BY Lucien Rajakarunanayake
The debate on a new constitution is certainly gathering force, but regrettably it is largely a distorted debate due to deliberate efforts by those clearly opposed to a new constitution being adopted in the country, presenting the Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly, which is the Parliament, as the Draft Constitution.
What is taking place is a debate on unreality, deceit, duplicity and falsehood, taking the constitution making process to one of political mendacity; going against the mandate given by the people in January 2015 for a new constitution, remove the Executive Presidency and make Sri Lanka a more democratic state, with wider sharing of power.
This debate of duplicity is being transformed into a confrontation on religion and not on the substance of the State, and the formulations of State policy for the future. In a situation where instead of statecraft that should be the substance of the discussion, so-called religiosity is pushed forward with the use of the yellow robe, wholly distorting the thinking on constitutional reform. This comes with threats of mass protests led by sections of the Maha Sangha, clearly orchestrated by political forces that look towards racial and religious divides in the country, to support their goals of majoritarian politics.
The new surge of Sangha driven politics, against any new constitution, or constitutional reform, calling for the present Constitution to be kept unchanged, wholly ignores the call for constitutional change from 1978, showing a dangerous ignorance of history in the politics of post-independence Sri Lanka, especially after the rise of the Sinhala Only majoritarian politics in 1956.
Banda – Chelva Pact
It is necessary to recall it was large scale protests led by the Sangha that led to the tearing up of the Bandaranaike – Chelvanayakam Pact in 1958, intended to reduce communal disagreements, with a certain level of autonomy to the Tamil people. Prime Minister Bandaranaike, who was compelled to tear the pact, said he was doing it under pressure, and the consequences would be seen much later. He was not alive to see the full bloody consequences of this pro-Sinhala-Buddhist majoritarian pressure by politicians displaying the influence and power of the yellow robe.
It was not very long after, in March 1965, that Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake signed an agreement with S. J. V. Chelvanayakam – known as the Dudley – Chelva Pact – seeking to resolve some important matters affecting the Tamil speaking people. This too saw huge protest led by sections of the Sangha, and in the final clash with the police at Kollupitiya one young monk was killed; leading to Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake having to do away with the Pact.
The results of these mass protest movements largely led by sections of the Sangha and serving the interests of political opponents of the then governments were seen not too long after; when the country was thrown into a thirty year fight against separatist terrorism led by the LTTE. That battle ended in May 2009, but the conditions that caused the rise of separatist forces among the Tamil people, especially the Tamil youth, have still not been fully addressed and resolved. One aspect of the proposed new constitution, as seen in the Steering Committee Report, is to address the larger issue of national unity, and ensure that peace prevails among the different communities and religions in the country.
The present threats made by sections of the Sangha to take to the streets and prevent any change in the Constitution, is clearly seeking to push the country and its people back to the days of the majoritarian rejection of minority rights, and fair play in a democracy. This threatens the country once again of antagonistic living among the communities in the country, with its dangerous consequences, as history has shown us, both in Sri Lanka and abroad.
Against Buddhist thought
It is necessary to emphasize that this campaign by sections of the Sangha against constitutional reform or change, is wholly against the principles of Buddhist teaching, which gives the highest importance to understanding, tolerance and compassion.
The Steering Committee Report gives different proposals on the position and description of the State – as Unitary, as proposed by members of the Constituent Assembly, who are all members of this Parliament, as well as the public who made representations to the Committee. Similarly, there are alternate proposals about the status of Buddhism in this country. All of these remain proposals which can be well debated and accepted, or amended and rejected by the Constituent Assembly (Parliament) at the debate next week. None of these are dictums, precepts or any doctrines of faith. They are open to good discussion and debate, proper analysis, scrutiny and assay in keeping with the core principles of Buddhist teaching. In such a context, the campaign being manipulated with the participation of sections of the Sangha, to give a wholly wrong message about a Draft Constitution, or certain dangerous clauses in a supposedly new constitution, is one meant to mislead the people. It is something which no person committed to reason and rationality, such as a follower of Buddhist teaching, whether in yellow robes or not, should accept.
This calls for a strong response from the Government on its own position vis-à-vis the proposals in the Steering Committee Report, and on the very concept and principle of a New Constitution. One noticeable aspect of the current debate on constitutional reform is the very large absence of direct government involvement. The debate is largely the theatre of the opposition both to the government and constitutional change. The divisions within the ruling coalition – the UNP and SLFP, as well as divisions within the formal and non-formal SLFP, is certainly pushing the government largely into a role of silence, where the government should be the key player in the debate. Both the UNP and SLFP cannot forget, or seem to not know the clear mandate given by the people for a new constitution. Most notably, it was part of the main message given by the Common Candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, at the campaign for the Presidential Poll on January 2015. This was the clear position of the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, who led the civil society movement and wider campaign for the Common Candidate. The abolition of the Executive Presidency was a very clear part of this message.
As the debate on the Steering Committee Report approaches, the Prime Minister has been critical of what is seen as biased reporting by sections of the media, on the issue of constitutional reform and the Sangha. However, there is doubt in the public mind as to what the UNP’s concept of the new constitution would be, other than its clear opposition to the Executive Presidency. On the other hand, there is the SLFP which for decades was to abolish the Executive Presidency, now wanting to retain it, and also opposing a new constitution. This position of the SLFP certainly requires a clear leadership position by the Party Leader, President Sirisena.
There is also the somewhat unexpected position by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is in support of abolishing the Executive Presidency, while opposing wider sharing of power among the people. This has much to do with the uncertainties of new political leadership.
What is clearly needed on this debate, to keep public support alive for a new constitution, is for President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to take a joint stand on the issue, and make a declaration in support of a new constitution. This will help strengthen the people’s support throughout the country and also give a major push back to the racist and majoritarian forces, aligned with sections of the Sangha opposed to any constitutional change. Such unity by the leaders of the ruling coalition will help take this debate to the realization of public expectations that gave the mandate in January 2015.
The threats of violence
While sections of the Sangha are giving warnings of mass action against constitutional reform, there is a new danger of violence against those who support such changes in the structure of the State in Sri Lanka. The Members of Parliament, whether they support these changes or not, are all threatened by a bomb attack on Parliament, if a new constitution is adopted. This threat comes from none other than the leader of the National Freedom Front, Wimal Weerawansa, who thinks he should move beyond his farcical fasting to make a new mark in politics.
The other major threat comes from Major General Kamal Gunaratne, the author of ‘Ranamaga Ossey – Nandikadal’, and speaker at the pro-Gotabhaya Rajapaksa; “Viyath Maga” who says a new constitution would divide the country, those supporting it are traitors, who should be given death. There is also a description given how such dead should be carried insultingly low.
It remains a major question how the Buddhist campaign against constitutional change, can come together with such declarations of violence. It would seem that the campaign against new policies of the State is certainly displaying the threats that exist to democracy and peaceful loving people, amidst the political desperation of majoritarian racists.
While the Speaker will be attending to the threat announced by Wimal Weerawansa, the threat by Maj. Gen Kamal Gunaratne looks the stuff of criminality and legal action.