President Gotabaya Rajapaksa: A passionate statesman committed to transform Sri Lanka to a Glorious Nation | Sunday Observer
The First Year in Office:

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa: A passionate statesman committed to transform Sri Lanka to a Glorious Nation

15 November, 2020

Today, the name of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is universally cherished and recognised as the Executive President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. It is the ardent desire of all citizens of the country that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will unite the country under one ‘National Flag’ as he expressed in his inaugural speech taking oaths as the President a year ago.

As the President celebrates his first year in office,it is usual for him to receive hundreds of thousands of felicitations. Some will come from the Monarchs and Heads of States from around the globe. Yet, countless of blessings will be from his beloved citizens. As a country, Sri Lanka now experience bold leadership and discipline in governance, yearned for years.

Affectionately known as ‘Gota’ or often referred by his first name Gotabaya, in the eyes of millions of his fellow citizens, he earned a lasting niche as a patriot in 2009, following his vigorous leadership as the Secretary of Defence to eradicate the cruellest terrorist organisation in the world, the LTTE, from our resplendent isle in an unprecedented humanitarian operation.

It has been an extremely enthusiastic first year in office, with Covid-19 unexpectedly alarming him hin the early months. He took up the challenge and initiated bold steps towards curbing the epidemic. The Special Task Force ensured meticulous execution of the nationwide operation though it has not received the desired recognition by way of glowing reports or embellished headlines.

Prompt response in adopting guidelines, optimum mobilisation of resources by the efficient health service and speedy deployment of the security establishment brought in swift results. With the quarantine centres, rendering a commendable service, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has won the admiration of his fellow citizens for meeting the tough challenges in health care.

This article attempts to share the President’s first year in office and his journey as a professional to reach the helm of the country as the seventh Executive President; through a military career, 1971 through 1992; an academic stint, 1993 through 2004; and a spell as the Defence Secretary, 2005 through 2014, which surely etched his name in the annals of Sri Lankan history.

Election as Executive President

As the minutes ticked away and hours went by, it was becoming blatantly clear, as night follows day that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was romping home as victor at the Presidential Election held on November 16, 2019. Under his Presidency, the country has started experiencing the much dreamed political transformation and leadership.

The citizens of Sri Lanka, placed their confidence in Gotabaya Rajapaksa out of 35 candidates in the fray.

This saw his election with a mammoth 6,924,239 votes, which is 52.25 per cent of the total polled. His was a household name in the country for a decade or so since the meticulous execution of the humanitarian operation to free the country from the clutches of terrorism.Known for his honest approach,” he is a “man of action” with little tolerance for inefficiency. He became the first retired military officer to assume the highest office.He is always in a hurry to work and deliver and does not like to waste time unnecessarily. He believes that decisions once taken must be implemented and always wants his other colleagues to match his speed.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is always punctual, and is committed to the tasks upon his shoulders, which is very different when compared with many other politicians.

He believes in taking advice from professionals, who have a clear understanding depending on the matter. He definitely is not a traditional politician.Besides having a military background, he is also a technocrat.

Inauguration as Executive President

The cynosure of all citizens was on Gotabaya Rajapaksa when he took oaths in the sacred city of Anuradhapura on November 18, 2019. In his maiden address he said, “I assure that I would be the President of all Sri Lankans and pledge to uphold sovereignty and national security.”

Addressing the nation from the Salapathala Maluwa at the Ruwanwelisaya he shared, “To exercise the historic mandate given, I will form a new government which can act on my policies. I love my country and I am proud of it. I have a vision. I request all patriots to join me to create a prosperous country”.

In a sense, the whole of his life span had been a preparation to lead the country. A passionate statesman; a patriot; a professional; a romantic believer in his motherland’s greatness; a devotee of action who thrived on challenge and crisis; a veteran of war; a master of the arts of administration; a man of iron constitution, inexhaustible energy and total concentration, he seemed to have been nursing all his faculties so that when the moment came he could lavishly use them to transform Sri Lanka to a glorious nation.

Maiden foreign visit to India

The President undertook his maiden foreign visit to India on November 29, 2019. During his meeting in New Delhi, the Indian Premier Narendra Modi shared, “the mandate given to President Gotabaya reflects the aspirations of the people for a United, Strong and Prosperous Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankans had similar expectations on eradicating terrorism when they elected His Excellency Mahinda as the President and he in turn entrusted the herculean task to his sibling, Gotabaya on November 25, 2005 appointing him as the Secretary Defence and together they lived to the expectations of the Sri Lankans”.

Celebrating National Independence Day

At the 72nd National Independence Day on February 4, 2020, the President identified, “poverty, archaic regulations, procedures and systems and arbitrary fee and permit structures hamper the standard of living of all Sri Lankans, as the real issues that hinder their political and economic freedom and no ethnicity, religion or culture as many would perceive.

He stressed that Sri Lanka is a unitary state and that he is the President of all Sri Lankans.”

He reiterated, “I am duty bound to fulfill the necessities of all Sri Lankans and that is my responsibility and obligation. I do not expect any barriers from the legislature or the judiciary to carry out my duties.”

Commemoration of gallant war heroes

At the Ranaviru Commemoration Ceremony on May 19, 2020, the President said, “May 19, is a very important milestone in the history of Sri Lanka. Eleven years ago on a day like this, we completely defeated the separatist terrorism, which had been a curse to the country for nearly thirty years.

The atmosphere where people can travel freely without any restrictions to any place of the country was restored. Our war heroes and their families made immense sacrifice to usher in peace to the country, which was engulfed in terror. War is not a bed of roses. Especially, war heroes had to face numerous bitter experiences and difficulties when battling one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations in the world.

Because of the exceptional sacrifices made by our war heroes, today we have the opportunity to live in peace and harmony in a unitary state... I am very well aware of the sacrifices made by our war heroes.”

Landslide victory in 2020 General Elections

The General Election 2020 was held on August 5, 2020 with strict health measures and guidelines. Sri Lankans endorsed their faith in President Gotabaya Rajapaksa by electing the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) led coalition with a landslide victory. They won 145 seats in the 225-member Parliament.

The ruling SLPP were favourites to emerge victorious in the elections, mainly owing to the success in handling the Coronavirus pandemic and due to the negative publicity about the UNP-led government.

Swearing of Prime Minister and new Cabinet

With his newly-formed SLPP scripting history by becoming the political party with the shortest life span to gain absolute power in the island nation’s political history, Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the Prime Minister for the fourth time on August 9, 2020 by his younger brother and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the Rajamaha Viharaya in Kelaniya, an ancient Buddhist shrine that has often been associated with the rise and fall of Sri Lanka.

The Swearing-in Ceremony for Sri Lanka’s new Cabinet took place on August 12, 2020 at the historic Magul Maduwa, the Audience Hall of the Kandy Royal Palace at the Sri Dalada Maligawa premises under the patronage of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. The Ministerial structure consisted 28 Ministries and 40 State Ministries.

The 20th Amendment to Constitution

The 20th Amendment to the Constitution of Sri Lanka was successfully passed into law on October 22, 2020 with a ⅔ majority in the Parliament with 156 voting in favour, 65 against and four abstaining. The 20th Amendment was often a political objective of the ruling SLPP and Gotabaya Rajapaksa administration.The 20th Amendment will also in fact reintroduce some of the reforms of the

1978 Constitution and will enhance the executive powers of the President. In addition, the President gets the authority to dissolve the Parliament after one year. Further, the President could use his executive and constitutional powers to appoint any person to government offices at his sole discretion.

Enrichment of professionalism in uniform

As the Defence Secretary, he immensely contributed to uplift the living and professional standards of the men and women in uniform. His tenure 2005 through 2015 was indeed remarkable.

The awareness program Api Wenuwen Api brought the desired results with hundreds who left after serving 12 years as well as deserters coming back to strengthen the war effort.

The timely promotions, extensions and salary increments benefitted the rank and file. Introduction of the world’s first scintillating military reality TV talent show, Ranaviru Real Star afforded opportunities to the war heroes to display their aesthetic talents. The Defence Services Games lifted the sportsmen and sportswomen to the international arena while secur ing of medals at the World Military Games brought honour and glory.

A ‘Wounded in Battle’ reaching the podium at the Para Olympic Games London 2012 securing a bronze medal is truly a success story. The strengthening of hospital facilities and healing homes for War Heroes such as the Mihindu Seth Medura benefited the wounded in battle.

The New Houses with modern facilities for War Heroes such as Ranajayapura, distribution of land among the needy, scholarships for children, innovation in every sphere and enormous infrastructure development across the country was very visible. It was indeed the golden era in the annals of the military history of Sri Lanka.

As the Secretary Defence, he played a significant role to elevate the Defence University to higher echelons. The introduction of the ‘Day Scholar’ program in 2012 at the General Sir John Kotelawela Defence University opened the doors for thousands of children to dream of academic degrees in a disciplined environment. The establishment of the Defence Service School for the children of military and police personnel was a long felt need.

On a personal note, I salute the President for the bold step he took in 2012 to afford the opportunity to the senior military officers to reach the highest academic qualification by introducing the First Doctoral Program at the General Sir John Kotelawela Defence University.

His life-changing keynote address on June 13, 2013 motivated me to take up the challenge to pursue research under ‘National Interest’ and introduce a National Policy for the wellbeing of future generations.

Transformation of urban environment

His contributions as the Secretary, Urban Development are too numerous to record. He systematically and speedily implemented a range of initiatives that transformed Sri Lanka’s cities and improved the lives of the people by fostering a more sustainable and attractive urban environment. The entire country got a facelift. At once, his restless energy began to be felt throughout the country.

Birth, education and military career

He was born in Palatuwa in the Matara District on June 20, 1949 and brought up in Medamulana, Weeraketiya in the Hambantota District in the Southern Province. He grew up in a powerful and well-known political family in Sri Lanka. His mother was Dandina Samarasinghe Dissanayake.

His father, Don Alwin Rajapaksa, was a prominent politician, independence agitator, Member of Parliament, Deputy Speaker and a Cabinet Minister. He had his entire education at the renowned Buddhist educational institution in the country, Ananda College, Colombo 15. As a stripling youth with zest, he entered the Sri Lanka Army as a Cadet Officer on April 26, 1971, in the midst of the JVP insurrection 1971. He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant on May 26, 1972. His first command as an officer was in the Ceylon Signals Corps.

Thereafter, he served in the Sri Lanka Sinha Regiment and the Rajarata Rifles before being transferred to the Gajaba Regiment upon its formation in 1983. His distinguished military service earned him, a number of medals for gallantry and conspicuous bravery.

He attended the Signal Young Officers Course and Infantry Company Commanders Course in Pakistan, Jungle Warfare and Counter Insurgency Course and the Command and Staff Course in India and the Advanced Infantry Officers Course in the USA.

During his military service, he earned a Master’s Degree in Defence Studies from the University of Madras. His commands included the 1st Gajaba Regiment and the Kotelawela Defence University. For 20 years, he worked his way up the ranks and rose to the rank of a Lieutenant Colonel.

Marriage and closely knit family

He married Madam Ioma Rajapaksa. It was a marriage of unbroken affection which provided a secure and happy background for his pursuit of academic excellence. The First Lady won admiration for her humility and simplicity throughout her tenure as the President of the Seva Vanitha Unit. She was totally committed to enrich the living standards of military families.They are blessed with a son, Manoj who is married to Sevwandi.Beneath the challenging exterior, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa concealed a burning passion for self-improvement that led him to expand his horizons on Information Technology at the University of Colombo, where he attained a Post Graduate Diploma in Information Technology.

He later migrated to the USA with his family where he worked as an IT professional at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, California. He was conferred the honorary doctoral degree, Doctor of Letters by the University of Colombo.

A profile in courage

He has been a frontline soldier, tried and tested in the battlefield and an icon of dedication and commitment. He is also a son of the soil who made tremendous personal sacrifices to serve his beloved motherland. He is a profile in courage, a true example of what it means to be courageous.

The LTTE attempted to assassinate the then Secretary, Defence on December 1, 2006, by ramming a three-wheeler packed with explosives into his motorcade at Pitthala Junction in Colombo 7. He miraculously escaped unscathed when the entire motorcade was wrecked.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has succeeded in uplifting the country’s stability and National Security. He is well aware of his responsibilities towards the country and the future generations. He is a trusted leader committed to build an identity for our resplendent isle - Sri Lanka.

(The author served the Sri Lanka Navy, 1979 through 2018. A graduate of the United States’ Naval War College, he earned a double MSc, MPhil and PhD)