Mahanayake Theras and Constitutional Reforms

Thus spake prelates

Island Editorial

The government’s constitutional reform project has suffered a heavy setback with the Mahanayake Theras of the three Nikayas (sects) demanding an end to it. They are of the view that there is no need for a new Constitution. Besides, they have called for a lasting solution to the SAITM (South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine) issue and a radical rethink of the move to abolish the Prevention of Terrorism Act.


One may call into question the political strength of the Maha Sangha and their ability to rally public support for their campaigns in a highly fissiparous polity. For, Buddhist monks themselves are divided on political lines. It may be recalled that way back in December 2011, the Mahanayake Theras of the three Nikayas got together in a bid to settle an internal dispute of the UNP. They went so far as to write to UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, urging him to hand over the party leadership to Karu Jayasuriya. Ironically, they asked the beleaguered UNP leader to adopt the Licchavi method to settle the party dispute. Their request went unheeded. That was the end of the matter.


But, the fact remains that the circumstances that led to the Mahanayakes’ recent call are different; it has resulted from pressure they have come under from various groups opposing the government’s constitution making project to make an intervention.


The government’s constitutional reform programme is being handled in such a way that it has come to be seen as an exercise aimed at paving the way for federalism. The move to abolish the executive presidency is viewed as part of a plan to weaken the centre and do away with the President’s control over provinces through Governors. Various demands and statements made by the proponents of federalism have been used to bolster their rivals’ arguments against the proposed Constitution. Pressure that a section of the international community and the UNHRC have brought to bear on the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government to devolve more powers to the provinces has proved to be counterproductive.


The present Constitution is seriously flawed. Although ours is said to be a presidential system, the President is at the mercy of Parliament if his party fails to muster a working majority in the House. The country is plunged into chaos in a situation where the President and the Prime Minister happen to represent two different parties and be at loggerheads as we saw between 2001 and 2004. A similar situation will invariably occur if the political marriage between the UNP and the SLFP collapses. In fact, the situation will be far worse in such an eventuality as the 19th Amendment debars the President from dissolving Parliament prematurely. So, should the UNP and the SLFP part company and lock horns, we would be treated to a Tom and Jerry show, starring the President and the Prime Minister. Unfortunately, it looks as if the country would continue to be troubled by the serious constitutional flaws indefinitely due to hidden agendas being advanced in the name of constitutional reforms.


TNA leaders and others of their ilk are willing to accept any constitution if they get federalism in it. The opponents of federalism won’t accept any constitution which grants more powers to the provinces. They don’t mind the reform baby being thrown out with the federal bathwater, so to speak. This is the Gordian knot the government has got to untie carefully instead of cutting if its constitution-making efforts are to reach fruition. This is a frustratingly uphill task. The Joint Opposition won’t hesitate to torpedo the proposed constitution given half a chance though it pretends to be amenable to negotiations thereon. It acts out of expediency and not principle as can be seen from its shameful volte-face on the SAITM issue.


The government finds itself in an unenviable position. It has to either go ahead with its constitutional reforms programme and antagonise the Mahanayakes in the process or abandon the project and irk the western governments calling for more devolution and its political allies like the TNA seeking federalism. The SLFP (Maithri Faction) is also blowing hot and cold on constitutional reforms. It may not want to burn its fingers. All signs are that the UNP, which has already got under the skin of many a prominent Buddhist monk, will be left holding the baby.