Needed: A new dynamism for ‘Democratic Republicanism’

Wednesday, 11 November 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



Today, a nation is still struggling to assess the significance of his loss. Tomorrow, many if not most of us will officially mourn his return to the ocean of Samsara – with some aspiring seafarers suspecting that his vessel has crossed the near-infinite reaches to the nether shore (or wishing for him that it will... sooner than later). Yesterday, like another patron saint of change militating for a more excellent way – Paul, the promulgator of a slightly less ancient faith – he was many things to many people so that by many means he might win at least some...2

> Advocate. > Devil’s advocate. > Bastion of civil liberties, bulwark against autocratic rule or antidemocratic regimes. > Champion of democracy. > Philosopher-priest. > Scholar-savant. > Motivator par excellence of the masses in need of a socio-political messiah. > Monk extraordinaire. > Man of his times. 

So, who was Sobitha, what was he, that all his swains – state, civil society, the adoring masses – commend him so much?

There are three cadences through we which we may discern his contribution to nascent democratic-republicanism in our nation-state. As a man; via his movement; through the machine that he manufactured. 



  • He was apolitical as far as being partisan to policies went, but politically sensitive and engaged enough to espouse the values of democratic-republicanism. As far as public office was concerned, he seemed to harbour no visible personal political ambition. But there was that contrary indication when a viable common candidate was the pressing need of the hour and he seemed only too willing to step into the gap. Thus he was criticised then – even as he is being criticised now in certain quarters – for being hypocritical. There are some who are still – even now that calumny can’t leave him colder – vilifying him: not for his personal aspirations for the purple robes of power, but for his apolitical ambitions to rid the republic of a purpling power.
  • He had a sustainable long-term ministry, which spanned not years, but decades, even a generation of political activism. At the dawn of our republican chapter, he took on the democratically elected incipient tyrant JR. To herald the dawn of our re-democratisation, he took on the to-be democratically defeated burgeoning despot MR. In-between those eras – embracing an activism of forty years – he invited the attention of presidential spies under Premadasa’s aegis, for example, and attracted a host of acolytes including premiers.
  • His opposition was principle-centred, not personality-driven or even party-focused. When all about him were fawning over soon-to-be faddish liberal democracy, he adopted a more conservative – albeit demographically broad-based – approach to social justice. Of late, with ‘Good Governance’ seemingly losing the plot, the thread, and the steam to drive its values into the heart of administration, he looked set to take up cudgels with the very champions of democratic-republicanism whom he had sought out and supported.
  • His use of an exceptional oratorical talent and the effective employment of his organisational skills saw him thrust into the forefront of the opposition to autocracy, during the decade or more in which dissent was stifled and punished stringently. This utilisation of gifts, for the sake of the people he had elected himself to represent, he did without apparent expectation of a reward – except the gratification of the crusader of being in the right and leading that charge. 
  • He learned from his mistakes – which is rare in a political milieu where the dominant ethic was once ‘zero civilian casualties’ without regard for ground realities that belied the claim; and which is now fast becoming a culture of ‘zero tolerance of corruption’ sans respect for the genuineness of one’s cause. As one commentator has said: “He won some battles and lost others, but never stopped fighting for people’s rights. With every struggle, he became more resolute and resourceful.”
  • He had a cult image, but was not persuaded by the propaganda of those who would make him a Demigod of Democratic-Republicanism. Rather, he had an aura of simple charisma and deceptively sophisticated charm. At an event to seek a new spiritual direction for the land, held in the Anglican Cathedral as far back as 2013, Ven. Sobitha was a vibrant force: he didn’t speak, or participate in any way other than being there; but his presence was vital, visceral, valiant by virtue of his ethos.
  • He also had pathos (a strong sense of emotive relational power). He was able to, and willing to, share the stage and the spotlight with other leaders: a brash but ebullient CBK; the eloquent visionaries of the JHU. This he did while retaining his own purposeful vision. By default, rather than by design, he was what someone called the “principal alliance builder and strategist” of the erstwhile common candidacy platform.
  • He had credibility, because at no time did he seem to benefit personally from his widely publicised campaigns to revive and restore democratic-republicanism to our land. There were no hints of corruption, no accusations of public funds being siphoned off for personal use or gain, no public office sought or given. 
  • He was human: a person of the fallen dispensation like all of us. He was quite often wrong, being a product of our times and our traditions. Some of you might remember how, together with many other Buddhist monks, he vehemently opposed the Indo-Lanka Accord of 1987. He was not at all the architect of that other piece of legislation – the 13th Amendment to the Constitution – which forced open the door for the devolution of power to Sri Lanka’s periphery. For his efforts to counter and subvert that movement, Ven. Sobitha (more vociferous at 42 than he was eloquent at 72 vis-à-vis the 19th Amendment to the Constitution) was arrested and detained for over three months, for his trouble to oppose the State and India, in mid- to late-1987.
  • He was willing and able to evolve as a political and social activist. As a stormy petrel during that early era of militant Buddhism, he soared into halcyon days as a much more moderate voice for the change he wanted to see made in Sri Lanka. Despite a recent hiatus, in which he all but disappeared from the national radar, he forged sundry political alliances that engaged and overcame ethnic divides and religious differences. To paraphrase one of his eulogists, [Ven. Sobitha] “started with saffron and ended with almost all the shades of the rainbow”. An evolution not ineluctable for a former militant monk at whose name’s mention, moderates trembled! 



  • An island-wide search for a suitable ‘common candidate’ to challenge the incumbent Caesar was largely seen and said to be voyaging ahead under the helmsman-ship of this Ven. Thero.  
  • It was more than simply a seeking after the most suitable man or woman to change Sri Lanka’s destiny – it was a search for the sociopolitical and spiritual leadership that would eventually give rise to the so-called ‘January Revolution’ which sought to restore vital democratic fundamentals to our nation-state.
  • In this – as well as in other movements to motivate and galvanise the polity into peaceful political resistance – it was Ven. Sobitha himself who was, and who modelled, the exemplary change he wanted. 


So, in the midst of the movement to ‘find a good man or a good woman’, it came as no surprise to Sobitha-watchers that the monk himself was also the subject of wide speculation in the closing months of last year as a viable candidate to run against the then incumbent Chief Executive.

  • There were some fears that such a development in his movement could lead to the formation of what critics would call “a Buddhist ayatollah”. But Ven. Sobitha’s efforts to unearth a truly suitable candidate and undergird a really credible alliance that could challenge the Rajapaksa regime were, in the end, selfless and other-oriented.
  • Sobitha Thero’s detractors and dependants alike recognised that he was developing a broad vision for our island-nation that would/should/could become acceptable by many if not all. The present President himself – a dependent – has recognised this, per his tweet after the monk’s demise. Government itself recognises this in its declaration of a day of national mourning.
  • Other interlocutors and observers have not been slow to recognise the contribution his movement made in the past year or more towards moving Sri Lanka back into a democratic-republican orbit. The US is only one such. Its Ambassador to Sri Lanka has stated that the late thero had been “respected for his ongoing efforts to nurture and protect democracy, promote respect for people of all faiths, and improve the lives of all Sri Lankans”. It’s the kind of accolade reserved for heads of state or higher-level national leaders.



  • It began as a desire and the ability to clearly, sharply, passionately articulate the aspirations of a people who wanted change and a country that needed it. 
  • It grew as – and in to being – a civil society movement to challenge, arrest, and reverse the debilitation caused by ‘populist authoritarianism’.
  • It remains as a (now albeit less dynamic) agency and instrumentality to galvanise the opinion of the masses against corrupt antidemocratic cronyism.
  • As a civil-society organisation has said: [Ven. Sobitha] was a champion of civil society, whose “continued”, “coherent” and “cogent advocacy” will be “sorely missed”, especially at this “critical juncture in the reform process”.
  • Although the man who functioned as “Sri Lanka’s de facto Opposition Leader in a time of crisis” is gone, his movement can be readily transmogrified into a machine that continues to serve the ends he had in mind. Sobitha Thero used the machinery of the National Movement for a Just Society – NMSJ – to “unify a divided opposition and bring together other dispirited groups like trade unionists, artistes, and professionals to call for a regime change” (as another elegist has it). Someone else – not him, but like him – is now the need of the hour, so that the visionary ideals of one man for his society are not lost with the passing of a great soul... 
  • For long (maybe too long) the beloved and charismatic monk was a lone ranger, with all the advantages of the unorthodox crusader – and no albatross in the form of anything more than the chief incumbency of a suburban temple hanging over his head. Now – in keeping with his curious and solicitous ethos – the search is on again: for a successor on whom Ven. Sobitha’s mantle might rest... 
  • Such a legate must remember and constantly remind the people, as a political watchdog has essayed it, that “the primary duty of civil society in a functioning democracy” [is] one of “eternal vigilance through constant proactive stakeholdership in public affairs for governance”.
  • The NMSJ, together with likeminded others under its shady umbrella, was once a machine that architected the historic 19A to challenge and change the Draconian logos of the 18th Amendment and its provisions for absolute power for the notoriously corruptible executive presidency of old. Even though many now feel that “a modicum of independence” has been restored to the matter of governance – particularly with the establishment of independent commissions, as well as other democratic checks and balances – civil society cannot afford to be complacent that such governance will be necessarily and normatively ‘good’ or good enough! 
  • Ven. Sobitha himself was not at all sanguine about the changes his machine had wrought. While affirming that 19A was on the right and noble path to restoring democratic-republicanism, he rued its more-effete-than-expected character. Those who were close to the visibly disgruntled monk in the latter phase of #yahapaalanaya acknowledged that while the man headed a seemingly indefatigable movement for good governance, there were gremlins in the machinery of the administration of government itself – and Sobitha Thero, like some of us, might have grown cynical or at least sceptical about the regrettable dissembling and ruinous departure from the vision that was once a shining Camelot-like apparition for us all.
  • A polite way of putting the truth above would be to assert that – as NMSJ would say – “it is the responsibility of the President and the Prime Minister to continue the implementation of the political changes and social expectations that the thero had aspired to”. 
  • Ven. Sobitha would not have hesitated, better health permitting, to stringently, and with critical engagement, assess whether Sri Lanka has indeed changed the face of its content and style of governance, never shying away from asking tough questions in public about the very machine for better government he had helped create.
  • If his life is to mean anything, the ghost in that machine must continue to live on in the ambitions and aspirations of others who shared his vision – even those who appear to have momentarily abandoned those ideals. That would be a legacy worth dying for. 

Eventually, there is a fourth and final prism through which we the people may seek to apprehend this man, his movement, and the ghost in the machine that he designed to come alive.



When police brutally baton-charged innocent protestors, we blamed fallible men – and yearned for a hero who would bell the brutal cats for the sake of civil society. When places of religious worship were stoned or torched, we pointed the finger of suspicion to movements working under cloak of dark and secrecy – and prayed that an apolitical leader of the saffron brigade would rise to stand and bridge the ethnic-religious divide by pouring oil on troubled waters. When dissenters, voices of opposition, and threats to the status were once systematically silenced, we admitted the power of a ruthless machine (though we could hardly bring ourselves to admire it) and earnestly desired a champion of democracy to stand up and stand out and speak out for those endangered minorities. When political leaders emerged smelling of frangipani from fiascos like opening fire on its own citizens and imbroglios such as shelling civilian safety zones, we recognised that a monument was in the making – and looked (almost in vain) for a colossus of civil society to take a principled stance against the giants in our land. And underneath the fragile veneer of sapience and sophistication, beneath the compassionate outlook yet steely glance, there was the bedrock of a man – albeit an unusual man with an unprecedentedly unique mindset. The key to unlocking that man, the movement he engendered, the machine he opposed, and the monument that civil society seeks to erect to him today – a monument to the noble path of peace with justice and equality for all – is to corner, challenge, critique, and question dominant mindsets (including our own) that still stand against what Ven. Sobitha stood for. 

“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,” writes one commentator.

We might add that the regime change hasn’t quite resulted in a cultural realignment in terms of the way the country is governed yet. Values must follow hard on the heels of principles, and Good Governance be practised in the same breath that it is preached. That nirvana won’t soon come without another Sobitha.

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