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Carving out voter bases

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Sri Lankans who believe in co-existence and communal harmony watched with trepidation as controversial monk Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero was released from Welikada Prison by President Maithripala Sirisena on Thursday. When Sri Lanka needed President Sirisena to be a statesman, especially after some of the worst communal violence seen in a decade after the Easter Sunday attacks, all the country got was a politician.

Politicians, especially the ones in Sri Lanka, lean towards selfishness and narrow-mindedness. President Sirisena, who was voted into power on a platform of good governance and reconciliation, has disappointed his core voter base in the worst way. Many had hoped that the Constitutional crisis was the worst low he could sink to in his role, but he has proven, once again, that keeping his political hopes alive by any means necessary is more important than thinking of the well-being of the country. 

The Presidential pardon did not surprise anyone since the Constitutional crisis had already shown there were no lines President Sirisena would not cross to prop up his chances to remain in power. The voter base of the Sinhala Buddhists have risen in importance with both Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Sirisena seeking to cater to its requirements. Efforts to unite the Sinhala Buddhist voter base, which was split in the 2015 Presidential election also reflects a new and dangerous trend in politics, which is that the dismissal of minority voter bases. 

Earlier prominent Sinhala Buddhist politicians belonging to the two main parties worked to find a middle path to balance the interests of the Sinhala Buddhist voter base with minority considerations. But this appears to have fallen by the wayside as reconciliation efforts fell largely by the wayside. Even the United National Party (UNP), which at least at the start of its term in 2015, professed to be dedicated to reconciliation and measures pledged before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), have since rolled back their stance with the exception of Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera. 

The silence of the UNP over the release of Ven. Gnanasara is perhaps more disappointing than the actions of President Sirisena. The firebrand monk was handed a sentence after a completely transparent legal process and contravening it using Executive powers is disrespecting the Judiciary. This is the same Judiciary that President Sirisena went to before last year to see if his Presidential term could be extended. Using the law for personal expediency is regressive and only serves to undermine overall respect in the rule of law. 

The UNP has also run into a quagmire of sorts with the appointment of the Parliamentary Select Committee to investigate allegations against Industry and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen in the No-Confidence Motion filed by the pro-Rajapaksa faction of Parliament. Even though Bathiudeen was a member of Rajapaksa’s Government, and many of the issues against him, including clearing Wilpattu, stem from that time, all those concerns were not addressed at that point. 

Now they have become conflated with the events that are linked to the Easter Sunday attacks and public anger is coalescing around Bathiudeen. The UNP may have a point about defending its coalition members in an NCM, but it stands to lose the support of the Sinhala Buddhists who are fed up with the security lapses and other shortcomings of the UNP over the past four years. This has pushed the UNP into being caught between a rock and a hard place where minorities are concerned.

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