By Gagani Weerakoon
Following repeated assurance by President Maithripala Sirisena, the perspective of Mahanayake Theras’- at least, that of Mahanayake Thera of the Malwatte Chapter- on the proposed constitutional reforms seems to have changed drastically. This was evident, when Leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna and Joint Opposition Dinesh Gunawardena – who his colleagues identify as de facto Opposition Leader of the country – called on Most Venerable Thibbotuwawe Sri Sumangala Mahanayake Thera earlier this week.
In keeping with the practice of ancient kings, politicians and rulers of the country go seeking blessings, advice and backing of the Maha Sangha, especially of Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte and Asgiriya Chapters, at crucial times. Few months ago the chief prelates expressed their concerns about the process of constitutional reforms and ruled out the need for a new Constitution.
Soon after that the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, led by President Maithripala Sirisena was seen distancing themselves, from Constitution-making process and said they will not entertain any amendment that would lead to a referendum or that would change the higher status given to Buddhism above other religions.
There were several visits by rulers, including President Sirisena, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe and many other political leaders to explain the whole process to the Maha Sangha. This effort went to the extent where Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran calling on the two chief prelates in Kandy.
A lot seems to have changed since then as Gunawardena visited the Malwatte Mahanayake Thera to grieve about an alleged attempt to violate the unitary status of the country and the place given to Buddhism.
However, what Gunawardena or many others would not have expected was the manner in which the Most Ven. Sumangala Thera defended the interim report or the proposed amendments, keeping hundred percent faith, in the words of the President and the Prime Minister.
Those who were present could witness that Gunewardena either having to swallow his words or stop abruptly with Mahanayaka Thera cutting most of his explanations in mid-sentence.
“When the two leaders ruling the country have given such an assurance that the proposed new Constitution would safeguard the country’s unitary status and the pre-eminent place afforded to Buddhism, there is no point in questioning about its validity,” the Chief Prelate stated.
The Mahanayake Thera who reminded Dinesh Gunawardena that he (Gunawardena) and several other Joint Opposition members had participated in various committees including the steering committee on Constitutional Reforms added that they had the discretion to oppose if any harmful decisions were taken at that stage.
The Malwatte Mahanayake Thera said it was better to submit ideas and news for the formulation of a good Constitution beneficial to the country without taking a firm stand saying a Constitution was not needed. He said he would always raise objections if any decisions inimical to the country and religion were taken. The prelate who noted that there was a group who stood up to oppose anything and everything said during the signing of the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact which took the country towards a setback.
Gunawardena said the interim report included clauses which threatened the Unitary Status of the country and the protection of Buddhism. He also said that the Sinhala copy and the English copy of the interim report differed as regards the historical status of the country.
A few weeks after presenting the Interim Report of the Steering Committee was presented to the Constitutional Assembly, it is now clear political party leaders are now engaged in a battle of words describing and interpreting the report and proposed amendments according to their political understandings and their political agendas, which at the end would confuse the general public.
However, it is clear while the opposition parties have undertaken a campaign against the proposed constitutional amendments, accusing the final draft will make Sri Lanka a federal and secular state, the Yahapalana Government and its allies led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe vouched otherwise.
The Mahanayake Thera said whom to believe is the question baffling him today. He had to ask the question as to who uttered more lies.
With impending Local Government Elections, all major parties have started selecting candidates and if there was any political leader that stunned the entire country with his campaign, that is non-other than Basil Rajapaksa. Rajapaksa was extensively blamed and criticized for the embarrassing defeat of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential elections held in January 2015.
The beginning of his campaign took many aback when Rajapaksa (Basil), who did not attempt hiding a bunch of amulets (surayas) as he got engaged in religious activities in Jaffna, declared his new party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) supports the full return of all occupied private land in Jaffna.
Taking few steps ahead than even the stance of the Yahapalana Government he said that not only should government and military occupied lands be returned to original Tamil owners, but those who did not originally own property should be given State land.
“It is a question that must be addressed. We were trying to solve it (during our time), it is an emotional issue. It must be solved in a very humane way,” he said while lamenting moderate Tamil parties not cooperating with the Rajapaksa regime.
Rajapaksa talking at the Jaffna Press Club last Sunday after travelling there to set up a grassroots network of the SLPP in the region, also supported attempts to end the problem of tens of thousands of people still missing eight years after the end of the separatist war.
He said the issue of people who had disappeared during and after the war should be addressed “humanely” and a solution found at the earliest.
“It is a question that must be addressed. We were trying to solve it during our time, it is an emotional issue. It must be solved in a very humane way,” he said.
Even though he was reluctant to share the sentiments of former army chief Sarath Fonseka that the security forces he commanded committed “war crimes” during and after the war said; “I think our forces didn’t do war crimes, but individuals might have done. It is not war crimes. We can call (it) crimes.”
However, he made it clear that he was unhappy with Field Marshall Fonseka’s comments. “I don’t think the person who led the forces at that time should talk like this.”
Immediate response to Basil’s remarks came from Co-Cabinet Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne who said that former President Rajapaksa may still have been in power had he only listened to his brother Basil instead of his other sibling, Gotabaya.
The Minister of Health and Indigenous Medicine made these remarks in response to a question raised by a reporter during Cabinet media briefing, who inquired as to whether the Government was willing to release more lands held by the State in the Northern Province as Basil Rajapaksa had advocated for the release of such lands recently.
“Now we have no more obstacles in our way hindering us from releasing the lands. These people were the ones who were against the release of the lands in the Northern Province. Now that Basil has said that they would do the same we can go ahead and keep our election promise and release these lands back to the people.”
Though it is not immediately clear as to what Basil Rajapaksa is up to, it is clear that he is hell-bent on hunting minority votes even at the expense of his brothers’ reputation. Well known sources revealed that he is in constant touch with Suren Surenthiran of the Global Tamil Forum.
MR in Japan
Interestingly, Basil’s Jaffna tour and these revelations coincide with his brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s visit to Japan. Former President Rajapaksa who is on a 10-day private visit to Japan, this time has not even being offered a protocol officer upon his arrival at the Airport.
When his Private Secretary Uditha Lokubandara inquired from Ambassador Dhammika Ganganath as to why such shabby treatment was given to the former President, the response he got from the other end was “on President Sirisena’s orders.”
However, Rajapaksa brushed it aside saying probably President Sirisena may not even know what is going around.
This was the second time Rajapaksa undertook a visit to Japan and when he visited earlier in June, a request for protocol and other assistance by former President during a ten-day “private visit” to Japan was rejected by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Only courtesies extended to an MP were afforded to Rajapaksa and parliamentarians in his entourage, a Foreign Ministry source said yesterday. An official in the Sri Lanka Embassy in Tokyo, and not the Ambassador received them
TNA demands a merger
The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) insisted on the need to merge the North and the East, when they met visiting UK Minister of State for Asia and the Pacific, Mark Field, at Westminster House on Wednesday night, soon after his arrival in Colombo.
TNA leader R. Sampanthan told Field, “We are seeking an arrangement that will enable people to exercise powers related to their social, cultural,
economic, and political matters based on the principle of sovereignty of the people as citizens of this country. This power should not be taken back in anyway.”
Detailing the current political situation to the UK Minister, Sampanthan has said that the TNA genuinely participated in the process of framing a new Constitution.
He added that from 1957 onwards, there had been various attempts made to recognize the pluralism in this country, but unfortunately, none of those efforts were realized.
“The need for a power-sharing arrangement had been discussed for over 30 years since 1957. It was only in 1987, and that too with the involvement of Indian Government that, for the very first time, a power-sharing arrangement was recognized in the Constitution of this country,” Sampanthan said. From that time, onwards steps had been taken by successive Governments to address the national question and evolve a final solution,” he added.
Sampanthan highlighted the need for the Northern and the Eastern Provinces to function as one Province given the fact that the two provinces represent largely Tamil speaking communities. He added: “The majority Sinhala community need not be afraid of the merger of these two provinces as there will be a constitutional protection preventing any move towards separation. The power-sharing arrangements will be worked out within a united, undivided and indivisible Sri Lanka, Sampanthan pointed out to the Minister.
Framing a new Constitution is an important task in finding a resolution to the national question Sampanthan said, adding “We can’t fail in it, if we fail, there will be a recurrence of violence.” Speaking of the consequences of the violence in the past, Sampanthan said, “Fifty per cent of the Sri Lankan Tamils live outside the country and if we don’t find a lasting solution, more will leave the country.”
Answering a question about the role of the diaspora, Sampanthan said that they are adopting a pragmatic approach; they too would like to see an acceptable resolution to this issue.”
He highlighted the importance of the role of the International community at this very important juncture and said: “The United Kingdom must make an effort to support these processes to a positive end and also to ensure that the Government of Sri Lanka delivers on urgent matters like release of private lands, issue of missing persons and political prisoners.”
The Minister assured the TNA Leader of the constructive engagement of the UK Government and wished the TNA leader all success. Along with Minister Field the British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka, James Dauris and other High Commission officials were present at the meeting.