Gnanasara Thero attends Saudi National Day celebrations 2022

By Kassapa 

Sri Lankans in recent years have become used to the absurd becoming the normal: a politician rejected by the people at the last election and sent home becoming President, a person found guilty of violating fundamental rights becoming Police chief and an illegal immigrant becoming a State Minister of Tourism.

Yet, even Sri Lankans must have limits to their levels of patience. So, when the Mahanayake theros of the four chapters, no less, write in unison to the President asking him to pardon Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara thero, they can be pardoned if they begin to wonder if the entire nation is losing its collective marbles?

Gnanasara thero is currently in prison for making remarks that incite religious and racial hatred relating to the Kuragala Vihara some years ago. He hasn’t exhausted the appeal processes available to him in this case. Instead, the four chief prelates are asking for an ‘early release.’

It is not that Gnanasara thero is the epitome of peace and compassion and the remarks in question were a ‘one off’ incident totally out of character for him. He is in fact, a serial offender.

Gnanasara thero was previously imprisoned for contempt of court. That was when he lashed out at the Homagama Magistrate’s Court against the presiding judge when matters related to the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda were being heard. The stipulated procedure was followed and the monk was sent to several years in prison for contempt of court.

That did not deter him. Then President Maithripala Sirisena, in one of his many misguided decisions and as one of his final acts as President, pardoned him. There was more reason for celebration for Gnanasara thero soon after: Gotabaya Rajapaksa who succeeded Sirisena in making a mess of the country appointed Gnanasara thero to head a special task force on ‘One Country, One Law’! The irony was not lost on most observers.

To be fair, it is not that Gnanasara thero offended thereafter. The remarks at Kuragala had already been uttered by then. Nevertheless, being the learned Buddhist monk that he is, he must know that ‘karma’ is an unrelenting force that cannot be avoided.

The appeal by the Mahanayake theros is absurd for several reasons. That is why it is being ridiculed widely. As a result, what they have said also brings into disrepute the religious institutions they represent.

They ask Gnanasara thero to be pardoned because they claim he has worked towards ‘national unity’! The most venerable Mahanayake theros must surely know that the evidence is quite to the contrary. Gnanasara thero has been a rallying point for communalist forces in the country advocating hatred particularly against the Muslim community. His organisation, ‘Bodu Bala Sena’ (BBS) was censured by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into the Easter day attacks and it was recommended that it be banned because it identified the BBS as being a reason for creating a climate that fostered Islamic extremism.

The BBS headed by Gnanasara thero was at the forefront of anti-Muslim sentiment in the lead up to the 2019 presidential election, in the aftermath of the Easter attacks. They spoke brazenly about an imaginary- and medically impossible- campaign to sterilise Sinhalese mothers, persecuting a Muslim doctor, Dr. Shihabdeen Shafi- who was reinstated only recently and who is yet to be compensated for the trauma and agony he and his family was put through. Thes are indeed Gnanasara thero’s contributions to religious harmony!     

One has to only browse Gnanasara thero’s speeches available on the internet to realise that his public conduct in matters of religious sensitivity leaves much to be desired. There are many incidents where he can be seen as a disruptive element, inciting hatred towards the Muslim community, often claiming to be seeking “justice” for Sinhala Buddhists in his own warped way.

Of particular note are the speeches in Dharga town in the Kalutara district. These led to the race riots there that left four dead, hundreds injured and many properties damaged. The language he resorts to is vitriolic. He heaps hatred on communities without any consideration for its consequences.   The manner in which the monk behaves is uncouth at best, criminal at worst and is unbecoming of a civilian with average intelligence, let alone a person donning saffron robes.

The Mahanayake theros also cite Gnanasara thero’s role in the ‘One Country, One Law’ task force. While he was appointed to head that team, nothing of substance has emerged from this exercise and it has no achievements to showcase. Like many of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s actions, this was also a whim he acted on, perhaps to please the monk whose communal undertones in the messages he was delivering contributed to Rajapaksa’s landslide victory in 2019.

If the Mahanayake theros’ request is acquiesced to and Gnanasara thero is indeed pardoned, what is the message that will be sent to the public? Here is a racist rabble rouser whose remarks have led to communal clashes in the past, a person who believes he is above the law because he yells at magistrates in open court and a person who is powerful enough, so much so that he has already secured one presidential pardon and now has the country’s highest religious dignitaries canvassing for another!

Already, the process of granting presidential pardons has come under the microscope. A pardon granted by Rajapaksa to former MP Duminda Silva who was convicted of murder has been revoked. A pardon granted by Sirisena to Royal Park murderer Jude Shramantha Jayamaha is now being scrutinised in court. True, Gnanasara thero’s offences are not in the same league but should we make a mockery of the judicial process by granting pardons to those who are loyal and faithful to the high and mighty?

The Mahanayake theros requested the pardon to mark the Vesak season. Only they can explain why they chose to ask for a pardon for a twice convicted racist who disseminates hatred in a season where the recurrent theme is one of non-violence and compassion towards others.

Vesak has come and gone. President Ranil Wickremesinghe chose not to pardon Gnanasara thero, at least for now. Surprisingly, Wickremesinghe has taken the right decision.                


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