Twenty Twenty presidential hopeful, birthday boy Gotabaya Rajapaksa may have felt somewhat uncomfortable when a monk, no less a personage than the Anunayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter the Venerable Vendaruwe Upali, whom he had invited along with a retinue of other senior monks to his residence for an alms-giving ceremony to celebrate his 69th birthday on the 21st of June, unwittingly stamped his forehead with Hitler’s anti clockwise Swastika and bade him take over power with the aid of the military.
It was a birthday blessing Gotabaya Rajapakse could well have done without. For when the venerable monk, perhaps, with the best of intentions, said in his sermon televised nationwide that night that: “You are known as a Hitler and you should use the military and take power,” Gotabaya would have immediately surmised the immense damage that would be caused to his bid or Lanka’s top job.
As he said on Tuesday to the gathered media, after emerging from the FCID office where he had been questioned for two hours over the alleged misuse of public finance to erect a memorial to his late father, that he understood the full import of the monk’s blessings, and that only lesser mortals who did not possess ‘pragna’ or true understating would have failed to grasp it meanings, he would have realised that the ‘Hitler’ slur cast even with good faith would indeed have long-term consequences which would serve to darken the promise of his bloom even before the flower’s dawn.
He already faced two hurdles before he could step foot in the river Rubicon. The first concerned his dual citizenship which he had to renounce before being able to contest the Presidency of Lanka as the 19th Amendment to the Lankan Constitution dictated. Even though willin’ to do so, the hitch was whether the United States Government would allow him to do so. As stated in the Sunday Punch two weeks ago, renunciation was no unilateral matter but a two-way street. Unless Uncle Sam wished to dance the tango with him and agreed to free him from US bondage to pursue his quest to win the Lankan presidency without the legal encumbrance that prevents him now, it remained in the American Government’s hands to delay the procedure beyond 2020 and thus buckle his presidential bid.
The second hurdle was that the Pohottuwa has still not chosen him as the presidential candidate for the twenty twenty presidential election. The blessings lay in his elder brother former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s hands. And he had still not made his choice.
Three Sunday’s ago, the outgoing US Ambassador had made a courtesy call at the residence of the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa to bid him farewell. Thereat he is alleged to have stated that neither the United States Government nor the European nations would welcome the prospect of Gotabaya contesting the forthcoming presidential hustings. Unlike the western European nations which could only express their opinion against Gotabaya’s candidacy, the US Government had a stranglehold on the matter. They had the power to delay Gotabaya’s renunciation of US dual citizenship for well over three years or even more. And that would prevent Gotabaya from contesting the elections this time around.
Added to this was Mahinda Rajapaksa’s comment in this Thursday’s Daily Mirror where asked on the prospect of Gotabaya being chosen, he stated: “I will not decide it on my own. When I travel across the length and breadth of this country, I gauge public opinion. I travel in the country more than any other leader does. I am getting public opinion as a result. I will take it into account. Also, the JO is there. We will meet at the right time and decide on someone, the best-suited to stand up to the government’s candidature. They say he is a suitable candidate. Not that, he is the chosen candidate.”
And when asked ‘How do you see the US administration under President Donald Trump?
he replied: “whoever comes to US presidential office, there is no major change in the US policies. Their foreign policy is, more or less, the same. “
Thus the first hurdle has an international dimension. The second is more domestic. That is the dilemma that’s facing the Pohottuwa Party Gotabaya intends to contest from. And it is this.
On Monday, speaking to the media, Gotabaya Rajapaksa said that he had not been invited by the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa to contest the election. But if he was nominated to contest the next presidential election, he would renounce his US citizenship and he would be able to do so within two months.
Therein lies the rub.
For all his confidence that he would be able to renounces US dual citizenship within two months and be eligible to contest the hustings, can the Pohottuwa afford to believe in his optimism and nominate him as their chosen candidate? What if the US Government does not agree to his renunciation on the basis that the procedure of renunciation must run its course and delay its grant. Wouldn’t that be a major loss of face for the Pohottuwa leadership that they had fielded a non-starter and thus shouldn’t that give them pause whether they would end up with egg on their mugs?
It’s a double dilemma for both parties. For the Pohottuwa to have their noses rubbed in the dust by holding him out as their candidate only to find he had failed to divest himself of his US citizenship as demanded by the constitution and upheld by the Lankan Supreme Court after the five bench unanimous judgment they delivered in Geetha’s dual citizenship case which stripped her of her parliamentary seat?
The same dilemma must haunt Gotabaya. What if he announces his intention to renounces his US citizenship now and the US Government grants his wish but the Pohottuwa party nominates someone else in his stead? He would have lost his US citizenship and face the prospect of being banned from ever setting foot on US soil even on a tourist visa for Uncle Sam does not take kindly to being slapped on his face by one renouncing prized citizenship others would give their right arms to obtain. For as the Immigration and Nationality Act of the USA states, “former U.S. citizens would be required to obtain a visa to travel to the United States or show that they are eligible for admission pursuant to the terms of the Visa Waiver Program. If unable to qualify for a visa, the person could be permanently barred from entering the United States; and that once renunciation of citizenship has duly taken place it is irrevocable.”
If these two obstacles appear formidable hurdles enough for Gotabaya to jump, the Anunayaka Thera’s call to him to be a Hitler like figure and capture power with the aid of the military may well prove to be — even if he becomes eligible to contest the presidential poll — a major blow to his chances for winning it. And even before the monk could finish his benediction, the astute Gotabaya may have well realised it would have been like manna from Thusitha heaven for his political enemies. And it was.
The condemnation was swift and ferocious. The following day itself, President Sirisena led the charge from the front.
Speaking at a ceremony in Nikawaretiya, the President said: “In January 2015, people did not vote for food or jobs. They voted for freedom and democracy. I have restored both and will not allow this country to slip back to a dictatorship,” and said he was saddened by the call of the Anunayaka Upali of the Asgiriya chapter who sought a return to an era when citizens were deprived of their basic human rights and any dissent was ruthlessly crushed.
“We have restored the freedoms of the people, the media freedom. In fact, these freedoms are being abused and we are attacked without any fear of reprisals, unlike in the past,” the President said. “Even though some attempted to interpret the present regime as a lenient administration, all of them must understand it is a journey with freedom and democracy.”
He added that although some attacked the Government using the given freedom and democracy in the country in a wrongful manner, he will further strengthen the required correct political and development path for the country joining hands with all those who value the democracy including the scholars and intellectuals.
On Saturday, the Prime Minister, along with other politicians and civil rights groups joined the chorus of condemnation.
At the 125th anniversary celebration of the Maha Manthinda Pirivena in Matara, in reference to the sermon made by the Anunayaka of the Asgiriya Chapter, Ranil Wickremesinghe said that “advocating barbaric Hitlerite methods to govern a country, was in direct violation of the teachings of the Buddha.”
“If such a statement had been made in my presence,” he declared, “I would have objected to it immediately. All right thinking people should condemn the attempt by bankrupt politicians and their supporters to establish a military dictatorship, he noted adding that Buddhism had contributed to Sri Lanka remaining a democracy.”
It is this third hurdle that sprung out of the blues that may prove to be the final insurmountable barrier for Gotabaya to win the presidency. Even if he is able to coax the US government to expedite the process of renunciation, even if the Pohottuwa names him as the chosen candidate, the final decider of presidential triumph will lie in the hands of the Lankan public made up of all communities.
That’s the asses’ bridge, the pons asinorum, he must cross.
Immensely popular as he seems to be with the Sinhala electorate which comprises seventy percent of the populace, the Anunayaka Thera’s description of him as a person viewed by the people as a Hitler figure and his call to him to use the military and come to power soonest would not, perhaps, unduly have perturbed him. It may have even earned him some star points in the eyes of the majority race, especially amongst the die-hards. The only drawback would be that the opposing UNP would present the choice before the people as being one between democracy and dictatorship. And hammer the message again and again when the election campaign begins in earnest. And the daggers are out.
But would it have ruffled his feathers and denied him flight when it came to soaring high amongst the two main minorities of the land, the Muslims and Tamils?
During the month of Ramadan he had attended many Iftar dinners the Muslims hosted him. He had done so to cultivate their friendship and gain their confidence and to show over biriyani and roast chicken he was not the big bad wolf his opponents had made him out to be. But would this Hitler slur have negated his good intentions, reduced to naught and rendered vain his endeavour to extend the hand of friendship and assure them that, In-shā Allāh, God willing, all will be well under his presidency and they have naught to fear.
But the monk’s exhortation last week has given rise to old ghosts; and they wonder whether bigotry is on the rise again? Backed with the blessings of the powerful Buddhist clergy? And whether in a new surge of Sinhala dominance, the Bodu Bala Sena will be unleashed again against them. So it is with the Tamils. They are concerned whether the drums of Sinhala chauvinisms are presently being re-skinned to beat the jingoism that had fallen silent these last three years under the Yahapalana Government of Sirisena and Wickremesinghe.
And for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the distant drums do not thump good news. He knows that the Sinhala majority’s vote alone will not enable him to pip the presidential post without the Tamil and Muslim spurs; and the same defeat that visited his brother in 2015, the war winning former president Mahinda Rajapaksa awaits to visit him too if he fails to muster the minority vote.
And that the propaganda outburst presently ignited by the monk’s seeming flattering remark to him as a Hitlerite the country is in desperate need of will intensify a thousand times fold and become his Achilles’ Heel during the forthcoming presidential campaign, provided of course the USA allows him to renounce his citizenship before nomination day and provided the Pohottuwa party make him their chosen steed to run in the twenty twenty presidential stakes.
But how mysteriously has providence struck through the words of a monk to erect the final barrier. After all Gotabaya did not claim the Hitler mantle, he did not seek the Nazi Swastika to be stapled on his shirt sleeve, he did not state he will use the military and usurp power from a democratically elected government. He had it thrust upon.
And it happened when his hands were raised in worship whilst listening to a monk’s sermon at his 69th birthday dane who, with the best of intentions but unmindful of the consequences, damned him with praise.
Ten years ago to win the 30-year terrorist war, no doubt, Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the right man at the right time. How ironic that to win his own presidential bid, he may find he is the wrong man at the wrong time.
And as far as the monk’s claim that his advice televised nationwide was distorted by the local, international and social media, even though his comments were aired word for word, to paraphrase a verse from Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat:
The moving finger writes and having writ moves on
The resounding voice is heard and the words having resounded linger on
And not all thy piety nor all thy wit or tears of remorse
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line
Or make inaudible the words and silence its echoes