By Malinda Seneviratne –
The Mahanayaka of the Malwatte Chapter, the Most Venerable Tibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera has made an interesting pronouncement. Referring to the fact that President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe had said the proposed new Constitution would safeguard the country’s unitary status and the pre-eminent place afforded to Buddhism, the prelate states, “When the two leaders ruling the country have given such an assurance there is no point in questioning about its validity.”
Let us state at the outset, that the issue of whether or not devolution or the dismantling of the unitary character of the state is prudent is of secondary importance to this article. The focus is believability; it is about trust and therefore a trust-deficit and consequently the attempt to hoodwink the general public.
It appears that the learned Mahanayaka Thero has for a moment forgotten the basic tenets of the Buddha’s Charter on Free Inquiry, the Kalama Sutta. This is what the Buddha proposed to the Kalamas: “Come, Kalamas. Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing; nor upon tradition; nor upon rumor; nor upon what is in a scripture; nor upon surmise; nor upon an axiom; nor upon specious reasoning; nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over; nor upon another’s seeming ability; nor upon the consideration, ‘The monk is our teacher.’ Kalamas, when you yourselves know: ‘These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness,’ enter on and abide in them.”
In this instance the Mahanayaka Thero has erred on the side of trust. We shall return to this matter later. For now, let us consider the constitutional changes sought by the Yahapalana Government and the manner in which it has proceeded.
Let’s begin with the proposals for constitutional reform. What we have today is not a draft amendment but a concept, sorry, 9 concepts — the report of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly and the 8 observations by political parties. The United National Party, by default has agreed with the report while others have, in their submissions, expressed disagreement on various sections of the report. The JVP, for reasons best known to it, has submitted a two-page set of observations which seems light considering the weight of changes envisaged in the report. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party, the Joint Opposition and the Jathika Hela Urumaya have been strong in their objections. In other words, it is not a ‘done deal,’ yet.
The regime is navel-gazing on the matter of coming up with a solid document that incorporates all observations or else goes ahead with what should be called the UNP Proposal. As such it only feeds suspicion and rumor-mongers. It could do better, but then again, yahapalana-incompetence seems to be a shackle that is hard to shed.
Let’s consider the UNP Proposal. With respect to the issues of Buddhism and the unitary status, as has been pointed out, if these matters are to be ‘untouched’ as the President and Prime Minister appear to have impressed on the venerable prelate, then no alteration in the current wording is warranted. Moreover, the ‘status quo’ should not be touched through caveats on any relevant matter including power-devolution.
With respect to the status of Buddhism, the so-called privileges supposedly entrenched in Article 9 are negated in effect by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e). A reformulation offered as an option by the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly reads as follows: “Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Article 10 and 14(1)(e).” A wordy re-statement essentially. In essence the arbitrary deletion in word and deed of the relevant clause of the Kandyan Convention remains, despite all the rhetoric of this being a country where there is a ‘Buddhist hegemony.’ At least, in this case, there’s no deception. It’s in the machinations involving the nature of the state where we see the Yahapalana Regime trying to pull wool over the eyes of the majority community.
A nation is ‘unitary’ or ‘federal’ or ‘a confederacy’ not on the label used but on the simple fact (or otherwise) of where legislative power resides. In Sri Lanka’s case, it is Articles 4(a) and 76(1) which give the state a unitary character. It is these very articles that the Yahapalana Government is set to butcher. The moment legislative power of any kind is devolved to the provincial councils, for example, the state ceases to be unitary in character, in procedure and in effect.
One must hope that the Most Venerable Tibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera would at least in future read such drafts with perhaps the assistance of relevant experts before offering blank cheques to the regime. With respect to the Charter of Free Inquiry alluded to above, perhaps the Thero focused on the clause ‘these things are praised by the wise.’ As of now the only persons praised are the President and the Prime Minister.
Does the Venerable Thero believe that presidents and prime ministers are trustworthy on account of the offices they hold? Has the Venerable Thero considered the track record of all the presidents and prime ministers since Independence? Were they democrats? Did they not abuse power? Were they not guilty of constitutional hanky-panky? J.R. Jayewardene was the Grandmaster of constitutional hanky-panky. Ranasinghe Premadasa and D.B. Wijethunga didn’t (have to) engage in constitutional tinkering, Chandrika Kumaratunga tried and failed, and Mahinda Rajapaksa came up with the patently anti-democratic and self-serving 18th Amendment. As for the prime ministers, most of them placed high value on political expediency. Ranil Wickremesinghe is included in the sorry-column in this regard considering his role in the passage of the 13th Amendment and machinations during his tenure from 2001-2004.
As for the two individuals referenced, are they wise? Are they honest? Are they trustworthy? The President’s wisdom can be gauged by the nepotism, incompetence, abuse of resources and political chicanery he has excelled in. As for the Prime Minister, the appointment and defense of Arjuna Mahendran says all that needs to be said about his wisdom. Moreover, this regime has established beyond any shadow of doubt that the will of the people is not its concern. The continued postponement of elections with vague reasons offered for the same prove that the regime either does not give a hoot for the opinions of the voters or is reluctant to go before them for endorsement fearing summary dismissal.
The Most Venerable Tibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera’s trust, therefore, is patently misplaced. Unfortunately. Until such time that the President and Prime Minister back their claims regarding the ‘unitary status’ with a clear affirmation of the same by rejecting proposals to devolve legislative power, it is only prudent to treat flippant assurances as they should be, i.e. with more than a pinch of salt.
If on the other hand, the regime comes clean and the President and Prime Minister clearly states ‘our intention is dismantle the unitary state in favor of a federal or confederal arrangement or even a division of the country,’ then the good Thero can legitimately place his trust on them and then, if he so chooses, in the Thero’s wisdon, support their proposals. The Thero also has the option of rejecting them because the Thero wants clauses relating to Buddhism and the nature of the state left intact.
As things stand, however, the trust-deficit with respect to the regime in general and the President and Prime Minister in particular, is overwhelming. The wisdom, consequently, of the Most Venerable Tibbotuwawe Sri Siddhartha Sumangala Thera, needs to be questioned, we offer most respectfully.