By Mohamed Harees –
The distinguished erudite monk from the South, 68 year old Ven Baddegama Samitha Thero sadly breathed his last, after suffering from the dreaded Corona virus infection. The reverend Thero had reportedly returned to his temple following treatment, but was once again hospitalized after suffering another lung infection, and thereafter succumbed to the deadly virus. The nation certainly lost an inspiring leader and a relentless social activist, who has been continuously committing his life for and working towards creating an inclusive country, devoid of racial and religious hatred and xenophobia.
Lovingly called as the People’s monk in the South, this respected leftist leaning monk entered mainstream politics in 1991, when he contested the Local Government elections through the Nava Sama Samaja Pakshaya. Then in 1997, he was elected as a member of the Southern Provincial Council for the first time and later in 2001 he was elected to the parliament of Sri Lanka. But Samitha Thero lost his parliament seat in the 2004 Sri Lankan general election and he served as an active member of the Southern Provincial Council. Samitha Thero is regarded as the first ever Buddhist monk to enter the Parliament of Sri Lanka.
They say, Bikkhus who have morality have “shining body glorification.” They naturally become known to people, (famous). People praise those qualities. They will achieve happiness. Samitha Thero too was such an exemplary character and a role model in many aspects. In the South, people in general and the Muslims in particular, gratefully remember the pivotal role played by Ven Samitha Thero in forging vital brotherly links and mutual understanding between the Sinhala and Muslim communities. He boldly stood up against the extremist elements and did not allow these divisive forces to mar the friendship between these two sisterly communities living side by side in various parts of the South. As a role model figure of harmony, this distinguished monk was a regular invitee to the charity drives/events organized beyond racial divides, by Muslim organizations in general , and by Galle Muslim Cultural Association based in Fort, Galle in particular. Muslims lovingly called him ‘Apey Haamoduruwoo’ (Our Monk). Muslims and Sinhalese living within the historic Fort (another bastion of inter communal amity), where I grew up, always mutually respected each other’s traditions. In fact, Muslim boys including myself studied Sinhala from the monks in the Fort temple. In this context, Samitha Thero did not feel as a stranger among the Muslims and was always a welcome guest in the Muslim villages in Galle as he spoke in inclusive language.
Ven Thero has openly criticized nationalist sentiment and the prominent monastics behind the extremist anti-Muslim outfit BBS movement, decrying them for tarnishing the image of Buddhism and the monastic sangha in Sri Lanka and internationally. He strongly condemned both the nationalists’ rhetoric against Muslims under the banner of patriotism. When the BBS once made accusations against him, he boldly asserted,
‘We, the religious leaders, need to play a greater role in promoting harmony among the various religions instead of sowing hatred against minorities. They [nationalists] do not represent the mainstream Buddhist population, but their voices are louder than those most monks who stay calm and choose not to speak out against them. Silence is like supporting [misbehavior], so we raise our voices. According to my Buddhist upbringing, I have always been against extremism. If there are issues within the family, we don’t go to the streets and abuse each other. Bhikkus should be peaceful, use right words and conduct. They should never sow discord and hate. They should promote reconciliation and peaceful co-existence. There are many issues affecting us including the Bhikku education. We should sort out our own issues rather than blaming the Muslims or Tamils for our plight. I am totally against racism cropping up in our country. When I spoke for the innocent Tamils, I was called pro- LTTE. Hate cannot solve any problem, but create many’.
His presence was a regular sight in rallies and demonstrations against hate and bigotry. His views were well sought both by the local and international media on issues relating to national reconciliation. Ven Samitha has also been a regular invitee and a participant in international discussion forums on inter religious understanding and cooperation. He was well known as the strong supporter of the Palestinian cause, being the chair of the Palestine Friendship Society in the South. The Palestinian ambassador to Sri Lanka was also a regular visitor to see the distinguished monk in his temple. Both of them recently made a good will visit to the residence of Shukra Munawwar in Katugoda, Galle after her ‘Sirasa Lakshapathi’ win. His loss is thus a blow to the espousing mission of the Palestinian Cause in Sri Lanka too.
It is unfortunate that some sections of the politicians and rogue sections of the Maha Sangha have been uttering falsehoods and half truths, instigating the majority community against the minority communities. With the aim of capturing political power, they propagated misleading statements and sought to bring about discord between communities. Therefore, while being on the subject of Ven. Samitha Thero’s role in promoting inter communal understanding, it is pertinent to share some thoughts on the pivotal role played by the Maha Sangha in Buddhist majority Sri Lanka, (the likes of Samitha Thero), in promoting national reconciliation which is the foundation for national development. Of course, leaders of all religions have a role to play; however the Buddhist monks have a predominant role to play in the Sri Lankan context, due to demographic and various political reasons.
Sri Lanka is fortunate to have the predominant sections of the Maha Sangha belonging to all the Buddhist chapters promoting inclusivity and living together in peace and harmony. It was always the minority numbers of monks in the likes of Gnanasara and Ratana Thero and their hate groups with political yearnings who/which bring disgrace to the peaceful religion of Buddhism. BBS is such an aberration of Buddhism. Erudite monks such as Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, Amila Thero, Bhaddiya Thero, like Samitha Thero, among many are such luminating examples who have been in the forefront of promoting Racial Amity, which focuses on finding areas that people who may not normally interact with each other can find common ground over. The premise is that much of the racial divide in Sri Lanka comes from the history of segregation in this country. Much of the Sri Lanka sadly remains greatly segregated by race, and the tradition of Racial Amity attempts to bridge this divide, and through a relationship break down misperceptions and prejudices surrounding race. It is in this context that Sri Lanka needs more positive role models like Samitha Thero who promoted this inclusive concept.
Racial Amity which Samitha Thero espoused with conviction ,is a tradition that comes as a counter to the traditional discourse on race in our country which has been one of blame-grievance-rejection cycle which has not been successful in moving us forward into an era of overcoming racial oppression and racial prejudice., “This ‘other tradition’ of close collaboration, amity, and love has served as the moral and spiritual counterweight to the dominant tradition of racism that occupies so much of our national history.” In a social climate where talking about race has become increasingly tense and difficult ,it has been refreshing to have monks in the calibre of Samitha Thero focussing solely on overcoming the divisive rhetoric that permeates the media. Racial Amity is all about building relationships across race lines to break some segregation-based biases and misperceptions about one another. Racial Amity comes from a tradition of people of different races working together and building friendship and love through relationship.
All religious leaders must preach and campaign for the common Sri Lankan identity so that we will not be identified by our race or religion. Then, we can go forward as one nation – Sri Lanka. Let there be racial and religious amity throughout the country so that our country will be able to raise its head above the economic, religious and racial clouds. In making this a reality, late Ven. Samitha Thero will thus be pleased even in death if the people of Sri Lanka commit themselves to ensure that the country will be saved from the dark days of fear, hate and Islamophobia which has been engulfing this nation since the end of the war and hampering the process of development and progress. Let us make his dream of an inclusive Sri Lanka a reality, towards realising which, he toiled so hard in his worldly sojourn. May his soul rest in peace.