The Sunday Leader

Good Governance And The Sobitha Factor

by Wimalanath Weeraratne

Ven. Sobitha Thero

The Late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero just two months before his demise was faced with an unresolved dilemma. That is whether his National Movement for a Just Society had contributed to build a just and fair society or its complete opposite. The reason is because United National Front for Good Governance (UNFGG) had put the cart before the horse and was threading a journey backwards whilst undergoing a by-pass surgery.  Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is supposed to have paid a courtesy call on the monk.  After some chit chat, the Ven. Thero posed a question to the Premier – ‘what we intended did not happen, did it Mr. Prime Minister?  So the question before the whole society is whether the changes we intended along with Ven. Sobhitha Thero are taking place today.

 

A just and fair society

An Executive Presidency with absolute powers should not ideally be there in a just and fair society, Ven. Sobitha Thero propounded whether it be Sinhalese, Tamils or a Muslims, a problem before the whole society can be swept under the carpet with the absolute powers Sri Lanka’s Executive Presidency yielded. As such, he foresaw that any common candidate or movement should be united or should have the aim of abolishing the Executive Presidency. The leaders of our country at the time were such that they were not only willing to clip the wings of Mahinda Rajapaksa along with the Executive Presidency but also willing to sacrifice or amputate any of his or her own arms or limbs towards the cause.

Unfortunately once those crusaders for good governance came into power they only abolished some powers of the Executive Presidency. When even after the UNFGG mustered a majority in Parliament after the August 17, elections, he was distressed to see President Maithripala Sirisena comfortably getting into the garbs of the very Executive Presidency the public had voted out of power. However, the Cabinet has now approved a proposal by the President to abolish the Executive Presidency.

The Thero was forced to keep silent when Rajapaksa-confidante Sajin Vaas Gunawardena was negotiating deals with the National Government and emerged scot free as ‘State witness. Ven. Sobitha Thero was utterly disappointed when the United Front to Salvage Avante Garde was staging a drama with Yahapalana actors. The by-pass operation which swept several large scale corruptions and frauds of the Rajapaksa regime under the carpet by the very government he helped to bring into power was hurting much more than his own by-pass operation and was too much for him to bear. Ethanol dealers and drug peddlers, who should have ideally been behind bars in a genuinely just and fair society, were working in hand in glove with the so-called crusaders of good governance. With the Ven. Sobitha Theras becoming more and more silent, ‘the deals’ continued unhindered.

 

Avante Garde issue

The lawyer advising Avante Garde arose to the position of the Minister of Law and Order in charge of Police, but his main role, as it seemed to the general public, was to not safeguard the public but to salvage Avante Garde. The President too had to turn a blind eye when it surfaced during Cabinet meetings that some have accepted billions of rupees in order to salvage Avante Garde. These were the unresolved issues burning in the mind of Ven. Sobitha Thero when he posed the question ‘what we intended did not happen, did it Mr. Prime Minister?’.

Young Sobitha Thero backed Former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in the 1970 election but did not hesitate to oppose it when it was becoming oppressive and was  espousing family bandism.

In the 1980s when then President J.R Jayewardene presented the white paper to private education and curtail the rights to free education Ven. Sobitha Thero did not hesitate to oppose the move. In fact he too was attacked along with Prof. Ediriweera Sarathchandra. During a protest in Fort against the 1987 Indo Lanka Peace Accord he was a victim of assault by the then government. The temple was not immune to violence as he was again assaulted whilst at the Abhayarama Temple.

Thereafter he openly criticised the Premadasa Administration for violently suppressing any dissent what so ever. Just as much he supported President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga to come into power he opposed her when she went against the mandate of the people.

Thereafter he was a pillar of strength to the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. However, with Rajapaksa  was going against the people’s mandate he had no choice but to call for a change of regime. On his way to a sathyagraha in Kandy, Ven. Sobitha Thero ‘met with an accident’, allegedly planned by the former regime. He had told me personally that Rajapaksa confidante Mervin Silva scolded him in utter filth for opposing the Rajapaksa regime. There was one underlying factor behind all actions taken by Ven. Sobhitha Thero that was the fact that he stood on the side of what was just and fair. Although he was content to some extent that the independent commissions were re-established he never became a henchman of any government. Today the tragedy before us is that many have become the henchman or yes men of the government he or she had brought into power. Secondly he did not fail to criticise the very government he brought into power. These are some of the things which our Buddhist monks unfortunately do not engage at present.

 

High class only?

A neighbour of Nagavihara in Kotte of which the Ven. Sobitha Thero was the Incumbent told me that the Late Thero did not associate with commoners but only with high class elitist. I believe this is just partially true. Although influential and affluent persons associated with the monk his doors were open to the rich and the poor alike. However it is untrue that he associated only with the high class. He did not go after rulers although politicians needed him he did not need the politicians.

 

Sinhalese chauvinism

At one point Ven. Sobitha Thero was an ardent campaigner for the rights of the downtrodden Sinhala Buddhist. When Sinhalese children in border villagers were being hacked to death he implored even during his sermons. He became the epitome for Sinhalese rights and there was a time when many pacifists distanced themselves from him.  However, with time he transformed from his racist attitude into a position that only dialogue and reconciliation would serve to permanently resolve the national question.

One can say that he permanently gave up racism with the rise of Bodu Bala Sena. He extolled the words of Lord Buddha in order to disown Buddhist fundamentalism. He foresaw the death and destruction that can be wrought upon a country through hardliners and fundamentalists. He foresaw Dharga Town and Aluthgama. There after some hardliners scuffed at Ven. Sobitha Thero putting him too in the NGO bandwagon that received dollars. However, in my view Ven. Sobitha Thero was not a person who changed his stance for money.  He was a doyen who could have received cash without changing his stance but did not do so. He abhorred racism because he truly knew that this would drag the country backwards.

 

Demise

Although after the by-pass surgery Ven. Sobitha Thero showed some improvement, his condition aggravated after a germ had entered into his body and was taken to Singapore for further treatment. After his death several persons with vested interests started attacking him on social media. There were people who addressed him as ‘Mr. Sobitha’ in order sling mud at him. In fact a moderate pointed out that those who sling mud at a Buddhist monk in such degrading manners cannot call themselves true Sinhala Buddhists.

Ven. Sobitha Thero’s sole dream was to see a just and fair society. He opposed the Executive Presidency and called for a return to Rule of Law and independent commissions in order to see a truly just and fair society. He never yearned to see either proponents or opponents to his views to become violent. This is a fundamental truth that his followers must understand. His opponents can be engaged and be made aware of the true philosophy of Ven. Sobitha Thero only if his followers act with patience and restraint.

“Our people are prepared to sacrifice their lives for the religion they believe in, but not prepared to follow the principles taught by that religion.”

 

Religious supremacy

A philosophy such as Buddhism should be above the State no doubt but, always in Sri Lanka the government in power made religion a weapon to gain more power and solidify its stronghold. On the other hand religious leaders became yes men of the government in power. Several religious leaders tried to pull the leg of Ven. Sobitha Thero stating that he was engaged in active politics. However they forgot that he was a true Buddhaputhra.

 

‘Charaka bikkhawe charikan

bahujana hithaya

bahujana sukhaya …’

(O monks, traverse for the wellbeing and comfort of all peoples)

Was his slogan and he did not hesitate to oppose the government in power in the interest of all the people. He went from town to town, village to village preaching and conducting press conferences towards this end. It is questionable whether these criticising monks had accomplished even an iota of what Ven. Sobitha Thero accomplished during his lifetime. Many of those engaged in just preaching sermons showering praises of the rulers in order to gain more patronage.

Even after Mahinda was defeated on January eighth these unprogressive, so-called leaders tried to influence Ven. Sobitha Thero to not oppose Rajapaksa coming back into power. In fact the undercurrent working against Ven. Sobitha Thero was so strong that he was invited only for one of the six main public rallies. The National Movement for a Just Society was kept out of funeral organising activities by those in power. It is so sad that the very own movement created by the Thero was not given any room to express the Thero’s views at the funeral.

By engaging in these suppressive activities the religious establishment of this country is trying to close doors of free thinking which were let open by Ven. Sobitha Thero. The feeble minded and backward-thinking clergymen of our country always became henchmen to whatever the government in power and were not progressive in safeguarding the principles of Buddhism. It is amusing that the clerics who did not speak one word against the oppressive rule of Mahinda Rajapaksa had come forward to criticise Ven. Sobitha Thero when the latter pointed out the shortcomings of the Maithri-Ranil Administration. The majority of the public are still under the illusion that Buddhism should be made the State religion. It is not easy to bring the people out of this insecurity complex.

 

In the interest of all people

To what extent Ven. Sobitha Thero practiced the principles of Buddhism can be witness by the hundreds of thousands of Buddhists and non-Buddhists who attended his funeral at Naga Viharaya. Muslim brethren came forward in distributing buns and water for the mile long queue of mourners. “Sinhala-Muslim Union of Dharga Town” banner was also seen in the vicinity. How laudable it is that the Sinhalese and Muslims of Dharga town – a community which was made into a funeral house by the Mahinda regime would come together setting aside their petty differences of race, caste or creed? Be it the Sri Lankan Tamils of Jaffna or Killinochchi, be they Indian Tamils of Nuwara Eliya, be they Muslims of Ampara, Sri Lankans from all hues and walks made no difference to the Thera from the Sinhalese of Kotte where he resided. As such the people of this country lost a great leader who truly believed in harmony and reconciliation.

 

Continuing in his footsteps

Ven. Sobitha Thero believed in social reform. There is no other solution for our Sri Lankans address our complex social issues and problems except social reforms. To a great extent we can resolve our political, racial and religious issues by transforming into an advanced, secular society. In fact, one can say the Thero did not deliberate deep into in depth political debate beyond social reforms. His only cry was that at all segments of the society needed democracy, human rights equality and fairness in enjoying economic rights. The only way forward for us at this juncture is to transform our country into a fair, just and secular society through social reforms as advocated by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero.

2 Comments for “Good Governance And The Sobitha Factor”

  1. gamarala

    Ven. Sobitha walked in the footsteps of the great social reformer The Lord Buddha.
    It is sad that he passed away due to having contracted an infection in a hospital.
    The health minister should inquire, lest others too fall victim in the future.

  2. Just Society

    HIS death is indeed a great loss to all the decent people of Sri Lanka.

    “The only way forward for us at this juncture is to transform our country into a fair, just and secular society through social reforms as advocated by Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero”

    No one could say any better. Thank you Wimalanath Weeraratne.

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