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NewsBanning the clergy from Parliament: A non-issue

Banning the clergy from Parliament: A non-issue


However, in practical terms, and aside from the discussion on the proposed Private Members Bill in question, the clergy who have participated in political activity have thus far barely contributed to the raising of quality in the standards of political life and have been totally indifferent to the conduct of their fellow politicians
By Javid Yusuf 

Parliamentarian Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha has announced that he intends presenting in Parliament a Constitutional amendment in the form of a Private Members Bill that seeks to prevent members of the clergy from becoming members of the legislature. Newspaper interviews given by Mr. Rajapaksha make it apparent that although the intended bill relates to all clergy it is clear that it is specifically the participation of the Buddhist clergy in Parliament that is sought to be prevented by the intended Private Members Bill.

The history of parliamentary and non-parliamentary elections shows that only Buddhist monks have contested Elections while the Christian or Hindu clergy have never attempted to do so. The Muslims have no clergy. Further, the explanations provided by Mr. Rajapaksha in relation to the proposed Constitutional amendment are clearly directed at the members of the Buddhist clergy only.

 Consequently, the question that arises is: why has Mr. Rajapaksha sought to bring this Bill to Parliament at this point of time? There are certainly more pressing and burning issues facing the country that require the UNP, as the main Opposition party, to focus on, take a stand and express positions. For instance, as much as the Government has not clearly enunciated its substantive position on the resolution to the ethnic problem, the UNP too has not declared its standpoint on the subject. Further, despite economic affairs being claimed by UNPers as the party’s key strength, apart from criticism of Government actions on the economic front, there has been no clear exposition as to what the UNP has to offer the country, in terms of economic policy.

In the light of the above, it is not easy to fathom why Mr. Rajapaksha has raised a non-issue which has successfully diverted the energies of political parties and other influential persons from more pressing issues and towards discussion of his proposed Constitutional amendment. Additionally, such a move has only resulted in placing his party in an awkward position.

Mr. Rajapaksha has painstakingly attempted to show that his intention in attempting to effect a Constitutional amendment is to protect and preserve Buddhism from any danger that would result from the Buddhist clergy getting involved in the legislative process. If indeed Buddhism and Buddhists are endangered by participation in Elections, as claimed by Mr. Rajapaksha, logically following from his argument, it would mean that Buddhism will be in even greater danger if the Buddhist clergy participates even in other forms of political activity short of getting elected to the legislature.

It is interesting to note that the UNP itself has not desisted from using Buddhist monks on political platforms: many will remember Ven. Meetiyagoda Gunawansa Thero and Ven Dewamottawe Amarawansa Thero speaking at election meetings of the UNP in the past. Thus, the UNP Parliamentarian’s Private Members Bill will leave his objective of protecting Buddhism half done by limiting it only to entry into the legislature, and without going the whole nine yards, by imposing a complete ban on the clergy from engaging in any form of politics. (This writer however hastens to add that he does not suggest or support such a ban.)

Such is hardly desirable both from the national point of view as well as from the point of the individual members of the clergy. As much as they are members of the clergy, they are also citizens of the country and hence are entitled to participate in any type or form of politics. Any measure to bar the clergy from entering any form of political life is not only against the democratic ideals which the country should aspire towards and which the Constitution guarantees, but also a violation of a right as citizens of the country, namely to participate in civic life. As the Fundamental Rights enshrined in Chapter III of the Sri Lankan constitution embraces non-discrimination and equality in the upholding of civil and political rights and participation in public life, a ban on religious leaders from participation in the political life of the country is not desirable in the national interest.

Whether members of the clergy should engage in politics or not should be left to the particular religious order to decide. According to one religious order it may be deemed acceptable to participate in partisan politics while in another it may not be the case. This is a call for the respective religious order itself to make, and should not be imposed by legal fiat, Constitutional or otherwise.

However, in practical terms, and aside from the discussion on the proposed Private Members Bill in question, the clergy who have participated in political activity have thus far barely contributed to the raising of quality in the standards of political life and have been totally indifferent to the conduct of their fellow politicians. What they need to do is to influence the political parties they support to select candidates of integrity who are capable of honestly and dedicatedly serving the people. This they have miserably failed to do and as a result there has been no qualitative contribution to politics by the participation of the clergy. In fact Mr. Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha, who earned a name for himself as an effective Chairman of COPE, should perhaps, instead of bringing a law to ban the clergy from the legislature, present to Parliament a set of standards for political parties to follow in the selection of candidates for any elections.

Religious leaders who are not aligned to political parties too have an important role to play in improving the quality of public life. They could educate and create awareness of the importance of choosing the political representatives with the correct values to guide the destinies of the nation. In fact one of the reasons that politicians with questionable records come to the forefront is because there is no social sanction attached to their conduct, as the people themselves don’t show much concern about it.
The writer believes that the real ‘Kathikawa’ in the country should be on raising the quality of governance and public life. This, unlike a discussion on whether or not to ban the clergy from political life, is in fact an issue which will be in the national interest.

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