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Sri Lanka's clarion call to become a secular state

The most recent amendment that got through was criticized as detrimental to democratic principles

Sri Lanka's clarion call to become a secular state

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

Published: September 13, 2017 05:10 AM GMT

Updated: September 13, 2017 07:11 AM GMT

One of the sticking points in a proposed new Constitution for Sri Lanka centers on the degree of prominence to be given to Buddhism as the state religion.

Over the years, there have been 19 amendments to the 1978 Constitution, some enacted in haste. A number of measures perceived to be "draconian" were dropped and independent "commissions" established under a Constitutional Council.

Government coalition parties promised changes to the electoral process, but they did not eventuate before the dissolution of parliament in July, 2015, pending elections.

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Why the need for a Change?

The most recent amendment that got through was criticized as detrimental to democratic principles. Checks and balances such as the independent commissions were watered down. And the executive role of 'president' was given almost absolute power.

In 1977 parliamentary elections, the ruling United National Party (UNP) had a more than two-thirds majority, allowing pursuance of its own agenda. Then Prime Minister J.R. Jayawardene later became the country’s first executive president under an amended Constitution.

This authoritarian template benefited the rich rather than poor workers. The situation was aggravated in 1983 with the outbreak of ethnic conflict with Tamil insurgents that lasted for almost 30 years.

The victors of the presidential elections in January 2015, took the first step towards a new Constitution, appointing a committee of 20 persons to seek a wide range of views.

In the meantime, all members of parliament became members of a Constituent Assembly. A steering committee was also established. One vexed issue centers on Article 9 of the 1978 constitution and the amount of prominence to be given in future to Buddhism. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo has taken up this matter up.


The system of governance in the Buddhist religion

There are 10,500 temples in Sri Lanka divided into "chapters" of Theravada Buddhism known as the "Three Nikayas" with their own leaders. However, they can come together to jointly express views through what is known as the Mahanayakas.

In this case, they expressed opposition to adoption of a new Constitution.

The call of the Mahanayakas was made at Kandy in the center of Sri Lanka, the city of a sacred temple believed to house a tooth of Buddha. Consequently, the political leadership promised to show chief monks a constitutional draft.

It appeared that the Buddhist leaders feared there could be an increased role and influence for non-Buddhists. Another cause of dissention involved a push for human rights provisions to be enunciated in the final draft of a new constitution.

The senior monks appeared apprehensive that human rights could be enshrined in a non-religious way, leading to a more secular state.


Future expectations

As I pen these views, it is salient to consider what would happen to the country if the views of the chief monks were to be taken seriously by the political leadership. In my view, there is a danger that the hopes of ordinary people, including minorities, would be dashed.

After years of ethnic conflict, expectations are high that such strife can be avoided in future and Sri Lanka can become a model of religious amity. In January 2015, during a visit to Sri Lanka, Pope Francis reminded people of the need to work towards unity and justice. He spoke of the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace. 

Father Reid Shelton Fernando is a human rights activist and was Archdiocese of Colombo coordinator of the Young Christian Workers Movement.


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