14 April, 2024


The New President Must Learn From Gota!

By Austin Fernando

Austin Fernando

I am proud that I have served all Executive Presidents of Sri Lanka from Presidents JR Jayewardene to Gotabaya Rajapaksa at some stage or another. I may be the only public ‘officer’ to have done so. With Mahinda Rajapaksa, it was secondary, but I was his ‘lifesaver’ along with Ranil Wickremesinghe. (See ‘My Belly is White’ (2008) pages 140 to 142). Hence, I claim I have accumulated a mixed bag of experiences.

I do not intend to sound like a Pundit; I only mention a few (out of several) mistakes made by Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has owned up to two of them, to caution the next President. If the new President repeats them, he will also end up being holed up in a military camp or praying at Gnanakka’s Kovil or Kataragama or Tirupati, Vatican, or Mecca.

The need for cautioning the next President arises from the fact that we are a sensitive, sensible electorate and society, which can unhesitatingly dump a political dynasty into the dustbin for their wrongs. The Gotabaya Rajapaksa government crashed within two and half years although Rajapaksa is a war hero who polled 6.9 million votes at the 2019 presidential election, mustered a two-thirds majority in Parliament, and became a monarch of sorts by introducing the 20th Amendment to the Constitution. This should serve as a warning to future Presidents.

Overestimating popularity 

Everyone may agree on Gotabaya’s miserable failures, which led to his ouster by a People Power Movement despite his massive mandate and heroism. His popularity infused him with extraordinary courage, confidence, and what is known as a ‘royalty feel.’ But he was impervious to reason, democratic bonds, equality concerns, common touch, etc., and given to arrogance, militaristic cronyism, and even intolerance of dissent. Gotabaya proved that popularity was not permanent. The new President will have to be mindful of this fact.

Gotabaya’s popularity increased following the Easter Sunday bomb attacks. Vociferous Buddhist clergy exerted influence on Gotabaya over matters that were not only Buddhistic but also others such as the burial of the Muslims who died of Covid-19. There are lessons to be drawn from the ‘one-country-one-Law’ project, granting university chancellorship, chemical fertilizer ban, etc.

What one gathers from Gotabaya’s experience is that election campaigns and government must be kept free from religion. It is not that the new President should not seek the advice of religious leaders when required but there should be a limit. Gotabaya failed to draw that line even with Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith who helped him in the 2019 November presidential election, disappointing him.

Gotabaya enlisted the support of the members of the think tanks, Viyath Maga and Eliya, and the electronic media Moghuls, and relied more on personal foreign contacts and senior military officers. Like the Buddhist clergy loyal to Gotabaya, these persons also ventured into fields where they lack expertise such as Public Service Commission, money-spinning businesses allegedly during the pandemic, telecommunications, Ministry Secretary-postings, Statutory Authorities, diplomatic assignments, etc. The new President can learn how not to seek guidance from those who seek to further their personal interests, in that way.

Old baggage!

Gotabaya used his military background and his contribution to the war victory to project himself as a demi-god. He was lucky to have a free hand as the Defence Secretary because his elder brother, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was the President. All these factors may have made him try to manage the affairs of the state just like those of the Defence Ministry during the war. Al Jazeera has reported, quoting an aide of Mahinda Rajapaksa that Gotabaya did not listen even to Mahinda. He took very crucial decisions without heeding expert advice. Probably, he thought in the military style that everyone could comply and complain later.

The three candidates contesting for the presidency in Parliament this time have different experiences and capacities. If they put their heads together and pool their talents and energies, they will be able to solve our problems, and there is a pressing need for a team effort that was absent during Gotabaya’s presidency.

The hangers-on never asked questions from Gotabaya. I remember, at a ‘Gama Samagin Pilisandara’ when he declared with a chuckle that his word was the government circular, and an Administrative Service senior seated next to him, smiled approvingly! Advisors, experts, and consultants should have been persons of integrity and courageous enough to speak the truth at any cost, which was not the case with him. If they had done so and Gotabaya had taken their views on board, he would have been the President even today. I hope this will serve as a lesson for the new President and his advisors.

New baggage

New advisors emerged from the Think Tanks Gotabaya created. They were the new baggage! They were responsible, educated, and experienced but the advice they proffered lacked strategic thinking and an understanding of international relations. The Millennium Corporation Compact (US), the Light Railway Project (Japan), the East Container Terminal Project, and Kerawalapitiya LNG Project (both Japan and India) were scrapped at the behest of such advisors. There may have been some justifications. Gotabaya in his military style scrapped them abruptly, sometimes even without heeding common diplomatic courtesies, as alleged. The consequence was that the Gotabhaya government lost international backing.  This is a lesson that the next President has to draw from Gotabaya’s experience.

However, I am happy to note Secretary Aruni Wijewardena has commenced moving the ball in the right direction with Japan. The new President should assist her in her endeavor even with other countries. It is the correct path to move, going by the functions of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs given in the 13th Amendment List II.

This is not to say that Sri Lanka should risk losing its sovereignty, but handling such issues requires a sophisticated approach. A wag says Gotabaya’s rise to the presidency exemplifies the Peter Principle in management, wherein a person rising in the hierarchy through promotion reaches a level of respective incompetence! It may be a new lesson for the electorate on how to elect leaders in the future. Gotabaya remained impervious to criticism and did not care to review his decisions until total failure was imminent. The new President should take notice of this.

Silent and silenced media

It was well known that the State Media always praises the incumbent President and his actions, however controversial they may be. The Rajapaksas neutralized all opposition, both within and without, through persuasion, purchasing, punishing, and intrigue in line with Chanakya Neethi’s methodology of saam, damm, dand, and bhed. They controlled the private media by “owning,” “proxy-ownership,” “holding to ransom,” or “devastating!”

With such controls and the Criminal Investigation Department being under the thumb of the Executive, officially and unofficially, the media mostly succumbed to political pressure. The media remained silent because of what befell Lasantha Wickremathunge, Poddala Jayantha, Prageeth Ekneligoda, Kugan, et al when Gotabaya was the Defence Secretary, and also attacks on SIRASA, SIYATHA, Lankaenews. By 09 July 2022, all were muted. This should serve as a lesson for the new President.

Learning from Dhammapada

After his departure, I came across interesting electronic media references. I quote one from the Maldivian Parliament’s Speaker Mohamed Nasheed. It said:

“President GR has resigned. I hope Sri Lanka can now move forward. I believe the President would not have resigned if he were still in Sri Lanka, and fearful of losing his life.” (07.36 am on 14-7-2022)

Gotabaya used to openly quote serious tough stands taken by him during the war. His tone and delivery of such were threatening, and the wink in his eyes were foxy. He was heedless of the pains of conflict and thought the protests could be crushed by the military. He once indicated his capacity to cultivate paddy fields engaging the military, if he so desired! But the above quote shows his weak mental frame before he fled. I do not blame him for fear of death. Dhammapada has this to say:

Sabbe tasanti daṇḍassa

Sabbe bhāyanti maccuno

Attānaṃ upamaṃ katvā

Na haneyya na ghātaye

(Dhammapada – Danda Vagga – Stanza 129)

Everybody trembles at punishment; everybody fears death. Having made the comparison with oneself, let one not kill, nor cause another to kill.

Sabbe tasanti daṇḍassa

Sabbesaṃ jīvitaṃ piyaṃ

Attānaṃ upamaṃ katvā

Na haneyya na ghātaye

(Dhammapada – Danda Vagga – Stanza 130)

Everybody trembles at punishment; life is dear to everybody. Having made the comparison with oneself, let one not kill, nor cause another to kill.

This is the eternal truth the Buddha preached more than two and a half millennia ago, remembered by Gotabaya, and must not be forgotten by the new President to be elected today.

Dasa Raja Dharma

Buddhist literature speaks of the Dasa Raja Dharma that should be abided by rulers. I think Gotabaya did that to some extent. If Dana is considered, I have seen him at almsgivings, donations, temples, etc. But the Dana principle means much more— sacrificing for the public well-being and serving public interests. The obverse of this became evident in his handling of some issues like his fertilizer ban that took its toll on the well-being of farmers.

One is also reminded of Pariccaga Dharma. Gotabaya was accused of cronyism; the questionable abolition of duty on sugar for the benefit of a friend at the expense of the public. The sugar duty scam could be considered a violation of Ajjava (honesty) quality too, though there was no evidence that he personally gained from it. However, his reluctance to have the loss amounting to Rs. 16 billion recovered even though the Auditor General recommended such action, showed his partiality to the scammer. The new President also should remember this as a good lesson and must recover the losses.

It was well known even among parliamentarians, ministers, and officials that Gotabaya lacked Maddava, the gentle temperament or avoidance of arrogance, and defaming others, (e. g., Central Bank Governor WD Lakshman and his team were ‘verbally abused’ as seen from a video clip.) Even a junior administrator would have told him, “Praise publicly, criticize individually!” Perhaps, he emulated President Ranasinghe Premadasa, who launched into a tirade against his political opponents in addressing the Parliament after the prorogation following an abortive bid to impeach him, and President Maithripala Sirisena, who carried out a scathing verbal attack on Ranil Wickremesinghe (in the presence of Madam Maithree Wickremesinghe) after reappointing him as the Prime Minister after the failed Constitutional Coup of 2018.

Another was Akkodha (non-anger) quality, being free from hatred and remaining calm amid confusion. Gotabaya lacked it as was seen when he was the Secretary of Defence interacting with the international media who well remember the quotations such as “Who is Lasantha?” and “I will hang him” (meaning Sarath Fonseka). As a military person, he ought to have known that a word spoken was like a bullet fired, never to return. This is also a lesson for the new President.

That Avihimsa quality is alien to Gotabaya has become evident from damning allegations against him. He also lacked Kshanthi quality, and Avirodhana, or quality of uprightness, respecting others’ opinions, and the avoidance of prejudice as could be seen from the representation made by agriculture professionals and economists on chemical fertilizer ban, and debt restructuring and representing matters to the IMF respectively. As for personal prejudice and arrogance, I have had my personal experience as High Commissioner in India, but I refrain from elaborating, as I have forgiven him. I am more mature!

It is obvious he feared losing his life. Who does not? To his credit, media reports are saying that when the President’s House was surrounded and inquired whether to open fire, he had ordered them not to although he was in real danger. His conduct must be appreciated. Even at the risk of his life, he has imparted a lesson to future Presidents and the Military.

Ridiculing Gotabaya

There have been instances where Gotabaya was ridiculed. Recently after Gotabaya was deposed Frederica Jansz jokingly invited Gotabaya to a cup of coffee in Seattle, where she ran for her dear life having been threatened by him. I presume Gotabaya may have ignored such ridicule. But the lesson for the incoming Presidents is that life is the most valuable, and death is the most abhorred, and they must respect this eternal truth, especially since realization will dawn the day when faced with the threat of life. Over to you, Mr. New President!

With my experience with Presidents, I may recall that here two Presidents were excessively ridiculed by the public. Some yarns were coined about President Premadasa, but fortunately for him, those were the pre-social media days. With the expansion of social and electronic media, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had to stomach ridicule. Of course, they are fortunate that no one has published Joke Books about them like on Canadian Prime Minister Mulroney!

One message that could be given to the incoming Presidents is that if they fail to meet the aspirations of the people, they will beat Gotabaya, and no amount of military, batons, water cannons, tear gas canisters, or bullets shall cease or seize “peoples’ struggles” or “Aragalayas.” If action is pursued with these they may have to finally run for dear life- sometimes as fugitives, jumping from one city to other, being rejected from the dearest place they wish to live, for want of visas. This is the final lesson to be learned from Gotabaya.

Best wishes to the person who becomes the President today!

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Latest comments

  • 1

    “Another was Akkodha (non-anger) quality, being free from hatred and remaining calm amid confusion.”

    Indeed Mr. Austin Fernando, I wonder if the same could be said about those people who were seeking to overthrow him? I don’t see a lot of Buddhist qualities among the protestors their leaders – have you heard them lately, and do you think that should change?

    “The need for cautioning the next President arises from the fact that we are a sensitive, sensible electorate and society,”

    Funny how he had to ‘flee for his life’ from these “sensitive, sensible electorate and society”. I think you have been misled.

    • 2

      Rear end guard, I see your reat end logic.. 7 million are facing food scarcity but you expect them to be sensitive and sensible regardless of their suffering. What about those mafia family members, who put them in such misery. What does your teaching say ?? You are victimizing the victim’s when the perpetrators are grossly apathetic and have no senses. How sensible and sensitive you are as per Buddhist teaching ???

    • 0

      Rear End Guard, If you have missed you can refer to more than a million LKR worth Business class ticket Basil purchased to US , and millions spent on booking number of flights , by fleeing fugitive for safe exit amid crisis (that too for four passengers). Does it seem Rajapaksas are sensible, sensitive Buddhist to you??? The great teacher never anticipated such followers at the time of his writing. My sincere request to you, is to avoid typing comments in coded language. I get it, but not sure about the rest.

  • 2

    The parliament elected him as president. The writer should address all MPs.
    He does not say as to what else could/should have happened,

    • 4

      ” I remember, at a ‘Gama Samagin Pilisandara’ when he declared with a chuckle that his word was the government circular, and an Administrative Service senior seated next to him, smiled approvingly!”
      The SLAS as a whole lacks the backbone to stand up to browbeating jackasses like Gota. They are theoretically supposed to be highly educated and experienced, but what is the use of all this if a jumped-up drill sergeant elected for five years can claim in public that his word is worth more than all the FR and AR books? Was there any protest when dumb army officers were appointed as Secretaries?

  • 2

    Austin Fernando, Great advice, but you forgot the most important thing about one country one law, but still saying government should be kept free from religion. Buddhism, however emotional the topic is to the buddhists themselves, should not be above other religions as spelt out in the current constitution from JRJ onwards. All religions must be kept of equal worth as in the controversy of burial or cremation of covid deaths. Buddhist nikayas reject other buddhist nikayas refusing membership based on caste and what equality is that. The constitution must erase its religious differences to respect beliefs of others as well as buddhists themselves in the rejected nikayas not being acceptable. In such deep diversity, there can be no real heart to heart unity.

  • 3

    Austin, I admit to be a harsh critic of yours, but this one from you is reasonable and has some worthy advise to Ranil. I guess you missed (avoided) Mahinda’s organized violence on Aragalaya. If Gotha’s administrative style is militaristic, Ranil is all about “Covenant house style”. Diplomatic, smiling assassin. Ranil if genuine, instead of going after protesters should investigate Mahinda’s role in violence, death, and causing critical injury.

    • 2

      Chiv, You are absolutely right. Investigate the violence, robberies of national wealth, murders and injuries caused by the kingdom craving family before touching the aragalaya which arose due to lack of gas , petrol, milk, fertiliser and all other lacks in their families. Ranil became current president because protesters chased away Gotha. What gratitude.

  • 1

    “we are sensitive, sensible electorate and society” If this statement has a shread of evidence we would not be in this economic mess to begin with. If sensitive and sensible electorate and society acted sensibly in 1977 general election not giving overwhelming power to JR. there would not have been an executive presidency. Having paid the price of that blatant mistake, sensitive and sensible electorate repeated the same mistake in 2019 presidential election giving them a mandate to enhance powers of executive presidency further to autocratic rule. This is vindicated by GR’s statements “what I say is the law.” Drafters of 19th amendment had the opportunity to exclude president who had served 2 terms holding a public office again. They did not.
    The term war hero is applicable to soldiers who performed courageous and daring feats in the battle field not someone who left the country at the escalation of war in mid nineties. GR admitted to two mistake but never apologised. For an independent observer all his decision were fallible from the very first act of cutting taxes, depriving treasury of billions of Rupees. Rogue parliamentarians (described by JJB leader as traded at a high value) appointed RW as deposed president’s successor with callous disregards to the public opinion.

  • 4

    With Dinesh G proposed as the PM, RW appears to be confirming his habit of appointing his Royal College buddies for powerful positions, as he did with Arjuna Mahendran, no matter what their past is. Dinesh and his MEP could never get elected directly; he later joined the racist bandwagon with MR and became a National List MP.

    • 1

      Guys like Dinesh , Wijedasa Rajapaksa, and GL Pieris, to name just three, are capable of doing policy u-turns in the blink of an eye. They have no fixed principles. GL was once chief negotiator with the LTTE in Chandrika’s time, before his Sinhala Buddhist reincarnation with Mahinda. Ranil does have fixed economic and political principles which are the opposite of what the Pohottuwa spouted under the Rajapaksas. I doubt it is Ranil that will do the next u-turn.

  • 1

    ‘… government must be kept free from religion’.

  • 0

    How did Ranil become President … .
    Mahinda gifted Ranil the Presidency.
    (Mahinda was checking Dulles.)
    If you keep extending the thought you’ll know what Ranil will produce.

  • 1

    Ranil’s first day’s order started with the attack on sleeping protesters at midnight by the army, navy, police, and others who were to leave the President’s office vicinity by the next day. Had this kind of attack in Sri Lanka happened in the past, even under a curview order? How could anybody in a democratic country accept this kind of behavior, which did not even happen during Gata’s administration? Ranil, who has been in politics for over 49 years, should have avoided this kind of unpopular move, which may cost his dream of a two-year term in the presidency for a very short term. People are the most essential participants in democracy. A person who did not even win a seat in the last parliament and got voted to be president should not forget his past.

  • 1

    You seems to be very proud that you served ALL Presidents from JR onwards. Why why you did NOT advice them when they were DOING WRONG things/actions during their presidency? 1983 riots/ 2009 massacre/ Journalists disappearances/ white van use/ meddling with Judiciary & media etc etc

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