Sovereignty & Sangha: Island Without Democracy


Citizens enable the modern democratic State. With all its highs and lows and the complexity, democracy enables citizens to actively participate in the process of governing. Although democratic system allows citizens to actively participate in the governing process, it is up to the citizens to take that decision whether to participate in the governing or not. While social, political and economic ignorance of people can lead them to elect representatives who are incapable of representing citizens of the country and making accurate decisions, shallow identities created by the neo-liberal economic policies play a major role in democracy making the ‘ethno-religious’ majority powerful. While it is a given fact that democracy has its own structural weaknesses, citizens should be able to deal with it and expand the horizons of democracy. The relationship between the citizens and their representatives locate a legal system which enables sovereignty of the country.

According to Giorgio Agamben sovereignty is a paradox which plays outside the legal system of the country and at the same time proclaims that there is nothing outside the legal system (Agamben, G., (1998), Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life,  Stanford University Press). Thus, the complexity of the phenomena should be  dealt with carefully as otherwise it would lead to the insidious abuse of power.

Due to  its paradoxical nature, sovereignty is influenced by many external factors and could present the ‘unfair’ legal system as ‘fair’ and ‘just’. According to the Article 9 of Sri Lankan Constitution, ‘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)’. The law of the country itself make distance minorities  from the State as equal citizens.  The status of second level citizenship is established through the law of the country. By giving the foremost place to Buddhism, the state which is responsible for its citizen’s protection discriminate against the minority ethno-religious groups who are also citizens of the country. The article 9 of the Constitution provides an invisible power to Buddhist religious institutions, which can be used to damage the sovereignty of the country. The relationship between the citizens and their representatives can be interfered by Buddhist religious institution without any obstruction or limitation from the State or otherwise, the interference is rather encouraged through the constitution itself. 

The recent statements by the Mahanayake of Asgiriya Chapter, earlier on how the Government should and should not perform the law and recently on constitutional reforms were disturbing. In the earlier statement, Mahanayakes’ focus on activities of minorities against Sinhala-Buddhist majority and the silence of the Government on those activities. Further, they states that, although they do not approve the aggressive behavior and speech of the Bhikku Galagoda Atte Gnanasara, the viewpoint expressed by him cannot be discarded. The Mahanayakes’ of Asgiriya chapter do not criticize Gnanasara Thero for taking law into his own hands. How one can separate behavior and ideology is a problem. Is not it possible for Gnanasara Thero to solve the problems he has through the law of the country other than provoking violence among ethno-religious groups against each other. The frustrating factor is that, Mahanayake Theros are in denial or pretend  to be in denial of the violent behaviors of Gnanasara Thero.  One could envisage   what would happen if any minority group attacked a Buddhist temple. Would it there be silence or are we as ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ majority with the  foremost place offered to the Buddhism in the constitution  going to overlook the attack. Taking the law into his own hands by Gnanasara Thero was normalized or neutralized by the Maha Sangha of Asgiri chapter by indirectly agreeing to the ideology of  Gnanasara Thero.   

If the Mahanayakes’ of Asgiriya Chapter accept the fact that Gnasara Thero is mis-behaving, Mahanayakes’ should have responded and taken appropriate action against Gnanasara Thero, as the most responsible and accountable groups of Buddhist religious authority in the country. 

Mahanayake of Asgiri Chapter recently made a statement saying that, Sri Lanka is in no need of a new constitution. Two reasons were highlighted in support of the statement; it is unnecessary to reform the constitution at this hour and if there is any reform, foremost place should be accorded to Buddhism, the unitary character of the country should be retained, and the executive powers of the president should not be scrapped. The irony lies in the fact that, the statement itself is powered by the existing law on offering  foremost place to  Buddhism and the statement seeks Government not to reform the article, which in otherwise seeking of power to make similar statements and interference regarding Governing of the island in the future.

Buddhist religious institutions  are not elected through votes of the citizens to advice the state. Thus, Buddhist religious institutions  are not over the citizen’s power to represent the state. Further, religious interference in Governing is normalized in the mind of the people, as it is legitimized by the Constitution as well. Citizens of the country belong to various ethno-religious groups and could not be limited or reduced to Sinhala-Buddhists. Although it is reduced to Sinhala-Buddhists, they too represent different political views in the elections and elect members to the parliament to represent their political ideology. Against this background, the power held by the citizen is immense in a democratic system and it should be secured. However, in Sri Lanka, this power is interfered by Buddhist religious institutions. As Asgiriya Chapter is considered as the most important authority in Sri Lankan Buddhist religious institutions, the power it holds to influence State decisions is immense. Other than the direct impact on the State, the power Asgiriya Chapter holds to influence the Sinhala-Buddhist majority is irresistible.

The Buddhist clergy makes statement to  prevent the Government from reforming the constitution. The Mahanayakes’ of Asgiriya Chapter claim that reforming the constitution of the country is not the top priority at the moment. The functioning of democracy is in serious question. If the Mahanayakes’ of Asgiriya Chapter are to  decide what is good for the country or in other words, for the people, there is no rational of having a democratically elected body of people’s representatives to make decisions regarding the country. Buddhist monks of Asgiriya Chapter is already well aware of what is better for the people. Under this rationale, Sri Lankan politicians should  resign from their positions and offer the ruling of the country to Mahanayakes’ of Asgiriya Chapter. 

Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms was appointed by the Cabinet of Ministers in early 2016 to seek the opinion of the people on constitutional reforms. Public Representation Committee on Constitutional Reforms considered large volume of written and oral submissions throughout the island. If Mahanayakes of Asgiriya Chapter disregard all the opinions offered by the people, there is nothing much left other than absolute rule of the Buddhists. Democracy is challenged by the Mahanayakes’ of Asgiriya Chapter by issuing a Statement addressing the Government that Constitutional Reforms are not necessary at the moment. In another way, Asgiriya Chapter provokes the Sinhala-Buddhist people against the constitutional Reforms. Going beyond the above two forms, further, the Mahanayakes’ of Asgiriya Chapter are in complete denial of the direct opinions given by the people  before  the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms regarding the making of the Constitution of the country. Democracy of the country is interfered by the Buddhist hegemony and sovereignty of the State is in question. It is not an utmost necessity of international involvement to dismantle the sovereignty of the country, rather it can be a influence of a hegemony of a group of people who seems internal and under the State. The irony is, when the influence is internal and the influential group is hegemonic one, majority of the people cannot see the harm attached to the influence. 

Even after over 65 years of independence, Sri Lanka still suffers from bridging the distance/gap between the citizen and the state. Sadly, most of the citizens themselves do not believe in their power to elect representatives and participate in the process of decision making in the country, instead constant interference of Buddhism in state governance is sought. Against this background, the sovereignty of the country is dismantled and harmed by Buddhist religious institution and normalized in the Sri Lankan psyche with the support of the constitution, which gives more prominence to Buddhism over the other religions.

Originally published in The Colombo Telegraph


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