Monks demand SL Govt to declare Buddhism as 'state religion'

Sri Lanka’s hardline monks took another step towards creating their ideal of a Buddhist state this week with their parliamentary party calling for a Constitutional change to make Buddhism the state religion.

The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party of Buddhist monks, has called on the government to amend the Constitution to make Buddhism Sri Lanka's State Religion, the Sunday Times reported.

JHU leader Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera handed over a draft bill to the Secretary General of Parliament last week, the paper said.

The bill seeks to amend Article 9 of the Constitution, which stipulates that, "The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana…"

JHU sources told the Sunday Times the draft bill proposes to make Buddhism the "State Religion", taking into consideration the recommendations of the Presidential Commission on Buddha Sasana.

The Commission proposed that "Buddhism is fitting to be recognized as the State Religion of Sri Lanka, as 70 percent of the population is Buddhist."

A JHU spokesman told the paper that since Article 83 (a) of the Constitution stipulated that any Bill to amend Article 9, has to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and by the people at a referendum, the JHU was prepared to go before the people for a mandate.

He said as the present interpretation of Article 9 was "ambiguous and vague" and as there was no interpretation of what was meant by "foremost place", it thus had no "value".

The move by the monks follows in the wake of the country’s Supreme Court ruling that a government anti-conversion bill promoted by the JHU needed a referendum to be legal.

The court ruled in mid-August that the bill could be made law only if it gets the support of two thirds of parliamentarians and is approved by the people at a referendum.

The JHU or Pure Sinhala National Heritage, was formed shortly after President Chandrika Kumaratunga sacked the former government of Ranil Wickremesinghe on February 7. It was established by two extreme rightwing outfits – the Sinhala Urumaya (SU) and its associated organisation of Buddhist monks, the Jathika Sangha Sammelanaya (JSS).

In its election manifesto, the JHU paid lip-service to the rights of other groups, but declared that “the Sri Lankan state should be built, as in the past, according to Buddhist principles.”

Moreover the “national right of the Sinhala nation” is asserted above others on the basis that “national ownership of a country lies with the people who habitated it and built its civilisation and its culture,” according to the JHU’s election manifesto

The manifesto itself was launched in Kandy on March 2 - the day on which control of the Kandyian kingdom was formally ceded to the British in 1815.

The World Socialist Web Site reports that the JHU receives significant financial and political support from those sections of business, the military establishment and state bureaucracy whose careers and profits have derived from the war between the Sri Lanka government and the Liberation Tigers.

Though the JHU was formed barely months before the April 2 elections, the JHU won a an unexpected nine seats in the 225-seat Parliament, underlining the level of support amongst the Sinhalese population for its policies.

The JHU is opposed to negotiations with the LTTE and to international facilitation.

"We totally reject the present peace process as we believe it will only lead to the division of this country. We also reject the facilitation of Norway because it is partial towards the LTTE," JHU Propaganda Secretary Ven. Uduwe Dhammaloka Thera said in April.

Moreover, the monks’ call for the elevation of Buddhism to state religion has already occurred in practice since independence and belies the enormous influence the Buddhist clergy wields in Sri Lanka.

All Sri Lankan leaders pay homage to the top Buddhist clergy as their first act after assuming power and are careful not to undermine the predominance of Buddhism while formulating policy.

The Sri Lankan military, meanwhile, is predominantly Sinhala Buddhist. All the Army’s official ceremonies are officiated by Buddhist monks and are closely bound with Buddhist ritual. Commanders of the SLA have to receive the blessings/imprimatur of the incumbent monk of the chief Buddhist clerical order of the country on assuming duties.