected Tamil youth forty years ago. Therefore it has decided that the BBS and Venerable Gnanasara Thera should be dealt with according to the letter of the law- and is bracing itself for the consequences should the monk be arrested.

It is the correct course of action- and it is a pity that such action was not taken years ago when this matter could have been nipped in the bud and the BBS would not have grown into the enfant terrible it is today. 

 


 

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