By H.L. Seneviratne –
Walpola Rahula’s Bhiksuvage Urumaya (The Heritage of the Bhikkhu), published in 1946 envisaged a new kind of monk, cultured in both Buddhism and modernity, and socially and politically activist. The public discussion and the social effect that ensued had the positive result of empowering the monk, but unfortunately that empowered monk had also imbibed a narrow conception of society and polity, that of Sinhala Buddhist hegemony, a conception that eventually placed the country on the path of ruin. The defining political flowering of which the empowerment of the monk was part was the general election of 1956, in which the monks also played a significant role.
A striking fact of this context was that the monks were unprepared and unqualified to play the role they were empowered to by Rahula’s classic. It liberated the monks from obligations of ritual duty, but these monks had neither the knowledge nor the training nor the ethical commitment to use that freedom in the service of the general good. With the opening of the Pirivena universities, a large number of young monks received an education of sorts, but it was not an education that equipped them with the necessary wherewithal to perform the needed national task. This lack of fit between empowerment and preparedness led these monks in two different but not always mutually exclusive directions: (1) engaging in financially and/or politically profitable activity and (2) embracing Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism. Thus, it was to the decline rather than enrichment of the society that this young, educated, and empowered generation of monks contributed.
In this dismal scene, there were a handful of monks who were commendable in their selfless commitment to social amelioration. The brightest star among these dedicated, responsible monks was the Venerable Madoluvave Sobhita. When I, as a student of contemporary Buddhism, first met the Venerable Sobhita in the late 1970s, he was still in a mood of mild elation at the nationalist victory of 1956. It is however to his lasting credit, both as a social observer and activist, that he had the truly Buddhist understanding and compassion to gradually notice the damage that 1956 brought to the country, a damage reflected in the chain reaction starting with Sinhala Only and leading to anti Tamil pogroms, the massacres by and of the youth of both the north and the south, the rise of private armies and the related collapse law and order, the rise of a violent and fraudulent political culture, and in general, the pervasive malaise epitomized by the Rajapaksa rule. The Venerable Sobhita had both the intellect and the moral courage to move away from the Cintana Parisad, the ideological core of the ultra Sinhala right wing Jatika Cintanaya.
This intellectual and moral shift, which obviously would have been a gradual inner process, came out suddenly into the open in the nation’s darkest hour in recent times, the passage of the 18th Amendment that abolished presidential term limits, enthroned Mahinda Rajapaksa, and laid the foundations of a dynasty. The passage of the 18th Amendment touched the conscience of a large number of concerned citizens, giving rise to profound brooding and alienation in individuals and groups, and to contemplation as to how the disastrous development could be reversed. That would take nothing less that the electoral defeat of Rajapaksa. Given Rajapaksa’s iron hold on power this was an unthinkable prospect. Yet courageous individuals and groups took upon the task, leading at first to a public discussion as to how this could be accomplished.
It was obvious that Rajapaksa could be defeated only by a united opposition, and a common candidate. The opposition groups however were so varied and fragmented, and the only idea on which all could come together was that of defeating Rajapaksa. There was also the common agreement that the ills of the system were largely rooted in the all powerful presidency, which made the abolition of the presidency a viable rallying point. Hence the idea came into being that a strong common opposition can be launched on the issue of abolishing the presidency, and the election could and should be fought on this single issue of abolishing the presidency. The next question then was who such a common candidate would be.
It is to the credit of the Venerable Sobhita, and testimony to his national stature that his name was proposed as the most widely acceptable and the most electable as “the single issue candidate”. No less to his credit is that fact that the Venerable Sobhita’s name was proposed by a committed Marxist, an engineer by training, and an academic by profession, Kumar David. (Although not to my taste, but to add to my point about the Venerable Sobhita’s national esteem, it could also be pointed out that Professor David is a Tamil and probably an atheist). As a footnote, and in all honesty, I must admit that I was at that time unaware of the Venerable Sobhita’s shift away from the ideas of the Cinatana Parishad, and publicly expressed skepticism about his suitability as the “single issue candidate”. It is much to Kumar David’s credit that he was far better informed than I was.
The “single” issue in the idea of the “single issue candidate” was that the united opposition would at the next presidential election field a candidate whose sole platform and function when elected would be to abolish the executive presidency. When invited to be that candidate by the movement taking form by then, the Venerable Sobhita turned down the honour by light-heartedly commenting that the two previous presidents who had pledged to do so forgot about it upon election to office, and he might be tempted to do the same.
The true significance of the campaign for a “single issue candidate” was the exponential growth and solidification of the opposition to the Rajapaksa rule that set in motion the processes that inexorably led to its defeat in January 2015, followed in August by the parliamentary defeat of the Rajapaksa faction. While the idea of the “single issue candidate” faded with the unexpected arrival of Maithripala Sirisena in the opposition camp, it can be stated without a shadow of doubt that it’s the citizen’s movement for the removal of family rule and the reestablishment of the rule of law that brought about the changes in January and August 2015. With the new image of defender of democracy added to his charisma as one of the country’s greatest preachers, there is little doubt that the Venerable Sobhita played a decisive role in the success of the citizen’s movement that ended the darkest era in our recent history. It is the task and responsibility of all citizen’s groups as well as concerned citizens to carry on the Venerable Sobhita’s noble and selfless legacy.