By Veeragathy Thanabalasingham is the Consultant Editor of Express Newspapers Ltd
The main sects of Sri Lanka’s Maha Sangha have once again demonstrated their strident opposition to constitutional reforms, this time going one step further and claiming that neither a new constitution nor amendments to the existing constitution are necessary. They have also deemed the existing constitution more than satisfactory. The Mahanayake Theras have made no bones about their views on the contentious issues in the constitution making process over the past 18 months. But what transpires as significant in the Maha Sangha’s strident opposition this time around is the fact that it comes ahead of a three-day debate on the Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly, scheduled in Parliament next week.
President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have repeatedly assured the Mahanayakaye Theras of all the main sects that neither the unitary character of the Sri Lankan state nor the foremost place given to Buddhism in the present constitution will be changed. The two leaders have also on several occasions assured the Theras that they would be consulted before the final draft of the constitution is prepared and also that the final draft would be shown to them. Despite these assurances and reassurances, the government has been unable to defuse the outright opposition of the Maha Sangha to the constitution making process.
There is no gainsaying that the immediate purpose of the sudden surge of agitation by the Buddhist clergy in the form of an ‘unanimous decision’ of the Karaka Maha Sangha Sabhas of the main chapters is to obstruct the parliamentary debate on the interim report. Government leaders have not succumbed to the clerics’ pressure tactics so far. How things will transpire this time around, whether there would be a change of mind on the part of the government and the debate deferred, is anybody’s guess.
Though Members of Parliament belonging to the Joint Opposition led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa have been participating in the constitution making process, there is no doubt their ultimate aim is to prevent the government from succeeding in any and all endeavours.When they have been opposing and obstructing every development project and policy initiative of the government, how can one expect a different approach from them regarding constitutional reforms?
The former president, in a statement regarding the Interim Report of the Steering Committee last week, urged the government to abandon the constitution making process. It was in the wake of this statement that the Karaka Maha Sangha Sabhas strongly urged government to stop the drafting process, claiming the proposals made in the Interim Report were detrimental to the unitary character of Sri Lanka. They also claimed decentralization of State power would create a serious situation that would lead to communal and ethnic divisions, eventually paving the way for thedivision of the country. It is evident the Karaka Maha Sanga Sabahs are talking in the political language of Rajapaksa and helping him in his political project on an extremely ethno-religious platform.
Some leading Buddhist prelates have claimed the country would get stuck in a federal system if a new constitution is implemented. They have also claimed the government could surreptitiously enact a new constitution and threatened to take to the streets to defeat any such moves. The question now is, why are these Buddhist sects, ambivalent in their opposition to constitutional reforms for more than one and a half years, since the Constitutional Assembly was appointed and the process of drafting constitution was taken forward to a relatively decisive stage, now aggressively agitating and demanding that all activities be stopped? How can they declare there is no need for a new constitution when the people had mandated the drafting of a new constitution through the Presidential election of January 2015? How can they make such a declaration when the general consensus in the democratic polity and civil society is that constitutional reform process is a national imperative in the post-war context? It is a regrettable fact that the Maha Sangha has no problem with any political reform process as long as it has nothing to do with a political solution to the national question. Historically the Maha Sangha has been in the forefront of opposition to any attempt to find a meaningful political solution that would address the legitimate aspirations and genuine grievances of the national minorities. It is important to view the Buddhist clergy’s opposition to constitutional reforms in that historical context.
They are determined to ensure that no attempt is made to address the national question through the constitution making process and have openly claimed that the government is trying to fully implement the 13th Amendment to the present constitution in the pretext of drafting a new constitution. Hence the real purpose of their opposition to the constitutional reforms stands exposed.
There is no doubt a majority of Sri Lankans want constitutional change. However, there may be a segment of the people and the politythat do not want change. How is it that the Maha Sangha has become the advocate of these segments’ political stand? Do they not feel any need to respect the opinion of the majority of Sri Lankans who want a new political culture?
It is incongruous that the Maha Sangha have no compunction in declaring aggressively that any political initiative can be taken forward only with their consent or permission.The tendency to elevate the opinion of the Maha Sangha above democratic political discussion and debate is certainly detrimental to the future of the country. The saffron robe, which is a symbol of renunciation, has now increasingly become a symbol of acquisition of political authority contrary to the teachings of Gautama Buddha. This will eventually make Buddhism a politica religion in Sri Lanka. As in the case of previous Sinhala political leaders who used the Maha Sangha to torpedo attempts to find a political solution to the ethnic problem, former president Rajapaksa is now cleverly mobilizing the Maha Sangha and hard-line nationalist forces to thwart the government’s initiative to find a constitutional solution to the national problem.
A few days ago, after paying homage to one of the Mahanayaka Thereas, Rajapaksa declared that all sects of Buddhism including the Asgiriya and Malwathu chapters object toa new constitution. ‘Even when the clergy had announced that there is no need for a new constitution, the government pays no attention to them and continues with the way they wanted,” he said. Rajapaksa further said that a journey without the blessings of Mahanayake Theras would have no success.
In light of the recent developments one cannot but help ask whether the Maha Sangha in Sri Lanka is against accommodating even the minimum legitimate aspirations of the national minority communities? Aren’t there any sections that support and advocate liberal values among the Maha Sangha? If there are any, why are they silent? Why aren’t they coming out and airing their views in public atthis critical juncture? In this context, two paragraphs in veteran Communist leader, Late N. Shanmugathasan’s autobiography ‘Political Memoirs of An Unrepentant Communist’ about Buddhism in Sri Lanka, is very pertinent.
‘Much of irrationality of thought and action among the Sinhalese can be attributed to the lack of a rationalist tradition in Sinhala/Buddhist thought. The role of Buddhist monks in Sri Lankan politics has been largely negative and reactionary, although there have been instances when they played a positive role. It is no accident that a Buddhist monk in saffron robe who snuffed out the life of the most popular Prime Minister and that another was convicted of conspiracy in that crime and sentenced to jail, where he died. ‘Thus, the Buddhist Sangha, has for the most part, played a negative role in Sri Lanka. Unless the Sinhalese secure their release from the domination and tutelage of the Sangha, the future will be grim. Indeed the very concept of a Sinhala Buddhist runs counter to Buddhism’s basic tenets. There is no future for Sri Lanka unless religion is divorced from politics’.