One of the sticking points in a proposed new Constitution for Sri Lanka centers on the degree of prominence to be given to Buddhism as the state religion, writes former YCW and Cardijn Community chaplain, Fr Reid Shelton Fernando.
Over the years, there have been 19 amendments to the 1978 Constitution, some enacted in haste. A number of measures perceived to be “draconian” were dropped and independent “commissions” established under a Constitutional Council.
Government coalition parties promised changes to the electoral process, but they did not eventuate before the dissolution of parliament in July, 2015, pending elections.
Why the need for a change?
The most recent amendment that got through was criticized as detrimental to democratic principles. Checks and balances such as the independent commissions were watered down. And the executive role of ‘president’ was given almost absolute power.
In 1977 parliamentary elections, the ruling United National Party (UNP) had a more than two-thirds majority, allowing pursuance of its own agenda. Then Prime Minister J.R. Jayawardene later became the country’s first executive president under an amended Constitution.
This authoritarian template benefited the rich rather than poor workers. The situation was aggravated in 1983 with the outbreak of ethnic conflict with Tamil insurgents that lasted for almost 30 years.
The victors of the presidential elections in January 2015, took the first step towards a new Constitution, appointing a committee of 20 persons to seek a wide range of views.
In the meantime, all members of parliament became members of a Constituent Assembly. A steering committee was also established. One vexed issue centers on Article 9 of the 1978 constitution and the amount of prominence to be given in future to Buddhism. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo has taken up this matter up.
After years of ethnic conflict, expectations are high that such strife can be avoided in future and Sri Lanka can become a model of religious amity. In January 2015, during a visit to Sri Lanka, Pope Francis reminded people of the need to work towards unity and justice. He spoke of the importance of transcending religious divisions in the service of peace.
Sri Lanka’s clarion call to become a secular state (ucanews.com)