By Jehan Perera –
Buddhist monks have been central figures in Sri Lanka’s history. It is they who recorded the early history of the country and its people in the ancient chronicle of the Mahavamsa. They were the guides of the Sinhalese kings and the protectors of the Buddhist religion. When foreign powers invaded the country they even accompanied the armies that went to confront the invaders. They were, and remain, the guardians of the Sinhalese Buddhist civilization of Sri Lanka. Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha belonged to this tradition. He emerged as a national figure on this account. He became a subject of international controversy when his photograph appeared on the cover of a book titled “Buddhism Betrayed” by Professor Stanley Tambiah of Harvard University who was of Sri Lankan Tamil origin.
When Sri Lanka’s internal conflict that pitted the government against Tamil militants was growing in intensity in the mid 1980s, Ven Sobitha was a prominent spokesperson for the Sinhalese Buddhist perspective. He was portrayed by his critics as a hard line and nationalist Buddhist monk who advocated war over peace. He engaged in debate against those liberals who advocated a negotiated settlement of the ethnic conflict and power sharing arrangements, especially through the devolution of power, which they argued would address the roots of the conflict. The Ven Sobitha also challenged the might of the government of President JR Jayewardene who enjoyed a 5/6 majority of seats in Parliament when the president signed the Indo Lanka Peace Accord on 1987 that devolved power to the provinces and invited the Indian army into Sri Lanka to disarm the Tamil militants.
But three decades later Ven Sobitha took on himself an even bigger challenge when he gave leadership to those opposed to a third term for President Mahinda Rajapaksa. In his second term President Rajapaksa sought to concentrate more and more power in his presidency and in his family. Corruption, authoritarianism and impunity rose to an unprecedented level. But the Rajapaksa government appeared to have an undefeatable formula of engineering Sinhalese nationalism on a mass scale by referring to threats to the nation from an assortment of enemies that included the country’s own ethnic and religious minorities, the Tamil Diaspora and the Western-led international community. It was in this context that Ven Sobitha gave leadership to a multi-ethnic and multi-religious civil society coalition for good governance that challenged President Rajapaksa’s government and saw its defeat at the presidential elections of January 2015.
The government has decided to give Ven Sobitha a state funeral on Thursday November 12, and to declare it a Day of National Mourning. It would be no exaggeration to say that the present government, a government of national unity unprecedented in Sri Lanka’s history, is a result of Ven Sobitha’s inspired and courageous leadership. Together with another Buddhist monk, the Venerable Athureliye Rathana, he was instrumental in the dramatic and unbelievable political changes that took place in the country in January. At the presidential elections in January, and again at the general elections in August, these two Buddhist monks played differing but major roles in mobilizing the civil and political opposition to the abuses and mis-governance of the previous government.
The decision of the Sinhalese nationalist JHU led by Ven Rathana to break ranks with the government undermined the Rajapaksa government’s case regarding an international conspiracy. Their decision to oppose President Rajapaksa’s bid to be re-elected for a third term was the defining moment of the presidential election. In explaining their departure, the JHU leaders said that they united with the government in the past to defeat the LTTE and its threat to the unity of the country; but now that threat was over, the need was to achieve good governance in the country. The top leadership of the JHU resigned from their positions in the government after they failed to extract promises from the Rajapaksa government to accept the reforms they proposed that would ensure good governance. On the other hand, the Ven Sobitha who never joined any political party gave leadership to a civil society movement for good governance. The small group of civic activists who started to work with him eventually became an electoral majority of all ethnic and religious communities that removed an authoritarian government from power through peaceful means.
During the election campaign and after it, Ven Sobitha advocated policies of reconciliation with the Tamil and Muslim minorities, including the devolution of power and providing them with the equal protection of the law. It was for this reason that the National Peace Council, itself a multi-ethnic and multi-religious group established with the objective of promoting a negotiated political settlement of the country’s ethnic conflict, decided to honour Ven Sobitha with its Citizens Peace Prize for 2015. I was part of the group of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims from the organization who went to ask him two months ago whether he would accept our prize which is meant for those who have upheld human rights, good governance and ethnic harmony in their public lives even at risk to themselves. He said there were others more qualified for the prize than he, but eventually agreed when we said our choice was unanimous.
When we last met Ven Sobitha in his temple a few days before he entered hospital for heart surgery, he was anxious not so much about himself as about the sense of drift in the government on the issues of good governance most dear to his heart. He spoke about the reports of corruption in the government and its inaction with regard to investigating both the past offences of the previous government as well as the newly occurring ones. And tragically, in the weeks that have followed, the government has been plunging into crisis on that very count. Government ministers who once gave leadership at the election campaign for good governance are at loggerheads with others ministers on issues of insider trading, nepotism and conflict of interest, among others, and some have threatened to resign. Vested interests are on display and eroding the moral credibility of the government.
In keeping with election promises, the government passed the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that reduced the president’s powers and re-established independent commissions to key state institutions. Most of the independent commissions are in place with eminent persons put in charge of them. But these systems are still new and untested. They need political leadership to get started. New champions of good governance need to emerge both from within the government and civil society who will speak up and act without shirking their responsibilities or deferring to vested interests. The drift within the government needs to cease. On the occasion of Ven Sobitha’s funeral on Thursday it would be fitting for the government and civil society leaders who were his compatriots in the struggle to change the government, to renew their pledge to the people of the country to take us on the path to good governance.
Due to the untimely demise of Ven Sobitha the mantle of his leadership must now pass to new leaders. He ended his life as a Sri Lankan leader, seeking nothing for himself, but seeking everything for the people, irrespective of their ethnicity or religion. On social media, Tamils and Muslims mourned his demise within hours of his passing away. The words that befit Ven Sobitha are those that were spoken for Mahatma Gandhi by his protégé Jawaharlal Nehru: “The light has gone out I said and yet I was wrong…For that light represented the living truth… the eternal truths, reminding us of the right path, drawing us from error, taking this ancient country to freedom.” Indeed, the most fitting tribute to Ven Sobitha is to stand for the values of good governance and ethnic harmony and ensure that they are realized in the life of the Sri Lankan nation.