Controversial Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Athuraliye Rathana Thero, whose indefinite hunger-strike seeking the resignation of three Sri Lankan Muslim leaders from the government triggered the departure of all nine Muslim ministers from President Maithripala Sirisena’s Cabinet, now says an open dialogue is required with members of the minority community.
Athuraliye Rathana Thero
Rathana who is a member of Parliament and belongs to Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s United National party (UNP) when asked by SNI how communal tensions in Sri Lanka can be eased in the aftermath of the April 21 terror strikes said: “We need an open discussion with the Muslim community. We call upon the educated, open-minded Muslims to have discussions.”
The hardline monk who was one of the founding members of the Jathika Helam Urumaya, a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist party, had gone on an indefinite fast on May 31 seeking the resignation of one government minister as well as two provincial governors. His demand triggered the en masse exit of all Muslim ministers from the Cabinet.
The nine resignations came along with those of two Muslims governors, Azath Salley and MLAM Hizbullah heading the western and eastern provinces of Sri Lanka, respectively.
Recuperating after the hunger strike, Rathana Thero who was speaking to a media outlet perhaps for the first time after calling off his fast said his demand that the three leaders step down was not merely his own. “It was not my personal approach. It was the voice of the people,” said the monk.
Rathana Thero, seen as a hardliner, had sought the resignations of Cabinet minister Rishad Bathiudeen and the two provincial governors for their alleged links to members of the National Thowheeth Jamaath whose members carried out the April 21 terror strikes.
The monk said there were “complaints and criticism” of the three leaders. Asked to elaborate on the nature of complaints against the trio, Rathana Thero said: “One of them has relations with some terror groups responsible for the big disaster (terror attacks) in Sri Lanka. One of the ministers used his influence to have a person caught with explosive materials released from police custody.”
The Buddhist monk also said that madrassas in Sri Lanka “train students from childhood to obey only Allah and create a certain mindset” while successive governments, over the years have “failed to ensure that everyone follows the public education system”.
Ironically, radical Buddhist monk, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara who heads the ultra-nationalist Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) and is known for inciting anti-Muslim sentiments in Sri Lanka in the past was reported as saying that Ratana Thero’s move to pressurise Muslim ministers to quit would only push moderate Muslims towards extremism.
Gnanasara, who was serving a six-year jail term for contempt of court was recently granted a presidential pardon by President Sirisena. It’s widely believed that this has been done with an eye on the upcoming presidential polls as Gnanasara enjoys the broad support of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority in Sri Lanka. Justifying Gnanasara’s release during a press conference in New Delhi a week ago, President Sirisena claimed this was done as “Muslim leaders and maulvis (clergy) said they had no objection to his release”. The President further said, “I have personally asked him to act in a peaceful manner and if he fails to do so he’ll be arrested again”.
The en masse resignations–the Muslim leaders have different political affiliations–marked the latest political twist in an island nation grappling with the aftermath of the April 21 terror strikes. Carried out by radicalised Sri Lankan nationals, the deadly Easter Sunday strikes left over 250 persons dead.
Sri Lanka Muslim Congress leader Rauff Hakeem was among the nine ministers who stepped down on Monday said they were doing so as innocent Muslims were being victimised. Hakeem who heads the island nation’s largest Muslim party also said that those found guilty from within the community should be punished.
The Easter Sunday strikes and its aftermath has brought to the fore the deepening fissures within the Buddhist-majority country where Muslims comprise around 10 per cent of the population Sri Lanka-based analysts told SNI. Buddhist nationalism coupled with the growing Wahhabi influence in Sri Lanka has contributed to the festering divide, said an analyst. Another one said: “Sri Lanka has been polarised for some time. But after the Easter Sunday terror strikes, this communal divide has spilled out into the open. And we’re all concerned about it.”
The atmosphere of suspicion between the majority Sinhalese-majority and the minority Muslims is also fanned in no small measure by politicians and the fact that presidential polls in the island nation are just five months away, said observers.
With Muslims facing the backlash following the terror attacks, Faiszer Musthapha, who was one of the nine ministers who quit told SNI there hasn’t been so much incitement of hatred against members of the community since the country’s independence.
Musthapha who belongs to the Opposition Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) that’s in coalition with the UNP said there was no point in Muslims holding portfolios in the government amidst such a backlash. He also said the government had committed major lapses in handling the security situation in the country and had failed to protect members of the Muslim community from attacks in the aftermath of the terror strikes.
At the same time, Musthapha said those inciting hate attacks comprised a handful of people and that “the majority Sinhala community is most compassionate and peace loving”.
If any Muslim was found involved in terror activities, they should be given the sternest punishment. Stating that “we’re against terrorism”, Musthapha also noted that those involved in the April 21 attacks were not accorded a Muslim burial as they’re not considered Muslims.
Sri Lankan journalist and columnist Malinda Seneviratne when asked about the nine resignations said, “It’s rather a strange position to take to show solidarity with three of them who were under a cloud.”
Seneviratne further said that nine of the ministers resigning together was an instance of a community self-isolating itself. On the way forward amidst the continuing communal tensions in the island nation, Seneviratne said “all communities need to take responsibility for what has happened. As the majority community, Sinhala Buddhists can do something about protecting those who are vulnerable.”