Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not mince his words in fully embracing the length, breadth and depth of his new office
By Maheshi Anandasiri
The Seventh Executive President of Sri Lanka Gotabaya Rajapaksa delivered what is perhaps the most focused and succinct inaugural speech at the feet of the historic Ruwanweli Mahaseya Stupa on ironically his brother’s birthday.
Despite sharing a womb and a surname the speech clearly denotes what sets apart Gotabaya Rajapaksa from his elder brother the Fifth Executive President of Sri Lanka and his immediate predecessor the Sixth Executive President Maithripala Sirisena. It is speech that is true to what we know of his character and personality and sends out a clear message to Sri Lanka and the world community.
The address can be viewed in two sections. A distinctive establishment of Gotabaya as the leader of Sri Lanka and his approach to governance erasing any doubts of alleged puppeteering tied to the brick-red scarf. Secondly his key priorities for Sri Lanka in terms of his overall socioeconomic vision and how he expects to go about realising them.
“I am the Executive President of Sri Lanka and I have every intention of exercising the powers bestowed upon this office in the best interest of the nation”
Gotabaya Rajapaksa did not mince his words in fully embracing the length, breadth and depth of his new office. He may be new to politics and new to the office but in terms of bearing the burden of leadership Gotabaya is all too familiar with the burden of power. He knows full well that half-hearted attempts to leadership are just that – half and therefore incomplete and leaves everyone undone.
The former President Maithripala Sirisena was almost shy of his presidential powers and from the very outset made it obvious that he didn’t intend to fully live up to the extent of his office. He hid behind democracy when it suited him and the very political context from which he emerged cast doubt on the extent to which he must live his office for fear of offending the winds of good governance that put him there to begin with.
In fact he was elected on a premise that shunned the office he would carry and this itself set the foundation for the dilemma he would face as President. To be or not to be seemed to the omnipresent consciousness of his office.
The new President however wears his office on his forehead so to speak. He is clear that he is Executive President and he has made it clear to the people of Sri Lanka. Let no one doubt his intention to run the country and let no one doubt he is the President of the entire country and of all people regardless of where your vote was cast. His leadership intention is firm and clear and the record has been set straight from the inception.
“Sri Lanka is a Sinhala Buddhist Country and should be governed based on the philosophy of Buddhism”
On the face of it this message can well be read under myopic lenses as an indication of racism, a consistent allegation cast at the Gotabaya camp in the run up to the election. However in his speech while he embraces the blessings of the Maha Sangha and appreciates their support in the journey to office, he makes it clear that the country needs to be run as per the philosophy of Buddhism and not therefore necessarily as per the didactic Buddhist monks.
Here it is significant to note that Gotabaya also chose to be sworn in at the historic Ruwanweli Mahayseya conceptualised and constructed by the legendary King Dutugemunu. Now there may be many parallels that can be drawn between the two which fortunately the new President did not choose to refer to.
Many are aware of the public image of King Dutugemunu as a virtuous and religious king who is famed for defeating the longstanding Chola King Elara with the able assistance of his brother Tissa.
The former President Maithripala Sirisena was almost shy of his presidential powers and from the very outset made it obvious that he didn’t intend to fully live up to the extent of his office
“Tissa, never get carried on the shoulders of a monk”
An interesting backstory that is described in the Mahavansa speaks of animosity between the brothers arising from the death of their father King Kavantissa. Tissa had got hold of the Royal Tusker Kandula and has taken custody of his mother the Queen thereby making claims to the throne.
Dutugemunu realised the danger from his brother Tissa who was then in Dighavapi. He marched his soldiers to Guttala to prevent a sudden attack. Guttala was considered a critical spot for security to the Kingdom. Soon afterwards messages were sent asking his brother Tissa to send his mother and the elephant Kandula to Magama. The requests were ignored.
Prince Dutugemunu marched with his soldiers to compel him to hand over them as requested. The two brothers met each other close to Guttahala in the direction of Dighavapi. The confrontation resulted in two battles in which one was won by Prince Dutugemunu and the other by Prince Tissa. The legend relates how Prince Tissa lost and fled to Dematamal Viharaya where the chief incumbent Ven. Gonashanka Tissa Thera saved the life of the prince.
Prince Dutugemunu, it is said, after entering the vihara premises, inquired from the chief incumbent the whereabouts of his brother who at that time was hiding underneath the bed of the Maha Thera. Prince Dutugemunu realised what happened and politely asked the Thera for his brother.
The Thera was not willing to accede to his request and remained silent. The prince thereafter placed his soldiers in vulnerable places to prevent the hiding prince from escaping. Prince Tissa stayed within the vihara for some days and a plan was drawn up for him to escape.
Accordingly, he was carried on a bed in the guise of a dead monk. The samaneras (junior monks) carried the bed, on seeing this act it was said, Prince Dutugemunu remarked: “Tissa, never get carried on the shoulders of a monk.”
Later the chief monk brought about unity between two brothers and this unity remained throughout their lifetime. Tissa and Dutugemunu fought side-by-side with the latter finally riding the Kandula Tusker to victory against the just King Elara who had ruled Northern sections of Sri Lanka for over 40 years.
The current President’s brother the Fifth Executive President of Sri Lanka took many a journey on the shoulders of the Buddhist clergy in his attempts to remain in power from which he reached dizzying heights of perceived invincibility.
A fear psychosis was created wherein a majoritarian insecurity was nursed in favour of fear-flared votes from the Sinhala Buddhist majority. This approach was notably missing from the campaign of Gotabaya. While innumerable efforts were made to colour the candidate in black no extremist ideologies emerged strong from the camp during the lead up to the election.
In his inaugural address Gotabaya is frank that he is disappointed that support from the Tamil and Muslim community was substantially below what was anticipated. On the same note he reiterates that he hails from a Southern Sinhala Buddhist family having had his education from Ananda College an elite Sinhala Buddhist school in Colombo.
Applause comes through from the crowd expecting perhaps the address to now take the pompous chest-beating pace of Sinhala Buddhist chauvinism but he does not pause for the applause to pick up.
Instead he goes on to emphasise that he is inspired by Buddhism and would rule on its fundamentals of justice, rule of law and fairness that would create an administration that would be an oasis for all people of every religion and faith. He appears to be deliberately positioning himself with the Philosophy of Buddhism and not necessarily the saffron clad representations of the great teachings.
Policy in brief and “A Government that can work with my policies”
The second section contains six clear messages from the President covering four key areas, national security, foreign policy, development policy and the system of governance.
1. Firstly it is made categorically clear that he would be leading the Ministry of Defence and he would be responsible for the security of Sri Lanka under his direct purview
2. He then makes Sri Lanka’s foreign policy clear by emphasising a position of neutrality in the world political arena renouncing any interest to be caught in the power struggles between global super powers. The new President also calls on all countries to respect the unity and sovereignty of Sri Lanka
3. The President makes clear his intention to base his development policies on fundamentals of sustainability in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
4. He then goes on to define the nature of governance that he envisions for Sri Lanka emphasising on an exemplary professional and efficient government administration, the corner stones of which would be meritocracy and technocracy where corruption would not be tolerated
5. The President outlines his approach to knowledge development, highlighting the focus on technology in line with global development trends
6. He finally calls upon all Sri Lankans to align with his focus on law and order
To achieve the above he is also very clear that he would form a Government which can work according to his policies and not the other way around.
The incoming President invested at the feet of the Ruwanweli Mahaseya made no qualms of his ascent to leadership nor his vision or his intention to lead
The Servant Leader, turned out not either?
The above is in stark contrast to the most recent inaugural address the nation listened to in 2015 from the sacred grounds of the Temple of Tooth Relic in Kandy. In 2015 the incoming President pledged to dilute the powers of his office, delegating them to Ministers, Parliament, independent committees etc. and called for an all-inclusive multiparty system of Government. He claimed Sri Lanka does not need a king but rather a servant who would serve the people.
The concept of Servant Leadership is not a new one. In fact it goes back to biblical times where the washing of feet of his disciples by Jesus is celebrated as the very essence of Servant Leadership. However this concept remains essentially a leadership concept in that the community or the organisation is still seeking a style of leadership and not at all the absence of it.
Farling, Stone, and Winston (1999) proposed a five-factor model of Servant Leadership which comprised of vision, influence, credibility, trust, and service. Servant leadership isn’t about demeaning oneself or one’s self image, instead it is the highest form of service by assuming the lowliest form, to buffer the hardships of others (Vine, 1985).
A strong self-image, moral conviction, and emotional stability are factors that drive leaders to make this choice (Sendjaya & Sarros, 2002). It seems over the past four years the nation lost its way in its quest for a servant-leader who sadly seemed to be neither.
Power of the spoken word
The power of the spoken word is sometimes underestimated by many of us. Four years ago the incoming President Maithripala Sirisena stated several times during his first few days of office that this would be his first and last term as President. The country is well aware that it is not that he did not seek out a second term but rather that the nation was weary of its leader or weary of his continued absence from leadership.
The incoming President invested at the feet of the Ruwanweli Mahaseya made no qualms of his ascent to leadership nor his vision or his intention to lead. The strength, clarity and decisiveness with which the new President of Sri Lanka addressed the nation denotes the kind of leader and the form of leadership that the citizens of Sri Lanka voted for.
The power of the spoken word often underestimated has the eerie habit of coming back to us in full-circle. Let us hope that this time around Sri Lanka won’t regret getting what it voted for.
Farling, M.L., Stone, A.G., & Winston,B.E.(1999). Servant leadership: setting the stage for empirical research. Journal of Leadership Studies, 6, 49-72
Vine, W.E. (1985). Vine’s expository Dictionary of Biblical words, Nashville, T.N:Thomas Nelson
Sendjaya,S. and Sarros,J.C.(2002). Servant leadership:its origin,development and application in organisations.Journal of Leadership and Organisational studies,9,57-64.