A Monk for all Sri Lankans



by Jayantha Dhanapala

The passing away of Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha has deeply affected all Sri Lankans irrespective of ethnicity and religion, class and occupation, urban and rural. In our profound grief at this time of our loss we have become the united nation that he wanted us to be. To remain united will be the nation’s ultimate tribute to the departed monk.

Religious leaders have played significant roles in the history of many countries achieving mass impact and effecting political change– Rev.Martin Luther King in the USA’s civil rights movement and Archbishop Desmond Tutu in South Africa are but two recent examples. In our own country Buddhist monks have rallied opposition to colonial invaders or led cultural renaissance movements at crucial points in our history. Ven.Sobitha was born in a rural environment and entered monkhood in the traditional route becoming a samanera at the age of eleven. He went on to graduate from Vidyodya University and eventually became Nayaka Thero of the Naga Vihara in Kotte in an urban setting. He campaigned against President Jayewardene’s policies and led a temperance movement especially directed at youth. His crowning success however was in his campaign against the Executive Presidency, the democracy deficit and corruption of the Rajapaksa regime culminating in the Presidential Election of January 8 this year.

About 30 years ago Ven.Sobitha visited the USA and called on me as our country’s Ambassador in Washington. He was impressive in his calm dignity. There was an aura of transparent integrity about him. His remarkably modulated voice was authoritative without being hectoring. His vocabulary was rich using our language with rare dexterity. After receiving alms at the Residence we talked and he graciously accepted my invitation that he should address the Embassy staff. At the Embassy he held the audience enthralled as he gently guided them on how they should serve their country at a time when it faced a terrorist threat. It was a message of peace, compassion and inclusiveness while being resolutely patriotic and not jingoistic.

Years later with my representation of my country and service at the United Nations ended, I had returned to Sri Lanka. As a member of civil society I shared the widespread anguish and deep concern that after winning a fratricidal war we were no closer to achieving the national peace and unity we all desperately wanted. Democracy and human rights were under siege while corruption and nepotism flourished. I received an invitation to a meeting with Ven.Sobitha and, more out of curiosity than conviction, I gathered with a number of others including retirees like myself, a few politicians with Karu Jayasuriya prominent among them, trade unionists, University dons and others to hear Ven.Sobitha talk of the Executive Presidency as the root cause of the problems of our country. He presented us with a list of principles around which he proposed that the like-minded should unite. Some spoke while others remained as observers. The intervention of many helped to improve the list of principles and Ven.Sobitha’s willingness to accept changes indicated that he was flexible and not dogmatic.

Regular meetings of the National Movement for Social Justice (NMSJ) then began. A website was launched on 8 August 2014 where I was invited to speak. Over a period of time the message was fine-tuned. The chief spokesman remained the charismatic Ven.Sobitha. His unerring political instinct had selected the Executive Presidency issue and it reverberated throughout the country. Religious dignitaries from other faiths in the country were frequently on his platform. It was a national campaign to benefit the whole nation. His platform oratory and media interviews were masterful and a model for our raucous political megaphones to emulate.

The idea of a Common Candidate was mooted and the Ven.Sobitha even offered himself for that role. In the event, Maitripala Sirisena emerged and was unhesitatingly endorsed. The rest, as they say, is history. The success of Maitripala Sirisena at the Presidential Election of January 8 vindicated the judgment of Ven.Sobitha and his leadership. Thereafter his task was to safeguard that victory and preserve the principles of "Yahapalanaya". That was a challenge and the NMSJ met frequently at the Naga Vihara to assess the dangers and need for course correction. The fact that both the President and Prime Minister frequently called on the Ven.Sobitha for consultation were indications of his influence although his advice was not always followed.

Now he is no more – gone at a time when the country most needed him and his wise guidance. The NMSJ has pledged to follow his footsteps and preserve and perpetuate his legacy continuing the role he played. The country will hold them to that pledge at a time, when as W.B.Yeats, wrote – "The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity"

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