By Dharisha Bastians –
A political week marked by a Buddhist monk’s suicide by fire and the main opposition’s promise of constitutional reform that seeks to pour balm over the country’s democratic woes
When Bowatte Indrarathana Thero poured petrol on his body and set himself ablaze outside the sacred Temple of the Tooth in Kandy last Friday, he set in motion a series of unfortunate events that shattered the peace of Vesak season. The holiday weekend to commemorate the birth, passing and enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama is usually a time of reflection and meditation for Buddhist devotees and a festival of light for other denizens of the ‘land of the Buddha’, who take to the streets of Colombo and suburbs in their hundreds to view the spectacle of lanterns and pandols that illuminate the streets. This year, the holy season was marred by terrifying images of a human inferno, saffron robed and dancing in flames before Sri Lanka’s most sacred Buddhist shrine. Indrarathana Thero succumbed to his injuries 24 hours later, after being airlifted from the Kandy General Hospital to Colombo National Hospital for treatment. He had chosen this gruesome death apparently to protest against the slaughter of cattle and alleged unethical conversions taking place in the country.
The monk had been vehemently opposed to the Halal method of animal slaughter, an issue that has become increasingly heated in the current political discourse, with hardline groups like the Bodu Bala Sena and the Sinhala Ravaya acting like a religious police, raiding abattoirs and threatening meat transporters. Rather than call on Buddhists to refuse to consume meat and appeal to the sensibilities of other communities against the killing of animals for consumption, groups like the Sinhala Ravaya and BBS led by Buddhist clergy have chosen to agitate for a blanket Government ban on cattle-slaughter because Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist country. The hardline groups perceive the Muslim community as being the main producers and consumers of beef. The ruling administration is not entirely unappreciative of the campaign, with many members of the ruling family already being ardent vegetarians.
The political and communal overtones of the self-immolation therefore, were hard to miss.
The self-immolation was filmed in graphic detail by a private television crew the Media Ministry now suspects had advance notice of the monk’s intentions in front of the Dalada Maligawa on Vesak Full Moon Poya day. The television station ran a short documentary on the incident later that night. The Ministry has summoned the channel’s executives over the incident, claiming that in choosing to film instead of act on the prior warning they had received about the monk’s suicide attempt, the media organisation had failed to prevent the unnecessary loss of life. While the jury is still out on the media’s role in crisis situations unfolding in real time in emergencies and conflicts throughout the world, it is not the first time that media personnel have chosen to film rather than save in truly life threatening situations. When a Tamil youth was beaten to death and drowned allegedly by police officers attached to the Bambalapitiya Police Station, in the seas off Bambalapitiya in 2009, plenty of video footage emerged of the murder, but not a single spectator in the crowd chose to step in to save the drowning victim. The Government did not raise an issue with the media then, but the political nature of a Buddhist’s monk’s suicide caused some disturbance in the ranks of the administration, with Cabinet Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella also pledging to investigate the media’s role in facilitating the monk’s suicide by fire.
Since the monk’s death, attempts have been made to portray the self-immolation as an act of tremendous self-sacrifice, in the manner of monks from Tibet who set themselves ablaze as a last resort against Chinese rule in the disputed territory. The actions of the Tibetan monks have been repeatedly denounced by Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. This glorification of Indrarathana Thero’s gory death has emanated largely from the hardline Sinhala group the Sinhala Ravaya, the organisation of which Indrarathana Thero was a member, even as the Buddhist establishment has criticised the suicide saying it set a terrible example. The deceased priest who was a member of the Sinhala Ravaya group, was formerly an elected representative of the Jathika Hela Urumaya in the Pelmadulla local council. His name has been associated with several incidents reported in the last few years, including the Dambulla mosque protest, acts of intolerance against Christian places of worship in the Weeraketiya region and alleged attempts to cause harm to a police station in the deep south.
Demanding a Colombo funeral
Following the passing of a Buddhist monk, his remains are sometimes returned to his next of kin. After Bowatte Indrarathana Thero succumbed to his injuries last Saturday, the authorities made arrangements for the transfer of his remains to his hometown Kahawatte in the Ratnapura District. The preparation of the remains for his last rites was performed at the Jayaratne Funeral Parlour in Borella, which also performed these services for Government troops killed in service during the war.
On Sunday (26), leading Sinhala Ravaya monks and their supporters surrounded the funeral home and demanded that the monk’s remains be retained in Colombo where the organisation believed the funeral of the fallen rebel monk should be held. The protests near the Borella Cemetery evoked chilling memories of a similar protest 30 years ago, when grieving families and mourners were whipped into an emotional frenzy by Elle Gunawansa Thero, Chief Organiser of the Sinhala Mahajana Peramuna who was demanding the authorities show the crowds some part of the 13 soldiers slain in Jaffna in July 1983 (Sinha Ratnatunga – Politics of Terrorism). Sunday’s protestors, realising the funeral parlour management had no say over the transfer of the remains, then proceeded to the residence of Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa in Bauddhaloka Mawatha, where they threatened to set fire to themselves and demanded a funeral for Bowatte Indrarathana Thero in Colombo. When no concession was forthcoming from the powerful senior regime official, the crowds marched on towards Temple Trees, forcing the police to close down Galle Road to prevent their advance. Their attempts thwarted, the Sinhala Ravaya protestors dispersed, vowing to bring crowds of people to the deceased monk’s funeral in Ratnapura and demanding that the Government ban the slaughter of cattle in the country at least on a temporary basis until the monk’s final rites were completed.
A funeral in Kahawatte
Bowatte Indrarathana Thero was cremated at the Poranuwa School Grounds in Kahawatte amidst tight security and before a large crowd of mourners on Tuesday (28) including Minister John Seneviratne. The 29 year old monk was born in Bowatte, in Balangoda and was ordained at the Poranuwa Temple in Kahawatte It is believed that the monk’s next of kin desired that the funeral ceremony be held in his hometown, in spite of the demands by the hardline groups. It is not clear why the Sinhala Ravaya desired the monk be cremated in Colombo – whether it was aimed at attracting a larger crowd because of the centrality of the location or whether the fiery group had more sinister motives. In any event, the decision by the authorities to allow the funeral arrangements to take place far from the capital may have averted a potentially heated last rites ceremony spearheaded by the Sinhala Ravaya group. While it is not immediately clear what the political ramifications of Indrarathana Thero’s fiery death will be, there is little doubt that the tragedy will galvanise Sinhala Ravaya and other similar forces to garner more majority community support for the causes the young priest purportedly died for.
Even as the flames of religious disharmony and mistrust between communities were further stoked over the Vesak holidays, politicians across the political spectrum are preoccupied with drawing up legislation for amending or drafting anew the Sri Lankan Constitution.
Ranil picks Karu
At a ceremony held in Committee Room 2 of the Parliamentary Complex last morning, United National Party Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe unveiled his party’s proposals for constitutional reform, which the main opposition party says it will put before a referendum of the people within six months of forming a government. The UNP Leader unveiled the key features of his proposed new constitution before members of the clergy and party representatives. After handing over the document to the members of the clergy present at the ceremony, Wickremesinghe turned next to former UNP Deputy Leader Karu Jayasuriya and handed the proposals over to him. The choice of Jayasuriya was no accident, observers at the event say, because it was clear the television crews had been given the cue to turn towards the former Deputy Leader once the document was handed over to the religious leaders present.
It was not immediately clear why the UNP Leader chose Jayasuriya from among his party men as the next worthy to receive his proposals, especially since there has been no love lost between the two since Jayasuriya challenged Wickremesinghe for the party leadership in December 2011. Jayasuriya has since lost his seat on the party’s Working Committee, its apex decision making body. Observers say that Wickremesinghe’s motivation could be aimed at rapprochement with Jayasuriya, an attempt to highlight his magnanimity or even an acknowledgement of his former deputy’s relentless agitation for the abolishment of the executive presidency and the reinstatement of the 17th Amendment that sets up the independent commissions. Jayasuriya who was overseas for over a week, attending the United Nation’s Day of Vesak events in Bangkok returned to the island on Tuesday in time for the unveiling.
The UNP’s proposals are largely seen as an reaction to the constitutional reform proposals unveiled by the National Movement for Social Justice led by Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero and drafted by a team of senior lawyers, that envisions an abolition of the executive presidency. Wickremesinghe’s constitutional reform proposals also include the abolition of the presidency, and aims to vest executive power previously held by the President of the Republic, in the Head of State, the Prime Minister and the Speaker’s Council. The UNP proposals suggest three separate options for the exercise of executive power under the new constitution – (a) A prime minister elected by the people to govern with a Cabinet with both Premier and Cabinet responsible to Parliament; (b) An elected Head of State to ensure direct exercise of the peoples’ sovereignty, to act on the advice of the Council of State comprising Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition, leaders of the political parties represented in parliament and the chief ministers of all nine provincial councils. This Council will “decide on all political directions and national priorities” with its decisions to be implemented by the Cabinet of Ministers headed by the Prime Minister. The decisions of the ‘Council of State’ will be by consensus, with majority decisions to prevail when consensus proves impossible; and (c) the adoption of the Westminster system of Governance. The UNP reform proposals also call for the setting up of a constitutional court to deal with all matters relating to the interpretation of the constitution, to inquire into allegations of misconduct against judges and rule on election violations. Like the NMSJ proposals that seek to limit the number of cabinet ministers – a key feature of any constitutional reform proposal after President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s cabinet has nearly crossed the century mark – the UNP proposals also seek to limit the number of cabinet ministers to 25.
Devolution and anti-corruption
The reforms also seek the abolishment of the preferential system. The proposals also deal with the devolution of power, in consideration of the Tissa Vitarana report, the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the resolutions at the UN Human Rights Council, the Joint Communiqué between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Secretary General of the UN in May 2009 and President Rajapaksa’s speech in parliament in May 2009. Good governance and parliamentary oversight have also got much emphasis in the UNP’s reform proposals, including the reinstatement of independent elections, police and other commissions, the introduction of anti-corruption laws and the strengthening and empowering of legislative oversight committees such as the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Perhaps most important, the UNP’s proposals includes a clause on political crossovers, working it into the constitution per se that a member of a legislative body who ceases to be a member of a party from which he/she is elected will cease to hold office in that body. Constitutional reformists see the inclusion of this clause as being central to the restoration of democracy and the peoples’ sovereignty, especially as the last few years has proven with what ease presidential power allows the executive to amass an artificial two thirds plus majority through political crossovers that not only warps an electoral mandate but also allows the undisputed passage of all manner of unconstitutional, undemocratic and unjust legislation. As such, the crossover clause is also a part of the NMSJ proposals.
The dangers of the executive presidency became acutely obvious even to the chief proponents of the system, Lalith Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake not long into its lifespan. Whether this was merely because of their antagonism towards the Ranasinghe Premadasa administration and their perception of his being an undeserving and inappropriate holder of that high office or not, neither of the UNP stalwarts had their faith restored in the system. In fact, it was speculated that Dissanayake before his death in 1994 had reached out to Chandrika Kumaratunga, by then Prime Minister, while the presidency was still in the hands of D.B. Wijetunga, asking her to join forces to abolish the presidency. Perhaps Dissanayake, realising the wave of popularity on which Kumaratunga had been elected to prime ministerial office, feared a presidential poll and was merely being expedient. But when the poll rolled around, and Dissanayake met his tragic end during the campaign, Kumaratunga had already made the abolition of the presidency her chief battle-slogan. Yet she held that office for not one, but two terms, even though she made an attempt to abolish the system through her 2000 draft constitution that was defeated due to a lack of opposition support.
Chaos in 2000
The Wickremesinghe led UNP’s decision to defeat Kumaratunga’s 2000 constitution was perhaps the biggest political miscalculation in the party’s recent history. No party has suffered more due to the consolidation of presidential power and no political ideology has been defeated as roundly as the UNP’s peace proposals; and both these have been at the hands Kumaratunga’s successor. Kumaratunga’s constitutional reform sought to severely dilute the powers of the presidency, with the establishment of an executive prime minister. It also included a devolution package for the Tamil community residing in the north and east and as the Friday Forum pointed out during the impeachment of the country’s 43rd Chief Justice, a far more judicious and ethical system for the discipline and removal of judges of the upper courts. After 28 rounds of meetings and negotiations about the 2000 proposals, the UNP pulled out of discussions citing the fact that Kumaratunga was seeking to complete her second term in office (that commenced in 1999) before the new system would take effect. However, President Kumaratunga had told a senior UNP representative at the negotiations that the clause for her to continue in office had been included by then Constitutional Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris and acknowledged she was agreeable to its withdrawal if it meant the UNP would support the legislation.
But Wickremesinghe pulled his party out of the discussions and proceeded to agitate against the draft when it was tabled in parliament, creating uproarious scenes in the House of MPs burning the constitution while the President presented it before the legislature. In light of the actions of her successor to consolidate the powers of an already too-powerful office, with the removal of term limits and the annexation of the Attorney General’s department and the deciding authority on appointments to the public service at all levels, Kumaratunga must be given her due for having chosen to introduce the 17th Amendment and the 2000 draft constitution when both legislations severely eroded her own presidential powers.
All party support?
It would seem in fact, that every contender for the office of executive president, (the incumbent being no exception), appears to be seeking the abolishment of the office to which they aspire at costly and often hotly contested polls. It is unique in that it has all party support – but no takers when it comes down to the nitty gritty of implementation. The taste of power, too often, has proved too sweet to resist. It has in fact been seen as a boon thus far only by the minority parties, that have long believed that they can expect fairer treatment at the hands of a single executive than in parliament which comprises of legislators elected on a proportional basis, rendering majority community representation in the House constantly higher. Yet in the years since 2005, the minority political parties have learned that excessive executive power in the hands of a single hawkish individual could exacerbate the plight of minorities in the country and ensure their grievances are ignored. The Mahinda Rajapaksa presidency has if anything proved that parliament might in fact be less hostile to minorities than a single individual who is captive to his personal and familial ideologies and possesses the power to give those ideologies force. Hereinafter then, political observers claim, the minorities political parties have no rationale to continue to support the presidential system.
This is no doubt why the Government too is mulling its own set of constitutional reforms. According to current speculation, the new amendment being proposed will seek to reduce the term of office of the President to five years, even though the president will still be permitted to contest an unlimited number of terms.
The proposals for new constitutions at least on the part of the UNP and other opposition movements appears to be predicated on the assumption that a presidential poll is likely to be held in 2014, for astrological and other reasons. Some Government insiders meanwhile, believe the next presidential election will not be declared until at least January 2015. While it may seem illogical for a President that is virtually of being elected by hook or by crook at any future poll to cut short his term by two years, the opposition calculation appears to be that the Rajapaksa administration is convinced that to wait would be to risk the further unpopularity of incumbency, although this has not seemed to trouble the President’s party for nearly eight years. The Opposition believes that having promised abolishment in 2005, President Rajapaksa would have no moral authority to oppose a common opposition candidate contesting on a platform to abolish the presidency in the next presidential poll. Opposition activists say it is likely that the two proposed constitutions presented by the UNP and the NMSJ have strong potential for conciliation given their similarity of scope. The next sticking point will be the selection of a joint opposition candidate that can command both the confidence of the minorities and also break part of the Rajapaksa administration’s Sinhala Buddhist vote base at a presidential election. According to opposition calculations the ruling regime risks losing this key majority support if the country’s economic woes get progressively more severe, prompting the administration towards a fresh election sooner rather than later.
Unfortunately all these lofty opposition proposals for reforming the state of the nation, election strategies and battle-slogans will only matter if the incumbent administration, with its two thirds majority, super power presidency and anti-democratic tendencies, still believes elections are any longer necessary to the future of its rule.
This may be the one calculation the opposition has still failed to consider.
Courtesy Daily FT