Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena on Wednesday pardoned Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, a hardline Buddhist monk accused of inciting violence against Muslims. Sirisena’s office provided no reason for issuing the surprise pardon.
Gnanasara is the leader of an organization called Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), whose name translates to “Buddhist Power Force.”
The BBS is a nationalist Buddhist group, formed a few years after the decades-long Sri Lankan civil war ended in 2009, that has been linked to mob violence against Muslims for years, some of it fatal. The BBS directs much of its wrath at Sri Lanka’s small Muslim minority but also dislikes Christians and Hindus as “foreign” influences.
The martial interpretation of Buddhism practiced by the BBS is very different from the teachings popular with some Westerners and associated with the Dalai Lama of Tibet, who has spoken out against Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar and been denounced by them in turn. Gnanasara publicly speculated in 2014 that the Dalai Lama had been “fed misinformation” by Muslims and become unacceptable as a Buddhist leader.
Critics of the Sri Lankan government complain Gnanasara has delivered numerous public speeches that clearly incited violence but has never been held accountable. The BBS maintains other groups have been the perpetrators of violence after its rallies and claims it is merely striving to protect the rights of Sinhalese Buddhists around the world.
The Sri Lankan government is often accused of sympathizing with the BBS and other Buddhist nationalist groups, and some government officials are rumored to be members. Other critics believe the government is afraid of Buddhist extremists and seeks to placate them.
Buddhist extremists went on a rampage against Muslim homes, shops, and mosques last week, purportedly in revenge for the horrific Easter Sunday bombing of Christian churches by ISIS-linked Muslim extremists. At least one person was killed in the riots.
Gnanasara was not directly involved in the riots, because he was arrested last summer and sentenced in June to six years in prison for interfering with a court hearing. The court was investigating the disappearance in 2010 of a cartoonist critical of the government. Gnanasara was charged with making threats to intimidate and silence the cartoonist’s wife in 2016. His conviction and sentence were a rare instance of Sri Lanka jailing a prominent Buddhist monk. He made an effort to appeal his sentence, but it was denied by the national supreme court.
President Sirisena pardoned Gnanasara along with 762 other convicts on the occasion of the Buddhist holiday of Vesak. The president met with Gnanasara for “lengthy talks” in prison over the weekend. The monk’s release was delayed a few days after the other 762 convicts were pardoned, angering supporters who expected him to receive one of the Vesak amnesties.
Gnanasara was released from Welikada prison on Thursday, reportedly departing quietly through the back door of the prison hospital to avoid the throng of journalists and supporters gathered in front of the jail.
Alan Keenan of the International Crisis Group denounced Gnanasara’s pardon as a “big blow to Sri Lanka’s already battered rule of law, sending precisely the wrong message after the Easter attacks.”
“Pardoning Gnanasara says impunity rules and Muslims, evangelical Christians, and Tamils [Hindus] are fair game,” Keenan said.