Posted on October 8th, 2017

By Udaya P. Gammanpila Courtesy Ceylon Today

President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe have repeatedly said they would not touch the unitary State and the foremost place given to Buddhism. However, Buddha Sasana Karya Sadhaka Mandalaya which includes several Maha Nayake Theras emphatically states that the interim report of the steering committee had caused a severe damage to the status of Buddhism guaranteed by the Constitution.

In response, Jayampathi Wickremaratne, Parliamentarian and the architect of the new Constitution, vehemently rejected the allegation. Hence, let us examine how the interim report surreptitiously attempted to destroy the status of Buddhism. The report has proposed two alternatives for Article 9 of the present Constitution. The first alternative is almost the same as the existing Article. Hence, let us examine the second alternative. It says, “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 treating all religions and beliefs with honour and dignity, and without discrimination, and guaranteeing to all persons the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution.”

Foremost place

The first sentence of the above Article has given to Buddhism the foremost place. However, the second sentence says all religions should be treated without discrimination. Hence, if Buddhism is given the foremost place, it should be given to all other religions negating the special status given to Buddhism by the first sentence.

The present Article contains a phrase, “while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Article 10 and 14(1)(e)”. Article 10 guarantees the freedom to have or adopt a religion of his choice to every person. Article 14(1)(e) guarantees to every citizen, among others, the freedom to manifest, practise and teach his religion in public. It should be highlighted that although religious freedom guaranteed by Article 10 is for any person, the freedoms guaranteed by Article 14(1)(e) are available only for citizens.

However, the proposed article grants all fundamental rights to all persons, not limited to citizens. Hence, foreign fundamentalist missionaries will receive constitutional protection to teach religions using unethical means. The third proposed change to the Article is the addition of beliefs in addition to religions. A religion means an organized faith. People who have faith in the Bible have organized themselves as Christians. Similarly, people who have faith in Quran have organized themselves as Muslims.

Collective work and institutions and well-established doctrines are common features of any religion. Unlike religions, beliefs can be possessed independently or as small cults. For instance, although Buddhists believe that a Tooth Relic of Gauthama Buddha is at the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic in Kandy, Ven. Samanthabadra, however, does not believe it. The proposed Article grants the same status to Buddhism and the said individual belief. Hence, this individual monk gets the constitutional protection for spreading his belief.

Article 9

There is a long history for changing Article 9. President Chandrika Kumaratunga also attempted to provide constitutional protection to foreign missionaries in her Federal Constitution of 2000 as evinced by Article 7 and 15 of the draft Constitution.

When the draft was burnt in Parliament, dreams of the fundamentalists were also shattered. A renewed attempt of changing Article 9 came to limelight after the election of the present government. Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran is the first person to propose the removal of the foremost place given to Buddhism. Thereafter, Lal Wijenayake Committee appointed by the Cabinet for compiling a report for public representations, recommended amending Article 9. Only two members out of 19-member committee recommended to keep the Article as it is.

When the Cabinet seeks an ideological recommendation from a committee, it is fully aware of the fact that the recommendation of the committee depends on individual beliefs of the committee members. For instance, if Prof. Nalin De Silva was a member of the committee, he would have recommended to retain Article 9 as it is. Similarly, if Dr. Wickremabahu was a member of the Committee, he would have recommended for the repeal of the Article. In this backdrop, after considering the ideological background of the individuals appointed to the committee, it can be concluded that Cabinet was strongly of the view that Article 9 should substantially be amended.

Strong objections

Although we strongly objected to recommendations of the committee report, the government did not bother to respond.

Nevertheless, the government was forced to respond when Asgiriya Maha Nayaka Thera and Cardinal Malcom Ranjith strongly protested to changing Article 9. Hence, both the President and the Prime Minister broke their silence and pledged not to change the Article.

People realized that the pledge given was another broken promise when the draft interim report contained seven alternatives for Article 9 when it was leaked to the media by us. Public protests against the proposal reached its peak when Asgiriya Karaka Sangha Sabha issued a media statement vehemently protesting against the proposals. The government leaders had to repeat their previous pledge. However, the government has not given up its attempt to change Article 9 as it has proposed two alternatives to Article 9 in its interim report.

Government leaders repeatedly say that they have no intention of changing Article 9. If it is a genuine statement, why do they repeatedly suggest different alternatives instead of keeping the present Article as it is?

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