June, a decisive month for Yahapalana govt.


Ven Athureliye Rathana Thera

by C.A. Chandraprema

The fast unto death started by Ven Athureliye Rathana Thera in the hallowed precincts of the Sri Dalada Maligawa last Friday is all the more significant because he is a UNP national list MP. This is a fast unto death started by a member of the government against the government – a governing party MP starting a fast demanding the removal of a Cabinet Minister and two provincial Governors of the same government. Even though the President and Prime Minister may be pulling in different directions, for all practical purposes, it is one government. The fast started by Ven Rathana Thera is in many ways reminiscent of the similar fast unto death started by Ven Omalpe Sobitha Thera against the Chandrika Kumaratnga government’s Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure or P-TOMS in 2005.

That however was a fast unto death started by an opposition Bhikku MP against a proposed move by the government. This time it’s a member of the government that has started a fast unto death against his own government. One may assume that the fast unto death started by Ven Rathana will end in much the same way as the fast unto death started by Ven Omalpe Sobitha Thera – what happened at that time was that the Ven Mahanayake Theras prevailed upon Ven Sobitha Thera to give up his fast on the assurance that the Chandrilka Kumaratunga government had pledged to the Ven Mahanayakes that the government would not sign P-TOMS without giving the Ven Mahanayake’s the final say in the matter.

In any event the P-TOMS arrangement was shot down by the Supreme Court for being in violation of the Sri Lankan Constitution and things ended on a satisfactory note for all concerned. Ven Omalpe Sobitha Thera is alive and well and we see him often on TV. Ven Rathana has gone on a fast unto death demanding the removal of Minister Rishard Baithiudeen, and Governors Azath Salley and A.L.M..Hisbulla and if something is not done about these individuals, Ven Rathana will not be able to give up his fast. The dates for the debate on the no confidence motion against Minister Rishard Baithiudeen has been fixed for the 18th and 19th of this month. How long can a human being last without food and water? The government will have to ensure that Ven Rathana is not still lying in the precincts of the Dalada Maligawa when the debate takes place in Parliament.     

Death fast during the debate?

The last thing the government needs is for Ven Rathana to be lingering between life and death in the Dalada Maligawa premises while the NCM against Baithiudeen is being debated in Parliament. Ven Rathana is not just any monk, but a sitting member of the very Parliament that will be discussing the NCM.  Christian MPs within the government have already said that they will be voting against Minister Baithiudeen. They have been joined by several members of the TNA representing the ITAK, the EPRLF and TELO. The larger body of TNA Parliamentarians may still not have committed themselves either way but it’s obvious that no TNA Parliamentarian will really be in a position to take the political risk of voting in favour of Minister Baithudeen because of the simmering issues between Tamils and Muslims in the North and East.

The Eastern Tamils want Governor Hisbulla removed from that post. They organized a hartal when he was first appointed to that position by President Sirisena. The antagonism between the Muslims and the Tamils in the East is so sharp that we should not be surprised to at all if a delegation of Tamils comes from the East to support the fast unto death started by Ven Rathana because one of the demands he has put forward is the removal of Governor Hisbulla from that post. If the Tamils of the East think that Ven Rathana’s fast is their ticket to success and that their joining in will give Ven Rathana’s project a better chance of succeeding, they will at some point definitely make an appearance before the Dalada Maligawa.

As this column was being penned on Saturday, the news came that TNA MP S.Viyalendran who defected to the JO late last year had also started a fast in Batticaloa in support of Ven Rathana’s fast in Kandy. Two Parliamentarians on hunger strike at the same time in different parts of the country making the same demands. Viyalendran’s hunger strike will undoubtedly gain as much traction in Batticaloa as Ven Rathana’s fast in Kandy because there were hartals in Batticaloa when Hisbulla was first appointed Governor, and Batticaloa was also the scene of one of the Easter Sunday suicide bombings.   

One by one the government’s defences are crumbling when it comes to the NCM against Minister Baithiudeen. First it was the Christian MPs in the government. Then it was an ITAK Parliamentarian from Manner. Then the TELO and EPRLF MPs. The latest to join the chorus from within the government against Minister Baithiudeen is Minister Champika Ranawaka. At a press conference last Thursday flanked by the JHU high command Ven Hedigalle Wimalasara Thera, Karunaratne Paranavithana and Nishantha Warnasinghe Minister Champika Ranawaka said that Minister Rishard Baithiudeen should resign pending an investigation. The JHU has stressed that the allegations levelled at Baithiudeen cannot be examined adequately through a debate in Parliament and that they should be investigated by the police and that Minister Baithiudeen should resign until he is cleared of the charges. He described the charges against Minister Baithiudeen as being of a serious criminal nature.

Champika stopped short of saying what he would do in the event that Minister Baithudeen does not resign. However it is quite obvious that when the debate on the NCM against Baithudeen most of the Sinhala MPs in the government will make themselves scarce. It will in fact be worth seeing how many government MPs actually turn up to vote at all. Indeed, how may will even speak in Parliament on the NCM if it entails defending Minister Baithudeen? How many Sinhala MPs will consider it worth their while to defend Baithudeen and risk a reduction in the votes they get? Due to the poisonous contagion of ethnic politics in this country very few Sinhala MPs get any Muslim votes and very few Muslim MPs get Sinhala votes.

Due to this divide, few Sinhala MPs will consider it worth their while to go out on a limb to defend Baithudeen even if he is completely innocent of the charges against him. A major inhibiting factor in this regard is the storm gathering in the form of the allegations against Dr Mohamed Shafi of the Kurunegala hospital over infertility reported by many Sinhala women who had undergone cesarian operations by him. For several days now, dozens of women have been arriving at the Kurunegala hospital complaining of unexplained infertility after being operated on by Dr Shafi. The fact that he is a member of Rishard Baithudeen’s political party and contested elections on the UNP list as a nominee of Baithudeen’s party is going to make all Sinhala politicians think twice before even speaking at the debate on the NCM against him.

Can the allegations against

Rishard be proved?

When one takes a closer look at the NCM against Minister Baithudeen, one sees that it is very difficult to argue against it. The first charge on the NCM is that the Sri Lanka Army Commander had stated to the ‘Silumina’ newspaper on 5th May 2019 that pressure was exerted on him by Minister Baithiudeen to release a suspect apprehended in connection with the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks on 21st April 2019. One can argue whether the Minister was exerting pressure on the Army commander or merely making an inquiry and a request. In the early days, during the JVP’s armed rebellions and the Tamil separatist struggle, Sinhala and Tamil politicians used to phone the police or the army about arrested suspects. Today however, after suffering multiple outbreaks of terrorism, the tolerance for this kind of behaviour on the part of politicians is at a low ebb.

If there is another JVP insurgency today, anybody who phones the police on behalf of an arrested suspect will be regarded as a terrorist himself. This Islamic terror comes at a time when the people’s tolerance level has gone down and Baithudeen’s intervention will be looked at in that light. The exact words exchanged between the Army Commander and Baithiudeen will be of crucial importance. In that regard, what the Army commander has revealed to the public does not bode well. He said that his last words to Minister Baithudeen was "Give me this call after one and a half years". This refers to the maximum period of detention under the PTA. The mention of this maximum period of detention gives one the impression that Baithiudeen did ask for the suspect to be released.

Champika was right when he said that the allegations made against Baithiudeen cannot be examined in a debate in Parliament and that a police investigation will be necessary to ascertain whether they are true or not. The second allegation against Baithudeen is that the factory owned by Ahmed Ibrahim, who carried out the suicide bomb attack on Cinnamon Grand Hotel had been supplied with empty cartridge casings by the Ministry of Trade and Commerce which is under Minister Rishard Baithiudeen in breach of the usual procedures. This too has to be investigated properly just like other allegations against the Minister such as the following

* Reasonable suspicions have arisen that political influence has been instrumental in allowing the workers of the factory which is believed to have been used for the manufacture of the bombs to be released on bail on 06.05.2019 by not producing them to court under the Prevention of Terrorism Act by the Sri Lanka Police.

* No action was taken against S. K. P. Alahudeen, the Treasurer of the All Ceylon People’s Congress led by Minister Rishad Bathiudeen for not disclosing the plans of terrorists to the authorities despite being aware of the activities of the terrorists.

* Two sons of Al-Haj Mohamad Ibraim Yusuf Ibrahim, a close associate of Minister Rishard Baithiudeen, carried out suicide attacks. 

* Abdul Hanuth, a Pradeshiya Sabha member of the All Ceylon People’s Congress, who claimed to be a Coordinating Secretary to the Minister, has been arrested as a terrorist suspect. 

* A Movulavi who claims to be an advisor to the Minister has been arrested as a terrorist suspect.

* Rifkan Bathiudeen, one of the Minister’s brothers, when handed over to the police after being arrested by the army, was released without being produced before Courts, as a result of pressure exerted on the police.

* A very strong opinion prevails in society based on information provided by the officers of the security forces and the police that Minister Bathiudeen is exerting undue pressure on the investigations in relation to the Easter Sunday terrorist attack.

* The fact that Minister Rishard Baithiudeen is in the government is an obstacle to the investigations and the police have so far failed to question the Minister despite strong suspicions about a direct link between the Minister and the terrorists.

The nature of these allegations are such that the first instinct of even a reasonably cautious MP will be to avoid saying anything in defence of Baithiudeen and to wait for a proper investigation to clear him. For example, who can argue against the last allegation that Minister Baithiudeen’s continued presence in the government is an obstacle to the investigations? Furthermore, who will argue publicly that Al-Haj Mohammad Ibraim Yusuf Ibrahim was not a close associate of the Minister or that S. K. P. Alahudeen, the father of one of the female suicide bombers was not the Treasurer of the All Ceylon People’s Congress? Baithiudeen for his part has not made it any easier for government MPs to support him by issuing a detailed rebuttal of these allegations.

Polarisation between Muslims

and non-Muslims

The polarization between the Muslim community, on the one hand, and non-Muslim communities, on the other, is growing by the day. The Easter Sunday attacks did not just come out of the blues. This was preceded by years of conflicts within the Muslim community itself with various schools of thought fighting each other verbally as well as physically. The Mulsim leaders remained deaf and blind to these goings-on because all that they were interested in was votes. Whether those votes came from moderate Muslims or extremist Muslims was not the concern of these Muslim politicians. For them every last vote counted and the since the extremist Muslim was also a Muslim, they tried to balance the two and the end result of this was the Easter Sunday attacks and the resultant fall out.

Last week, after Muslim villages in Madatugama in Kekirawa in the Anuradhapura District demolished a Towheed Jamath mosque in Kekirawa, the Eastern Province Governor A. L. M. Hisbulla issued a statement stating that it was wrong to take advantage of the prevailing situation and to demolish the mosque of a rival school of Islamic thought. As this writer has been stating all along, Hisbulla’s home town of Kattuankudy is a hotbed of Towheed activity and unless he holds a candle to them, he has no political prospects in that part of the country. He has tried to couch his statement in terms giving the Jamiyathul Ulema and the Muslim Affairs Ministry the final say without various Muslim sects taking the law into their own hands, but can this issue be solved without taking sides?

The very reason why this went out of control is that the Muslim politicians who were dependent on the Muslim vote failed to take action against the rising tide of extremism. Hisbulla’s statement shows clearly that all that this country can expect of the established Muslim political leadership is more of the same. A sobering thought indeed. This appears to be a time for each Muslim to think for himself or herself and decide accordingly. The purported leaders of the Muslims are no longer leaders, but followers of whoever can deliver votes to them. Obviously, there is a great deal of confusion within the Muslim community as to how to deal with the new situation.

Some Muslim groups that have been pushing for reforms in the laws applicable to Muslims seem to be apprehensive that they will be seen as traitors to the Islamic cause because of the stand they have taken. The Muslim Personal Law Reform Action Group (MPLRAG) which has been pushing for reforms to the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act put out a statement last week stating among other things that the current heightened interest towards reforms to the MMDA and in particular, the lack of a minimum age of marriage for Muslims of Sri Lanka is motivated by prejudice and majoritarian entitlement. 

This obviously is a reference to the Prime Minister’s statement that the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act will be amended. So far as this writer is aware, no one else referred to the MMDA in the month since the Easter Sunday bombings. The MPLRAG statement also stated that Muslims had been forced into ‘performative atonement’ and ‘self-policing’. What that would mean is that the atonement that one has seen from within the Muslim community was just a performance put on to placate non Muslims and it was done involuntarily just to wriggle out of a sticky situation. Even the self-policing that the Muslims professed to be doing in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings has been forced on them.

MPLRAG complains that "MMDA reform has been pushed into the government’s agenda in a policy environment that is emotionally charged for Muslim communities and driven by prejudice of certain non-Muslim quarters". They have also said that "At this juncture, we will work to ensure that the reform conversation is not hijacked by those forces who are not interested in the wellbeing of the community nor leave it to be held in continuous hostage by anti-reform forces within the community". The contortions that MPLRAG has been forced to perform indicates the bind that the Muslim community finds itself in. If the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act is to be reformed at all, the vast majority of the MPs who will have to vote for it will be non-Muslims. When MPLRAG talks about Muslims being forced into performative atonement and self-policing, who will want to have anything to do with reforming Muslim personal laws?

In 2010, when the EU wanted to withdraw the GSP+ facility from Sri Lanka, they wrote an interim report outlining some of the conditions that Sri Lanka had to fulfill to retain GSP+ and one of those conditions was the banning of female circumcision among Muslims. At that time, this writer said that no government was going to interfere in a religious practice especially if it had no bearing on the adherents of other religions. Of what concern is it to any non-Muslim whether Muslim women were circumcised or not? Likewise, what interest would any non-Muslim have in how old a Muslim girl is if they are to be given in marriage?

The SLFP group in Parliament has been speaking of a law that will apply to everybody regardless of religion and ethnicity and that is the restriction of the number of children in a family to two per family because this country is overpopulated already. If organisations like MPLRAG want to reduce the sufferings of Muslim women under the existing Muslim personal laws, they are not going to succeed in that objective by referring to expressions of contrition by prominent Muslims as performative atonement and steps taken by Muslims against extremist elements within the community as self-policing. These things are happening in a context where Sri Lanka has suffered the worst ever terrorist attack on civilian targets in South Asia at the hands of Islamic extremists.

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