The final straw?

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Bodu Bala Sena General Secretary Galagoda Aththe Gnansara Thero’s appointment as Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on the ‘One Country, One Law’ policy has exposed the anti-minority underpinning of the Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration. The rabidly racist monk has enjoyed political patronage since when the current President served as Defence Secretary from 2005-2015.

Since at least 2012, the Bodu Bala Sena has been engaged in a relentless campaign of hatred against the island’s Muslim community. In this endeavour, the BBS has enjoyed extraordinary political support from powerful quarters, including, by some reports, from the country’s intelligence services which have massive slush funds at their disposal with no oversight. Apologists and supporters of the SLPP and the current ‘Viyathmaga’ administration however have always denied this link.

In fact, it was the current Justice Minister Ali Sabry who famously urged the Muslim people to become stakeholders in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s electoral victory ahead of the November 2019 Presidential Poll, because that would ensure their safety and prosperity. Minister Sabry, who led President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s legal team for several years, implored his community to trust his client, while vehemently denying the former Defence Secretary’s links to ethno-religious fascist organisations like the BBS. In fact, he famously warned Muslims to vote for Gotabaya Rajapaksa to prevent being marginalised or “destroyed” during his presidency in a much-publicised stump speech.

Minister Sabry entered Parliament through the National List in 2020 and was immediately appointed Minister of Justice. The portfolio is significant under normal circumstances, but even more powerful when the minister in question has the direct ear of the President. In an administration that has been colossally unsuccessful in every sphere, the Minister of Justice has been a rare success. Minister Sabry is one of the few educated professionals in the Cabinet. In less than two years, Sabry has managed to deliver significant changes in the Justice Ministry, especially in terms of reforming archaic laws in the statute books. He has also taken important steps to improve the infrastructure required to ensure an efficient judicial service.

The proposed amendments to the regressive Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) have been a key aspect of the legal reform process Sabry has undertaken during his tenure. Minister Sabry has taken this process further so far than any of his predecessors. Ironically, changing Muslim personal law and enacting legislation that would marginalise and discriminate against the Muslim community will be the key focus of the Presidential Task Force the BBS General Secretary has been appointed to lead.

The appointment is a slap in the face of the only Muslim Minister in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s Cabinet, not only because it guarantees that law reform will now take a distinctly Sinhala Buddhist hegemonic tenor, but because the Task Force is also a direct assault on Minister Ali Sabry’s authority on legal reform itself. The monk has no legal experience, while Minister Sabry is a leading lawyer with real world experience about Sri Lanka’s justice system. Gnanasara Thero is a convicted felon in the eyes of the law, a man who has only been granted a reprieve from a six-year jail sentence because it suited the political whims and ambitions of a weakened and desperate president. This monk will now instruct Justice Minister Sabry on drafting law.

There is a school of thought that Justice Minister Sabry has made his political bed and must now lie in it. But there is no denying that his die-hard loyalty to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has forced Sabry to exercise extraordinary patience as the Government he remains a part of implements policy that deliberately targets and wounds the Muslim community. He was forced to look on while the Government forcibly cremated Muslims succumbing to COVID-19. He has tried without success for nearly 18 months to negotiate an end to the political witch-hunt against Attorney Hejaaz Hizbullah. He stood by when the President he campaigned for begged the President of the Maldives to accept Sri Lankan Muslims for burial in the archipelago. Despite calls for his resignation, Minister Sabry appeared to prefer the struggle to reform the administration from within.

But the humiliation of his personal lawyer by President Rajapaksa is now complete. The writing on the wall is glowing. There is no reforming this presidency from within. The President has made his choice, and he has chosen Gnanasara Thero. All that is left for Ali Sabry to do is to salvage his own dignity. God speed, Mr. Justice Minister.

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