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Buddhist monks baulk at losing political status

COLOMBO (UCAN): The powerful Buddhist monks of Sri Lanka have unanimously decided to oppose any changes in the constitution or even amending the existing one, something that Father Nandana Manatunga, the director of the Human Rights Office Kandy, points out that the president, Maithripala Sirisena, promised in his election campaign.
The current constitution recognises Buddhism as the foremost religion in the country and the council of monks, including the Mahanayaka Thera that regulates clergy in majority Buddhist countries, said after a special council meeting there is no need to draft a new constitution.
The senior monks came to their collective decision following discussions held on July 4.
The government has 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.
The president made an election pledge to make changes to the current constitution, including electoral reforms, as well as restructuring the executive presidential system and devolving power.
The existing constitution was formed with a unicameral legislature, an executive presidential system and with Buddhism recognised as the foremost religion, but people in the street and rights advocates have urged the government to draft a new constitution that would include electoral reform and a permanent political solution with the minority Tamil people.
The Tamil community has said it is not happy with the existing constitution, as it does not address Tamil political grievances and it does not have faith that ethnic reconciliation can be achieved without rewriting the existing constitution.
Cabinet spokesperson, Rajitha Senaratne, said that the government would work on a new constitution giving the minority Tamil people greater autonomy in keeping with the promises made 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 Manatunga stresses that 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,” Father Manatunga said.
He also pointed out that the current charter is anti-people and has paved the way for the dictatorial forms of governance that the country has witnessed over the past decades.
Sri Lanka is a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country. Buddhism is the main state religion under the current constitution.
Close to 70 per cent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, with Islam, Hinduism and Catholic making up the other major religions. In terms of ethnicity, about 75 per cent of Sri Lankans are Sinhalese and about 15 per cent Tamil.
The current constitution was drafted in 1978 and has been amended 19 times. The former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, also pledged to enact a new constitution, but did not do it.
“The 1978 constitution is anti-people and paved the way for a dictatorial form of governance,” Father Reid Shelton Fernando, a human rights advocate and former chaplain of the Young Christian Workers in Colombo, said.
“In the presidential elections held on 8 January 2015, the majority of the people gave their consent by stating that there should be a new constitution,” he said.
The United Nations Human Rights Council has advised the government to devolve more power to the provinces.
M. Devaraj, a Tamil rights advocate, said that the Tamil people will suffer and continue to protest if the constitution does not address minority issues.

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