Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, holding a microphone, speaks at an April demonstration in Colombo. The monk, who died on Nov. 8, was known for his willingness to challenge powerful political figures. (Photo by Quintus Colombage)
Sri Lankans, including church leaders, are mourning the death of a prominent Buddhist monk known for railing against corruption and taking on his country's powerful leaders.
Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, who was instrumental in changing Sri Lanka's political regime in the lead-up to the January presidential elections, died Nov. 8 in Singapore, where he was receiving treatment following heart surgery. He was 73.
"The passing away of Venerable Sobitha Thero is a great loss to the country," Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo told reporters Nov. 10. "He is actually a selfless, generous religious leader for all the people."
Anglican Bishop Dhiloraj Ranjit Canagasabey of Colombo said Venerable Sobitha worked tirelessly to advocate for a society based on justice and truth.
"The highest tribute we could pay … is to continue with his struggle to ensure that the qualities of honesty, transparency and justice are strongly entrenched in the public life of this country," the bishop said.
Venerable Sobitha was known for his outspoken views against corruption and for challenging his country's leaders — especially at a time when Sri Lankan presidents wielded significant power.
The monk and his organization, the National Movement for a Just Society, backed the former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, in his bid for the presidency ahead of January elections, opposing the powerful Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had been seeking a third term in office. Rajapaksa lost his seat in a surprise defeat.
Jehan Perera, executive director of the Colombo-based National Peace Council, said Venerable Sobitha challenged authorities at a time when the government was increasingly authoritarian, ethno-nationalist and corrupt.
Perera said he met Venerable Sobitha recently, before the monk underwent heart surgery.
"He was anxious not so much about himself as about the sense of drift in the government on the issues of good governance most dear to his heart," said Perera, whose organization will posthumously award the monk its Citizens' Peace Prize.
The government has declared a national day of mourning for Venerable Sobitha on Nov. 12, which is when his cremation is scheduled.