Gotabaya gets an unusual compliment

June 30, 2018 08:30 pm | Updated 09:20 pm IST

 Sri Lanka’s then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa at a Buddhist ceremony in Colombo in May, 2009.

Sri Lanka’s then Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa at a Buddhist ceremony in Colombo in May, 2009.

It came as a surprise birthday blessing to Sri Lanka’s former Defence Secretary, when an influential Buddhist monk recently said: “Let Gotabaya Rajapaksa prove his critics right by becoming a real Hitler.”

Clearly, the priest, Ven. Endaruwe Upali, who represents the Kandy-based Asgiriya Chapter, one of the most conservative and influential Buddhist clergy establishments in Sri Lanka, meant it as a compliment. Following adverse reactions to his comment, the monk issued a clarification saying that it was not made “in a harmful sense” of endorsing a brutal regime, and that he was merely making a case for strong policy. However, the damage had been done.

The monk’s remarks provoked an unlikely backlash from top leaders, who rarely counter the powerful Buddhist clergy. President Maithripala Sirisena was quick to condemn the remarks in no uncertain terms. “In January 2015, people did not vote for food or jobs,” he said in a public address soon after. “They voted for freedom and democracy. I have restored both and will not allow this country to slip back to a dictatorship,” he vowed.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe challenged the monk saying: “There is no way Buddhism and Hitler’s brutality can be reconciled... Buddhists cannot tell someone to be like Idi Amin or Hitler or Pol Pot, it goes against the Buddha’s teachings.”

Choosing a presidential candidate

The monk’s comments and the criticism it evoked come at a time when many in the island have begun thinking, in fact thinking aloud, about the presidential election likely to be held at end of next year.

Notably, Mr. Gotabaya, who led the Sri Lankan military to victory against the rebel Tigers, is an eager presidential hopeful. A controversial figure, he faces corruption charges to the tune of millions of dollars, and has in the past been linked to the infamous “white-van” abductions or enforced disappearances, and to anti-Muslim groups involved in hate crimes. Over the last couple of years, he has been mobilising support through a new organisation called Viyath Maga (Path of the Learned), and is reaching out to former military officers and professionals, pitching himself as an efficient leader and “doer”. At the moment, all that he is waiting for is his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s nod so that he can try surrending his American citizenship, which bars him from contesting in Sri Lanka.

A 2015 constitutional amendment that put a two-term limit on presidency prevents Mahinda Rajapaksa from contesting again, driving speculation on who he might field this time. His two other brothers, Basil Rajapaksa and Chamal Rajapaksa, who served in his administration, are also being considered, according to political sources. However, the former President, whose support is crucial for any contestant from the camp, is currently holding his cards close to his chest. Of all the brothers, Mr. Gotabaya, 69, is the least experienced politically. But that hardly deters him. “Donald Trump was a businessman but today he is the President of the United States, isn’t it?” he said in early 2017, also admitting that he was “studying Trump” as a model.

As the opposition to the monk’s “Hitler remarks” grew louder last week, Mr. Gotabaya said: “Even the Buddha said the Dhamma should be preached to people who have the capacity and the wisdom to understand it.” In his view, only those who did not understand the meaning of the comment made all the noise. It appears he took no offence.

Meera Srinivasan works for The Hindu and is based in Colombo.

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