In Sri Lanka, president Sirisena issues a terrible pardon

In Sri Lanka, president Sirisena issues a terrible pardon


In late May, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena pardoned Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, Secretary General of the Bodu Bala Sena, an extremist Sinhala-Buddhist organization that espouses an obvious anti-Muslim agenda. In the wake of the Easter bombings, subsequent anti-Muslim violence, the exacerbation of existing problems, and the fostering of new troubles, Sirisena’s decision is a terrible idea. It shows a wildly incompetent and feckless leader who keeps reminding people he is completely unfit to lead the nation.

The hardline Buddhist monk had been serving a jail term of six years – on several charges of contempt of court. He had served less than a year of his sentence. 

The Bodu Bala Sena is comprised of dangerous radicals and have fomented violence against Muslims in recent times. Some commentators and analysts have emphasized that Sirisena is trying to mobilize voters ahead of forthcoming national elections. 

According to political analyst Kusal Perera, “Sirisena is openly peddling Sinhala-Buddhist sentiments.” 

Perera notes that the pardon is the president’s contribution to growing Sinhala-Buddhist protests against Muslims. Sirisena would like to run for a second term, though it’s not clear if he’ll even be able to. His reputation is in tatters. 

The pardon sends a clear signal to minorities – including Tamils, Muslims, Christians and Hindus – across the island. Sri Lanka remains a Sinhala-Buddhist nation and the central government will relentlessly favor Sinhala-Buddhists. 

Reconciliation regarding civil war-related matters isn’t even in sight. Instead, Colombo has been sending continuous reminders that things are headed in the wrong direction. Let’s not forget that transitional justice, what was once widely touted as a key part of the government’s reform program, never truly got going. And we certainly shouldn’t expect genuine progress regarding transitional justice in the coming months.

With both presidential and parliamentary elections right around the corner, one can expect concerns about terrorism and national security to be promulgated through the intolerant, toxic lens of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.

Taylor Dibbert

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a Colombo-based research and advocacy organization, said that the pardon raised a number of serious concerns. 

“First, it legitimises the view that it is possible to act with contempt for the judiciary, be punished through a legitimate judicial process, and then enjoy impunity through a pardon granted on political considerations,” CPA said in a statement.

CPA later stated, “[i]t also sets a dangerous precedent whereby properly tried, convicted and sentenced persons can be released on the whims of the President and government.”

And, appallingly (though perhaps unsurprisingly), senior government officials – including members of the United National Party – didn’t speak out against this pardon. Like previous administrations, Sinhala-Buddhist chauvinism goes to the highest levels of political power.

With both presidential and parliamentary elections right around the corner, one can expect concerns about terrorism and national security to be promulgated through the intolerant, toxic lens of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. 

In 2015, Sirisena was backed by various groups, such as the United National Party, and Tamils and Muslims. However, the forthcoming electoral contests will invariably feature prominent promulgations of Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Nobody is better positioned to do that than Mahinda Rajapaksa and his allies; they know how best to capitalize on ethno-nationalism and anti-minority sentiment. 

Unfortunately, what we’ve already witnessed – including significant anti-Muslim violence last month in the North Western Province – may have only been the beginning. Besides, government actors, as usual, were complicit in the violence. The bottom line is that the state cannot protect the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. And, the resignation of Muslim ministers in the government – all nine of them – isn’t going to reduce tensions.

The country’s culture of failing to hold perpetrators to account is well-documented and worrying. The state security apparatus – rotten to the core and in desperate need of reform – shows no signs of reforming itself or being compelled to do so by political elites. When impunity is the norm, the next wave of human rights violations is essentially a foregone conclusion. 

In Sri Lanka, governments change, yet minority rights are constantly under threat. Impunity is never checked and that leads inevitably to more abuses; there’s just no getting around that. Election season will be in full swing soon. The nation’s numerical minorities – especially the Muslim community that’s already been alienated since Easter – have many reasons to be worried about where the country goes from here. 

• Taylor Dibbert is an Adjunct Fellow at Pacific Forum. Follow him on Twitter @taylordibbert

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