For someone who never belonged to any political party in Sri Lanka, Maduluwawe Sobitha thero (1942 – 2015) led an extraordinarily political life.
The fearless and politically engaged Buddhist monk stood up to every Lankan head of state beginning with President J R Jayewardene (in office: 1977-1988). He never hesitated or minced his words when he sensed that elected leaders were overstepping their mandate
For over four decades, Sobitha used his powerful oratorical and organisational skills to mobilise people into peaceful political resistance. He won some battles and lost others, but never stopped fighting for people’s rights. With every struggle, he became more resolute and resourceful.
At certain times, this monk was more formidable – and also more feared by rulers – than the divided and endlessly bickering opposition political parties of Sri Lanka.
That certainly was the case in 2014, when he mounted a daring challenge to the increasingly despotic and nepotistic regime of President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was Sobitha’s recently-formed National Movement for a Just Society (NMJS) that slowly but surely succeeded in unifying the divided opposition and other dispirited groups like trade unionists, artistes and professionals to call for a regime change.
This time last year, that prospect still looked far-fetched. We had no idea that Sri Lanka’s Decade of Darkness (that began in 2005) was nearing its end…
It was the apolitical Sobitha who acted as Sri Lanka’s de facto Opposition Leader to pull us back from that brink. And it was an unorthodox Sobitha – mere head of a suburban temple — who stood taller and larger than any of the Maha Nayakas (chief prelates) in defending democracy and freedoms.
In fact, there was wide speculation for much of 2014 that Sobitha himself might run for the presidency against the incumbent. Some even worried whether that could create a Buddhist ayatollah.
In hindsight, all that was very likely a red herring created by Sobitha himself, as he worked hard behind the scenes in search of a candidate and a credible alliance that could challenge Rajapaksa.
For months, Sobitha’s temple — the Naga Vihara in Pita Kotte in my larger neighbourhood — was under constant surveillance by state intelligence anxious to keep track of its many and varied visitors. (It wasn’t the temple’s first such experience either: a quarter century earlier, an equally insecure President Premadasa also had the place surrounded by police and intelligence officers to figure out what a political storm this saffron-robed ‘trouble-maker’ was cooking up.)
In the event, all the king’s spies were brilliantly distracted by Sobitha: the unlikely Maithripala Sirisena was declared the Common Opposition Candidate on 21 November 2014.
The rest, as we know, is history.
The resolute yet peaceful regime change on January 8 wouldn’t have happened without Sobitha’s tenacity and sagacity. By this time, he had evolved beyond his own ethnic and religious identities to pan-Lankan social leader.
True, former president Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and groups like Jatika Hela Urumaya (JHU) shared the burden and risks (as detailed in Asoka Abeygunawardana’s interesting albeit biased history of the campaign, Revolution of the Era, March 2015). But Maduluwawe Sobitha was the principal alliance builder and strategist, and importantly, the one with the least degree of personal political ambition that characterized most others in that uncommon alliance.
For that very reason, it was much easier for Sobitha to distance himself from the Maithri government at the first sign of it straying off the yaha-palana (good governance) path. He didn’t exactly break rank, but started expressing concerns as early as March.
Precisely because he did not personally accept any public office or benefit in any other way, Sobitha remained credible while many of his yaha-palana fellow travelers became hopelessly compromised.
He has now departed just when the newly elected Lankan government has encountered the worst turbulence to date as it navigates through treacherous seas of corruption and conflict of interest. How we wish Sobitha was around, to tell the latest custodians of our state in forceful terms “not to play games with the people’s mandate”…
Sobitha was not always right, and some of his early political campaigns now seem a bit naïve and misplaced. For example, with many other Buddhist monks he opposed the Indo-Lanka Accord of July 1987 that led to the 13th Constitutional Amendment for greater devolution of power.
My friend and senior journalist Dharman Wickremaratne, a long-time associate of the monk, recalls how Sobitha had led a massive protest against the Accord – and was arrested on 1 August 1987. When a police superintendent and constables came to the Kotte Naga Vihara to take Sobitha into custody, nearly a thousand people converged to block it.
But Sobitha gave himself in, saying he was “prepared to meet any challenge for the sake of the people’s struggle”. He spent nearly a month in police custody. That was not the last time he defied authority.
It was an image of Sobitha of that era that famously adorned the cover of the Harvard social anthropologist Stanley J Tambiah’s book Buddhism Betrayed? Religion, Politics and Violence in Sri Lanka (Chicago University Press, 1992). It stirred much controversy in the media and in Parliament for months eventually leading to the book’s banning in Sri Lanka and Tambiah being demonized as a ‘Christian Tamil’.
If a younger Sobitha epitomized the early days of militant Buddhism, he soon moved to a much more moderate ground. His strength during the last two decades was rooted, in fact, in his ability to forge political alliances across ethnic and religious groups who call Sri Lanka their home. In other words, he started with saffron and ended with a rainbow. (I wonder what he thought of extremist groups like Bodu Bala Sena, BBS, who simply used the saffron ticket to divisive politics.)
I am not sure of Sobitha publishing his memoirs – perhaps it exists in many pieces of scribbling generated during an exceedingly busy public life. Taking stock of the life and times of Maduluwawe Sobitha could help us understand the challenges of mobilizing our society for political rights and freedoms.
Science writer Nalaka Gunawardene is an occasional chronicler of Sri Lanka’s topsy-turvy times. He writes a weekly column in Ravaya newspaper surveys the interface of science, society and media.
– Courtesy Groundviews