Govt is vague and we are suspicious
Interviewed by Niranjala Ariyawansha
Registrar of Asgiri Chapter (SiyamNikaya) Ven. Medagama Dhammananda Thera says that Sri Lanka must remain a unitary State and Buddhism must be assured its place of eminence. "We also demanded that police powers as proposed in the 13th Amendment to the Constitution be not granted to the provinces".
?: Why did the Maha Sangha declare last Tuesday that a new Constitution or amendments to the constitution were not necessary.
A: Two opinions were expressed in the 2015 Presidential election as well as at the general election that followed, about constitutional amendments. Presidential powers like eligibility for a third term which was enabled through the 18th Amendment were to be further amended taking away that eligibility. The second the introduction of a totally new Constitution.
The Government could harness the majority required to implement either of these two pledges. Therefore, they had to form a coalition government. The committee headed by Lal Wijenayaka was appointed to implement this. We expressed our views in the public consultation. We did not disturb it. But we highlighted a few basic facts.
We said that Sri Lanka must remain a unitary State and Buddhism must be accorded its due prominence. We also demanded that police powers must not be granted to the north and east as proposed in the 13th Amendment.
The Prime Minister welcomed these proposals but when the committee reports were released we realized that there was a difference.
The government had not been specific. Definition of "Unitary State" were cited recently in the parliament. Six articles have been set forth in terms of Buddhism. They are subjected to basic human rights. That is not necessary.
?: What is the stand of the Sangha Sabha regarding the granting of land and police powers?
A: The 13th Amendment to the Constitution provides for separate Provincial Police Services. The Provincial Council has land rights and that is dangerous. The power of appointing the Governor is to be transferred from the President to the Chief Minister. When Vardharajah Perumal declared a separate state in the Northern and Eastern Provinces of Sri Lanka, President J.R. Jayewardene was able to dissolve the Provincial Council. The power of appointing the Governor must be in the hands of the President in this context.
Police powers may be more dangerous in the south than in the north. The Provincial Councillors in the south already influence the police very powerfully. What will happen in a context in which they have police powers ?
We waited a long time because the government kept saying it had not finished work on drafting a new Constitution. The government was in a hurry to amend specific articles which paved the way for a President to contest for a third term. But they were not eager to enact other amendments. We did not influence them but we had outlined our criteria. We noticed that they had been totally rejected.
The new Draft Constitution is to be tabled in Parliament on August 15th. It must be based on the Committee reports. It must not go beyond them. The draft must be completed by now if it is to be tabled in Parliament on 15 August. But the Government simply says that it has not been drafted as yet.
?: Did you see the final draft?
A: We haven't been given a final draft. But we can guess the shape of it based on the Committee reports. The reports did not reflect what we expressed. When a draft is set forth in Parliament based on these reports it moves out of our space. Therefore, we must warn the Government beforehand. Otherwise, the Maha Sangha have not opposed either a new Constitution or amendments to it. Lal Wijenayaka and Jayampathi Wickramarathna are from Kandy. But they hold different political opinions.
We, as a society that has developed on Buddhist principles and culture, regard all communities as being equal. People live in harmony.
These things are the needs of the politicians. We are open to international pressure with the issue in Geneva because Sri Lanka is located at a strategic nerve centre.
It is true that people disliked the former rulers. When a new ruler is elected, world powers try to control them. We see that conflict here. We must understand things against this backdrop. The launch pad for this Government was created through NGOs and the campaign via internet.
?: Has anyone in the government said that the foremost position accorded to Buddhism in the current Constitution will be expunged from the new one ?
A: We do not trust the verbal promises of opportunist politicians. Although we have disagreements with the Catholic Council, the Cardinal said that Buddhism must be given prominence. We appreciate it. Why does the Government have three Cabinet spokesmen who give three interpretations? These spokesmen distort statements made by the President. They then implement a completely different thing later.
The national governance concept may be good but there is no unison in the Government. There are many contradictions in the Government . Neither side has controlling power. We demand equal rights for all citizens irrespective of race and religion.
?: Isn't the demand for the foremost position for Buddhism contradictory in the context of preaching equality for all communities?
A: Buddhism must be given the foremost position. We protected Buddhism for the entire world. The Sinhala people documented the Thripitaka. The country is respected because of the Sinhala people who protected Buddhism. We have that responsibility. We have spread Buddhism throughout Asia.
Our position is that Buddhism must be the State religion. However, we do not go that far. We try to get for Buddhism a prominent position. But they try to make the State a secular State. We pressed the government to promise not to do so. We were strong only after the Cardinal admitted it. In Norway, only Catholics may vote for important State policies. No religion can be promoted among the followers of Islam in Malaysia. There are such situations in the world but we do not have them in Sri Lanka.
?: People voted for a new Constitution or for constitutional amendments. Isn't the statement of the Maha Sangha disturbing to this mandate?
A: The UNP said that a new Constitution will be introduced. But no one won a strong mandate. We consented to it trusting that none of the Constitutional guarantees relating to Buddhism would be changed. Many promises are made at election time. Some are not consonant with what is good for the country. But we can't filter out these negatives when we cast our vote. We vote taking them as a whole. But generally, we too liked constitutional amendments or a new Constitution. We approved it.
?: Why is the Sangha Sabha now opposing Constitutional amendments?
A: The government's positions are vague and actually we are suspicious. We can see that our expectations are not being granted.
Statements by various leaders of the government also add to these suspicions. We actually trust the President. But apparently, he cannot act independently within the national government. For example, the decisions taken by the President on the SAITM issue could not be implemented because the subject Minister did not adopt the same stance as the President.
?: It is believed that discrimination of minority communities caused the 30-year war. Hence isn't it necessary to have control mechanisms guaranteed by the Constitution?
A: We have our analysis on that, but time is not sufficient to explain it now. Let us imagine the war was caused by it. Do you believe a Constitutional amendment will bring communal harmony in a context within which outsiders cannot settle in the Northern and Eastern Provinces due to land powers granted to those Councils and in a context that finds the national Police unable to implement the law against criminals hiding in the north? It will deepen the split. There is no guarantee that a constitution may change this. These are not the solutions expected by the ordinary people. These are the expectations of the Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim politicians. Politicians of all communities who were in power were responsible for the confusion. We live in peace and we do not hate other communities. Sinhala people were asked not to buy goods from shops belonging to other communities. Did they listen to it? We continue to buy. King Dutugemunu even respected King Elara's tomb.
?: Who are the 'hateful' ones then?
A: One is the international pressure on us. The war was created by former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. It is an exposed fact now. That is the Indian need for creating separate states. On the other hand, western super powers have interests and the NGOs depend on them. The war was created by the politicians. That is why I said that the ordinary people have no such divisions. The chairman of the Hindu Federation attended the Sangha Congress we held recently. He expressed his concerns about demolishing Kovils and disruption of attempts to re-build them.
Countries like the US cite bogus reasons and attack Muslim countries. They create conflicts among forces. They create such internal rifts within Asia too. Although there are isolated incidents, we like to live in peace with all communities.
?: Do we still have men similar to King Dutugemunu?
A: We had. The last best king of Lanka was King Keerthi Sri Rajasinghe. He was a Nayakkar. We respect him and wish him good in future lives and we offer him in a separate Pathra in the Temple of the Tooth as a way of showing our gratitude for the service he rendered to Buddhism by way of bringing us the Upasampada. Asgiriya temple has granted land to Muslims to build mosques.
?: Why is the Sangha Sabha against the Act to Prevent Disappearances?
A: This was brought in at the behest of the UN Human Rights Commission. Only the English copy has been filed so far. We are not against punishing any offending military officer or politician through a local mechanism. Many Commissions functioned within local mechanisms in the past. But no serious offence was proven and the culprits were punished despite minor offences. It became only a political process.
?: The Malwatta and Asgiriya fractions of the Siyam Nikaya are accused of harbouring Ven. Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thera?
A: There are allegations but the Sinhala Buddhists and the monks appreciate our manner of action. You may not publish this, actually, but Gnansara's behaviour is problematic. The Chief Prelates of Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters warned him severely several times. We told him that his behaviour had injured the image of the Buddhist monk all over the world. The Chief Prelate of Malwatta told him that we had been committed to the Buddhists and he should change his behaviour even though he worked for the progress of the Buddhist religion. But what was his response? He blamed the chief prelates as much as he could. He accused them of trying to act like Sangha kings. He always enters the Malwatta and Asgiriya temples scolding the Chief Prelates. I personally asked him not to criticize us before people like that. We told him that he would have to seek the help of the Mahanayaka Theros one day. Isn't he under control now?
?: Did the Malwatta and Asgiriya temples engage in preventing Ven. Gnanasara Thera arrested legally by the Police?
A: I told the President twice that arresting Gnanasara would make the latter a hero for those who had rallied round him. It could become a wave against the government when the opposition also joined them. They have other motives. I demanded that the President does not make room for such heroes to be created. The manner in which he was arrested on the highway like a robber was wrong. He could be arrested normally. We did not protest it. We tamed him. We have no problems now. But we can't predict anything because of his nature.
?: But the Asgiriya Chapter said that the Ven. Gnanasara's ideas could not be rejected?
A: Some people clung to it. We asked to focus on his opinions because the background had been set for him to speak against the destruction of forests and temples in the Northern and Eastern Provinces. His existence rests on those facts and we asked the government to provide remedies to those real issues which he was addressing. Then Minister Rishad Badiudeen asked to appoint a Truth Commission and to investigate all the allegations. But the Government has not yet responded.
?: Did the Malwatta and Asgiriya temples assist in building up the image of Ven.Galagodaatte Gnanasara Thera?
A: Would he blame Malwatta and Asgiriya Chief Prelates so harshly if we had done so? How much have we criticized his conduct? But we approve 95% of his arguments against this backdrop too. However, he had no help at the last moment.
?: You compared Catholicism in Norway and Islam in Malaysia with Buddhism in Sri Lanka. But Buddhism is a religion that promotes freedom. If Buddhism is above all of them, can't we create a freer society in this country?
A: I made a comparison with Norway because that nation advised us for some time.
?: The crime rate has risen rapidly in this country. How do you relate this to Lord Buddha's preaching and Buddhist culture?
A: That is not related to Buddhism. The majority of the population of this country is Sinhala Buddhists. No principle of any religious scripture is now in practice. But we have Buddhist culture and traditions which we have to safeguard. I told you that police powers would be misused in south. I would not have said so if we were racist.
?: Lord Buddha rejected the caste system. But Buddhist Nikayas are organized on a caste basis.
A: It was not so in the beginning. The kings under the feudal systems created the caste system among Buddhist monks. The reason is that the monks were the advisers of the kings. Kings might have thought that the monks should be on an even level with them. We have no such discriminations now. But we do not disclose it because the laymen have caste differences among them. For example, the Chief Prelates of Malwatta and Asgirirya chapters are relations. You can obtain an Upasampada list from the Department of the Buddhist Commissioner. The caste system is now mixed.
?: Some are of the opinion that the Chief Prelates of the Malwatta and Asgiriya Chapters interfere in politics and dominate politics.
A: The Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters belong to the generation of the Buddhist monks of the Maha Vihara who documented the Thripitaka. Even the English colonial rulers respected these chapters. The Temple of the Tooth has traditions related to the custody of the Malwatta and Asgiriya chapters. This tradition still remains unbroken. We must take it forward. It is the unchanged position of the Buddhists. That is why the people ask what the Malwatta and Asgiriya Chief Prelates are doing about nationally important issues. We demand the continuation of that Buddhist tradition.
(Pic by Thilina Fernando)
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