The story is told of how Australian cricketer Mark Waugh, trying to sledge an English batsman, Jimmy Ormond, asked him “What are you doing here? You are not good enough to play for England” only to be told in return “At least I am the best player in my family,” a snide reference to Mark’s [...]


Two years on, ‘Mission Unaccomplished’


President Gotabaya Rajapaksa goes through a book titled 'Abhiyoga Meda Saubagye Devasara' (Two years of proseperity amid challenges) published by the Presidential Media Division to mark the completions of two years of President's first term

The story is told of how Australian cricketer Mark Waugh, trying to sledge an English batsman, Jimmy Ormond, asked him “What are you doing here? You are not good enough to play for England” only to be told in return “At least I am the best player in my family,” a snide reference to Mark’s older brother and Australian captain Steve Waugh.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa will probably be the first person to acknowledge that he is not the best player of the political game in his family. Nevertheless, two years ago, Sri Lankans entrusted the destiny of their nation to Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a retired Army officer, by an overwhelming majority. That was partly due to his elder brother being constitutionally deprived from contesting a third term. That he was carried to high office on the shoulders of that more charismatic and popular brother is no secret.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the Gajaba Regiment is not the first military officer to head Sri Lanka’s government. That honour remains with Sir John Kotelawela who was also a Lieutenant Colonel, albeit in the volunteer forces of the Ceylon Light Infantry. Incidentally, prior to his retirement from the Sri Lanka Army, Rajapaksa served as Commandant of the Kotelawala Defence Academy, named after the former Prime Minister.

Rather than being a drawback, being a military man was to Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s advantage when he campaigned for the Presidency in late 2019. He was marketed to the electorate as possessing several virtues: as being the former Defence Secretary who won the Eelam war (and hence the slogan ‘vadey karana apey viruwa’ or ‘our hero who got the job done’) and also being a former military officer and not a politician and therefore wanting to ‘change the system’ in which traditional politicians thrive on corruption and abuse of power. The political novice was also supposed to ‘drain the swamp’ by the Diyawanna Oya and cleanse the legislature of its more corrupt elements, if one were to borrow a slogan from former United States President Donald Trump.

Two years on, it is fair to say that Gotabaya Rajapaksa hasn’t still ‘got the job done’; nor has he ‘changed the system’ or ‘drained the swamp’. With a maximum of three more years to go in this Presidency, what should Sri Lanka’s seventh Executive President look to, if he is not to squander this opportunity that fate has bestowed upon him?

To be fair, Rajapaksa was unlucky that he was entrusted with the destinies of this country at an unprecedented time. Barely four months into his term of office, while being busy amending the Constitution to bring all powers under his Executive Presidency, the country and, indeed, the world were afflicted with the Corona virus pandemic, a scourge unheard of for more than a century. It would have tested the best of leaders and at least initially, but Rajapaksa appeared to have had matters under control. The country was in lockdown and the virus was kept away by deploying the army to take charge of the situation. The economy was hurting but people were not dying in their thousands as they did in some countries prompting Rajapaksa to claim, alas what turned out to be too prematurely and later the subject of ridicule,‘api thamai hondatama keruwey’ or ‘we did it the best’, a line that now haunts him whenever his actions are called in to scrutiny.


The handling of the pandemic does, however, provide an insight into the workings of his Presidency.  Initially though he heeded medical advice, he later put the entire Task Force for the job under the army commander. This was a different kind of war, however. Various forces began to pressurise him to open the economy, to bring vaccines from a particular country, to bring tourists from a particular country, and when things started going wrong, the wheels began to come off.

A second wave of cases and fatalities worse than the first and a third wave worse than the second began to send the ‘we did it best’ campaign into a spin. Desperation set in, manifesting itself in the ‘Dhammika peniya’ and throwing pots of ‘holy water’ into rivers. It was turning into a tragi-comedy giving the social media a field day and the high regard that the nation had in his previous avatar which he brought into his new job for the Presidency was soon evaporating. The satire descended from humour to downright rudeness serving also as an escape valve for a people under stress. The dark humour at the expense of the all-powerful Executive President has lowered his esteem in the public eye. To make matters worse, medical advice was being dispensed with until the statistics started spiking to a level that the President was forced to listen.

This template of initial adherence to the rules, complacency setting in, playing to the gallery and faulty decision making resulting in disasters that could have been either averted or at least handled better is a theme that has recurred in the Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency over the past two years and explains why he hasn’t been the leader he could have been.

Initially, if there was a belief that Gotabaya Rajapaksa was being elevated to President only because brothers Mahinda and Basil were ineligible and Chamal was not interested was put to rest very early. This was a Gotabaya Rajapaksa Presidency and he was keen to do things his way. He might have seen that he was hamstrung by a political apparatus not of his choosing — a Parliament where he had to oblige ministerial positions for political expediency. His own ‘Viyath Maga’ nominees were few and far between. Neither did they, on their part, shore up for the President as a ‘cut above the rest’. They merely merged with the rascals already in place.

The President tried a different route. He opted to largely bypass the Cabinet Ministers. He relied heavily on the army instead to deliver the goods from heading the Task Force on COVID-19.  The Health Minister who was sidelined and eventually removed to another portfolio made an acidic comment on her switch. The President was quick to appoint military officers to head key government institutions, hoping they would instil discipline and eliminate inefficiency. The public service and its affiliated government institutions do not exactly follow a chain of command — and the results haven’t been what the President hoped for. A video clip that went viral showing a powerful patriarch of the ‘rice mafia’ blasting the retired major general in charge of dismantling this mafia showed politically connected businessmen were more powerful than even the President’s handpicked men — and the President did nothing to back his man.

In doing what he did, by appointing more and more retired military officers to key positions of the civil administration he attracted the attention of foreign watchers who cried he was ‘militarising’ government. Again, social media would make a joke of it showing the President turning to the army to provide water to a village that was asking for it during his much heralded, now suspended ‘meet the villager’ walkabouts. The same successful model that won the ‘war’ with the northern terrorists did not work in civil administration; the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach was not working out.

Some recent decisions made by the President himself have called into question his judgement and his commitment to good governance. The pardoning of a former parliamentarian was perceived as being a reflection of an ‘I do what I want’ attitude.  When he found the pro-Rajapaksa Buddhist clergy speaking against him recently he resorted to damage control to stem the tide. The recent appointments bestowed on two monks who helped him and his party to office created ripples within his own Cabinet and a minister of his picking and unnerved a minority community in one case. They saw in that move the hallmarks of the President’s brand of nationalism which he probably feels will always be his vote bank.

Busy as he was appeasing the Buddhist clergy, President Rajapaksa has not been as keen to pacify the Catholic Church, especially over the inquiry into the Easter attacks, an event that played a role in at least enhancing Rajapaksa’s margin of victory at the presidential election two years ago, if not persuading many voters that he was needed yet again to secure the country against terrorism.

Easter attacks

The Church, spearheaded by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, disgusted by the security lapses that led to the Easter attacks, subtly endorsed the Rajapaksa caravan in the run up to the election, calling for a leader that could ensure the safety of the nation. As a result, even the so-called ‘Catholic belt’ in the coastal areas extending from Chilaw to Moratuwa, excluding the intervening Colombo electorates, voted to support Rajapaksa, with the exception of just two constituencies.

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka seems to have gone hell for leather now against this administration. Do they know something others do not know, or are they just shooting in the dark? The Cardinal, who was greatly helped by Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa himself during the visit of Pope Francis to Sri Lanka, putting soldiers to spruce up churches etc., has been making vituperative comments against those in office. His comments are beyond the realm of innuendo when he says that people responsible for the Easter Sunday attacks will not enjoy the fruits of office. Conspiracy theories abound and the Cardinal is fuelling it. As a result, the Church is frustrated and furious, more so when its own kind are being hauled to the Criminal Investigations Department.

In his first address to the nation as President, Rajapaksa made pointed reference to the fact that “it is possible to emerge victorious with the sole backing of the Sinhala community,” and that he knew “the majority Sinhala community would be the decisive factor”. His victory disproved what the father of the Executive Presidency in Sri Lanka, J.R. Jayewardene always believed in: that without the minority vote one cannot win a national election like the Presidency. But back in 2019 he would have received some minority Catholic votes. Whether the incumbent continues to rely on the ultra-nationalism manthra for future electoral success is hotly debated these days.

Questions have also been asked about ad-hocism on the part of the President’s policy decisions which have long lasting and widespread implications. This is most notable in the ongoing controversy over the almost overnight conversion to organic fertiliser and resultant fallout of crop failures spurring farmer protests throughout the country. Torrential rains have made a bad situation worse and it seems even nature is now stacked against the President and his Government.

As if this is not bad enough, the proposed sale of the ‘Yugadhanavi’ power plant to an American company, a rotten fertilser shipment from China and an aborted sale of the East Container Terminal to India has placed the Rajapaksa Presidency in the eye of a diplomatic, geopolitical storm. With the country’s economy in virtual shambles, a foreign currency shortage, queues upon queues for essential goods, who would envy the President’s position today? He’s ignored the advice of medical experts on COVID-19, economists on the economy, and soil scientists on the fertiliser ban. Eventually he’s been forced to roll back on decisions he has taken on lockdowns, the controversial fertiliser ban, on price controls and the like, betraying poor decision-making at the highest levels.

Perhaps, this is what elder brother Mahinda Rajapaksa can see from the sidelines. He called for his ruling party members to read the writing on the wall. He asked, pertinently, why the youth who painted street murals when they came to office are now queueing up to leave the country.

Second term

President Rajapaksa has already thrown his hat into the ring for a second term starting in end 2024. So, how will he play his cards? How will he pull back the mass support he is losing by the day? How much can he rely on the military to pull the chestnuts out of the fire? Is one-fifth (20%) of the 2022 Budget earmarked for Defence and Public Security in a no-war situation any indication where this reliance lies?

The Opposition had a dry run just this week to test its mass mobilisation capabilities with a protest at Galle Face and pocket demonstrations in towns where the Police were called in to stop protestors proceeding to Colombo. Though not of any cause for immediate worry for the Government, the main Opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya could be reasonably happy with what it did. If those in the Opposition believe that the rising discontent in the country is an assured electoral victory for them in the not-too-distant future, they better think again. That, still, is wishful thinking. The Rajapaksas, ageing no doubt, are no pushovers when it comes to politicking.

Three more years is almost an era in Sri Lankan politics and it does provide the Opposition with the luxury of ample time to regroup and rejuvenate, knowing that the burden of incumbency, already heavy at two years, will be manifestly more on the SLPP-led coalition in 2024. Even a new Constitution is unlikely to provide any security and permanency to the SLPP — unless it emulates China’s Communist Party and has a ‘President For Life’ provision inserted.

Being a military man by training, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa must choose his battles and his words carefully but at times, the solider in him shoots from the lip with a candour that is refreshingly honest for a politician.  Just recently, a visibly piqued President asked his audience, “If you are so unhappy with someone’s performance, why do you keep electing the same people five years later?”.  The President wouldn’t want voters asking the same question in 2024.

Although President Gotabaya Rajapaksa followed Sir John Kotelawela in becoming the second military officer to head Sri Lanka’s government, he wouldn’t want to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor thereafter: Being ousted from office after a single term,  Kotelawela left the country and spent many years at his ‘home away from home’ in Kent, England and never returned to active politics. Rajapaksa, we are sure, would want to remain in Mirihana or Medamulana rather than return to Los Angeles, USA, his own ‘home away from home’.

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