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Buddhist monks decide against new Sri Lankan constitution

Current charter is anti-people and paved the way for a dictatorial form of governance, says Catholic priest

Buddhist monks decide against new Sri Lankan constitution

Sri Lankan opposition activists shout slogans and carry a banner against the amendment to the constitution during a protest rally in Colombo in this file photo. (Photo by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)

ucanews.com reporter, Colombo
Sri Lanka

July 7, 2017

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Senior Buddhist monks have unanimously decided against a new constitution or amending the existing Sri Lankan constitution that recognizes Buddhism as the foremost religion.

The high-ranking Buddhist monks including Mahanayaka Thera gathered in a special council meeting and strongly emphasized that there was no need to draft a new constitution. The senior monks came to the collective decision following discussions held on July 4.

The government converted parliament into a constitutional assembly and a committee was appointed to gather public opinion on drafting a new constitution in 2016. The committee has already presented its final report to the government.

President Maithripala Sirisena made an election pledge to make changes to the current constitution, which included electoral reforms, restructuring the executive presidential system and devolving power.

The existing constitution was formed with a unicameral legislature, an executive presidential system and with Buddhism recognized as the foremost religion. Voters and rights activists have urged the government to draft a new constitution that would include new electoral reforms and a permanent political solution with minority Tamils.

The country's Tamil community is not happy with the existing constitution as it does not address Tamil political grievances and they do not have faith that ethnic reconciliation can be achieved without rewriting the existing constitution.

Cabinet spokesman, Rajitha Senaratne, said that the government would work on a new constitution by giving minority Tamil people greater autonomy, in keeping with promises during the general and presidential elections.

He said in a media briefing on July 5 that 6.2 million people voted for them to change the current constitution.

Father Nandana Manatunga, director of the Human Rights Office in Kandy said the president and the government were elected by people expecting them to fulfill their promises.

"The presidential candidate was elected by the people to change the constitution. If the constitution is not changed none of the national issues can be solved and we would be back to zero," said Father Manatunga.

Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Buddhism is the main state religion under the current constitution.

Close to 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists, with Muslims, Hindus and Catholics making up the other major religions. In terms of ethnicity, about 75 percent of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese and about 15 percent are Tamils.

The current constitution was drafted in 1978 and has been amended 19 times. Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa also pledged to enact a new constitution but did not.

"The 1978 Constitution is anti-people and paved the way for a dictatorial form of governance," said Father Reid Shelton Fernando, a human rights activist and former chaplain of the Young Christian Workers movement in the Archdiocese of Colombo.

"In the Presidential Elections held on Jan. 8, 2015, majority of the people gave their consent by stating that there should be a new constitution," said the priest.

The U.N. Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has advised the government to devolve more power to the provinces.

M. Devaraj, a Tamil rights activist, said that Tamils will suffer and will continue to protest if the constitution does not address minority issues. 

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