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Sri Lanka: Constitutional Reform Planned

(Nov. 28, 2017) On October 30, 2017, Sri Lanka’s President, Maithripala Sirisena, announced the convening of three government conferences designed to better inform the public about the plans to adopt a new Constitution. The special conferences include one for all political parties now represented in Parliament, one for religious leaders, and one for scholars interested in national issues. (Sri Lankan President Announces Major Measures to Dispel Misconceptions on Constitutional Reforms, COLOMBO PAGE (Oct. 31, 2017); Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (as amended to May 15, 2015), Parliament website.)  The President noted that the conferences are intended to “prevent incorrect information which creates incorrect ideas about the proposed new constitution” and added that “[a]t these conferences the issues pertaining to the proposed new constitution can be discussed and unnecessary clauses could be removed and new clauses could be included, if required.” (Sri Lankan President Announces Major Measures to Dispel Misconceptions on Constitutional Reforms, supra.)

A Constitutional Assembly was established by a parliamentary resolution on March 9, 2016. (The Interim Report of the Steering Committee of the Sri Lankan Constitutional Assembly_21 September 2017, CONSTITUTIONNET (last visited Nov. 22, 2017).) The current draft of the new Constitution was introduced in the Constitutional Assembly on September 21, 2017. At the time, the Chair of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who is also Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister, stated that the version then introduced was an interim one, with the final version to depend in part on citizen input. He said that “[c]omplying with the democratic process and giving due consideration to the views of the public, we will build a stronger and brighter Sri Lanka.” (New Constitution Will Transform Sri Lanka – Prime Minister, COLOMBO PAGE (Sept. 21, 2017).)

Background

When Wickremesinghe came into power in 2015, his government stated it would prepare a new Constitution. He now says that the text of the document will be ready by January 2018; it would then be debated in the Parliament and, if passed by a two-thirds majority, would be put to a referendum. (Meera Srinivasan, The Saga of Sri Lanka’s New Constitution, THE HINDU (updated July 23, 2017).)

The original, 2015 proposal was for a Constitution that would end the executive presidency, enact other reforms, and devolve some of the central government power to the regions. It is reported that this plan would help resolve the conflicts with the large Tamil ethnic and religious minority in the country. (Id.) For the most part, the Tamils are Hindu while the majority Sinhalese population is Buddhist. (Religious Beliefs in Sri Lanka, WORLD ATLAS (last updated Apr. 25, 2017).)

Controversy over Proposal

The idea of reducing central authority has been opposed by some militant Sinhalese Buddhist groups. The Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force) organization, which is described as seeking “the enforcement of Buddhist predominance in Sri Lanka,” (Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), TRAC (last visited Nov. 22, 2017)) has said that if the central executive powers are eliminated or downgraded in the new Constitution and the country divided into states with greater independent authority than the nine current provinces, “[w]e will rally 4,000 Buddhist monks in Colombo and defeat the changes to the constitution. If the amendments are made while ignoring us, a river of blood would flow in the country.” (M.R.M. Waseem, Sri Lanka: Bodu Bala Sena Threatens to Rally 4000 Monks in Colombo Against Constitutional Amendments, VIRAKESARI (Dec. 7, 2016), Open Source Enterprise online subscription database, No. SAL2016120837300392.) The General Secretary of the group, Ven Gnanasar, went on to say that if the constitution is amended to create states, “there would not be any reconciliation in Sri Lanka.” (Id.)

On September 21, 2017, the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly released a report on the current draft.  (The Interim Report of the Steering Committee [21st September 2017], available at CONSTITUTIONNET.) The report stated that Sri Lanka would remain “one undivided and indivisible country,” but also asserted that “maximum devolution should be granted.” (Id. at 1.)

Following the issuance of the report, the idea of spreading power to the regions was again attacked. Major General Kamal Gunaratne, who retired from Sri Lanka’s army, suggested that those trying to introduce the new Constitution should be considered traitors and killed. Asoka Bandarage, an academic, challenged the right of the government to introduce a revised Constitution, and Buddhist clergymen have opposed the planned changes as a threat to united government. (Ana Pararajasingham, Sri Lanka’s Proposed Constitution Comes Under Attack, DIPLOMAT (Nov. 7, 2017).)

The Prime Minister has sought to calm fears by stating that with the proposed draft “[w]e have now been given an opportunity to build a bridge of peace expelling division and distance between the various races, which for so long had [sic] threatened economic development [that was] held hostage by violence and volatility … .” (New Constitution Will Transform Sri Lanka – Prime Minister, supra.) He added that prominence will still be given to Buddhism in society, saying “[w]e place our trust in the Buddhist teachings that … will guide our nation.” (Id.)