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Secularizing Sri Lanka; Paradox Of Sovereignty

Wednesday 13 April 2016, by siawi3


April 11, 2016

By Anushka Kahandagama

Democracy is a complex mechanism which has its highs and lows. 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. Apart from all the structural weaknesses of the democracy, people have to deal with it and make it better, as it is the existing mechanism of governance in the country. One form of informing strengthening democracy is securing the relationship between the citizens and their representatives. 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 carefully as otherwise it would lead to the insidious abuse of power.

Due to the paradoxical nature of sovereignty, it could be influenced by many external factors and sovereignty could distort the legal system and 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)’. This is the law of the country and it should not discriminate against ethnic the minority ethno-religious groups who live in the country. By giving the foremost place to Buddhism, 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 might harm the sovereignty of the country. The relationship between citizens and their representatives can be interfered by Buddhist religious institution without any obstruction or limitation from the state. Buddhist religious institution is not elected through votes of the citizens to advice the state. Thus, Buddhist religious institution is not over the citizen’s power to represent the state. Further, religious interference could be 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 holds 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 institution. Although there are many examples that can be drawn from the political scenario of the country, it is important to cite a recent press conference which was held by The National Movement for the Protection of Soldiers (NMPS). Addressing the press conference, Buddhist monk Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera, criticized Field Martial Sarath Fonseka who was the then Army Commander and stated that he has asked Gotabaya Rajapaksa who was then Defense Secretary of the former government not to appoint Sarath Fonseka as the Commander of the Army. There might be much political discourse around this narrative. However, the influence one Buddhist monk could have been done over a responsible position of the country, Secretary of Defense, was immense. After, Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera further invited people to ask Gotabaya Rajapaksa and ensure the accuracy of his (Ven. Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera’s) statement. The normality involve with Buddhist religious institution playing with the sovereignty of the state is immense. Most of the citizens do not question the statement asking ‘from where Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera got the power to influence appointing high ranked position in the military?’, instead most of the citizens accept it as ‘normal’. On the other hand, the Buddhist Monk, Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera represents ‘The National Movement for the Protection of Soldiers (NMPS), and criticizes then Commander who has led the military at a critical time of war. The power holds by the Buddhist Monk is used by many parties in their political agendas by letting the sovereignty of the country in danger.

In Europe, the power of the church has been challenged by the power of the citizen and as a result, the secular state was born. However, 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 damaged and harmed by Buddhist religious institutions and normalized in the Sri Lankan psyche with the support of the constitution which gives more prominence to Buddhism over the other religions.