Two weeks back, I wrote that the Sri Lankan reality under the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government is both more ludicrous and grimmer than a dark comedy. Given the history of key protagonists in the play, I must add, it is also a sinister one. The appointment of a firebrand monk Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thera as the head of a presidential task force on ‘One Country -One Law’ has all these attributes.
The two objectives of the presidential task force are: “to make a study of the implementation of the concept; One Country, One Law within Sri Lanka and prepare a draft Act for the said purpose” and “to study the draft Acts and amendments that have already been prepared by the Ministry of Justice in relation to this subject and their appropriateness and if there are suitable amendments to submit proposal for the purpose and include them in such relevant draft as is deemed appropriate”.
In the first place, the appointment of the ultra-nationalistic and Islamophobic monk, itself is a parody of the very commission. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thera was sentenced to six years in prison for contempt of court over the disruption of court proceedings in 2016 of the disappearance of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda. The monk was also sentenced to six months in jail separately for intimidating Sandya Ekneligoda, the wife of the disappeared journalist. He received an early release under a presidential pardon issued by then president Maithripala Sirisena.
Gnanasara Thera was known for his anti-Muslim rhetoric and was accused of fomenting anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama in 2014. Another of president’s commissions, the one on the Easter Sunday Attack, blamed Gnanasara Thera for propagating Islamophobia and recommended the banning of his group, Bodu Bala Sena, alongside several Islamic fundamentalist groups. The government banned Muslim groups, but not the Bodu Bala Sena. So much for One country- One law. The appointment of the firebrand monk is also a mockery of the constitution, the mother of all laws in the country. That depressed reality might have missed the president who also have freed convicted murderers, including the former parliamentarian Duminda Silva.
Though the president and his advisors might expect the appointment of Gnanasara Thera as a diversion from this stark reality, and probably a cheap thrill to his core – constituency, vast swathe of his original voters are not in a mood to buy that gimmick
This is also an affront to the Muslims, who have been aggrieved by Gnanasara Thera’s Islamophobic rhetoric, and action.
This can also be seen as a validation of the monk’s words and deeds. A sinister nexus between Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Bodu Bala Sena was suspected since Gotabaya as then defence secretary was seen in one of their events. Gotabaya did not create the militant Buddhist group, but the ideological parity between the duo has long been observed and it helped fostering the group. Now as the president, he is reinforcing that warped ideology that comes at the exclusion of other communities.
Is this a political gimmick?
Many observers would view this in the light of a nationalistic president catering to his Sinhala nationalistic vote base. But, Gotabaya’s vote base had been much broader than ultra nationalist core, who might rejoice at the appointment of Gnanasara Thera. The Rajapaksas managed to whip up latent nationalistic feeling of a vast swath of Sinhalese electorate through his various utterance, and at time, anti-minority dog whistling. But the 6.9 million who voted him at that time were belly full. Though the Yahapalanaya did a miserable job in creating economic growth, the economy was intact, and it had been growing though at a slower rate.
It was when the primary earthly concerns are satiated that the vast swathe of Gotabaya’s voters wanted a country to live (though they already had one). Now most of them are hungry, and poorer than they were before they elected him as their president.
Though the president and his advisors might expect the appointment of Gnanasara Thera as a diversion from this stark reality, and probably a cheap thrill to his core – constituency, vast swathe of his original voters are not in a mood to buy that gimmick.
The appointment of the firebrand monk is also a mockery of the constitution, the mother of all laws in the country
Their president has single-handedly, with one fool hardly decision, and decimated the agriculture sector. His government has overseen an unprecedented shortage of food, energy and even cigarettes. Irrational economic policies have deepened the foreign exchange crisis. His government has killed Sri Lanka’s chance of a rapid post- Covid economic recovery. So the average Rajapaksa voters aren’t buying it anymore.
The appointment of Gnanasara Thera is more likely an extension of the warped reality that the president lives in, and is embodiment of his ideological bias. That might also give him a false sense of importance that he knows the best for his subjects, like his over nightly ban on the chemical fertilizers.
It is a tragedy that Sri Lankans have to live with. But you asked for it.
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Original Caption: The reality of Gnanasara Thera’s appointment to head ‘One Country-One Law’ task force