By Shyamal Sinha
Theravada Buddhism is the religion of 70.2% of the population of Sri Lanka. The island has been a center of Buddhist scholarship and learning since the introduction of Buddhism in the third century BCE producing eminent scholars such as Buddhaghosa and preserving the vast Pāli Canon..
Buddhism should be considered the “foremost” religion alongside a guarantee of equal rights for all faith traditions, prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said in an address last week. He was speaking at the opening ceremony of the Association of SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) Speakers and Parliamentarians in Colombo on 4 October. (Daily Mirror)
Wickremesinghe was reitierating Article 9 of the Sri Lankan constitution, which states: “The Republic of 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 assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e).”
Since taking power in 2015, Sri Lanka’s government has set itself the task of drafting a new constitution, the deadline for which has been pushed to January 2018. However, an interim report submitted to Sri Lanka’s Constitutional Assembly by the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly of Sri Lanka on 21 September has raised questions about the “foremost” status of Buddhism. The two provisions offered in the report change “The Republic of Sri Lanka” to simply “Sri Lanka,” offering no guarantees of patronage specifically from the government. This implies the removal of “the republic of” Sri Lanka as a responsible stakeholder in the country’s protection of Buddhism. “Thus the meaning it will then convey is that although in Sri Lanka Buddhism has the foremost place, the Government of the Republic of Sri Lanka is not obliged to treat Buddhism as being given the foremost place,” argues an editorial by Courtesy Ceylon Today (Lankaweb).
Most of the island’s influential Buddhists oppose the proposed provisions and have been making their discontent heard since July. The opposition, led by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, said in July that demonstrations would be held across the island if the government pressed ahead with the new provisions. On 29 September, the Buddha Sasana Karya Sadaaka Mandalaya questioned the wording of the proposed provisions, arguing: “It is not clear as to this applies in this situation when other religions are not subjected to discrimination even now.” (Daily Mirror)
Complicating the stakes in the interim report are ideas about moving towards a New Zealand-style system of proportional representation and constituencies, reconciliation between Sinhala and Tamil Sri Lankans, and seeing off a resurgence of Sinhala nationalism. Just last week, authorities arrested seven people for storming a UN safe house for Rohingya refugees who had fled Myanmar.
Seen in this light, Mr. Wickremesinghe’s words on 4 October were nothing new, but a repetition of his assurances for wary Buddhists. At the heart of this semantic debate is the apparent contradiction of having a “favored” religion while allowing equal rights for all faiths. Yet Buddhism is the spiritual tradition that has anchored the traditional identity of the Sinhala majority, and is already deeply embedded in the country’s politics. Sri Lanka has chosen only Buddhists for the post of president and prime minister since independence from Britain in 1948. Many Buddhist monks are members of the Constitutional Assembly.
Despite Mr. Wickremesinghe’s attempt to emphasize the “oneness” of Sri Lanka, reaching a settlement that eases the concerns of the island’s Buddhist leaders seems necessary and inevitable.
Sri Lanka has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any Buddhist nation, with the Sangha having existed in a largely unbroken lineage since its introduction in the 3rd century BCE. During periods of decline, the Sri Lankan monastic lineage was revived through contact with Burma and Thailand.