Gota’s reputation of being an efficient administrator is akin to a double-edged sword that could cut both ways
there was every chance that Gota may have opted to ‘retire’ peacefully to California and fade away gradually from Lankan politics
In a telling indicator of the domination of the Rajapaksa family in ‘Pohottuwa’ party politics, the key decision was taken by Mahinda and family and not Podujana Peramuna
“Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf,
The big bad wolf, the big bad wolf,
Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?
Tra la la la la la la la”
– Song written by Frank Churchill for the 1933 Walt Disney animated film ‘Three Little Pigs’
“Onna Babo Billo Enawaa” was a familiar threat often used by grown-ups to frighten children into obedience in those days. Fear would be instilled into children that the kidnapper with the sack (Goni Billa) would grab them if the kids did not do as they were told. Nowadays, a few people resort to such threats in dealing with children.
In politics, however, the practice of instilling fear into people for a specific purpose prevails. An effective psychosis or phobia of certain persons, concepts, processes and projects – often irrational and/or unjustifiable – are created in the minds of people to manipulate emotions deliberately with the political purpose of whipping up opposition or garnering support for an individual or party.
An illustrative example of such political phobia is ‘Gotaphobia’ that has been centreing ex-President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s younger brother and former Defence Secretary Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Gota, as he is generally referred to, has an image of being a tough, no-nonsense guy who got things done. The very efficient administrative leadership provided by him as Defence Secretary during the conflict against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the successful conclusion of the war is often cited in this regard. So too is the smooth manner in which the Colombocity was managed after his post-war appointment as Urban Development Secretary.
If these were the positive points of his image, there are negative ones too. Gota is perceived by some as a ruthless, intolerant person who will resort to controversial tough measures to get things done. Some of the counter-insurgency methods adopted during the fight against the LTTE are frequently mentioned in this regard. A notorious instance in this respect was that of people being made to disappear in white vans which gave rise to the phrase “white-vanning.”
Thus, it could be said Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s reputation of being an efficient administrator is akin to a double-edged sword that could cut both ways. In that sense, Gota’s image is both positive and negative. He is praised as a man who delivers but the methods used to deliver are not always praiseworthy. Gota himself has vehemently refuted most of these allegations while emphasising a war situation had certain requirements and that a person should not be judged for whatever may have happened in such a situation.
The political targeting of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the whipping up of ‘Gotaphobia’ began shortly after the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election of January 2015
Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s response to a question posed by Kelum Bandara of Dailymirror in an interview published some months ago is very pertinent in this respect. The ex-Defence Secretary was asked, “If I say there is a fear psychosis among the minorities regarding you, is it correct?” – Gota’s reply was as follows:
“This is only propaganda. I have not done anything wrong to the minorities. So there is no need to fear me. I was Defence Secretary at a time when everybody wanted to end terrorism. I acted on it. I did not have anything against the Tamil community. Unfortunately, 99 percent of the LTTE happened to be Tamils. There were certain things we had to do to counter terrorism. We did not create the war. When Mahinda Rajapaksa became the President in 2005, there was terrorism in the country. The majority of people expected him to end the war. For two and a half decades, this war was going on. Terrorism started in the late 1970s. Military operations against terrorism took place under all previous governments. What I did was execute it in a correct manner, so I was able to finish the war. When there is a war-like situation, there are certain things you must do. When the war ends, you do not repeat the same. You cannot judge a person by what he did during a war situation. I was assigned with certain responsibilities by the government. I acted accordingly. When that situation was over, I was assigned urban development. I was concentrating on it at that time. I gave the system a new vision. I did that in a proper manner. I even developed the Jaffnatown. I have not done anything against the minorities. They have nothing to worry about.”
When there is a war-like situation, there are certain things you must do. When the war ends, you do not repeat the same. You cannot judge a person by what he did during a war situation
This, then, was Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s explanatory response to the allegations levelled against him. Although the interviewer refers to fears among numerical minority communities, the reality is that significant sections of the numerical majority too entertain fears and suspicion about Gota. It would be positively insulting to the Sinhala people if one were to say they were not concerned about democracy or authoritarianism or human rights. In fact, most of those courageously resisting the rise of Gota at multiple levels are Sinhalese.
Given this context, many may not accept the explanatory position stated by Gota in the interview while others may do so. In any event, the clarifications by Gota in the aforementioned interview and on other occasions has not stopped or deterred the process of demonising Gota. An underlying motive was and is of course – politics! It is against this backdrop therefore that this column examines the political background relating to the Gotabaya phenomenon in politics in this first instalment of a two-part article.
Mangala coined ‘Gota-Baya’ phrase
The political targeting of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the whipping up of ‘Gotaphobia’ began shortly after the defeat of Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election of January 2015. It was former Foreign Affairs and current Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera who first brought ‘Gotaphobia’ into current political discourse by punning on Gota’s name in Sinhala. Mangala, possessing an amusing flair for the coining of pithy, effective words and phrases, broke up the name Gotabaya into ‘Gota-Baya’ thereby implying ‘Baya’ or fear of Gota or Gotabaya.
This appeared to be a calculated move to pre-empt the entry of Gotabaya Rajapaksa into active politics as a presidential election contender. When the ‘Viyath Maga’ organisation of entrepreneurs and professionals began conducting meetings and seminars with Gotabaya its chairman as the star attraction, Mangala rapped that organisation too. He dubbed it derisively as ‘Vipathmaga.’ Although Gota’s presidential ambition had been widely-known, it was at a Viyath Maga conclave that people began taking effective note of Gota’s future prospects as a presidential candidate. It was in fact his speech at Viyath Maga that sent alarm bells ringing. A brief re-run of past events may help place this in perspective.
The Viyath Maga organisation held its annual general meeting in May 2018 in the form of a convention-seminar at the ballroom of plush Shangri-La Hotel in Galle Face. The keynote speech was by Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Among the invitees were former President and elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Speaker and eldest brother Chamal Rajapaksa, former Economic Development Minister and brother Basil Rajapaksa.
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohammed made headlines last year by getting re-elected as premier at the age of 92. Mahathir Mohammed is regarded as the foster father of the Malaysian ‘Bhumiputra’ movement that encouraged economic advancement through preferential treatment for those of Malay ethnicity over those of Chinese, Indian and European descent in Malaysia.
One of the highlights of Mahathir Mohammed’s 22-year earlier phase of rule was his unveiling in 1990 of an economic blueprint phased out over 30 years for the betterment of his country. It was themed as Mahathir Mohammed’s ‘Vision for 2020.’ Likewise, in a significant gesture that evoked a sense of Deja Vu vis a vis Mahathir Mohammed, ex-Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa during his Viyath Maga keynote speech unveiled his own ‘Vision 2030’ for Sri Lanka. He pointedly avoided speaking about security issues and focused instead on the economy. It appeared that Gotabaya Rajapaksa sought to re-invent himself as a man with an economic vision on a political mission.
Gota’s ‘Viyath Maga’ keynote speech
Renowned journalist and author of the book titled ‘Gota’s War,’C.A. Chandraprema who was also present at the convention pointed out then in an article in The Island that the ‘floral arrangement on the lectern was made up entirely of ‘Nelum Pohottuwa’ – the symbol of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna.’ “The symbolism spoke a thousand words” observed Chandraprema. Relevant excerpts from Chandraprema’s article:
“The first to speak was Gotabaya Rajapaksa. He spoke not a word about his previous subjects, national defence and urban development, but solely on economics, spelling out a vision for Sri Lankafor the year 2030 with economic growth being the primary focus. In the run up to this event, the government and its allies provided it with a great deal of publicity saying this was really the commencement of Gota’s presidential election campaign. However, for those looking for clues relating to intent, this event was replete with what looked like telltale signs of what was on the cards.
“The most obvious sign was Gota’s complete shift to economics and the focus of the entire proceedings being on development and economic affairs alone. Today, it’s the economy that most worries the constituency that was in attendance at that meeting – the business and professional elite. Indeed, it’s a major source or worry for the ordinary man on the street as well and in that sense the pitch was timely and relevant. But to those trying to look for clues, Gota’s concentration on the economy could be seen as a move to prove he was not a one-dimensional military man but someone who could shift from fighting a war to urban development and to economic policy with ease.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the first potential presidential contender for the 2019 hustings apart from the topsy-turvy clowning of incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena
“He said by 2030, the prognosis was that the Chinese economy was projected to become twice the size of the American economy. India was to come third, Japanfourth and Indonesia will become the fifth. He posed the question whether Sri Lankawas ready for this transformation of the global economy and said Viyath Maga was engaged in studying how Sri Lanka should be positioned by 2030. Economic growth was posited as the top priority for Sri Lanka. He said other Asian countries had demonstrated that it was possible to achieve our economic goals and open the country to the world while yet safeguarding our culture and sovereignty.”
The author of Gota’s War, who is presumed by some as possessing an insight into the mindset of Gotabaya Rajapaksa, concluded his piece by opining: “If anyone was looking for clues that this was Gota’s pitch for presidency, the whole event seemed replete with evidence that it may indeed be that.”
Harbinger of the future
Subsequent events have proved conclusively that the Viyath Maga keynote speech was indeed a harbinger of the future. Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa is now the official candidate of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna contesting the presidential election to be held on November 16. It appears that he has achieved what he set his sights on earlier. However, in fairness to Gotabaya, it must be said that the ex-Defence Secretary was not a person who wanted to contest the presidential election willingly.
Having lived in the US for many years and obtaining citizenship in that country, there was every chance that Gota may have opted to ‘retire’ peacefully to California and fade away gradually from Sri Lankan politics. That did not happen. There is a Chinese proverb: “The tree desires to remain still but the winds won’t stop.” In Gotabaya’s case, his decision to enter active politics was greatly influenced by the political adversaries of the Rajapaksa family. The 19th Constitutional Amendment was the primary cause.
19A reversed the 18th Amendment by restricting the presidential terms of office to two. Since Mahinda Rajapaksa had served two terms as President, he was disqualified from contesting the election again. This was the first blow. The 19th Amendment also debarred dual citizens from contesting presidential and parliamentary polls. This rendered Mahinda’s brothers Basil and Gotabaya ineligible to contest. This was the second blow. 19A also raised the age limit to be President. Earlier, it was 30 but now it is 35. Mahinda’s eldest son Namal was born in 1986. As such, he would only be 33 in 2019 and therefore could not seek presidency even if he wanted to. This was the third blow.
The 19th Amendment was seen by the Rajapaksas as one that targeted the family. With Mahinda being constitutionally debarred from contesting presidency again, it appeared that the political fortunes of Ruhunu Rajapaksas were on the wane. A number of inquiries probing the alleged corruption and abuse of power by various Rajapaksa family members were initiated. Cases were filed in court and a few Rajapaksas like Basil and Namal were even imprisoned for short periods. Gotabaya continues to wage many legal battles to ward off arrest and potential detention. He is perhaps the first Sri Lankan to contest a presidential election while facing many cases of alleged corruption and abuse of power.
Pressure to enter political fray
The pre-emptive strike by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe Government of yore to prevent the potential presidential candidacy of Gota proved to be counter-productive. In a rather convoluted sense, it has brought about a self-fulfilling prophecy. There was pressure on Gotabaya to enter the political fray directly by family and party. This mounting pressure was further enhanced by an influential section of society consisting of retired defence services personnel, administrators, professionals, mercantile sector bigwigs, academics, Buddhist monks and Sinhala Buddhist ultra-nationalist organisations.
The cumulative result of all this was the willingness of Gota to contest the presidential election. He was prepared to renounce his US citizenship in order to contest the poll. His decision resulted in the launching of a well-coordinated campaign by a powerful segment of Sri Lankan society to project Gotabaya as a potential candidate at the next presidential election. Gota was portrayed as a visionary and strong leader who would cure Sri Lanka of its troubles and lead the country towards a bright future.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the first potential presidential contender for the 2019 hustings apart from the topsy-turvy clowning of incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena. Although an early contender, Gota’s campaign had to be somewhat restrained as he had not been promulgated or acknowledged as a candidate by any party at that point of time. So organisations like Viyath Maga,‘Eliya’ and ‘Hari Maga’ were set up to promote the undeclared candidacy of Gota. Gotabaya himself did not make any declaration in public of his candidacy and maintained a non–committal stance for quite some time. Finally, Gota confirmed early this year that he was prepared to throw his hat into the ring by declaring publicly “I am ready!” He followed this up by taking necessary procedural steps to renounce his UScitizenship. Gota also began organising a series of meetings under the auspices of ‘Eliya.’
Finally, the decision to nominate Gotabaya as the SLPP presidential candidate was arrived at. In a telling indicator of the domination of the Rajapaksa family in ‘Pohottuwa’ party politics, the key decision was taken by Mahinda and family and not Podujana Peramuna. Although ratified by the SLPP later, the initial binding decision was made by the family and not the party.
Decisive Rajapaksa family dinner
The key decision was taken in March in Colomboat a meeting in which six members of the Rajapaksa family involved in active politics were present. They were ex-President and opposition leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, former Speaker and current MP Chamal Rajapaksa, former Cabinet Minister Basil Rajapaksa, ex-Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, former Uva Province Chief Minister Shasheendra Rajapaksa and Parliamentarian Namal Rajapaksa. The primary purpose of the meeting held along with dinner was to arrive at a firm and conclusive decision in determining the candidacy for the forthcoming presidential election. After hours of intense discussion before, during and after dinner the family members arrived at a consensus confirming Gotabaya’s candidacy.
It is learnt that a great deal of issues was thrashed out openly and frankly by the family. These related to the negative points that could be exploited as propaganda against Gotabaya in an election campaign. Among the matters discussed were the lack of Gota’s political experience, the cases in court against Gota over alleged corruption and abuse/misuse of power, his reportedly negative image among the minority communities, the aversion displayed by human rights activists who portray Gota as the epitome of evil and lay the burden of responsibility for many violations ranging from white van disappearances to attacks on the media at his doorstep, Gota’s alleged support for hawkish organisations such as Bodu Bala Sena, the proximity to Gota of retired high-ranking defence services personnel reputed to be hardliners and the potential opposition of global and regional powers.
After many exchanges of viewpoints during which Gota clarified his stance on several issues, there was a consensus of family opinion that Gota’s candidacy should be confirmed. The family felt the Rajapaksas were being singled out as political targets and that the negative criticism levelled against Gota amounted to an assault on the entire Rajapaksa family. As a result, the family closed ranks behind Gotabaya.
There were however two major points of concern. One was the question of whether the US would obstruct Gota’s candidacy by delaying the revocation of citizenship process thereby preventing him from contesting as a dual citizen. The second was the various cases filed against Gotabaya Rajapaksa in Sri Lanka. Gota was/is fighting many legal battles in this regard and so far has staved off arrest and potential detention. Even foreign travel has been forbidden in connection with the D.A. Rajapaksa Memorial Museum in Medamulana case being heard by the Colombo Permanent High Court trial-at-bar. It was felt then by the family that a fast-tracked hearing and conviction could be damaging to Gota’s electoral prospects.
Gotabaya however was optimistic that the US citizenship issue would be resolved far ahead of the election announcement. He was equally confident that despite alleged conspiracies by political opponents to penalise him through the court, the judiciary would uphold justice and prove his innocence. Gota very firmly believed that Sri Lanka’s legal and judicial system would be fair by all concerned. Nevertheless, a decision was taken that if there were a legal impediment to Gotabaya Rajapaksa contesting the presidential election at the last minute, then an alternative candidate would be nominated. In this instance, the substitute candidate was to be eldest sibling Chamal Rajapaksa.
The family conclave ended on a jubilant note after Mahinda ‘Aiya’ stated happily that Gota ‘Malli’ would be the SLPP candidate and that he would wholeheartedly endorse his nomination and extend full support to the election campaign. This decision by Mahinda was welcomed and approved by other members of the family. Thereafter it was endorsed by the party. The official announcement was delayed until the first national convention of the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna on August 11 at Sugathadasa Stadium in Colombo. On that day, Mahinda Rajapaksa formally took over the leadership of SLPP. Thereafter, he announced the name of his brother Gota as the SLPP presidential candidate. On October 7, Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa handed in his nomination papers and became officially the SLPP candidate for the 2019 presidential election.
An interesting feature about Gota’s candidacy has been the pessimistic doubts expressed in several quarters about it ever materialising. There was much speculation that Mahinda was not willing to nominate Gota as the candidate due to opposition from wife Shiranthi and son Namal. Then, it was said brother Basil was opposed. Later, it was said there was severe opposition to it from within UPFA circles. The statements of Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Kumara Welgama were cited in this regard. It was also said Mahinda was hesitating to approve Gota as candidate because he felt Gota won’t win due to his unpopularity with Tamil and Muslim voters. It was argued that relying on Sinhala votes alone was not enough and that a portion of minority community votes was also required to be the winning candidate.
All things changed after the Easter Sunday terrorist bombings. The attacks on churches and tourist hotels by Jihadist suicide bombers shocked and rocked the nation. The squabbles between President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe over national security matters disgusted people considerably. From Paruthithurai (Point Pedro) in the North to Devinuwara (Dondra) in the South, people felt insecure and threatened. There was a groundswell of opinion that a strong leader was necessary for the country to cope with and overcome the perceived security threat.
A school of thought began to emerge that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the ‘strong man’ needed to save the nation. This feeling was spontaneous and genuine in the minds of many. At the same time, the pro-Gota lobby launched a powerful campaign to shape opinion in this direction. Gota began projecting himself as the champion of national security. This was a departure from his previous attempts to focus on the economy. There were many takers for this. The end result was a pro-Gota wave that was both genuinely spontaneous and meticulously orchestrated. So great were the sentiments in favour of the ‘Gota for President’ demand that even Mahinda Rajapaksa could not have denied his brother the candidacy if he wanted to. Had he done so, there would have been open revolt in the ranks of the SLPP and the UPFA.
Aftermath of Easter Sunday carnage
The Gota camp is ecstatic about its candidate’s success at the election. They speak of him as the frontrunner in the race. As stated earlier, Gota’s supporters are confident that he would romp home the winner because the country at large wants a ‘strong man’ to combat terrorism and ensure the security of the nation in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday bombings. Given his track record in defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) after protracted conflict, Gota’s fans feel there is tremendous support for him among the majority of the Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka.
This assessment is faulted by others. They opine that Sinhala Buddhist votes alone are not sufficient to guarantee victory and that the votes of numerical minorities are also necessary. Sri Lankan Tamils, Muslims and up-country Tamils of recent Indian origin together comprise 25% of the island population. The argument is that Gotabaya would not be able to garner the votes of these ethnic groups. It is pointed out that even Mahinda Rajapaksa who got more ‘Sinhala’ votes than Maithripala Sirisena at the 2015 election lost in the end because the ultimate victor obtained an overwhelming number of Tamil and Muslim votes. It was said Gota would fare even more badly as he does not have a positive image among the minority communities.
The Gotabaya Rajapaksa electoral camp is aware of this situation but seems cocksure that the fall-out from the Easter bombings would be sufficient to mobilise enough votes from the Sinhala community itself. The organised campaign to promote anti-Muslim feelings among the majority community would lead to a Pan-Sinhala, pro-Gota wave at the poll it is opined. Even the traditionally pro-UNP ‘Catholic Belt’ is expected to vote extensively for Gota this time.
Given this situation, the Gota camp is optimistic about winning on the Sinhala vote alone. Some say even Mahinda Rajapaksa who was doubtful earlier about Gota being able to win changed his mind later because he was convinced of his brother’s success after witnessing the change of mood in the country after the Easter explosions.
Nevertheless, pro-Gota campaigners will not openly admit that they are relying on the Sinhala vote only and that the non–Sinhala vote is not needed. No political party or grouping hoping to form a government can afford to say so openly. Besides, even if Sinhala votes are adequate for victory, there is nothing lost by wooing the minority community votes. Efforts are being made therefore to attract votes from the Tamil and Muslim parties. EPDP led by Douglas Devananda, TMVP led by Chandrakanthan alias Pillaiyan, National Congress led by A.L.M. Athaullah and CWC led by Arumugam Thondaman have pledged support for Gota and are canvassing votes for him.
Gota’s sayings give cause for concern
Even as Gota’s election campaign gets underway, doubts and fears about the future following a possible Gota victory at the poll are also rising. There are four more weeks to go and it is too early to assess or predict the final outcome, but many of those affected by ‘Gotaphobia’ are beginning to get worried.
They are quite apprehensive about what lies in store if Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa is elected as the seventh executive President of Sri Lanka. Some of Gota’s sayings at his maiden campaign rally at Anuradhapura and at his first press conference in Colombohave also given cause for concern. These and other related matters will be discussed further in the second part of this article next week.
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected]