GOTABAYA RAJAPAKSA, SEVENTH PRESIDENT OF SRI LANKA Part 3
Posted on November 28th, 2019

KAMALIKA PIERIS

I am extremely fortunate to address you from the sacred precincts of the Ruwanweli Maha Seya in Anuradhapura, which enshrines the Sacred Relics of the Buddha,”  said President Gotabaya in his maiden speech as President.  I have received the opportunity of addressing the nation before the statue of great Warrior King Dutugemunu due to the historic mandate given to me by the majority of citizens,” he said.

 It is unlikely that any Sinhala king of the Anuradhapura period would have gone to Ruvanvelisaya to be crowned or address the public. However, the decision to conduct the swearing in of President-elect Gotabaya Rajapaksa at Anuradhapura, beside the Ruvanvelisaya was a brilliant political move. It was a confident move, not a defensive one. The message was clear. The present state will emphasis the Sinhala Buddhist culture of Sri Lanka, its historicity and its unity.

The choice of Anuradhapura for the swearing will come in for comment. This is to be expected. Ruvanvelisaya, the location selected for the swearing in, will escape criticism. There will be mighty rumpus if this venerated temple is laughed at. But the reference to Dutugemunu will be pounced upon. Dutugemunu will be charged, among other things, with being a racist, making Sri Lanka into a Sinhala Buddhist state, killing Tamils and so on.

Jehan Perera has already observed ‘The Mahavamsa records as one of its central themes, the protection of Buddhism and the Sinhalese race from Tamil invasions originating from South India. This memory would be re-invoked by the oath taking of President Rajapaksa at the Ruvanvelisaya in Anuradhapura, which is the sacred Buddhist temple built by the hero king of the Sinhalese, Dutugemunu, nearly two thousand years ago, following his defeat of the Tamil king, Elara’.

Here are some brief observations on Dutugemunu. Firstly, Dutugemunu was not Dushta Gamini” (wicked). No king who elevated the monarchy to a high   level as Dutugemunu did would have been given such a name. He was Durstha Gamani”. Durstha means ‘strong.’

Secondly, the Sinhala monarchy did not start with Dutugemunu (161-137BC).  The Sinhala monarchy had developed much earlier. The evidence comes from India.  Indian emperor Dharmasoka had sent coronation robes to Sinhala king Devanampiyatissa (250-210 BC). The monarchy in Sri Lanka would have been well established by then for King Dharmasoka to make such a gesture. Dharmasoka would not have sent coronation robes to a kinglet or kingling.

Thirdly, Dutugemunu was not the first to unify the Sinhala state. Dutugemunu’s gesture of curling up in bed is not the gesture of someone who plans to newly unite a country. Lastly, Dutugemunu was not the first to think of chasing Elara out. The idea of ousting Elara came from his father King Kavantissa. Elara was probably not the first south Indian to invade Sri Lanka either.

Two days after taking up his appointment, President Gotabaya went to worship at the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. His focus was the Dalada Maligawa, but the visit to Kandy meant that he was going from the first capital of the Sinhala kingdom, Anuradhapura, to the last capital, Kandy. President Gotabaya would have gone there anyway, but the historical implication was not lost on the organizers.

At the Dalada Maligawa President Gotabaya was greeted by the Diyawadana Nilame in full costume, and both were taken into the temple by a bare bodied escort carrying spears.  President Gotabaya was later joined by a group of about ten or so Nilames, also dressed up. After becoming Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa visited the Dalada Maligawa and the same process was repeated. There is sure to be contemptuous laughter in Colombo over all this pageantry. But, as I will show in later essays, Pohottu got it right.

President Gotabaya has made it clear that his administration will emphasis Buddhism. The Buddhist philosophy is infused into my thoughts and conduct. Buddhist philosophy calls for a righteous rule that respects law and order, justice and fairplay. It will be an administration that will be an oasis for all communities and religious groups. I will be dedicated to protect and nurture the Buddha Sasana during my tenure”, he said in his first speech as President.

This is a tremendous gain for the ‘Sinhala-Buddhist’ segment. I did not think I would see this in my lifetime.  Sinhala Buddhists” maintained a fighting spirit throughout British rule. After Independence, they set up the Buddhist Commission in 1954, celebrated Buddha Jayanti in 1956 and supported the 1956 MEP election.  But they were still recovering from several decades of repression and showed it.  The Christian segment continued to be dominant. The media mocked the political Sangha.

Sixty years later comes this unexpected ascendency. This is due to the shocks the complacent Sangha received under Yahapalana rule. They could not believe it. Bhikkhus were taken into remand, the monasteries were charged with sexual misconduct, the Triple Gem was altered to ‘Double Gem’. The Sangha were furious. They realized that this was part of a well planned political strategy and that it was necessary to get Yahapalana out. They supported the candidacy of Gotabaya Rajapaksa with great enthusiasm.  10,000 or so bhikkhus went canvassing for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, reported the media.

President Gotabaya made it a point to visit Buddhist temples after his victory. He was recognizing the role played by the Maha Sangha in his election victory, but he was also showing that his was a Buddhist administration.

From Dalada Maligawa he went to Malwatte and Asgiriya vihara (Siam Nikaya). He then commenced a round of temple visits. This is still continuing. He visited Vidya Sagara Pirivena, Menikhinne(Ramannya nikaya). He visited Ven. Kotugoda Dhammavansa at Galkissa Dharmapala aramaya (Amarapura nikaya).

Everywhere he went, teams of monks met him and gave lengthy speeches rejoicing in his victory and advising him on what to do next. Ven. Kotapitiye Rahula said that the Sangha were ready to work with President Gotabaya. President Gotabaya was mobbed by delighted supporters at the entrance to all these temples, including the Dalada Maligawa.

There was a strong Buddhist flavor in the ceremonies when Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his team took office. This was deliberate.   Groups of bhikkhus were present at every turn. The emphasis was on Buddhist ritual, on pansil and pirit. In Anuradhapura after the oath taking, there was Seth pirith. There was pirith again when President Gotabaya took over at the Presidents Secretariat, the next day.

It was the same when Mahinda Rajapaksa took up office as Prime Minister.   On that occasion there were 3 long rows of bhikkhus, a slow extended pirit, which the assembly had to listen to while standing, a long speech by Ven. Medagoda Abeyatissa and blessings from Hindu, Muslim and Christian priests.

Buddhist Ministers of the interim cabinet formed on 22.11.19 also had pansil and pirit chanted by groups of bhikkhus before they took office.  They all   signed in to the accompaniment of pirit.

President Gotabaya inaugural speech was cleverly crafted to include   three of the four elements of Sinhala Buddhist civilization”, namely, Buddhism, Sinhala language and Sinhala unitary state. (The fourth element, Sinhala nationality was not mentioned). These three elements are today bandied about as ‘religion’, ‘language’ and ‘ancient history.’

 We must protect the Sinhala culture and heritage that has a history of thousands of years, President Gotabaya said in his inaugural speech. State patronage will be given to protect our age-old moral values, traditions and rituals and oneness.  Sara dharma, Ape kama, Sirit virit must be protected and will receive state patronage, he said. He added that he had studied at Ananda College and spoke of Ananda’s Buddhist ethos.

 The inaugural speech was in Sinhala with a bit in English. As far as I can recall, there was no Tamil translation of the proceedings and no national anthem. The expected criticism came in. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is accepted by the millions who ensured him of the outstanding victory as the long awaited saviour of Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka,” said one critic in a confused sentence. We are now in the Glorious Rise of Sinhala Buddhism”. Another spoke of the Achievement of Sinhala Buddhist glory in the recent Presidential election.” We are clearly moving in a direction where [we will see] Sinhala Buddhist dominance, and its continuing impactful influence in Sri Lankan society and politics, he added.

President Gotabaya is the first President of Sri Lanka to have been educated at Ananda College.  I was educated at Ananda College, Colombo, one of the leading Buddhist schools in Sri Lanka,” he said, in his very first speech as President of Sri Lanka. It has taken Ananda College exactly one hundred years to reach this point.

Ananda College( est. 1886)  had been administered by several illustrious principals (Kuntz, Buultjens),had produced several distinguished  old boys,  (D.J. Wimalasurendra) and had some academic  achievements  to show,  when in 1918, P de S Kularatne took over as principal  of Ananda. He made Ananda into the leading school that it is today.

Kularatne   made Ananda College a highly nationalistic and   patriotic school. He emphasized Sinhala culture in the curriculum. When the Dutugemunu block of classrooms   was completed in 1919 Kularatne added a pedestal with a model of a lion with a sword in hand.   This indicates, said his biographer,   that from the beginning Kularatne had a political objective in mind. That was a courageous thing to do since Sri Lanka was under British rule at the time, the biographer observed.(Kamalika Pieris, Kularatne of Ananda”, 2015) 

In the 1970s, Ananda looked back and noted that Kularatne had consciously moulded persons who could participate actively in the nationalist revival and independence movement of British Ceylon, which was taking place at the time.

Also, Kularatne introduced cadetting to Ananda College. Anandians excelled in the sport and many joined the armed forces, after independence. Anandians pointed out, with pride, that In 1986, there were more officers from Ananda in the Sri Lanka army than any other school. The leading officers of Eelam War IV, including Gotabaya Rajapaksa, all came from Ananda. This was commented on.

Ananda College is sure to invite President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to the school, to felicitate and celebrate.  When he goes there, I hope that he will make some mention of P de S Kularatne, who started it all.  

I end this essay with a snippet of historical information that may interest readers.  It is not well known that the Sinhala monarchy had devised a mechanism of ‘brother kings’. When Vasabha died in 111 AD, the island was ruled in three principalities by his three sons. Since the division was among the legitimate heirs, the unity of the state was not shaken.  I had found a second set of brother kings, also ruling in Anuradhapura, but unfortunately, I cannot locate the reference at this moment.

There was a third instance. Under Dharma Parakrama bahu IX (1489-1513),the Kotte kingdom was ruled by him and his four brothers. The brothers were united and ruled from their independent centres of administration at Madampe, Manikkadavara, Raigama and Udugampola.

The interim government of 2019 has three Rajapaksa brothers in three important positions. Gotabaya Rajapaksa as President, Mahinda Rajapaksa as Prime Minister and Chamal Rajapaksa, a former Speaker, as Cabinet Minister.  The presence of three and four members of the same family dominating politics is seen as weakness when it should be seen as a rarity.

 Rajapaksa brothers entered Parliament, through general elections where they won seats through direct election. They won in highly independent, volatile, electorates. These electorates were not pocket boroughs of the Rajapaksas. They won, because, despite heavy criticism, the Rajapaksa brothers always delivered successfully on the tasks assigned to them. Sri Lanka is no longer a monarchy and these three are not kings. But I thought the information on ‘brother kings’ may be of interest. (continued)

One Response to “GOTABAYA RAJAPAKSA, SEVENTH PRESIDENT OF SRI LANKA Part 3”

  1. Geeth Says:

    Kamalika,
    Brilliant essay. Thanks.

    “Two days after taking up his appointment, President Gotabaya went to worship at the Dalada Maligawa in Kandy. His focus was the Dalada Maligawa, but the visit to Kandy meant that he was going from the first capital of the Sinhala kingdom, Anuradhapura, to the last capital, Kandy.” Yes, that is symbolic.

    I really want him to end the Colombo period as it has exhausted its value and significance as a historical period. I want to see him establishing a new historical period in Trinco establishing our new capital there. He must make his victory an epoch of a new era, creating history by establishing a new capital in Trincomalee.

    “There is sure to be contemptuous laughter in Colombo over all this pageantry.” Yes, you are correct because Colombian is the antithesis of the nation state of Sri Lanka. They want to make SL a vessel state. They are allergic to independence. They want to live in-dependence.

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