Hopes of new constitution sinks to new low

The much-anticipated new Sri Lankan constitution, aimed at bringing about post war reconciliation and equality to all minority communities, especially the Tamils, is likely to come to a complete halt as representatives of Lanka’s Buddhist hierarchy this week reiterated their categoric objection to a new constitution or even an amendment to the existing one.

This opposition is based on fears among the monks that the constitution will help encourage an ideology of separatism which was the quest of the Tamil Tiger rebels and also fears that the ‘foremost place’ accorded to Buddhism in the current constitution may change as attempts are allegedly made to emphasize on the rights of minority religions like Hinduism and Islam.

Among the majority Sinhalese-Buddhists (70% of the population) ‘Sri Lankan nationalism’ means “Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism.” That means the promotion of the interests of the majority community. Others enjoy civil and religious rights but the State is constitutionally duty bound to protect only Buddhism and uphold its primacy. Sri Lanka is deemed to be a “Sinhala-Buddhist country” essentially, where other communities and religious groups are tantamount to be an “add on”

When Sri Lanka is deemed a Sinhala-Buddhist country by the powerful Buddhist clergy, any division of the country on Tamil-Hindu/or Muslim lines is seen as an intolerable dilution of the concept of Sri Lanka’s identity as a Sinhala-Buddhist nation.

Hence, around three months after the top most chief priest of the country declared there was no need for a new constitution, the Malwatte and Asgiriya chapters of the Buddhist Maha Sangha, have once again opposed any change in the constitution, whether piecemeal or wholesale. While it was largely expected that the new constitution would be put to the test for the verdict of Sri Lankans in a referendum, it now looks as if the sole authority on deciding whether a constitution is to be or not, would be Sri Lanka’s Buddhist clergy. This is in a background where the current President Maithripala Sirisena is seen bestowing increasing acknowledgement that the Buddhist clergy should be the sole gatekeepers and deciding factor of whether a new or amended constitution becoming a reality or not.

The primary fear of the monks is the possibility of change in the unitary character of the State if more powers are devolved to the provinces, especially the Tamil and Muslim dominated Northern and Eastern provinces.

Over the past months and weeks President Maithripala Sirisena has emphasized that he would not usher in a constitution if it did not have the blessings of the Buddhist clergy. In July this year after the first staunch opposition by the Maha Sanga (Buddhist clergy hierarchy) against a new constitution President Maithripala Sirisena pledged to consult Buddhist leaders prior to passing any new constitution.

Therefore, with the current regime emboldening the Buddhist monks in the role they have taken on themselves pertaining to the issue of a new constitution, the Karaka Maha Sangha Sabha, of the Malwatu & Asgiriya Chapters which met in the historical city of Kandy on Wednesday has announced in unequivocal terms that there is no need for a new constitution or even amendments to the present constitution. The monks therefore have demanded that the Sri Lankan current regime immediately stop the constitution drafting process.

Following a two-hour meeting, the monks told the media that the proposed constitution will lead to a division of power going down to the level of Pradeshiya Sabhas or local bodies and insisted that the present constitution is good enough.

“The present constitution is good for us. We will express our protest after briefing the Mahanayakes of the Asgiriya and Malwathu Chapters, and the Ramannaya and Amarapura Nikayas,” the Anunayake of the Malwatte Maha Vihara, Ven. Dimbulkumbure Wimaladharma Thera said. Meanwhile, Asgiriya Chapter representative, Dr. Medagama Sri Dhammananda Thera claimed that introducing a new constitution at this juncture will lead to communal and ethnic divisions. This ideology is shared by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is also staunchly against the drafting of a new constitution and who is known for regular meetings with monks at diverse temples across the country. However, both the Buddhist priests and Rajapaksa supports electoral reforms, and for the present Proportional Representative System to be replaced partially by the First Past the Post System.

It is interesting to note that the latest attempt by Sri Lanka’s Buddhist monks to stamp out chances of a rewriting of the constitution comes days after President Maithripala Sirisena was given the cold shoulder by Tamil political parties in the North when he visited the Northern Jaffna region who boycotted ceremonies attended by him and where Sirisena made the intriguing appeal to ‘not give the devil a chance.’

“If you stage protests against me and I am weakened, the devil will get an opportunity,” Sirisena told a gathering in Jaffna last Saturday as he visited the once war-scarred district to take part in ceremonies to mark the National Tamil Language Day. Referring to Sirisena’s comment a Tamil source cryptically commented that the Northerners are trying to decipher ‘one devil from another,’ as the current president left it to the people to fill in the blank as to who he meant by the ‘devil.’

The protests held in Jaffna against the President were to demand the release of LTTE suspects imprisoned without charge while the boycott by the Tamil parties were part of the overall growing anger against much talk and little action on concrete issues pertaining to post war reconciliation which includes accountability such as those concerning information on cases of people who disappeared during the last phase of the war in 2009.

Meanwhile according to Northerners, the difference between Sirisena and Rajapaksa appears to be dwindling, at least in the eyes of Sri Lanka’s minority Tamils who overwhelmingly voted for Sirisena along with the Muslims and thereby ensured the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa in the January 2015 Presidential elections. These voters are however now disillusioned as Sirisena increasingly is seen giving into Sinhala nationalist sentiments and attempting to compete with former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s attempts as being hailed as the guardian of Buddhism in the country.

With the current regime’s term in office is inching closer to 2020 which will mark the next presidential and general elections, observers point out that it is likely that Sri Lanka will see electoral reform but not constitutional reform. Hence chances of the character of the State being changed from unitary to the federal, with an increase in the devolution of power to the provinces appears remote in the backdrop of the current wave of opposition by the island’s powerful Buddhist clergy and the current regime pandering to the whims and demands of nationalistic forces. (South Asian Monitor)

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