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Is it time Sri Lanka sheds its religious identity?

Sri Lanka is on the cusp of history, in several months it will be presenting to the people its third constitution in the space of four decades. Abolition of the Executive Presidency, devolution of power to the provinces, independence of the judiciary and the ensuring of good governance and human rights have been central in the discussions. With interest slowly growing amongst the people, one topic which has been conspicuously absent has been that of religion and its role in the future constitution.

Under Article 9 of the Sri Lankan Constitution, Buddhism has been recognised as the foremost religion in the country, and ensures that it is the state’s responsibility to protect and foster the religion. The Article further ensures the freedom to practice or observe other religions. On the surface this appears to be an acceptable Article, Sri Lanka has had bestowed upon itself the label of being a Buddhist country (the religion of the majority) while ensuring other religions the same freedoms enjoyed by Buddhists.

However, what has manifested in the past several decades, and perhaps longer, is the underlying feeling of Sri Lankan’s over-reliance on religion. For a country that is attempting to heal the wounds of a three decade long ethnic conflict, religion’s penetration into everyday life of Sri Lankans threatens the very fabric of our society.

From education to business to politics, religion and the clergy are fast becoming a common component.

Religion in education has been a feature dating back to the pre-colonial period, the sole institutionalised form of education was the “Piriven” (schools run by the Buddhist monks). The purpose of these schools was to teach young Buddhist monks the way of Buddhism, society left the rest of the education of its youth to the home-front.

When Sri Lanka entered the Colonial era, the education system was revamped with the introduction of Missionary schools. These were established in the country in an attempt in indoctrinate the populace into the Colonial lifestyle. English and Christianity were introduced, while a clear form of favouritism emerged for those who attended these schools. Top civil servant positions were reserved for graduates of these schools, while those who did not attend were often left to their own devices. Education soon became the site of conflict rather than learning, as Sinhala and Tamil schools were founded to rival the Church run institutions.

Education has been described as having the aim of “not knowledge but action”, and this was soon seen with divisions emerging among Sri Lankan society forged through the educational backgrounds of individuals. Nationalist sentiments which have created a majority-minority mind-set are given life to within such establishments.

Schools, which were considered to be an all-inclusive society, are now identified through their religious leanings. Children from the elite Christian families often attend St. Thomas’ College in Colombo, while those from the traditional Sinhala-Buddhist backgrounds choose schools such as Ananda College. From an early age children are being taught that their identity is dependent on their religion.

With the interrelationship of religion and society being forged at an early stage, Sri Lanka set itself on the path of politics and religion sharing a platform.

Sri Lanka’s rulers, have traditionally, relied on the advice and teachings of the clergy. However, post-colonialism, Sri Lanka’s politicians went one step further when they recognised that members of the clergy held sway over the populace.

When S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike broke away from the United National Party (UNP) in 1951, his new party, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), adopted the mantle of protector of Sinhala-Buddhists. Relying on the socially and politically influential Buddhist monks, S.W.R.D. entrusted the clergy with the task of carry his party’s message to the rural masses of the country.

Sri Lanka’s political spectrum had taken a turn for the worst. The clergy, who were traditionally an educated class, were now being utilised not as advisors but as political drawcards. S.W.R.D., who practiced Christianity during his schooling, converted to Buddhism upon embarking on his political career. Recognising that the rural Sri Lankans were a neglected vote bank, the founder of the SLFP employed religious tactics to win over their support.

It has since become a common feature of Sri Lanka’s politics, with the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) fielding and successfully obtaining 9 seats in the 2004 Parliamentary election. All candidates of the JHU were Buddhist monks.

German philosopher and economist, Karl Marx, famously described religion as “the opium of the masses”. This statement plays true in Sri Lanka’s political fraternity. Prior to the 2015 Presidential Election, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism was sweeping through the country with the instigation of Buddhist-Muslim conflicts. Riots led by Buddhist monks targeting Muslims living in Aluthgama and Beruwela payed heed to this notion.

The main political parties have rejected the ability of a non-Sinhala Buddhist to secure the Executive Presidency in an election. The common perception is that the Sinhala majority would not support their candidate if they did not hail from a Buddhist background. This has resulted in the parties’ selection of a candidate being based more on his or her religious identity rather than their ability or policy.

With the growing influence and penetration of religion into all aspects of society, the control of the clergy is becoming more and more difficult.

Recently a video emerged on social media showing a Buddhist monk verbally abusing a Tamil Grama Niladhari (village officer) in Batticaloa. The video went viral, but tellingly the online community was visibly divided over the issue. One section chose to ridicule the monk’s behaviour, with many calling for his removal from the clergy. While the opposing side chose to defend the monk’s actions and instead resorted to abuse and threats against those that questioned the actions of the Buddhist priest.

The defence of the Buddhist monk was based purely on the fact that he was a member of the Buddhist clergy, and as such could not be questioned by the public.

President Maithripala Sirisena recently stated in Parliament that Sri Lanka had successfully silenced their guns, but was still striving towards achieving peace. This recent incident involving the online community shows just how correct the President was.

The question that now emerges is what steps Sri Lanka can take to move beyond these deep seethed divisions.

With the drafting of the new constitution, Sri Lanka’s leaders have an opportunity to create a foundation of a truly equal society. The rewording of Article 9 to maintain religious freedom whilst ensuring no single religion achieved prominence over the others is an option that those involved in the drafting of the constitution have avoided addressing.

Political experts argue that the removal of the clause ensuring the foremost place for Buddhism in the country would result in the constitutional referendum being defeated. However, recent election results suggest otherwise.

The 2015 General Election saw a single Buddhist monk obtain a Parliamentary seat (this is a drop from 9 seats that they won in 2004), and that too was through the National List. This is despite several political parties fielding Buddhist monks as candidates. The rejection of the clergy as political figures is clear, and certainly provides an opening for the Constitutional Assembly to discuss the possibility of the separation of state and religion.

Sri Lanka is once again preparing itself to move forward in this ever globalising community, and as such an identity based on a dividing factor needs to be addressed. The adoption of Sri Lanka as a secular state is one that needs to be discussed, without the fear of a political or social backlash from the religious communities.