‘Fast unto death’ was it more than what meets the eye? | Sunday Observer

‘Fast unto death’ was it more than what meets the eye?

The fast unto death by ‘independent’ parliamentarian Athuraliye Rathana thera has had its share of drama but now that the venerable monk has given up his fast, been given a clean bill of health and has presumably resumed partaking of his ‘daaney’ and ‘gilanpasa’, we must raise the question, did it achieve anything, if at all? Or, did it make matters worse?

Rathana thera began his fast demanding the removal of Governors Azath Salley, M.L.A.M. Hizbullah and Minister Rishard Bathiudeen. He has got more than he bargained for: not only are they not in office now, there is not a single Muslim Minister in the entire government now because they have all resigned en masse.

All this hullabaloo began in the wake of the Easter Sunday bombings. Salley, Hizbullah and Bathiudeen were accused by politicians with vested interests, social media and even some sections of the mainstream media of having varying degrees of involvement with extremists who carried out the attacks.

It would have been reasonable to expect them to resign- or at least stand down until investigations were carried out. That is not because they have been found guilty but to ensure a sense of transparency and inspire confidence among the public that the law would be allowed to take its course without hindrance. That is what would have happened in most ‘mature’ democracies.

However, Salley, Hizbullah and Bathiudeen stayed put. They could argue that they have not been found guilty and indeed in this country, it is difficult to find a politician who has not been accused of a heinous crime. Their decision not to resign- and the lack of a response from President Maithripala Sirisena to the monk’s demands was what led to Rathana thera’s ‘fast unto death’.

We can only speculate on what motivated the monk. Was it purely a sense of patriotism and a vision to ‘save the nation’ and make it a better place, free from the influences of Salley, Hizbullah and Bathiudeen? Or, was there more to it than meets the eye? Rathana thera, after all, is still a politician despite wearing a saffron robe.

Whatever the reason and whatever his agenda, Rathana thera’s decision was as insensitive and immature as the decisions of Salley, Hizbullah and Bathiudeen not to resign. Just as much as the trio’s decision to stay in office was adding to public sentiment mounting against the Muslim community, so was Rathana thera’s decision to stage a fast unto death.

Demanding the sacking of officials and saying ‘I will fast unto death if you don’t do so’ makes a mockery of the due process of the law and the judicial system. If President Sirisena yielded to the monk’s demands, it would have raised the question, what next? Surely, the processes of law and order, and, justice and fair play cannot be shut down because someone threatens not to eat and drink?

Since Easter Sunday, emotions have run high among various ethnic groups in the country. There have been attempts to incite racial hatred. Riots have erupted in some areas and only swift and stern action with curfews and the military moving in have prevented a nationwide bloodbath in the scale of July 1983. It is fair to say that, more than a month after the Easter attacks, communal tensions are still on a knife’s edge and the tipping point is only one incident away.

In such an environment, is it the most prudent course of action for a Buddhist monk to demand the resignation of three key Muslim personalities? Had they not resigned what could have happened? Rathana thera would have continued his fast, his health would have deteriorated and wouldn’t that have fanned the fires of communal hatred? Is that what this country needs right now?

Even though the monk’s health didn’t deteriorate dramatically, the masses were already protesting on the streets, chanting slogans directed mostly at the Muslim community. The usual suspects- the likes of Udaya Gammanpila, S.B. Dissanayake and the recently pardoned convict monk, Galagoda-aththey Gnanasara thera- had visited Rathana thera. It was all shaping up to become yet another disaster when sanity prevailed and the resignations came about.

We must also comment on the visit of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith to see the fasting monk. Cardinal Ranjith had earned the respect of all and sundry by his sagacious conduct and the statesmanlike leadership he offered to the Catholic community in the aftermath of the Easter attacks.

His Eminence may have visited Rathana thera merely as a gesture to see an ailing human being. We would not wish to assign any motive other than that. However, appreciative as we are of all of the Cardinal’s actions since Easter, we must disagree with him in this instance, simply because it conveys the impression that he is endorsing what the fasting monk was doing- and we believe what the monk was doing, knowingly or unknowingly, was setting alight a bonfire of bottled up communal passions.

Minister Mangala Samaraweera- always one to call a spade a bloody shovel- took to social media to criticise the Cardinal and took more than his fair share of flak for it. Samaraweera must be quite used to this now, having declared only a few weeks ago that Sri Lanka was not a country for Sinhala Buddhists but was for all Sri Lankans. It is indeed refreshing to have at least a few politicians who call it as they see it- instead of being ‘politically correct’ and mouthing platitudes which they don’t believe in.

Rathana thera’s fast is now over. We must ask ourselves, are we now better off than we were before the monk began his campaign? Yes, three key personalities have resigned, but so have all the other Muslim Ministers. In doing so, they cited the fact that they felt their community is being unfairly hounded and vilified for what a minority among them have done.

The moral of the story is that terrorism must be dealt with counter-terrorism- and not by vilifying the entire community that the terrorists were part of. We made that mistake once with Tamil terrorism. It is a well-worn cliché that those who do not learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it, but it still holds true, especially, in present day Sri Lanka. 

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