A passionate statesman and a fervent professional | Sunday Observer

A passionate statesman and a fervent professional

20 June, 2021
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa

Long live the President of Sri Lanka!

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, sails past his birthday today, June 20 - the three score years and twelve, amidst the rambling coronavirus pandemic.

In the eyes of millions of his fellow citizens, he earned a lasting niche as a fervent professional, following his brave and exemplary leadership to eradicate the cruelest terrorist organisation in the world, the LTTE, from our resplendent isle. A passionate statesman, he was sworn-in as the 7th Executive President of Sri Lanka on November 18, 2019.

Today, on his birthday, the President will receive immeasurable blessings from his beloved citizens across the country. As Sri Lankans our foremost responsibility and aspiration should be to strengthen the hands of our duly elected President with the words of the popular 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy, “let us go forth to lead the land we love.”

This zealous effort to recognise the President on his birthday, endeavours to share his life’s journey. The leadership characteristics such as confidence, creativity, inspiration, knowledge, trust and positivity are very much visible in his role of leading the country.

It is the ardent desire of all Sri Lankans that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will unite the country under one ‘National Flag.’

Birth, Education and Professional Career

He was born in Palatuwa in the Matara District on June 20, 1949 as the fifth in a family of nine children. He was brought up in Medamulana, Weeraketiya in Hambantota District in the Southern Province.

He had his entire education at the renowned Buddhist educational institution in the country, Ananda College, Colombo 15.

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 the Parliament, Deputy Speaker and a cabinet minister.

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.

He attended 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 as well as 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. He was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 1988.

His distinguished military service earned him, a number of military medals for gallantry and conspicuous bravery. He was bestowed with the Rana Wickrama Padakkama and the Rana Sura Padakkama for his invaluable contributions during the battles, “Operation Liberation”, “Operation Strike Hard” and “Operation Thrivida Balaya”.

Marriage and closely knit family

He is married to Madam Ioma Rajapaksa. It was a marriage of unbroken affection that provided a secure and happy background for his pursuit of academic excellence. The First Lady won the admiration for her humbleness 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. Their only son, Manoj is married to Sevwandie and they were blessed with their first child recently.

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 accomplished a Post Graduate Diploma in Information Technology.

He later migrated to the United States with his family where he worked as an IT professional at the Loyola Law School in Los Angeles, California.

Origin and evolution of the battle

The origins of the Sri Lankan battle against terrorists lie in the continuous political rancor between the Sinhalese and the Tamils. The roots of the modern conflict lie in the British colonial rule.

The LTTE’s modus operandi of the early battle was based on assassinations. On July 23, 1983, the LTTE launched a deadly ambush on a Sri Lanka army patrol in Thirunelveli, killing an officer and 12 soldiers. It is considered the beginning of the terrorist war.

Apart from the LTTE, initially there was a plethora of militant groups. The LTTE carried out over 378 suicide attacks, one of the largest suicide campaigns in the world from 1983 through 2009.

A crisis leading to the first large scale fighting occurred when the LTTE closed the sluice gates of the Mavil Aru reservoir on July 21, 2006.

Assassination attempt

It’s still fresh in our memories how the LTTE, the world’s most ruthless terrorist outfit inflicted nothing but misery when they unleashed terrorism in the guise of liberation, taking the lives of nearly 100,000 Sri Lankans.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa was appointed as the Defence Secretary on November 25, 2005. On December 1, 2006, the LTTE made an attempt to assassinate the Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa by ramming a three-wheeler packed with explosives into his motorcade at Pitthala Junction in Colombo 7.

The entire motorcade was wrecked and the Defence Secretary miraculously escaped unscathed.

The courage and bravery of Gotabaya Rajapaksa to concentrate on his vision to wipe out terrorism even after an attempt on his life and knowing very well the threat from the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation needs special emphasis.

Besides, his sterling quality of inspiring and leading from the front was a tremendous boost to the military hierarchy.

Liberation of the country

In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Observer of December 30, 2007 in the column ‘Sunday Meeting’, Gotabaya Rajapaksa shared his firsthand experience in the battlefront that enabled him to be a tower of strength behind the military success in his first two years as Defence Secretary.

The battle of Aanandapuram, which was described as the ‘defiant moment’ of the three decades of war was fought on April 5, 2009. By April 25, the area under the LTTE was reduced to 10 square km.

On May 16, 2009, the Sri Lankan troops broke through the LTTE defences and captured the last section of coastline held by the Tamil Tiger terrorists.

On May 16, 2009, addressing the G 11 Summit in Jordan, President Mahinda Rajapakse stated that in an unprecedented humanitarian operation finally the government defeated the LTTE militarily.

On May 18, 2009, Colombo declared the end of the 26-year civil war. It was the beginning of a new era of peace, national reconciliation and development.

Conferment of Doctor of Letters

The University of Colombo, conferred the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters to the Defence Secretary, Gotabaya Rajapaksa on September 6, 2009 at the Postgraduate Convocation Ceremony in recognition of his services to the country in safeguarding its territorial integrity and sovereignty by defeating the LTTE and restoring peace and harmony among all Sri Lankan communities and uplifting the image of Sri Lanka within the international community.

Professional standards

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 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 ranks 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 whilst winning of medals at the World Military Games brought honour and glory. A ‘Wounded-in-Action’ reaching the podium at the London 2012 Paralympic Games securing a bronze medal is truly a success story.

The strengthening of hospital facilities and healing homes for ‘Fallen Heroes’ such as ‘Mihindu Seth Medura’ benefited the wounded in battle. The new houses with modern facilities for ‘Fallen Heroes’ such as ‘Ranajayapura’, distribution of land amongst needy, scholarships for children, innovation in every sphere and enormous infrastructure development across the country was very much visible.

It was indeed the golden era in the annals of the military history of Sri Lanka.

As the Defence Secretary, he played a significant role to elevate the General Sir John Kotelawela Defence University (KDU) to higher echelons.

The introduction of the ‘Day Scholar’ program in 2012 at the KDU 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 fulfillment of a long-felt need.

Concise story of the humanitarian operation

The masterpiece by C. A. Chandraprema titled, “Gota’s War” launched on May 14, 2012 describes the story of the entire humanitarian operation between the government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE in the context of the wider political conflict which began in 1956 and how the world’s deadliest terrorist organisation was completely annihilated by President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government and the pivotal role played by the soldier turned public servant Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Expansion of Defence University

On June 13, 2013, Gotabaya Rajapaksa as the Defence Secretary addressed the inaugural doctoral degree program at the KDU on the topic, “Sri Lanka’s National Security Concerns” launching the National Interest Module – another first in the academic sphere.

He shared, “guarding against various threats and ensuring the safety of the nation is the first duty of the government, because National Security is the foundation of our freedom and our prosperity.”

He elaborated, “The government must make every effort to keep aware of a continually changing situation and take appropriate action in response to new developments and challenges. It is only then that the safety of the nation can be assured”. He concluded, “Ultimately, the best way to ensure that Sri Lanka remains safe and strong in the future is for all of us to put aside the differences of the past; unite as Sri Lankans, and work towards a better future for ourselves and for each other.”

On a personal note, I salute the President for the bold step he took to afford the opportunity to the senior military officers to reach the highest academic qualification of PhD at the KDU.

It was his life-changing keynote address that motivated me to take up the challenge to pursue research under ‘National Interest’ and introduce a National Policy for the development of elite sports in Sri Lanka.

Election as the 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.

The citizens of Sri Lanka, placed confidence in him amongst 35 candidates in the fray. This saw his election as the 7th Executive President of Sri Lanka with a mammoth 6,924,239 votes, which is 52.25% of the total polled.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is always committed to tasks upon his shoulders. He definitely is not a traditional politician. Besides a military background, he is a technocrat. It has been an extremely challenging start in office, with Covid-19 unexpectedly alarming him all along his tenure of nineteen months.

Prompt response to adopt health protocols, optimum mobilisation of the efficient health service and deployment of the security establishment brought in swift results.

President of all Sri Lankans

The cynosure of all Sri Lankans was on him when he took oaths on November 18, 2019. In his maiden address he promised, “I assure that I would be the President of all Sri Lankans and pledged to uphold sovereignty and national security.” Addressing the nation from Salapathala Maluwa at Ruwanwelisaya in the sacred city of Anuradhapura, he elaborated, “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”.

Glowing tribute to Fallen Heroes

At the Ranaviru Commemoration Ceremony on May 19, 2020, the President said, “May 19, 2009 is a very important milestone in the history of Sri Lanka. 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.”

He stressed, “Our ‘Fallen Heroes’ and their families made immense sacrifice to usher in peace to the country, which was engulfed in terror. Battle is not a bed or roses. Especially, ‘Fallen Heroes’ had to face numerous bitter experience and difficulties when battling one of the most ruthless terrorist organisations in the world. Because of the exceptional sacrifices made by our ‘Fallen 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 ‘Fallen Heroes.”

Landslide victory at general elections

The General Elections held on August 5, 2020 saw endorsement of their faith by Sri Lankans on 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 and the newly-formed SLPP scripted history by becoming the political party with the shortest life span to gain absolute power in the island nation’s political antiquity.

A profile in courage

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa 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, 20 years as a military officer and 10 years as the Defence Secretary. He is a profile in courage, a true example of what it means to be courageous.

The stories of past courage can teach, they can offer hope, they can provide inspiration. But they cannot stream courage itself. For this each man must look into his own soul. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa 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.

The words of statesman and the most famous British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill challenge all Sri Lankans to accept responsibility for its government and inspire the present generation to strive for a better future, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts,” especially his famous line, “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duty.”

On behalf of all readers, let me wish the President, peace, good health and happiness! May your birthday bring you good luck to last for the whole year!

(The author served in the Regular Force of the Sri Lanka Navy, 1979 through 2018 and presently enthralled in serving war heroes. A graduate of the United States Naval War College, he earned a PhD, MPhil and double MSc).