President Maithripala Sirisena’s visit to meet the Mahanayakes of the Buddhist Sangha in Kandy proved premature and it disturbed the continuity of discussions within the Constitutional Council: Because both the President and the Prime Minister denied that parties in the government have agreed on a framework for the Constitution. This was really the accusation of the Opposition and it may be the pivotal move in the anti-constitutional, sabotage process.
A week earlier a section of the Sangha had publicly announced in a joint statement that there was no need to bring in a new Constitution and that a new Constitution will create more conflicts in the country. Though the Buddhist clergy is very influential with the 70 percent who are Sinhala Buddhist especially on issues pertaining to identity, the division within the Sangha is very clear and educated and knowledgeable Theras have already come out strongly to support the government’s constitutional reform process. Whether it is in tackling the issues connected with providing a facilitative environment for economic development, taking action against corruption or dealing with fascistic war criminals, the government has been faltering. So far, Yahapalanaya was unable to deliver on what it has promised. This has enabled the Opposition to shout and scream and dominate the political debate.
At the last Presidential and General Elections held in 2015 all parties of the yahapalanaya promised some form of democratic change including constitutional reform. At those elections Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the UNP were consistent and specific about the constitutional reform that they proposed. They specified a new Constitution without the Executive Presidential system. On the other hand the devolution of power and the electoral system would be more democratic, they said. In this background with the change of government in 2015, it appeared that the new government would take swift action to both draft and implement the new Constitution. It was able to pass a resolution in Parliament that converted Parliament into a Constitutional Assembly. A 20-member Steering Committee on constitutional reform was formed headed by the Prime Minister. The government also embarked upon a hitherto unprecedented process of public consultations in order to obtain the views of the people on the proposed reforms of the Constitution. The committee then came out with a balanced and fair report that gave the main themes or headlines of public opinion on constitutional reform along with the different recommendations from democratic social organizations. However, the Yahapalanaya failed to launch a major educational and counter racist-fascist campaign on behalf of the new Constitution.
Technical committee reports were drafted by experts, but with participation of the parliamentarians in the six parliamentary sub-committees. But most of parliamentary members of those subcommittees have not participated. Many of them publicly complained that the process was outside their control and they did not know what was being drafted and how they were being drafted. As a result the Opposition was enabled to take the lead in going to the people and engaging in scaremongering without being challenged by the government members. However, once the opinions are taken from the public, drafting should be given to the experts. Then again the civil society and others including parliamentarians should finalize the draft proposal. Instead of shouting outside, the Opposition should participate in the finalizing process.
Absence of ownership
The President’s meeting with the Mahanayake Theras revealed that the absence of ownership of the Constitution making process extends beyond the parliamentarians who have failed to champion the Constitution reform process. It includes many religious and other leaders in civil society. In their meeting with the President the Mahanayake Theras had complained that the Constitution was being drafted by the government in collaboration with NGOs, while it excluded them. Clearly this is a product of the Opposition campaign. However, most NGOs and civil society groups also complain that they feel excluded from the Constitution making process. On the other hand the JVP, although in the Opposition, has been taking a non-racist approach to constitutional reform. It is clear that the Buddhist prelates were influenced by facts and figures presented by the racist Mahinda group. The Opposition has been claiming that the government intends to divide the country in accordance with the wishes of the Tamil Diaspora and the Western powers. Recently both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, with the blessings of Tamil leaders and the approval of Christian and Muslim priests, have been giving public assurances that the Constitutional reforms will not lead to the removal of Buddhism from its foremost place in the Constitution and that the Unitary State would remain intact. However, it is understood that devolution of power will be completed as promised.
During a nearly two-hour long discussion held between him and the Mahanayake Theras, in which a company of 22 Bhikkhus were present with the Mahanayake Theras, President Sirisena had reassured them that the draft Constitution would be shown to them prior to its presentation to Parliament and their views would be incorporated. He pledged that the government will not bring any constitutional reforms that will undo the country’s Unitary State nature or the foremost place for Buddhism that is provided in the Constitution. The President also informed the Mahanayake Theras that there has been no new Constitution drafted yet and that if there will be a draft Constitution it will be presented to the Mahanayake Theras and the leaders of the clergy of other religions for review, before it will go to Parliament.
It is assumed that the role of President Sirisena is in coping with the Buddhist religious opposition to the constitutional reform process. That is an indication of his importance to the government. In general the constitutional reform process is being driven by the UNP component of the government; that is headed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe who has announced his resolve to go ahead with a new Constitution. Liberals believe that the Prime Minister has the wide learning and cosmopolitan outlook to appreciate the constitutional mechanisms and compromises needed to govern a multi-national, multi-religious and plural society. Time is running out fast!