By Nimalka Fernando –
On Sunday I received a telephone call inquiring whether I have heard a bad news regarding Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha. I immediately thought ‘Oh no. Not at this point of time’. I told my friend
‘We need him most now.’ Venerable Sobitha and I did not share the same political views for quite sometime. May be even in the present context we might have had strategic differences. We belong to different religions and social ethos and came to share the ‘yahapalanaya’ political dream only few years ago. But I have always feared and respected him as the only Buddhist charismatic leader in Sri Lanka since I met him three decades ago. I think it was in early 1983. A meeting had been convened by trade unions and religious leaders at the Kotte Nagaviharaya to support the strike launched by the of Nurses Union lead by Muruthetuwe Ananda Thero.
I was then the Secretary of the Development Commission of the National Christian Council. I had just passed out as an Attorney-at-Law. I was not inclined to continue as a practicing lawyer. Some leaders of the Student Chriatian Movement who had encouraged me to get a professional qualification quickly bundled me back into the safe heaven of a christian institution. I had dabbled in theology for a while at the Theological College of Lanka and they realised that my interest in liberation theology would serve the purpose of the NCC-DC which was pioneered by the late Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe and catholic priests like Fr Paul Casperz. They wanted an activist assistant. The NCC-DC was a path breaking experiment. We had Venerable Buddhiyagama Thero and the late Dr Rajasigham who was murdered inside the Welikade prison during the sinhala mob during the communal pogrom in July 1983 as members. It was truly an ecumencial initiative and was creating the much needed buddhist-christian dialogue. It is this urge to promote a closer alliance with what is happening in contemporary politics that lead me to attend this solidarity meeting held in the Kotte Naga Viharaya Temple. This is when I first saw, met and listened to Ven Sobitha and realised the strong leadership he provided in this struggle for rights.
No sooner after this incident July 1983 happened. The dialogue we were trying develop broke as sinhala extreme forces provided the fodder to fuel the furnace of sinahal racism. I did not accept his political views as he oppossed the Indo-Lanka Accord which heralded the 13th amendment. I was openly critical of the position taken by Venerable Thero yet was hoping and praying always, that if this religious leader becomes a peace – maker Sri Lanka will be transformed.
Many years later I met him again during the second tenure of President Chandrika as left political party leaders including the JVP and progressive leaders came together for discussions to form a common platform. We were trying to build a common mass force to urge her to fulfill the promise given in 1994 to abolish the executive presidency. He attended several meetings held at the office of the Democratic left Front. But he left this initiative in disgust as the JVP joined the CBK government to perform what they defined then as ‘the remote control support’. What happened since then is history.
I remember seeing him at a meeting convened by SAMABIMA with the caption ‘Will the Sun Rise Again?’ as we discussed the challenges facing Sri Lanka as Mahinda Rajapaksa regime was becoming authoritarian, violent and unaccountable. Ven Sobitha Theor was seated in the front row listening to the presentations. As we formed the Platform for Freedom some colleagues met him and discussed about the need for change and a campaign. We established the Platform for Freedom. Several months later Ven Thero launched the Movement for Social Justice. He rose to the occasion taking the political challenge of resisting the abuse of executive power and taking the country into a deeper and greater heights.
We all know that he was displeased with the appointment of those who lost the General Elections in August through the National List to the Parliament. This made him silent. It was so disgusting. Personally I have become un-energetic about political reforms. In a way I also joined Ven Sobitha’s trend of becoming a silent spectator. Many persons have asked me why we remain silent these days. Some have tried to provide answers on our behalf. Some have even dared to give explanations ranging from co-option to compromise.
As I watched the debate in Parliament the power of executive Presidency(former ) was so evident. The power of ill-gotten money was exposed. The whole country is aware that Avante Garde was a contract of the former regime. It was shocking to hear Mr Marapana’s speech in Parliament. How can a responsible person like him white wash Gota’s deal. He even stated that the Sri Lanka Navy ‘could not carry out it’s responsibilities properly.’ Instead Mr Marapana should have informed the house that it is the Rajapaksa’s who have brought shame on the SLN by handing this contract to Avante Garde. The above is only one such example of the legacy the Rajapaksa regime has left behind for us to tackle. Undoubtedly there are many more deals to be unravelled and dealt with.
As historical events unfolded taking Sri Lanka into an abyss of evilness and vulgairty with abuse of executive powers, extremist forces fuelling anti-Christian and Muslim hatred,violence and hate language Ven Sobitha stood up like a giant opposing these political moves of the Rajapaksa brothers. He condemned the BBS unequivocally. He called people to challenge and resist abuse of power and the wild use of executive powers. He led this resistance movement fearlessly but with grace and determination. As Muslim, Christian and Hindhu religious leaders pay respect to him we see the path shown by him for inter-religious harmony. As Tamil and Muslim leaders pay homage to him we are challenged to uphold his vision for national unity. Many would say.
Today I have decided to break this silence as I bowed before his silent body. We pledged to campaign for life in 2009 when Lasantha was assasinated. Now we have to rise up again to speak the truth. The time has come to rise up against lies and failures of politicians from all sides. This is the respect we have to give to Ven Sobitha. The time has come to take the movement for truth and justice forward. We have to pay homage to him and the sacrifice he made ( I am sure he neglected his health for the political cause)with his life to give us the victory of democracy and freedom which we experience today.
I salute Ven Sobitha as Mr Marapana resigned. Ven Sobitha you did not sacrifice your life in wain. The moral authority you have planted amidst us is growing and we dedicate our lives to nurture that sapling.
May he attain Nibbana