Remembering a true Buddhist Monk

thVenerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, an influential Buddhist monk who promoted mutual respect and amity between the various religious and linguistic groups of the country and acquired a reputation for his stand on social justice. Sobitha Thero, an ardent campaigner against the executive presidential system and a prominent social activist who led campaigns that toppled governments several times. Sobitha Thero, had he lived today, being a practicing monk would have mobilized people pressure to force the government to fulfill the promises made to end state corruption, executive presidency abolished, proper electoral reforms achieved, and social justice dispensed to all.

Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero was born on 29 May 1942 (Vesak day) and ordained a novice monk on 9 May 1955; received his higher ordination after studying at the Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas and received his honorary doctorate from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in 1964 and became the chief incumbent of the Kotte Naga Viharaya. Thero came to prominence during his struggle against the former President’s efforts to centralize power within the presidency, which was misunderstood by those extreme Sinhalese who supported the President, in the same way the extreme Tamils did with his anti-Indian intervention campaign in the late 1980s. Sobitha Thero was an excellent orator who put his charisma, influence and skill to maximum use through the National Movement for a Just Society (NMJS) by uniting a divided opposition and the trade unions, rights groups, artists, professionals and academia; mobilized the Sri Lankan populace across the ethnic divide by playing the key role in bringing a new government to power in 2015. By championing for these causes as a national priority, Sobitha Thero has opened the path for the modern era bhikkus to support nonspiritual causes without lapsing into narrow-mindedness by restoration of the traditional tolerance for other religions and languages that was the hallmark of the state-sangha relationship that prevailed in the island for nearly two thousand years.

Thero accomplished in Sri Lanka what Jayaprakash Narayan had achieved in India in bringing down the infamous Emergency-Rule regime of Indira Gandhi in 1976. With catalytic role played by Thero, the powerful incumbent President of Sri Lanka, who had dispensed with the term limit on presidency and turning it into a family rule without rules or limits, was voted out at the Presidential Elections on 8 January 2015, defying all odds. It was the abhorrence of corruption that ultimately caused the defeat of former President. Although it became the single issue, abolishing the presidency was in itself the culmination of multiple frustrations in society caused by menace of drug use and trafficking, corruption and killings they entailed that drove Sobitha Thero to launch his campaign against executive presidency. Sobitha Thero was the first person to be identified as ‘common candidate’ to take on the then President, indicates the measure of his standing in society and politics. Thero was simply not interested in office, holding those in office to high ethical standards, the communally inclusive ‘common candidate’  idea became the first successful political campaign ever in Sri Lanka that found acceptance and resonance among all the communities irrespective of their gender, class, language, religion, caste or geographical location. In the political transactions between the emergence of the single issue idea and the emergence of the current president as the common opposition candidate, there were too many compromises and giveaways that submerged the original idea and allowed the old legislators with their old ways to take control of the parliament.

The January and the August elections of 2015 were expected to deliver a new government that would be different from its predecessor not just in appearance but more fundamentally in substance. Those who hoped and worked for substantial change are now accepting to the ways of the new government. Sobitha Thero died on 8 November 2015 at the age of 73, in the midst of the Avant Garde project controversy where the government responded in a way of the previous regime demonstrated how Nation is poorer without this Buddhist Monk. The people were angered and revived the fire against state corruption, when two lawyer ministers in parliament were unable to differentiate between the legal opinions of defense lawyers and the investigative responsibility of the state. The new government with its limitations and contradictions would be unlikely successfully embark into the truth finding investigations without the involvement of international participation in the accountability mechanisms.A necessary guarantee for the independence and impartiality of the process as requested by the United Nations Human Rights Council, who has advised the Government to take concrete steps to address this and other outstanding issues. Then there is the constitutional overhaul with government planning to carryover present constitution safe guards that favour the majority into the new draft constitution, that would be a diversion and a tragedy. Now it is up to the liberals and the civil society to act in the memory Sobitha Thero, which if successful would leave a lasting legacy to a true Buddhist Monk of our time.