By Lukman Harees –
“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”- Eleanor Roosevelt
Most Rev. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero , a national charismatic Icon and the fatherly figure behind the democratic changes which put Sri Lanka back into the map of civilized nations, is no more. Whether the changes ensued in the expected dose was a different matter; but there is general consensus around that today the nation is breathing the air of emancipation and freedom , having being delivered from the dictatorial, aristocratic and the racist rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa who took Sri Lanka into a limbo-land and made it into a pariah state, in the eyes of the world. For this constructive change , both the country as well as the world should credit this great man in robes, who inspired and initiated the process of socio-political change and the courageous silent revolution which Sri Lanka witnessed in very recent times. When the Ven. Thero breathed his last, the nation was undoubtedly thrown into a state of utter confusion; not knowing who can take his place to ensure that the ‘Yahapalanaya’ will in-fact be a reality in Sri Lanka. How do we start and end the eulogy of a great personality who is widely regarded as the ‘Desmond Tutu’ of Sri Lanka?
Well ! When a panic-stricken MR announced in November 2014 that he would call the presidential election two years earlier than he needed to, seeking a third term in office as the President, and as Maithripala Sirisena’s candidacy sent ripples of disbelief, hope and elation around the Sri Lankan nation, the world did not seriously expect the many changes which came about subsequently, to occur. A Constitutional Dictator he was, MR virtually closed off the last remaining paths to Democracy, set up a rule run by his family and aides, and changed the laws of the land to best secure this situation. Extremist Sinhala Buddhist hate groups emerged and grew under his rule, acting without fear or sanction, which raised majoritarian cries and instilled mortal fear into the minds of the minorities- Tamils, Muslims and even the Sinhala Christians. BBS and Sinhala Ravaya became the ‘unofficial Police’ and Gnanasara attempted to become a ’reborn Anagarika’ and not very many Buddhist monks and intellectuals were able to raise their voice of resent due to fear , as it was an open secret that it was MR’s brother Gota who was widely known to be their patron saint.
As always happens when the world faces such calamities, in my view, Divine Providence intervenes and gives credence to the saying; ‘ the taller a bamboo tree grows, the lower it bends’. In history, Pharaohs have fallen and the bullies have been brought to ultimate justice . In recent history, we have seen the likes of Pol Pot, Marcos, Hitler, Mussolini, who fell or thrown out of power in disgrace and in our country too, Prabakaran too fell and suffered a gory death. MR was the most recent example of falling into disgrace at two elections, after being a Winston Churchill winning the War in 2009. The tide thus turned in latter part of 2014 and the Joint Opposition which rallied round Maithri at that time was able to harness an unanticipated reach and depth of popularity. That such a surge of inspiration would carry them forward is something that probably even the opposition leadership didn’t anticipate. It was in this context that the pivotal role played by Most Ven. Sobitha Thero becomes relevant.He become the ‘Desmond Tutu’ of Sri Lanka’ –the voice of the millions of voiceless lost people ,and a rallying cry to action.
Tutu is widely regarded as “South Africa’s moral conscience” and has been described by Nelson Mandela as “sometimes strident, often tender, never afraid and seldom without humour, Desmond Tutu’s voice will always be the voice of the voiceless”. Since his retirement, Tutu has worked to critique the new South African government. Tutu has been vocal in condemnation of corruption, the ineffectiveness of the ANC-led government to deal with poverty, and the later outbreaks of xenophobic violence in some townships in South Africa. Ven Sobitha Thero played a similar role and was certainly the rallying force behind the recent silent revolution to restore democracy in Sri Lanka .
When Sunday Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunge was brutally killed, he was among the few who bravely raised voices to protest against a haughty and a dictatorial regime. He said:’ the assassination of a prominent journalist has rung the death knell of democracy . Sri Lanka is no more a Dharmadweepa (land of Dhamma); it has turned into a state of murderers. Although we have seen continuous attacks on journalists over the past few years , the brutal assassination of Lasantha Wickrematunge in broad daylight is the severest blow the country has ever witnessed. Those behind this cowardly act have not gunned down Wickrematunge, but the country’s democracy’.
Back then, Thero said that if necessary, he was prepared to contest the presidential elections as the common candidate in order to abolish the Executive Presidency. As the Head of the Movement to restore Social Justice, he even drafted a constitution to restore democracy and to instil national reconciliation. When the powers of the day did not heed his call to abolish the Executive Presidency , he took the initiative to bring the warring political factions together on a common front and program of action, to bring about ‘Yahapalanaya’ (Good Governance) , when there were not even glim hopes of changing a strong MR regime, in the horizon. Maithri/Ranil combination wouldn’t have been successful, if not for the sagacious leadership provided by the Most Ven. Thero. He was the inspiration behind other Ven. Theros like Ven. Dambara Amila Thero and Ven. Rathana Thero and also civil forces like ‘Purawesi Peramuna (Citizen’s Front’ ) to take to the streets.
Ven Sobitha Thero performed a similar role even after the regime change in Sri Lanka. We should also not forget the sacrifice, dedication and commitment of the Most Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero in his unstinted support of the 19th amendment to be successful. He emphasised just after the January 8th Elections that the electoral system needs to be changed before the next elections. ‘The most important change expected in this political transformation is the change in the electoral system. This has to change. We impress upon the government that the next election needs to be conducted in a newly identified electoral system’. He insisted that the new regime fulfil promises to end corruption and bring about the required political changes. Ven Thero said ‘that the government and President Maithripala Sirisena have made a commitment that an end to the Executive Presidency will be done and that the 17th Amendment to the Constitution will be done. They have made a commitment to change the electoral system and that the Commission to Investigation Allegations of Bribery or Corruption will be properly implemented and perpetrators will be penalised. However, if the commitment are not fulfilled, everything will be over. The Gods will be raged’
In his campaign to cleanse politics, he echoed before the August Elections, that the people need to take steps to ensure that corrupt persons are not re-elected to Parliament. He added that there is no need to make individuals victorious, but instead it must be ensured that policies are victorious to cleanse the country – and there is a need for clean politics. He further noted that persons who are not worth should not be elected, to Parliament as it is the people who have to pay their wages and provide the facilities. And in addition to that, after five years as an MP, they have to be given a pension too. He further stated that it is sad to see some when they retire as they wasted public money and never spoke a word on behalf of people in Parliament. He went on to add that ballots must not be cast for the corrupt, persons with racing interests, book-keepers, ethanol dealers and owners of taverns and that it must be reiterated that suitable persons must be elected to parliament. The Ven. Thero urged the political parties to appoint suitable persons. Unfortunately for the country, neither the political parties nor the country heeded his call to appoint or elect representatives with clean records. August Elections therefore saw the culture that was rejected by the people to re-emerge in the country. Be it as it may as regards to those ideal results, Ven. Thero was indeed a great man with a great mind and vision for the country of his birth and we will remember him always as such.
Thus, as the nation mourns the sad loss of this charismatic and inspiring leader, it is nothing but right that we commit ourselves to work towards creating a country which can once again boast of a clean and credible political culture sans corruption, and devoid of racial and religious hatred and xenophobia. Late Ven. Thero will be pleased even in death if the people of Sri Lanka commit themselves to hold their politicians to account and ensure that the country will never return to those dark days of fear, anxiety and lack of transparency. May his soul rest in peace.