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A monk's arrest that stumped the JHU


Sarath N. Silva, Ven. Pannala Pagngnaloka Thero
and Suhada Gamlath

By Vimukthi Yapa

The Buddhists of Sri Lanka should perhaps shed bitter tears for what Sri Lanka has become and how a section of the Buddhist clergy, by no means the majority, dabbles in politics in a way that embarrasses those who want to believe in the Buddha putras and consider religion to be above partisan politics.

There is no gainsaying that much of the Sinhala Buddhists in the Western Province more than others, welcomed the advent of the all monk outfit, Jathika Hela Urumaya, and in the aftermath of the death of Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thero, considered it timely that the saffron robed should take up the Buddhist cause in the political arena and work towards the preservation of the Buddhist heritage in a country supposedly thrice offered to the Buddha.

What the JHU later became is history, conspiracies and defections causing credibility crises time and again leading to immense disenchantment amongst the very people who voted the nine monks to parliament.

It therefore comes as no surprise that the JHU plays divisive politics even today, and the much-highlighted recent case of a Buddhist priest, Ven. Pannala Pagngnaloka Thero, being arrested for failing to answer a Supreme Court notice brings this stubborn fact to the fore.

Sentiments of the Buddhist clergy

The arrest of the monk no doubt injured the sentiments of the Buddhist clergy and the Buddhists themselves, especially when the likes of Mervyn Silva, his errant son Malaka and close associate Kudu Nuwan manage to evade the law at will.

Yet, the attempt of a senior public official to influence the superior court and the JHU's unrepentant move to embarrass the judiciary and forcibly obtain freedom for the arrested monk is a classic example of Sri Lankan politics and manoeuvering tactics.

Unimpeachable sources confirm that Justice Ministry Secretary Suhada Gamlath, a devout Buddhist and a frequenter to Sambodhi Viharaya, Colombo 7 tried to lobby Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva to release the Buddhist monk who was remanded for contempt of court for failure to answer a notice issued.

With a worried President Mahinda Rajapakse, the JHU and even individual monks striving to show that they played the role of saviour of the arrested monk, it is none other than Ven. Kusaladhamma Thero's quiet contribution that eventually paid off.

The drama began on Monday, September 1, when a Supreme Court Bench presided by the Chief Justice issued a warrant against Ven. Pannala Pagngnaloka Thero for failing to appear in court after being noticed in a noise pollution case. The Welikada Police was directed to arrest the monk and he was later remanded.

Re-remanded the monk

Thereafter, though a bail application was submitted to court, the Supreme Court re-remanded the monk and fixed the case for September 15.

It is in this backdrop that agitated monks, instigated by different vested interest groups organised an ad hoc protest of their own within the Supreme Court premises on September 5. The main contribution in this regard was made by the JHU, wanting to secure Ven. Pagngnaloka Thero's release at any cost amidst growing pubic condemnation for failing to stand by the monk.

It is reliably learned that the President wished that the JHU monks took up the matter as the arrest was considered an insult to a President who projects a strong Sinhala Buddhist identity.

Leading the monk protest and ridiculing the judiciary within the Supreme Court premises was Ven. Rajawatte Wappa Thero, a monk with strong connections to the JHU.

Inside sources claimed that despite getting implicated in the sangha fiasco, it was another Buddhist monk who has broken ranks with the JHU who originally took up the arrested monk's cause, though without political motives. It was none other than Ven. Galagodatte Gnanasara Thero who felt strongly about the remanding of the monk who is also from a neighboring temple and tried to correct a situation that he considered might go really wrong.

Urged a show of support

He took the initiative to telephone several monks in the area and urged that a show of support was necessary to try and get the monk released. But some of the monks did not wish to get associated with a monk now linked to the opposition.

While Ven. Gnanasara Thero contacted fellow monks and invited them to gather before the Supreme Court to march together, it is learned that it was Ven. Rajawatte Wappa Thero who tipped off the JHU that there was growing discontent among the Buddhist clergy over the situation.

It was a situation the political party was desperate to seize, given the fact that the cause for the arrest - the new noise regulations were introduced by the JHU itself not long ago. This was to be a face saving exercise, if any.

The JHU's intervention sadly was to be in the form of a protest before the Supreme Court, disregarding conventions and decorum. Judicial sources said that some of the monks were denouncing the Roman-Dutch law as they shouted their refusal to be bound by an alien law thrust upon the country.

Contempt of court

One may conclude that it was indeed merciful that the group of protesting Bhikkus were not charged for contempt of court, though reliable sources from the JHU itself confirms that being arrested indeed was their intention to draw more attention to the case and portray the monks as a wronged community.

It was pre-planned that the monks would not stand up when the judges walked in and it was hoped that the considerable saffron robed presence would influence the court to speedily release the monk, informed sources said.

The large number of monks who went to the Supreme Court to show solidarity with Ven. Pagngnaloka Thero refused to stand up as a curtsy in keeping with court convention when the Chief Justice and Justices Andrew Somawansa and Jagath Balapatabendi entered the court.

The Chief Justice informed counsel for the monk on that occasion court conventions have to be observed by every person.

Re-remand order

The matter turned sour when despite protests, the court issued a re-remand order for non-compliance with notice issued.

Some monks it is learned were also seen blaming Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva and criticising his projected image as a strong Buddhist and associated with Sambodhi Viharaya, witnesses said.

Also, they were calling for the Malwatte and Agiriya Chapters to explain the position with regard to showing respect to the judiciary and whether or not monks be compelled to stand up before the court assembled.

There is another dimension to the post arrest trauma. President Mahinda Rajapakse was none too pleased with the legal development and felt he would have to take the blame at some point for what had transpired. On Wednesday (3) at the cabinet meeting, President Rajapakse openly worried about the serious situation that had arisen following the Supreme Court order remanding the monk for which he said blame was being apportioned to him. He felt that people would happily lay the blame on his doorstep though the judiciary dealt with the matter.

Re-arrest of the monk

The worried President had his concerns intensified when the re-arrest of the monk was ordered due to non-appearance in court after being noticed.

Desperate times call for desperate actions. Making a last ditch attempt and trying to salvage some semblance of respectability on behalf of the President was Justice Ministry Secretary, Suhada Gamlath.

The same day the court ordered the re-remand of the monk, Friday, September 5, Gamlath hurried to the Sambodhi Viharaya. At the temple, there was Chief Justice Sarath N. Silva and Chief Incumbent, Ven. Daranagama Kusaladhamma Thero in conversation.

Gamlath, according to informed sources threw caution to the wind and appealed to the Chief Justice to ensure the speedy release of the monk which was by now a growing concern among the Buddhist community. In turn, the Chief Justice castigated Gamlath for attempting to discuss a pending case with him and cautioned against any further discussions on the same matter.

Paid obeisance

Soon afterwards, Gamlath reportedly went to Welikada remand prison with Ven. Kusaladhamma and paid obeisance to Ven. Pagngnaloka Thero. The Justice Secretary has assured that President Mahinda Rajapakse would do everything possible to ensure a speedy resolution of the issue and to get him released.

Among those who visited the monk while under arrest, besides Justice Secretary Suhada Gamlath was JHU Parliamentary Group Leader, Ven. Athuraliye Rathana. At the Welikada remand prison, the JHU monk too had assured the fallen monk that the JHU would do its utmost to secure his release. But nothing came to pass.

By now the matter had become a huge political embarrassment for President Rajapakse and the JHU.

Making his stance public was the Maha Nayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter, Ven. Udugama Sri Buddharakkitha Thero. The respected monk came out in support of the Supreme Court and called for dignified conduct and due respect to law.

Respect the judiciary

Delivering his anusasana at the Asgiriya Pirivena where an English training programme was launched by Gateway International School, the Maha Nayaka Thero maintained that both monks and laypersons must respect the judiciary and its hallowed traditions to ensure discipline in the country.

The Chief Prelate also said traditions such as getting up when judges enter a courthouse or standing up in parliament when the mace is brought in, should be observed by all persons including Buddhist monks without deviations.

Meanwhile, it became incumbent upon Chief Prelate of the Sambodhi Viharaya, Ven. Daranagama Kusaladhamma Thero to play a significant role in the drama to ensure sanity prevailed.

Working hard to secure his release through legal means was the Sambodhi Viharaya Chief Priest, though no drama was associated with him and his attempts.

Released on bail

The Chief Incumbent visited the arrested priest and upon being released on bail on September 8, brought Ven. Pagngnaloka Thero to Sambodhi Viharaya.

In the meantime, the President sent a missive to Kusaladhamma Thero to come over together with Ven. Pagngnaloka Thero. Ven. Kusaladhamma Thero politely declined the offer to meet the President.

In the meantime, it is reliably learned that the Ven. Pagngnaloka Thero was quite clueless as to the drama that had unfolded on his behalf where the JHU had strived to take political advantage by showing a significant saffron presence. It is learned that the monk felt outraged by the fact that the monk political outfit had taken political mileage from his predicament.

It has transpired that Ven. Pannala Pagngnaloka Thero was granted bail based on his affidavit which explained the circumstances under which he unintentionally violated the court order.

It is reliably learned that the priest pleaded innocence with regard to the drama that unfolded within the court premises on his behalf and stated clearly that he had no intention of disrespecting the judiciary.

The monk, it is earned has apologised to court and disassociated himself completely from the disgraceful organised protest by the JHU monks that was a callous demonstration of disrespect for the law.

He further stated he did not get a clear message as to when he was supposed to appear in court and re-appear.

Without  political influence

It is little known that Ven. Kusaladhamma Thero assisted the monk in this exercise and to secure release without paying homage to any political influences.

On the same day came the Presidential invite for the monks to meet him at Temple Trees. Having refused once, Ven. Kusaladhamma decided to go, as the President went to the extent of sending a vehicle to the temple requesting a visit. So together went the Buddhist priests to meet President Rajapakse at Temple Trees.

While it was Ven. Kusaladhamma Thero's quiet contribution that eventually paid off and the arrested monk was released without outside influence, adding a further twist to the tale is the fact that the land upon which Ven. Pagngnaloka Thero has built his temple is not legally owned by the temple dayaka sabhawa.

Informed sources claimed that the President at the Temple Trees meeting pledged to clear the legality for the fallen monk and summoned Urban Development Minister, Dinesh Gunawardena to Temple Trees at that very moment and instructed that the matter be attended to immediately.

Avoid a collision course

It is also learned that it was at this meeting that possible methods to avoid a collision course with the judiciary was discussed and it was suggested that separate chambers be created in court rooms to have monks seated until their respective cases are called.

In the meantime, the JHU is now calling for the amendment of the noise regulations they themselves created and originally earned the wrath of all religious communities for interfering with religious activities. Now that the legislation had backfired and that too victimising a Buddhist monk, the JHU is now busy blaming the Asgiriya chief priest for his stance that both the clergy and laypersons should show respect to the judiciary.

An embarrassed President Rajapakse who expected the JHU hooliganism to have the desired effect causing the arrested monk to be released is likely to have a rethink now.

The arm twisting attempted by the JHU also backfired, as much as its legislation did. Needless to state that the constituent partner's failure, given its immense Buddhist identity is a massive embarrassment to the Head of State.

As we record all of the above that led to the politicisation of a monk's arrest over violating environmental regulations relating to noise pollution, let us also not lose sight of the fact that the initial regulations, much as the JHU may protest, oppose and publicly not acknowledge, were intended to quell the 'noises' that emanated from other places of religious worship, particularly mosques during call to prayer.

A classic case 

This is a classic case of the only religious heritage the JHU seeks to protect, namely the Buddhist heritage also being ridiculed by others owing to the ill-conceived political motives of a party steeped in extreme views.

Strange it is for a party that speaks much about Buddhist heritage that it should anyway clamp down regulations, making temple administrations squirm. And other places of religious worship suffer in silence.

Such is the embarrassment that the JHU suffered that it had to hurriedly hold a press conference to announce that the regulations would be shortly amended.

The general thinking is that when the regulations were proposed it had no idea about the cultural practices in the country and were roundly condemned by all religious communities.

When politically embarrassed by the arrest of a monk thanks to regulations that were created by none other than the JHU, the party is now having a knee jerk reaction.

And it is pertinent  to question whether the same offer would have been made if a mosque, a church, or a Hindu kovil were found violating the law.

 And that's the JHU's legacy of misguided policy making and opportunism, a fact the devout Buddhists should carefully consider when they walk into the booth the next time to elect legislators.

In the end, all the slogan shouting and attempts to ridicule the judiciary had proved futile. A quiet monk who legally sought to help the affected Buddhist priest has shown the way - that it is not militancy but adherence to Buddhist living, which includes working within the legal system only, that can show results.

Hindu priests will get up

General Secretary, All Ceylon Hindu Congress and senior lawyer, Kandiah Neelakandan said Hindu priests would not be reluctant to get up and pay respect to judges in 'courts of justice.'

Neelakandan explaining the special reference to 'courts of justice' said that it should be remembered that the respect is not to the individuals coming on the benches but to the justices/judges coming in their robes to the benches.

"If that individual is outside court, he cannot expect the same respect," he added.

Neelakandan added that if anyone thinks/believes that one should not get up when the judges come on the bench, such person should enter the court after the judges have come on the bench and should also leave the court room before the judges leave.

 

Parliament tradition

A senior parliamentary source explaining tradition said that the Buddhist monks in the galleries stood up when the mace was brought in to commence the legislative business.

The source explained that the JHU monks who are legislators disputed this tradition and they were requested to enter the chamber after the mace is placed in its bracket and the Speaker has taken the chair.

"It is a new arrangement. After all, there is no convention to be guided by," the source explained.

 

Monks sit - JHU Leader

JHU Leader, Ven. Dr. Ellawala Medhananda Thero said that Buddhist monks were not required to stand up in court or in parliament, as there were only three instances for them to stand up.

The monks should stand up before Lord Buddha, in reverence of his teaching, the Dhamma and finally, for a senior monk. "Nothing else applies to the Buddhist priests," he explained.

 

Christians stand

Officials at the National Christian Council said that Christian religious leaders do stand up when judges enter a courtroom.

 


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