스리랑카 민족·종교 화합에 일평생 바친 ‘평화의 사도’ 소비타 스님을 기리며

* ‘아시아엔’ 해외필진 기고문의 한글요약본과 원문을 함께 게재합니다.

스리랑카 소비타 스님

스리랑카 소비타 스님 <사진=위키피디아>

[아시아엔=칼링가 세네브라트네 IPS 프리랜서 기자·번역 김아람 기자]?지난 11월8일 스리랑카 스리나가사 소비타(73) 주지스님이 싱가포르의 한 병원에서 숨을 거뒀다. 비폭력 정신으로 평화와 화합을 위해 평생을 바쳐온 그는 전세계로부터 존경 받는 사회운동가이자 승려였다. 그는 올해 초 마이쓰리팔라 시리세나 대통령이 새 정부를 구성하는 데 큰 공헌을 했다.

마힌다 라자팍사 스리랑카 전 대통령은 지난 2009년 타밀족 반군과 26년에 걸친 내전에서 승리해 큰 인기를 얻었지만, 내전 동안 민간인 학살 의혹과 지나친 족벌주의 인사로 비판을 받아왔다. 반면 새로 당선된 시리세나 대통령은 스리랑카 내전에 대한 인권침해조사를 실시하는 등 이전 정권과는 달리 전향적이고 개혁적인 노선으로 국제 사회의 지지를 받고 있다.

일생에 걸쳐 스리랑카 국민들의 권익과 표현의 자유를 위해 맞서온 소비타 스님은 1956년 헝가리 혁명에서 많은 영감을 얻었다. 당시 헝가리의 국민들이 공산당 독재와 공포 정치에 반대하는 과정에서 시작된 이 혁명은 개혁파 인사를 수상으로 선출하는 등의 성과를 거두었으나 소련의 침입으로 실패하고 말았다.

또한 소비타 스님은 1980년대 스리랑카 정부의 무상교육 철폐 반대에 앞장섰으며, 최근 스리랑카 대통령의 행정직 권한 폐지 운동을 적극적으로 펼친 바 있다. 라자팍사 전 대통령은 임기 동안 헌법을 개정해 행정부 권한을 확대하고, 대통령 임기제한 조항을 없애는 등 대통령 중심제를 통한 공권력 남용으로 지탄을 받아왔다. 소비타 스님은 기존의 대통령 중심제가 대통령에게 막대한 권한을 부여함으로써 독재를 조장해 민주주의 이념과 나라의 자유를 위협한다고 바라봤다. 이는 전세계가 대통령 행정권한 폐지에 대해 다시금 주목하게 되는 계기가 됐다.

지난 11월12일 세상을 떠난 스리랑카의 소비타 스님의 관을 옮기고 있는 모습

지난 11월12일 치뤄진 소비타 스님의 국가장. <사진=신화사/뉴시스>

소비타 스님은 인구 비율의 대다수를 차지하며 주로 불교를 믿는 싱할라 족이 스리랑카 소수민족인 타밀족 및 무슬림과 화합해야 한다고 주창하기도 했다. ‘스리랑카 평화의 사도’였던 셈이다. 그런 그가 세상을 떠나자 각계 지도자뿐 아니라 타밀과 이슬람 지도자들도 깊은 애도를 표했다. 시리세나 스리랑카 대통령 역시 수백만 국민이 지켜보는 가운데 “소비타 스님이 있었기에 지금의 스리랑카가 존재할 수 있었다”며 존경을 표했다. 스리랑카 정부는 지난 11월12일 소비타 스님 국가장을 치뤘다. 스리랑카 국민들 역시 국민을 지켜줄 수 있는 유일한 인물이 가장 중요한 시점에 세상을 떠났다며 그를 애도했다.

Death of Popular Buddhist Monk Draws Attention to Failing “Revolution”

The death of popular Sri Lankan Buddhist monk 73-year-old Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero due to heart failure at a hospital in Singapore earlier this month has drawn attention to the waning “good governance” revolution that he helped to launch at the end of last year.

Ven. Sobitha was a socialist and a social justice advocate who used the non-violent style of Buddhist social activism to take on governments when it drifted into dictatorial politics.? He never joined any political party, but the power of his Buddhist sermons twined with political messages attracted a lot of charisma and he was twice instrumental in bringing down powerful presidents.

As a young monk, Ven. Sobitha got his initial inspiration from the 1956 socialist revolution that toppled an English-speaking pro-western ruling elite and brought a reformist government to power that gave the Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist majority their long-suppressed rights.? He came into political prominence in the late 1980s when the then dictatorial President J.R Jayawardena invited Indian Peace Keeping Forces (IPKF) to Sri Lanka, while centralizing power within an executive presidency and suppressing civil liberties.

An excellent orator, Ven Sobitha was able to mobilize peoples’ opposition to Indian intervention, and later on when Jayawardena’s successor President Ranasinghe Premadasa became even more dictatorial and stifled all forms of dissent, he was a long voice that stood against him, until Premadasa’s assassination at the hands of a Tamil Tiger suicide bomber.

“Just like many other Buddhist monks who had an impact on social change in the country, Sobitha Thero too started his rebellious career with nationalism” noted Umesh Moramudali writing in Ceylon Today. “However, unlike many others, he did not stick only to nationalism, but was concerned about many other social and political issues as well. He was direct and had immense courage to stand up against the social injustice despite how strong his opponent would be”.

His social causes included playing a major role in the 1980s against an Education White Paper that would have undermined the free education system in the country.? In recent years, he had campaigned heavily to abolish the Executive Presidency, which he saw as the biggest threat to democracy and freedom in the country.

In 2014, Ven Sobitha again came into political limelight when he offered himself as the sole opposition candidate to challenge President Mahinda Rajapakse who was using Sinhala Buddhist nationalism to consolidate his power and restrict dissent, especially among the Buddhist majority. He formed the National Movement for Just Society (NMJS) and using his charisma, influence and oratory skills he was able to unite a divided opposition, as well as trade unions, rights groups, artistes and academics behind a common candidate, which he was instrumental in choosing.

This candidate was the then Health Minister in the Rajapakse regime, Maitripala Sirisena, who defected and challenged Rajapakse for the Presidency as the “common opposition candidate”. After Sirisena won the presidency in a shock result in January this year, Ven. Sobitha became the power behind the throne with considerable clout in directing government policy under a Buddhist slogan of “Maitri Yahapalanaya” (compassionate good governance). However, this policy did not restrict itself to empowering only the Sinhala Buddhists but he strongly advocated reconciliation with the Tamil minority and co-existence with the Muslims. Thus, when he died on November 8, both Tamil and Muslim leaders praised him as a genuine compassionate reformist monk.

Interestingly, he died a heartbroken man. Since President Sirisena was elected to office on the “Yahapalanaya” slogan to stamp out endemic corruption from the political system, he had seen his dreams shattered by a chain of government actions that seemed as if one corrupt lot of politicians have been replaced by another corrupt lot. The outspoken monk openly criticized the new government’s corrupt practices such as the multi-billion rupee Central Bank bond scam.

The fatal blow to his dreams came after the August 17 general elections when President Sirisena using a constitutional loophole nominated to parliament candidates from his party that have lost the popular vote and named them as ministers in a National Unity Government. All these candidates served in the Rajapakse regime (like Sirisena) and were tainted with corruption allegations.

Following this action, Ven Sobitha issued a scathing statement under the NMJS banner on the new government’s action. Few hours after it was released to the media the monk was believed to have suffered a heart attack and entered a local hospital. His health gradually deteriorated and on November 4, he was taken to Singapore for heart surgery where he died.

In July, after the parliament was dissolved, Ven. Sobitha argued that people involved in corrupt practices with business interests in casino and other gambling, drug dealings, operation of taverns and bars, should not be nominated as candidates. He told the Sirasa television network that such people are not worthy of peoples’ vote and it is the people that have to provide for their wages and other perks, as well as a life-long pension if they serve five years as a member of parliament.

In an editorial after his death, the Daily Mirror observed that, in his vision and mission for “liberating spirituality” Ven. Sobitha believed that religious leaders – while not getting involved in party politics – have a moral responsibility to get involved in politics because “Deshapalanaya” (governing the country) needs to be for the common good of all the people, especially the impoverished or marginalized and not for the rich and ruling elite, to get richer and more powerful.

In a statement issued immediately after his death, President Sirisena said that Ven. Sobitha’s “determination to bring negative political forces that existed in the country to the right path was a great guidance and stimulation for the public commitment to strengthen democracy in Sri Lanka. That inspiration gave us an immense courage to form a good governance government under my leadership to take the country towards the right path”.

But, recalling the final conversations they had with the monk, NMSJ member and unionist Saman Rathnapriya told a media briefing after his body was brought back to Sri Lanka that the Sobitha Thero had told them that “his expectations were shattered and told us to lobby for social and political reforms continuously.”

His passing has resurrected the now largely forgotten issue of abolishing the executive presidency. President Sirisena, surprising many, said in his eulogy to Ven. Sobitha in front of hundreds of thousands of mourners and million watching live on national television that he would do “everything in his power” to make that vision a reality.

The government declared November 12, the day of his funeral, a national day of mourning and he was given a state funeral. But, many Sri Lankans from all walks of life mourned the fact that Sobitha Thero has passed away at a time when the nation needed him the most, to keep the corrupt politicians honest.

“In this corrupt, criminalized and communalized political and social environment, Ven Sobitha has been a ray of hope and a rare source of inspiration, irrespective of race and religion, to all those who cherish family, religious and cultural values and firmly believe and dream of a decent government, corruption free administration and a peaceful country where all could live in harmony,” said Latheef Farook, a Muslim columnist of the Colombo Telegraph.

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