On 13 June the Cabinet of Ministers issued a statement stating that the Government had directed law enforcement authorities and the Attorney General to take immediate action against instigators and perpetrators of violence and hate speech against religious and ethnic groups.
The nation is holding its breath waiting for that incredible day on which that will come to pass. As one gradually approaches the end of his eighth decade in life, one tends to have stopped being politically naïve. I will become a believer when we get people who do not act on telephone orders from some "Sir", to desist from arresting someone charged with a crime and a Police force whose spokesman does not tell the media that it's not an easy matter to arrest a Buddhist monk.
The Cabinet statement has clearly said that"We are deeply concerned by the recent incidents of violence targeting places of religious worship, shops and business enterprises, and houses. We denounce in the strongest terms, these acts of violence and hatred, including incidents of hate speech by certain individuals and groups aimed at inciting violence against the different ethnic and religious communities in our country.
We affirm that hate filled expressions and actions by individuals and groups with vested interests, resulting in demeaning and denigrating, and inciting violence against fellow citizens of various ethnic, religious backgrounds have no place in Sri Lankan society.
But Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told Parliament on Wednesday that these attacks on places of religious worship and business houses were mistakenly perceived as acts of ethnic/religious violence.
How is it that he subscribed to the Cabinet statement and yet says something radically different about it in Parliament?
It was only a fortnight ago that Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe also denied evidence-backed allegations of attacks on Christian places of worship carried out by hundreds of thugs led by Buddhist monks, allegedly of the BBS.
Fugitives from justice
Taken together one begins to wonder whether there is some subtle attempt to trivialize or totally deny blatant; criminal racial/religious violence officially acknowledged by the Cabinet of Ministers that was agreed to at a meeting chaired by the President himself.
The gaffe by the Police Department in its stance that it's not an easy matter to arrest a monk, who by the way was supposedly given 'safe house' by a Cabinet Minister, was a stupid admission that racial and religious violence can be perpetrated in this country at will and its perpetrators, if in the garb of a monk, being fugitives from justice, can be safely given shelter by a Minister with the express purpose of THWARTING THE PROCESS OF JUSTICE! That sends a clear signal to the victims of ethno-religious violence that the culture of impunity that assailed the nation under the Rajapaksa regime is vibrantly alive and kicking with none other than the arms of Justice and the Law affording such criminals that impunity.
This entire scenario stinks. Is this a trade off to soft soap the Maha Sangha into yielding to the Government's commitment to user in Constitutional reform aimed at forging reconciliation, peace building and peaceful co-existence, and the rule of law?
The statement added that "we direct the law enforcement authorities to immediately take all necessary steps in accordance with the law of the land, against instigators and perpetrators of violence and hate speech targeting any religious and ethnic groups in the country. The strictest action must be taken without delay, in accordance with the law, against all persons or groups who act to incite violence, and engage in acts of violence. The law must be applied to all regardless of social status, ethnic or religious background or political affiliations of perpetrators of such acts. We also direct the law enforcement authorities and the Hon. Attorney General to expedite action against those responsible for all atrocities committed, as impunity holds the dangerous possibility of our country receding into conflict".
And just a day later comes the Prime Minister's statement that the attacks specifically referred to in the Cabinet statement as actions carried out by "instigators and perpetrators of violence and hate speech targeting (any) religious and ethnic groups in the country" are being misconstrued as being such! That's preposterous and runs against the grain of the ethic of Collective Cabinet Responsibility".
Now then, when the nation's Prime Minister says such a thing it's tantamount to undermining the Cabinet statement. This was followed up at this week's Cabinet meeting at which President Maithripala Sirisena said that "If the Ministry of Law and Order was under me I would teach them in three months how to do their work".
We are to take it then that the Ministry of Law and Order under which the Police comes functions within the purview of the Prime Minister. These conflicting statements coming in such a sequence will, therefore, be perhaps the reason why the Police did not act on the Court's arrest warrant on BBS leader Ven. Gnanasara Thera, especially when the Asgiriya Prelate had said that one cannot disagree with Ven. Gnanasara's 'ideology'. It is that 'ideology' that was defined by the Cabinet in its statement, as emerging from "instigators and perpetrators of violence and hate speech, targeting religious and ethnic groups in the country".
The Premier says that the Cabinet's perception is wrong? That the entire country's perception is wrong?
In that case, it's only a section of the Maha Sangha that agrees with the Prime Minister's assessment. Add to that the Justice Minister's bunkum on attacks on Christian places of worship and what we have on the table is a recipe for impunity.
This government was voted into power because it offered a package of peace-building and constitutional reform aimed at superimposing the Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian, supremacist culture with a rather ultra-idealistic, if not outright impossible, Sri Lankikayo ethos. To their credit (and to the President's credit), it must be acknowledged that all players who promoted the common presidential candidature of Maithripala Sirisena did it on a non-majoritarian populist platform, a sort of Pan-Lanka slogan appealing to all ethno-religious groups across the country. That was why the Tamils voted for him en masse and the majority of Muslims followed suit. That was also why the UNP's vote base backed him to the hilt while all right and progressive thinking elements in the SLFP vote base boosted the numbers at the final counting that sent Rajapaksa out of power. But the fact is that the spirit of the mass of voters who fell for Bandaranaike's Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist rhetoric runs through today's society vibrantly and this is what could be a deciding factor when election time comes around.
Going against the BBS and the Maha Sangha can spell doom for any political leader seeking re-election. Others have wondered aloud whether the government had abandoned its constitutional/political reform agenda and pledges.
And President Sirisena is committed to that agenda, which is why he had talks with the Chief Prelates of the three nikayas after they issued a statement virtually rubbishing proposals mooted for including in the new Constitution.
The question arises: Is there suddenly a divergence in opinions at the top of government's leadership today?
Such things can be dispensable in the subtle political power plays employed by those at the top. What's essential in political reality is whether what one says and does brings strategic political gains or not Sirisena's liable to find himself, adrift should UNP objectives suddenly take a radical turn. The political realist will on the other hand realize that a totally rigid reformist approach to constitutional reform and so-called racial integration are (in the context of Sinhala-Buddhist Supremacist thinking) hare brained idealistic day dreams. The impunity offered Ven. Gnanasara and the statements from the Maha Sangha underscore that opinion. Gauthama Buddha's teachings may not be so easy to fit into a new Constitution! Sirisena's detractors are more aligned, unfortunately, to the world of realpolitik!
"We must all stand united to strive to eliminate this dangerous affliction of hatred towards each other, and resolve that we will never allow ourselves in the present or in the future, to once again be dragged into conflict as in the past" the Cabinet statement said. But the Premier denies the 'affliction' and hence presents the nation and the government with a conundrum.
The change in government, now, at a later stage, would appear to have not created any change in the conditions to usher in national unity and peace, nor would there seem to be much 'unity' even in thought and opinion at highest levels in the government.