Fast unto ‘unrest’? | Daily News

Fast unto ‘unrest’?

The politics of religion and terrorism came to the fore this week as the fallout from the Easter Sunday bombings continues to cast a shadow over the nation, more than a month after the attacks that claimed over two hundred and fifty lives.

Events began to gather momentum after controversial parliamentarian Venerable Athuraliye Rathana Thera demanded the removal of Western Province Governor Azath Salley, Eastern Province Governor M. L. A. M. Hizbullah and Minister of Industry and Commerce Rishard Bathiudeen and also demanded an ‘independent’ inquiry into the conduct of a doctor based at the Kurunegala Hospital, Dr. Seigu Shihabdeen Mohamed Shafi.

Venerable Rathana Thera had always been controversial in his conduct, beginning his politics with the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) but aligning himself with the United National Party (UNP) at the 2015 general election, just as another JHU stalwart Patali Champika Ranawaka did. The Venerable Thera was nominated to Parliament in 2015 from the National List by the UNP but, unlike Ranawaka, has now chosen to function as an ‘independent’ parliamentarian.

When Venerable Rathana Thera made his demands, they were directed at President Maithripala Sirisena who is, in effect, the appointing authority for both governors and Minister Bathiudeen. The monk issued a deadline and warned that if his demands were not met, he would take ‘drastic’ action.

Monk’s demands

The deadline imposed by Venerable Rathana Thera passed and President Sirisena was also overseas around the same time, attending the inauguration of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as a guest of the government of India. Asked for a reaction to the monk’s demands, Minister Bathiudeen was lukewarm in his response, stating he saw no reason to resign as he had not been found guilty.

That is when Venerable Rathana Thera decided to respond by staging a ‘fast unto death’ opposite the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. The fact that the fast was being staged by a Buddhist monk, the location of the fast and the current socio-political climate in the country all contributed to the protest becoming a focal point of interest, appealing to the emotions of the general public which were running high in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks.

In a curious twist, Batticaloa district Tamil National Alliance (TNA) parliamentarian S. Viyalendran also began a fast at Gandhi Park in Batticaloa in support of Venerable Rathana Thera’s protest. It will be recalled that Viyalendran was the sole TNA MP that defected during the constitutional crisis in October 2018, when he pledged his support to the appointment of Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister.

This led to speculation that Venerable Rathana Thera’s campaign had the blessings of the Joint Opposition. In any event, opposition parliamentarians were issuing statements supporting the monk’s demands and Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) parliamentarian S. B. Dissanayake visited the monk. Also visiting was Venerable Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thera, recently released from prison following a presidential pardon.

The emotive nature of Venerable Rathana Thera’s campaign became apparent as his fast continued and protests began to emerge in Kandy and other areas in his support. What was worrying was that, while the monk’s campaign was non-violent in nature, the protests that it spawned didn’t appear to be so, with protestors chanting racist slogans directed at the Muslim community and urging violence against them.

Venerable Rathana Thera was also visited by His Eminence Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith. The Cardinal, the spiritual leader of the Catholic community in the country, was widely commended for his composure and compassion and his ability to steer clear of politics in the wake of the Easter bombings. As such, his visit to the fasting monk who was a politician came as a surprise.

Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera, never one to hide his sentiments, voiced his concerns over the Cardinal’s visit to the fasting monk. Taking to social media, Minister Samaraweera tweeted: “Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith fanning the flames of hatred and communalism by visiting fasting robed MP Rathana. Vatican, Take Note!” The Minister had recently been criticised for stating that Sri Lanka was ‘not a Sinhala Buddhist country’ but a country that belonged to all Sri Lankans, drew similar flak for his post.

Opposition parliamentarian Wimal Weerawansa was quick to ask whether Minister Samaraweera’s views was the official stance of the government. The Archdiocese of Colombo also responded to the Minister’s post. “We strongly voice our opposition to Minister Samaraweera who criticized the efforts of religious harmony advocated by the Cardinal by his imprudent twitter message,” it said in a statement.

Public comments

The Mahanayake Theras of the Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters also wrote to the government urging a quick resolution of the issue. A letter from the two prelates, Most Venerable Thibbatuwawe Sumangala and Warakagoda Gnanarathana Theras urged the President and the Prime Minister to resolve the demands of Venerable Rathana Thera before his health condition deteriorated. Doctors attending to the monk, however, had noted that despite his fast, his health remained stable.

Meanwhile, though the opposition was quick to make observations and criticise the government over Venerable Rathana Thera’s protest, the government maintained a studious silence on the issue. It was able to do so because the monk’s demands were directed at President Sirisena, who also refrained from making public comments regarding the fast.

The first breakthrough in what was now becoming a tense political stand-off emerged on Monday. It was announced by the Presidential Media Division that Governors Hizbullah and Salley had submitted their resignations to President Sirisena who had accepted them.

Governor of the Central Province, Maithri Guneratne was at hand in Kandy to convey the news personally to the fasting Venerable Rathana Thera. Following this, Venerable Rathana Thera deliberated for a short while before deciding to call off his fast, even though his demand for the removal of Minister Bathiudeen had not been met at the time. He was then taken to the Kandy Hospital to assess his health status.

Speaking to media outside the Presidential Secretariat shortly after tendering his resignation, Hizbullah stated that they took the decision to safeguard the Muslim community as there were signs the fast launched by Venerable Rathana Thera could be used by undesirable elements to endanger the safety of Muslims throughout the country. Hizbullah took pains to state that he and Salley were ready to face any probe by law enforcement agencies and was confident that they would be vindicated.

Asked about the fate of Minister Bathiudeen, Hizbullah stated that as he was a Cabinet minister, a decision regarding him needed to be taken by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. However, more drama was to follow later that day, with all Muslim ministers, including the Cabinet, state and deputy ministers resigning from their portfolios. Their resignations followed a series of discussions with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe at Temple Trees earlier that day.

Cabinet ministers Kabir Hashim, Rauff Hakeem, M. H. A. Haleem and Rishard Bathiudeen, State Ministers Faizal Cassim, H. M. M. Harees, Ameer Ali Shihabdeen and Seyed Ali Zahir Moulana and Deputy Minister Abdullah Maharoof were among those who stepped down from their portfolios.

Allegations of misconduct

Ministers who resigned held a news briefing to explain their decision. They reiterated they would continue to support the government as backbench parliamentarians but were requesting that inquiries against any allegations of misconduct against any of them expedited and completed within a month.

“Investigations should be conducted by the Criminal Investigations Department (CID) against the allegations against Muslim politicians. We do not believe that we could expect a reasonable solution to this issue from a Parliamentary Select Committee. Only the CID can do that,” Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) leader Rauff Hakeem said.

The resigning ministers noted that an attempt was being made to harass and intimidate Muslims in the wake of the Easter attacks and their resignations should facilitate impartial investigations. “Some people wanted to create a bloodbath using this issue,” UNP General Secretary Kabir Hashim pointed out.

The resignations of Muslim ministers and their announcement that they would continue to support the government put paid to speculation that the withdrawal of support from Muslim parliamentarians would cost the government its ability to command a working majority in Parliament in tandem with the TNA.

In fact, social media was rife with posts suggesting that Venerable Rathana Thera’s fast was now snowballing into a major political crisis and that the fall of the government was imminent if Bathiudeen was removed from his ministerial post.

However, that was not to be. The emerging crisis was nipped in the bud and in fact, it brought the disparate Muslim politicians of the UNP, the SLMC, Bathiudeen’s All Ceylon Makkal Congress (ACMC) and even SLFP seniors such as A. H. M. Fowzie to adopt a common stance and stand with the government.

In what was a postscript to the saga, President Sirisena on Tuesday appointed yet another Muslim and a former UNP Mayor of Colombo, A. J. M. Muzammil as the new Governor of the Western Province. A special three-member committee comprising senior police officers has also been appointed to receive complaints against former governors Salley and Hizbullah, and former minister Bathiudeen in keeping with their requests.

The political theatre that was enacted last week is a reflection of the dynamic state of religious and political unrest the country is in at present. While this crisis may appear to have resolved at least for now, it is more than likely that dramas of a similar nature will continue to be staged in the coming months- quite possibly until presidential elections are held later this year.



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