Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, President’s Counsel, is a Member of Parliament from the United National Party, and currently President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka. In the past, Mr. Rajapakshe’s also chaired the Committee on Public Enterprises.

No stranger to being in the headlines, Mr. Rajapakshe in late May tabled Private Member’s Bill in Parliament asking that Sri Lanka’s Constitution be amended to prevent a priest of any religion becoming a member of Sri Lanka’s legislature. As noted in the media at the time, Mr. Rajapakshe said he had decided to bring this amendment for the purpose of maintaining and preserving religious dignity and holiness of all religions.

As expected, all hell broke loose. At the time of our conversation, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) emerged as one of the most strident opponents of the proposed bill, vowing to defeat it if and when tabled in Parliament and asserting that Western conspirators are behind the proposal. As noted in the media, JHU Western Provincial Minister of Agriculture and Irrigation Udaya Gammanpila had in response to the bill noted that religious leaders are better qualified to be political candidates and people’s representatives and that politicians have no right to decide whether priests should engage in politics or not, which is at the sole decision of religious institutions. A month after, the bill was still being discussed within the UNP, or so media reports said.

Aside from the JHU, there were some voices of support from the Buddhist clergy towards the proposed bill. One media report features a voice cut of the Chancellor of the Kelaniya University Dr. Walamitiyawe Kusala Dhamma Thero who states that recommendations provided by the Commission for Buddha Sasana (which came about after wide consultations with the sangha) disapproves of Buddhist clergy engaging in politics. The Catholic Council’s National Director for Social Communication Father Benedict Joseph also dubbed the bill as judicious.

Also extremely interesting is the fact that in online fora, the comments voted up by readers in open discussions of the bill are very much in favour of it.

However, this support aside, the passage of the bill in Parliament took a definitive turn in early July, when media reports noted the President had informed the parties of his ruling coalition to vote against the proposed bill following a discussion with the Buddhist party, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU).

In this conversation, Mr. Rajapakshe re-affirms that he will table the bill in Parliament. Given the strong opposition led by the JHU and the Presidential edict, it’s hard to see how it will succeed.

We begin our conversation with Mr. Rajapakshe clarifying why he introduced the bill, when it could be argued that more not less clergy in the legislature could lead to better lawmaking and debate. Mr. Rajapakshe flags the disconnect between the initial hopes of the people when monks first entered Parliament, and what their representation and actions have really come to be and mean. He also goes on to answer the JHU’s charge that no lay-person can make laws that bind the clergy’s engagement in mainstream politics. He also goes on to clarify that the bill does not intend to strip monks of their civic rights or their right to engage with national politics, and that it only aims to prevent them from being part of party politics.

Speaking of the confusing and contentious party political divisions within the sangha today, Mr. Rajapakshe avers that the bill aims to enhance, not dilute, the status of the sangha as advisors to the rulers of the country, in line with their role for centuries.

When Mr. Rajapakshe is asked how successful he thinks the bill’s progress in Parliament would be, especially given the Executive’s public opposition to it and orders to vote against it, he says that the Executive’s opposition is precisely the response he wanted to engender in order to demonstrate how corrupt the present political architecture is. He also comes out very strongly against the JHU – noting that democratic norms and due process have been destroyed by the party.

Mr. Rajapakshe also notes a fact that has gone, to the best of our knowledge, entirely unreported in recent media reports on the bill – that the process by which the current bill was arrived at actually consulted, and received the blessings of the Chief Prelates of all the four main Nikāyas in Sri Lanka. In addition, he submits that what is noted in the current bill was actually presented to the Executive as way back as August 2011 by the Asgiriya Mahanayake Thero. He then answers a question as to why there is so much controversy around his bill at the moment.

After noting that post-war “monks are now an obstruction to reconciliation” Mr. Rajapakshe goes briefly into the political history of Sri Lanka and how the SLFP and SWRD Bandaranaike, decades ago, had also used the sangha for party political gain, before it all went very sour.

Towards the end of the interview, we talk about the growing religious intolerance in Sri Lanka, and in particular, the Buddhist monk led mobs in Dambulla that attacked a mosque in late April. Mr. Rajapakshe answers whether aside from his own bill and the debates it has engendered, there should be discussion within the sangha itself on the systemic decay that has eroded it’s character for decades. We end by talking about the future of secularism in Sri Lanka, and how Mr. Rajapakshe sees the future of his private member’s bill influencing policies and practices towards a more tolerant, harmonious country.

Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe M.P. from Young Asia Television on Vimeo.

  • ordinary lankan

    I was keen to understand the reasons for Mr W.R. bringing this Bill and I must say he is very clear and cogent in supporting it.

    This is one of the last chances for the country as a whole to redeem itself – if redemption at this late hour is still possible.

    • wijayapala

      I was keen to understand the reasons for Mr W.R. bringing this Bill

      Probably because as a Buddhist he is appalled at what JHU and specifically its fake sadhus are doing.

    • Even a monk or a moron must have the right to stand for parliament. That is not the business of the state or the law. As a confirmed secularist I am of the view that if religious bodies wish to prevent their quacks from standing they had better incorporate the relevant rules in their own monastic codes. It is not my business nor the duty of the state to prevent religious outfits from making fools of themselves in public.

      Separation of state and faith means: No special place in constitution, no money for temples and tamashas, no reserved seats in buses and at functions. If people respect the chaps, they will stand up on their own.

  • Muslim

    The failure of the secular Muslim governments and dictatorships led to the cry of the religous fundementalists who saw the solution to all their ills in implementing the shariah. What they failed to realise is that shariah cannot be implemented by force and that Islam is only a part of system which begins with Faith, Worship, Social Obligations and culminating in Islamic Governance applicable to Countries with Islamic Majority only. Thus was born the Taliban and Al Quaeda who hijacked the teachings of a Religon of Peace to wage terror on innocent non muslims and even muslims of moderate views.

    The belief that ones religon holds the key to success is the cornerstone of any faith. However to overlook the very teachings of that faith in relation to other human beings and humanity at large is a gross distortion and perversion leading to the failure to abide by the very principles we profess to follow.

    So by looking at the destruction wrought by these self proclaimed saviours and messiahs of the faith, our Buddhist compatriots would do well to learn the lesson that we have learnt and are still learning. Religon is a very personnel experience and we need to impose on ourselves not others.

    Our clergy need to lead by example not by political power. Human Beings are more valuable than rock edifices, places of worship, and concrete structures, whichever religon, race, caste or creed they may belong to. This is the message of all great religons.

  • yapa

    An exhibition of the craftiness of a typical lawyer.

    Thanks!

  • yapa

    I think JHU too should be given the same opportunity to express their ideas and to answer Mr. Wijeyadasa.

    Thanks!

    • Lankan Thinker

      Readers can watch the Derana TV debate referenced in Sanjana’s interview at http://sinhala.adaderana.lk/talk_show.php (10-7-2012) where Mr. Rajapakshe discusses this bill with Ven. Omalpe Sobitha, the leader of the JHU.

  • Navin

    If people want someone elected as an MP, then they should have the freedom to do so.

    Instead of bringing in laws to prohibit monks from contesting elections, what Mr. Rajapakshe et. al. should do is ponder why monks are able get elected in the first place. That too from sub-urban areas with many floating votes in Western and Central provinces.

    This reflects the uneasiness of middle class Sinhala Buddhist electorate with main political parties, particularly the UNP led by Ranil Wickramasinghe for not standing up against Tamil separatists and foreign interference.

    To go against such a powerful constituency is not in Mr. Rajapakshe’s or UNP’s interest. It shows the gulf between UNP hierarchy and the voters and will only increase the vote base of JHU. This whole issue will be another setback for the UNP.

    Clergy of other religions, would do well to keep out of this.

    • wijayapala

      Dear Navin,

      what Mr. Rajapakshe et. al. should do is ponder why monks are able get elected in the first place.

      Monks are able to get elected simply because they are on the UPFA ticket. Not just monks but even monkeys and apes can get elected too on UPFA because nobody wants to vote UNP. If JHU contested independently then it would get wiped out because nobody respects these renegade monks/Devadattas. They are setting the path for monks to get married and drink alcohol, because the rules mean nothing to them.

      • Navin

        Dear wijayapala,

        I agree that all sorts of characters are getting elected on UPFA ticket. Its difficult to comprehend why people vote and in quite considerable numbers too for people like Mervin Silva and Nishantha Muthuhettigama, time and again.

        However, in the case of JHU, I would like differentiate between disgraceful monks and JHU’s political message. JHU emerged at a time when SLFP was lead by CBK and UNP by RW. Both of them were pandering to the West, LTTE/TNA with CFA, PTOMS etc. All the while Sinhalese Buddhists were divided along party lines. Now with MR consolidating power the need for JHU has diminished.

        I do not believe this law is been championed to salvage what is left Buddhism in this country but rather to stifle a conservative electorate that is already being castigated unfairly as being racists, extremist and an impediment to “reconciliation”.

        Look at the way, Mr. WR quite liberally says “post-war monks are now an obstruction to reconciliation”. Will he dare say the same about TNA or at least the likes of Sivagnanam Shritharan?

      • wijayapala

        Dear Navin

        However, in the case of JHU, I would like differentiate between disgraceful monks and JHU’s political message.

        What is the JHU’s “political message” now that there is no LTTE?

        Look at the way, Mr. WR quite liberally says “post-war monks are now an obstruction to reconciliation”. Will he dare say the same about TNA or at least the likes of Sivagnanam Shritharan?

        That is a good question. Similarly, are those who blame Tamil politicians for all the problems able to say the same about Sinhalese who have contributed to the mess, such as Ven. Elle Gunawansa who played a key role during 1983 riots but has never been even investigated?

      • Navin

        Dear wijayapala,

        If JHU was an insignificant force, nobody would bother to bring in this type of laws. Whatever political solution that is arrived at should be fair by the Sinhalese. That should be their message to the main political parties.

        Elle Gunawansa led mobs in 1983. But is that reason enough to accuse all monks who dare to speak up for the rights of Sinhala people as being an impediment to reconciliation?

  • The fundamental problem of the Sri Lankan State is the foremost status given to buddhism in the constitution. This provision in itself is discriminatory against other religions also created the grounds for the Buddhist monks to actively engage in politics on the premise of protecting the country, nation and religion, at times, even resorting to violent means against other religions. The legislature should as the supreme body should stand above all religions in order to make equitable laws. It is the role of the State to protect the country, nation/s and all religions practised by the people.

    • Secularist

      Agree 100% with Cyril and Strike-one.

      With regards to what Mr. WR is giving as his reasons, should we support him? Mr. WR has missed the point in the argument from a secularist point of view.
      “Mr. Rajapakshe avers that the bill aims to enhance, not dilute, the status of the sangha as advisors to the rulers of the country, in line with their role for centuries” is not a position that can be supported by us Secularist. In fact it is exactly what secularism oppose.

      The only reason that the Sanga should be prevented from taking part in politics is because our constitution presently gives Buddhism a foremost place. Therefore, in a democracy, members of such a group would have unfair advantage over other groups. Imagine if the constitution gave the SLFP a foremost place. Would it not give the members of SLFP an unfair advantage? And would everybody oppose it? Yes, because it goes completely against democratic principles.

      All clear thinking citizen who want to create a secular society which is fair to all, should be arguing along these lines and oppose any Sanga from entering politics UNTIL they are stripped of the unfair advantages that our present constitution gives them.

      A level playing field is the most basic value for fairness and a just society.

    • Happy Heathen

      cyril
      July 17, 2012 • 1:44 am

      ….well that’s only part of the problem.

      I see a strong vocal religious minority being a bigger part of the problem.

      Small but significant steps taken by successive governments with regards to;

      1. Animal Rights (stopping animal sacrifice for religious purposes)
      2. Gender Rights (abortion, contraception…)
      3. Gay Rights

      have been vehemently opposed by religious minority.

      As many have suggested, the first step should be to vote for a Secular Constitution so we can say ‘GET THE HELL OUT OF OUR LIVES’ to all the religious bigots.

  • Navin, I agree that anyone who desires to enter Parliament should have the freedom to contest elections.At present Government Servants are prohibited from contesting elections. Those Govt.ervants who desire to contest elections do so after resigning from GS. Similarly these religious prelates can become layman and contest elections.

  • From Mahanayake expresses dissatisfaction with situation in country, http://www.dailymirror.lk/news/20347-mahanayake-expresses-dissatisfaction-with-situation-in-country.html

    “Deterrent punishment should be given to persons found guilty of child abuse. The law of the country should be enforced. Some Buddhist monks are in the habit of seeking positions. The government should not entertain their requests unless they are eligible. A Buddhist monk should not hold any post in the government excepting that of a school teacher. It is not advisable to appoint Buddhist monks to government posts. Requests from Buddhist monks for driving licences should not be entertained. I have made a request in this regard to the Commissioner of Motor Traffic as well,” the Mahanayake Thera said.”

  • Strike One

    If Mr. W.R really wants to secularize the state then he should present a Bill for the creation of a secular state. The kind of Bill he is bringing in right now is both half-hearted and undemocratic. Half-hearted because it doesn’t seek the creation of a secular state, and undemocratic because it seeks to ban a section of the citizenry from practicing their fundamental right to represent the people in parliament.

  • This is ridiculous. So if I found a religion (I might. It sounds fun), I and followers of mine will not be able to get ourselves elected.

    Unless you think all religious people are insane, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.

  • P.L.J.B.Palipana

    The religious extremism was completely rejected by the BUDDHIST DOCTRINE.The common sense is most needed through the Middle Path(Madyama Prathipadha).Some monks in our country further divide our country through the party politics. Absolutely we need a SECULAR STATE to reconcile the NATION. The NATION is divided by various dimentions of micro fractures.Only the people like Hon.Wijedasa Rajapakse could sew these fractures using the LAW MACHNERY with progressive ammendments to the constitution.

  • Walter

    Gentlemen,

    Why a person in a religious garb should or should not enter politics?
    In reality and for pragmatic circumstances it does not matter.
    There are instances where a priest worked in a water front in order to be able to fight for the workers and he was successful in getting relief for his working community.
    BUT SRI LANKA IS DIFFERENT. WHY DO SO MANY PEOPLE INCLUDING BUDDHIST PRIESTS WANT TO ENTER POLITICS???
    It is very simple, Politics is totally and thoroughly corrupt, Sri Lankans are very innovative Race, they can see the benefits and the loopholes.
    They can smell blood a mile away, they have mastered the art of manipulation.
    Pardon my saying The Sinhala Buddhists of this Country who took the power of Administration since 1948, has woven around it a maze of amendments, and they too are lost in this maze.
    Now they are drunk with power and greed and their imagination is running riot. They are imagining that Towers, Airports and High rise buildings is developement. They are Prostituting this Country.
    They honestly think that because they are the majority anything is possible. They rationalize very well and twist any debate in their favour.
    You see this Mania I believe started with Premadasa.
    He compared himself with the “President” of any Country as equals.
    He compared Sri Lanka to any other Country, big or small rich or poor.
    The Presidency is equal to another Presidency.seems logical
    A father is equal to any other father. seems logical. BUT THE PROBLEM IS
    THAT EVERY PRESIDENT AND EVERY FATHER cannot match the other father or another President, it would depend on a series of factors.
    The details are far too many and I would leave it to your evaluation.
    WE ARE NOT A INTELLIGENT RACE AS A WHOLE, EXCEPTIONS YES.
    WE ARE AN OPPORTUNISTIC RACE, WE ARE ABLE TO BEND THE LAWS WHERE AT ONE TIME IF YOU CROSS OVER YOU ARE DISQUALIFIED THE OTHER TIME THE LAW SAYS IT OK.
    FOR A VOTING POPULATION OF 14 MILLION WE HAVE OVER 55 REGISTERED POLITICAL PARTIES ALL SINHALA PARTIES.
    England and America has about 4 political parties.
    India may be having about 60 political parties for a voting population of about 900 million.
    So coming back to the original question, Buddhist Priests should not enter Politics.
    Because they will never be able to put up a common front, for the common good of this Country, they are divisive.
    If more of them enter Parliament it will be “I assure you, worse that the Taliban entering Parliament.
    THAT WILL BE THE FINAL DESTRUCTION OF THIS COUNTRY.
    YOU AND I WILL BE LOOKING FOR A BOAT TO ESCAPE ILLEGALLY.
    Thanks

  • Anti-Racist

    Walter has correctly identified the source of the problem. Yes, Premadasa did many damages that is slowly and definitely will drive this country into many serious problems. He’s the one to introduce the bana on TV channels. He promoted the idea of illegal constructions of Buddha statues and other religious sites. He allowed even the others to commit offence to the law in putting up illeigal structures all over Colombo. Names of Colombo’s roads were changed and still they’re doing it with toungue twisting names. He supported the Elle Gunawangse and allowed him to be above the law of the country. END RESULT: We are a confused nation knowing nothing to rebuild. Will the name of a road written in Singlish “Mawatha” protect the pride of the nation? Isn’t it a stupid idea to promote the naming of a road that ends with a “MAWATHA” in English be it a LANE, AVENUE, STREET, ROAD, PATH, HIGHWAY…and still all of them identified or mentioned by a stupid word of “MAWATHA” in English? What do you mean in english “A MAWATHA”??????????