Sobitha Thera’s campaign for democracy and freedom | Sunday Observer

Sobitha Thera’s campaign for democracy and freedom

Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero was the architect and spiritual leader of the common opposition movement in 2015
Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero was the architect and spiritual leader of the common opposition movement in 2015

Lal Wijenayake, former Chairman of the Public Representations Committee on a New Constitution and a close associate of the revered monk and spiritual leader of the January 8 movement, talks to the Sunday Observer about Sobitha Thera who gave leadership to a fledgling opposition campaign and explains how the Yahapalanaya Government’s ‘100 day program’ came to be

During a time of complete breakdown of democracy the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera strived to restore freedoms of the Sri Lankan people while focusing on abolishing the executive presidency, close associate of the late monk and civil society member, Lal Wijenayake told the Sunday Observer, this week

This week marked the 75th birth anniversary of Sobitha Thera, the architect and spiritual leader of the 2014 common opposition candidacy that precipitated the fall of the Rajapaksa regime and swept the Yahapalanaya coalition to power in 2015.

Commemorative events held in the monk’s memory this week resulted in a storm of controversy, after President Maithripala Sirisena attended an event at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute and issued harsh criticism of the coalition government he leads, in his speech, even going so far as to disassociate himself from the 100 day program of the Yahapalanaya Administration which culminated in the enactment of the 19th Amendment.

Wijenayake, who worked with the revered priest in the run up to the January 2015 election and the early days of the reform program, told the Sunday Observer about Sobitha Thera’s hopes for the country, the drafting of the 100 day program and the country’s achievements in recent times, as he puts it, for the sake of political history and to place today’s political dynamics in the proper perspective. Wijenayake also served as Chairman of the Public Representations Committee on the new constitution in 2015.

Three years before the idea of a common candidate was born, to challenge the Rajapaksa regime, the first discussions began on the restoration of democracy in the country, which was facing a complete breakdown of the rule of law, Wijenayake says.

“People were afraid to express their views, the media was under heavy pressure. The white van culture meant that people lived in constant fear,” he explains.

The discussions, spearheaded by Sobitha Thera were poorly attended at first. Only 23 people attended the first day, says Wijenayake. But as time went by, news about the firebrand monk who was sparking new ideas about democratic change spread. Slowly, as the months wore on, more people joined the discussions. The monk’s ‘talks’ and lectures attracted retired civil servants, professionals, judges and lawyers, eventually drawing 49 civil society organizations into his fold.

“The group was always led by Sobitha Thera. The whole thing revolved around him,” Wijenayake recalls.

The focus of all the discussions was how the country was to be salvaged from its then destructive path, under the iron grip of the Rajapaksa administration. After several rounds of talks, the group slowly concluded that the all-powerful executive presidency was at the root of the problem, and the epicenter of corruption and abuse of power. Since it was established in 1978, the executive presidency has been seen as the root of all evil in the political system. Every President elected to office turned out to be worse than his or her predecessor. Under Mahinda Rajapaksa, the presidency had been weaponised to a whole new level, resulting in excess, corruption and brutality that was rotting the entire political system.

The path to achieving democratic transformation then, lay in taking arms against the executive presidency, the monk concluded.

The first phase of this project was to attempt to convince then President Rajapaksa to abolish the presidency and revert to the parliamentary system, where executive power lay with the Cabinet of Ministers headed by a Prime Minister.

If Rajapaksa disagreed, the group decided the only choice was to field a common candidate who would then take the fight to the incumbent regime, and campaign on the restoration of democracy and national reconciliation. Predictably, Rajapaksa refused the monk’s proposition.

And thus began Sobitha Thera’s search for a common opposition candidate to contest against Rajapaksa. Months and months later, following political manoeuverings and negotiations worthy of a James Bond thriller, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s Health Minister stepped out of his Cabinet and joined the opposition, to contest as the common opposition candidate in the 2015 election – and the rest as they say, is history.

It was after President Sirisena joined their ranks, that the group began formulating the ‘100 day program’, together with other civil society groups and political parties and factions.

Through bitter experience, Sobitha Thera had no faith in politicians, says Wijenayake. “He knew that any politician might promise reforms on election campaigns, but may not follow through,” the former PRC Chairman explains, since this had happened many times before.

The irony of Sri Lanka’s executive presidency is that every aspirant to the office campaigns on a platform to abolish it; but eventually, the allure of power defeats the agenda.

“The ‘100 day program’ was aimed at ensuring the campaign promises were fulfilled immediately,” Wijenayake explains, leaving little wiggle room for politicians to sway by insisting on changes in the first heady days of political victory.

The ‘100 day program’ was not the brainchild of a single person, he says, but a collective effort, involving various public figures. Everyone in the common candidacy movement agreed that the five year tenure to implement reforms was unacceptable. “In fact, I first suggested during these discussions that the first 180 days was optimal to demand the government starts working towards fulfilling the expectation of civil society groups and others who backed the opposition project. The idea was that a large number of democratic and constitutional reforms would be undertaken in the first months of a new administration to avoid political wavering.

“The key promise was that the common candidate would bring in constitutional amendments to do away with the Presidential system and revert back to the parliamentary system of government which was in place from 1947 – 1977,” he said. The group decided that this reform would be non-negotiable.

However, the 180 days suggested previously was reduced to 100 as it was revealed during negotiations that parliamentary elections will have to be held prior to that. With a referendum also not being possible during the time to seek the public’s opinion on abolishing the executive presidential system, it was decided that the common candidate within the first 100 days slash the powers of the presidency, which would not require a referendum. Abolishing the presidency would happen subsequently under a new Parliament.

The 100 days were then divided into weeks, setting out various tasks for the new Government in order to reduce the burden on the people and especially, to ensure the democratisation process.

“This plan which was a collective effort of all civil society groups was then presented to the common candidate” he says. The culmination of what Sobitha Thera hoped for, came when the document which contained the essence of the 100 day program was signed on December 1, 2014 between the common candidate, Sobitha Thera and the other groups who helped to draft it in the manifesto.

“On every election platform thereafter, this was the message of the opposition campaign, that the Government that defeats Rajapaksa would fulfil key campaign promises in the first 100 days of its tenure,” says Wijenayake.

After President Sirisena won the elections, a Council was established which met weekly at the Presidential Secretariat in the first 100 days. President Sirisena attended the meetings, while Prime Minister Wickremesinghe was also present whenever possible. The discussion was about implementation of the 100 day program.

Three years later, the executive presidency, albeit with powers weakened significantly remains in place. Hopes of major constitutional reform are also dimming in the face of crisis upon crisis within the ruling coalition which swept to power on a platform of hope and change.

Still, Wijenayake notes, the reform achievements of this Government should not be understated. Democracy has been restored and some changes in the body politic, particularly, those that happened through the enactment of the 19th Amendment – the Yahapalanaya Government’s landmark legislation – were ‘tremendous’, Wijenayake insists. These changes were only possible because of Sobitha Thera’s vision and leadership, he says.

“No one is scared today even to criticise the President and the Prime Minister. There are no more enforced disappearances,” the former PRC Chairman explains. He acknowledges that grievances with the Government remain and all that was set out to be achieved has not happened.

“Still, the people are free.”

Comments

It was most disgusting to hear the First Citizen go back on his promises. It was we who worked tirelessly for his Victory, it was we who voted him into power and now he not only goes back on his promises, but insults the Late Venerable Sobitha Thero. The Citizens on Sri Lanka cannot be fooled..... The Rajapakses have no place in Sri Lanka....... neither will President Sirisena. The Late Venerable Sobitha Thero from up above will guide the Groups that worked tirelessly in 2015 to have his Vision implemented and the people will once again Vote for the Democratic Party..... The Grand Old Party .... UNITED NATIONAL ALLIANCE.

It was most disgusting to hear the First Citizen go back on his promises. It was we who worked tirelessly for his Victory, it was we who voted him into power and now he not only goes back on his promises, but insults the Late Venerable Sobitha Thero. The Citizens on Sri Lanka cannot be fooled..... The Rajapakses have no place in Sri Lanka....... neither will President Sirisena. The Late Venerable Sobitha Thero from up above will guide the Groups that worked tirelessly in 2015 to have his Vision implemented and the people will once again Vote for the Democratic Party..... The Grand Old Party .... UNITED NATIONAL ALLIANCE.

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