For a long time as a nation we have been talking about a new constitution in place of the existing Constitution of 1978. During the time of President Kumaratunga, a new constitution was drafted and she was not able to get it approved by the Parliament. Recently the United National
Party also has proposed the basic elements of a constitution and it was said that they were in the process of discussing with various stakeholders to get their views in order to draft the Constitution.
Rev. Maduluwawe Sobhitha wants to become the common candidate of the Opposition at the next presidential elections if there is no one else to be the common candidate, with the sole intention of abolishing the executive presidency and establishing a new constitution.
The Kandyan Convention of 1815
In this context I think it is appropriate to discuss a basic point in the Constitution of Sri Lanka, the place for religion. As a preamble to this discussion I would quote below the references to religion, in the Kandyan Convention of 1815, Soulbury Constitution, Constitutions of 1972 and 1978, Constitution of Burma in 1947, Constitution of Cambodia in 1993 and Constitution of Thailand in 2007.
Given is the fifth paragraph of the Kandyan Convention of 1815 where there is reference to Buddhism: “The religion of Buddho professed by the Chiefs and inhabitants of these Provinces is declared inviolable, and its Rites, Ministers and Places of Worship are to be maintained and protected.”
"The Burmese Constitution accepts the special position of Buddhism since the majority of the people belong to Buddhism. It is not the responsibility of the Burmese Government to protect Buddhism. What is important is it is an offence which is punishable to promote feelings of hatred under the guise of religion. Presently this requirement is freely violated in Sri Lanka with State patronage"
The Soulbury Constitution of 1947 by which then Ceylon was granted independence was silent of religion and therefore it was a secular constitution as in modern countries.
The first time after the independence protection of Buddhism was introduced to the Constitution in 1972: “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 Buddhism, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 18 (b).”
In the 1978 Constitution this reference is almost the same. “9. 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).”
Article 10 refers to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
“10. Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”
Article 14 (1) e refers to freedom of Speech, assembly, association, movement.
“14. (1) Every citizen is entitled to –
(e) the freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching;“
Constitution of Burma in 1947 refers to Buddhism as follows.
“21. 1 The state recognises the special position of Buddhism as the faith professed by the great majority of the citizens of the Union.
21.2 The State also recognises Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, and Animism as some of the religions existing in the Union at the date of the coming into operation of this constitution
21.3 The State shall not impose any disabilities or make any discrimination on the ground of religious faith or belief.
21.4 The abuse of religion for political purposes is forbidden; and any act which is intended or is likely to promote feelings of hatred, enmity or discord between racial or religious communities or sects is contrary to this constitution and may be made punishable by law.”
Burma and Cambodia
There is no reference to Buddhism in the Constitutions of Burma in 1974 and 2008. The Cambodian Constitution of 1993 refers to the religion in Article 43 in Chapter 3, the rights and obligations of Khmer citizens.
“Khmer citizens of either sex shall have the right to freedom of belief. Freedom of religious belief and worship shall be guaranteed by the State on the condition that such freedom does not affect other religious beliefs or violate public order and security. Buddhism shall be the religion of the State.”
The Constitution of Thailand in 2007 has two references to Buddhism. One is under the King and the other is in Part 4 under directive principals of religious, social, public health, education and cultural policies.
“Article 9 The King is a Buddhist and upholder of religions
Article 79 The State shall patronise and protect Buddhism which the majority of Thais have followed for a long time and other religions. It shall also promote good understanding and harmony among followers of all religions as well as encourage the application of all religious principles to enhance virtues and develop quality of life.”
The 1815 Kandyan Convention clearly states that the State should protect Buddhism. The Kandyan Convention was entered into between the Chieftains of the Kandyan Provinces and the British rulers at the time the governance of the country was handed over to the British. At that time the religion of almost all the population of Kandyan Provinces was Buddhism and the country was taken over by Christian rulers who together with their predecessors were notorious in suppressing Buddhism and promoting their own religion in low country areas, which were under their rule. Therefore to include the condition of protecting Buddhism in the agreement was a mandatory political requirement.
The conditions in a constitution of a sovereign country and the conditions in an agreement entered into at the time one country conquers the other cannot be compared at all. The intention of the constitution of a sovereign country is to muster the entire population of the country and not to discriminate one community against the other or protect the religion of one community from the religions of other communities.
The person who drafted the Article related to Buddhism in the 1972 Constitution was in a colonial mentality in 1815 although he was the person who said earlier that if we have two languages we would have one country and if we have one language we would have two countries. Unfortunately now this colonial mentality was extended to the general public of this country, mainly to ignorant Buddhists.
This point can be discussed further by comparing the constitutions of other Buddhist countries with that of this country. According to the Constitution of this country, Buddhism has the foremost place and it is the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism. The State does not have any responsibility to foster and protect other religions and in respect of those religions the State has a minimal responsibility of assuring the basic human rights of the people of those religions.
This situation is quite contrast to the Burmese, Cambodian and Thai Constitutions. The Burmese Constitution accepts the special position of Buddhism since the majority of the people belong to Buddhism. It is not the responsibility of the Burmese Government to protect Buddhism. What is important is it is an offence which is punishable to promote feelings of hatred under the guise of religion. Presently this requirement is freely violated in Sri Lanka with State patronage by some in robes, one of whom was found fault with by the courts for drunk driving.
In the Cambodian Constitution although it was stated that Buddhism was the religion of the State, prior to that it was stated that religious freedom was guaranteed and such freedom should not affect others.
In the Thai Constitution it was the responsibility of the King who should be a Buddhist, to protect not only Buddhism but also other religions. In Sri Lanka, the State is responsible only to protect Buddhism, not other religions. This unreasonable, defensive, frog-in-the well type of principle was derived from the 1815 Kandyan Convention. As stated earlier it is a grave mistake to adapt the unique political situation that prevailed at the time of Kandyan Convention to the present political situation, of which the prime requirement is to unite the people and not to divide them.
12th rock edict
The principle of respecting all the religions adapted by the Constitutions of Burma and Thailand was the principle adapted by Asoka, the most respected emperor of all times. Following is what he said in his 12th rock edict among the 14 rock edicts:
“Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, honours both ascetics and the householders of all religions, and he honours them with gifts and honours of various kinds…, but all of them have as their root restraint in speech, that is, not praising one’s own religion, or condemning the religion of others without good cause. And if there is cause for criticism, it should be done in a mild way. But it is better to honour other religions for this reason. By so doing, one’s own religion benefits, and so do other religions, while doing otherwise harms one’s own religion and the religions of others. Whoever praises his own religion, due to excessive devotion, and condemns others with the thought ‘Let me glorify my own religion,’ only harms his own religion. Therefore contact (between religions) is good.  One should listen to and respect the doctrines professed by others. Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi, desires that all should be well-learned in the good doctrines of other religions.”
Rev. Shravasti Dhammika, an Australian monk of Theravada school who rendered the English version of the edicts of Asoka, states as follows:
“The protection of all religions, their promotion and the fostering of harmony between them, was also seen as one of the duties of the state. It even seems that something like a Department of Religious Affairs was established with officers called Dhamma Mahamatras whose job it was to look after the affairs of various religious bodies and to encourage the practice of religion.”
Asoka was a shrewd statesman. He was promoting Buddhism and was not imposing it. He declared that his relationship with the public was that of farther and children. He was the ruler of whole country and not of the Buddhists only. Therefore it was his duty to protect all the religions. Current rulers of Sri Lanka do not know even basics of governance and that is why they erect Buddha statues in predominantly Tamil areas, which is an insult to Lord Buddha himself.
Based on the discussion I suggest that the present Article 9 of the Constitution should be removed and be replaced with the suitable contents of Articles 21.1 to 21.4 of the Burmese Constitution of 1947 and Article 79 of the Thai Constitution of 2007.
Does Buddhism need any protection from the Government of Sri Lanka? No. During the past 42 years from 1972 was there any special protection or improvement to Buddhism by the Government? No. What is Buddhism? Buddhism is the research methodology of the noble research one has to undertake in order to understand self in this very life before death and not at the time of Maithree Buddha.
Buddhism is propagated in the world today because of documentation of the same at Aluvihara, Mathale during the time of King Walagamba and especially because of the introduction of age old vipassana meditation techniques brought down from teacher to pupil by Burmese and Thai meditation masters to lay persons and these are practiced widely in Sri Lanka as well.
The so-called protectors of Buddhism in Sri Lanka who engage in violent activities in the streets should know that they have no role to play in protecting Buddhism. They should keep quiet rather than destroying it. The Dhamma is open to anyone. If someone does not want it, there is no necessity of imposing it on him. Humans are benefitted from the Dhamma, not the States. Therefore I suggest that the State should be secular which means Article 9 of the Constitution can be removed altogether.
My second suggestion is an extension of the first suggestion. It is ideal if the second suggestion can be implemented. At least if the first suggestion can be implemented, it would somewhat be helpful to unite the nation which is divided by race, religion and caste today.
(The writer is a Chartered Accountant by profession and holds a Master of Business Administration degree awarded by the Postgraduate Institute of Management of University of Sri Jayewardenepura.)