Gotabhaya Rajapaksa: A Perspective from a Friend in the US

gotabhaya rajapakshaDr. Stephen Long, Los Angeles, California
(Courtesy of The Island)

After spending most of my adult life in Hawaii and then Southeast Asia, I returned to the US and settled in Los Angeles in 1998. About two weeks after my move a couple with whom I am very close invited me to an evening event at their amazing new art gallery on La Brea Avenue in Hollywood. The gallery specialized in museum-quality Asian and Buddhist art, and I wound up spending a lot of time there over the next few years.

Two or three weeks before my arrival in Los Angeles, my gallery-owner friends had met Ven. Walpola Piyananda. He was driving down La Brea and was startled to see a large seated Buddha statue in the display window facing the street. He told his driver to park the car and then he walked back for a closer look. My friend Cari, the co-owner, saw the orange-robed monk peering in her window and became very excited; she immediately stepped outside to invite him in. She guided him through their collection of Buddhist art and then asked him if he would come to an upcoming event and bless their gallery, friends, and customers. He agreed, of course, and his appearance that evening was the first of many over the years to come.

During the event I spent most of my time with Bhante Piyananda and the other monks he brought with him to participate in the blessing ceremony. As a Western Buddhist I had missed the company of monks since my move to the States, and it gave me great pleasure to be by their side and to get to know them; during the event I practically ignored everyone else just so I could spend more time with Cari’s special guests. At the end of the blessing ceremony, after the monks had tied pirith nool around the wrists of all hundred or so grateful guests, I escorted the monks to their car. While walking to his vehicle Bhante invited me to attend meditation at their temple that Friday night. I accepted and wound up spending the next twenty-plus years not only in Friday meditation, but in close association in many other ways with Dharma Vijaya Buddhist Vihara and their resident hamudurawos. This relationship turned out to be one of the most important in my life. After a while I was blessed by being asked to teach Sunday School for the temple teenagers, which turned into being my favorite weekly activity for the past twelve years, and counting.

I was also blessed by being able to get to know many members of the Sri Lankan expatriate community in Los Angeles – and by being able to get to know the beautiful country of Sri Lanka itself. Over the years I have visited Sri Lanka several times for extended periods, and I have forged many wonderful friendships with people there – as well as with Sri Lankan expats in the US. Over time I developed a very keen interest in Sri Lanka, which I consider to be one of my “adopted countries.” I have studied it (and its culture and politics) robustly. I have come to care deeply about Sri Lanka and its people, and have developed strong, protective feelings about that magical island and its well-being.

One of the expats I have had the pleasure to get to know is Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. He moved to the Los Angeles area a few years before I did, in 1991, after he retired from twenty years of service in the Sri Lankan military. I know there has been some talk about Gotabhaya “running away” from his home country, but from the way it was explained to me, nothing could have been farther from the truth. As I understand it, when Gotabhaya left Sri Lanka the Premadasa government was undergoing a “purge” of the military, and 600 Sri Lankan government policemen were killed when they were ordered to surrender to the LTTE and refused. It seems that if Gotabhaya hadn’t left when he did, his name might have been added to the list of names of slaughtered officers, many of whom he knew personally. Disillusioned as he undoubtedly was with the political climate at home, Gotabhaya never intended to stay away from Sri Lanka forever; he always knew that he would return to his birth country and serve the people when the time was right – way before his brother Mahinda was elected to the Executive Presidency.

When I met him he was working as a computer engineer in the IT department of Loyola Marymount University. He excelled in his work, and in the course of his tenure there he developed a broad and diversified cosmopolitan worldview. He had colleagues and friends that hailed from all backgrounds, races, and religions; Loyola University itself is a Jesuit and Marymount Roman Catholic institution that is named for Ignatius Loyola, a 17th Century Catholic saint. He became an unofficial ambassador for Sri Lanka, and his associates learned about his homeland from one who personified many of its best qualities.

When he lived in Southern California, Gotabhaya stayed in close contact with his Sri Lankan Buddhist roots, and he was a frequent visitor to Bhante Piyananda’s Dharma Vijaya temple on Crenshaw Boulevard. He was not only a visitor, he also served for a time on the temple’s Board of Directors. He actively participated in many of the temple’s activities: religious, community-based, cultural, and humanitarian.

In 1995 Gotabhaya gave Bhante Piyananda the idea to set up a scholarship program for medical students in Sri Lanka. He knew that there was a shortage of doctors back home, and that many of the medical students were in dire financial straits. Since its inception, over 100 medical students have benefited from this fund, and each one was and is given 5,000 rupees per month, which goes a long way even in these times to defray necessary expenses. I myself met a few of these students on a visit to Sri Lanka, and I am still close friends with one of them, Dr. Wikum Chathuranga, who is now married and practicing in his hometown of Ambalangoda. Wikum has told me many times how grateful he is to Bhante Piyananda and the scholarship fund for having helped him survive his impoverished years at Colombo University.

Gotabhaya also introduced the idea of providing academic scholarships to monks in Sri Lanka who sought to earn college degrees. Bhante Piyananda liked the idea and immediately went to the Southern California Vietnamese Buddhist community for help. This vibrant community’s generosity has funded 76 well-deserving monks so far – including my good friend Ven. Kalabululande Dhammajothi, an extremely hard-working monk at Dharma Vijaya who is currently working on his Master’s Degree at University of the West in East LA.

Recognizing the need for eye care in Sri Lanka – particularly for senior citizens – Bhante Piyananda established Vision Vijaya, a program that sends thousands of pairs of eye glasses to Sri Lanka every year. Bhante Piyananda enlisted the help of the local Lion’s Club chapter, and over time a great deal of money has been raised and free eyeglasses have been donated. I will never forget being at Sri Mahaviharaya in Pamankada one day when seniors were lined up in long queues throughout the temple to see the eye doctor and get free prescription glasses. Gotabhaya actively participated in this program while he was in Los Angeles – along with his wife Ayomi – and he was instrumental in raising a considerable amount of funds for the thrice-yearly drive that supported it.

Gotabhaya was also involved in the temple’s monthly “feed the homeless” project, and he personally went to skid row to offer food and interact with the homeless people in Downtown LA. It was there that he learned first-hand that many of the homeless were military veterans, and being a veteran himself, their plight touched his heart. This was where he came into contact with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, a psychological disorder that affects many returning war veterans in the US. He realized that PTSD was undoubtedly impacting the lives of many of the soldiers who were relentlessly fighting the merciless LTTE back home. He resolved that one day he would do something about Sri Lankan veterans with mental illness and PTSD – and he did.

When the tsunami struck Sri Lanka in 2004, Gotabhaya encouraged all of the monks in the US to collect funds to help the victims

. He personally collected US$25,000 from his colleagues at Loyola Marymount University, and he donated this money to Ven. Piyananda who was spearheading relief efforts. With the help of the money Gotabhaya raised, and funds our friends at the Hollywood Artists Alliance raised, Bhante Piyananda hauled in $250,000 and was able to build 37 new homes in the devastated Ambalangoda Galaboda Watta area. He took me to see these homes when they were completed, and I felt so proud of him, of Gotabhaya, and of all of those who supported the “Motherland” during its time of tragedy and great need.

In 2005 Gotabhaya returned to Sri Lanka to help with his brother’s presidential election campaign. When Mahinda won, he appointed Gotabhaya Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, and he tasked him with winning the war against the LTTE terrorists. Thanks to his “direct line” of communication with his brother the President, he was able to complete his task in only three years, something no one had been able to accomplish in nearly thirty years. His previous military and administrative experience had provided him with the discipline and organizational skills required to get the job done.

Because of my intense interest in Sri Lankan affairs, I kept up with the war and political news and started writing articles in support of the Government – and against the LTTE, which was well-funded by members of the Tamil Diaspora in Canada, the US, and other parts of the world. As an unpaid volunteer writer, at least 60 articles with my by-line were published in the Sri Lankan newspapers, in the Asian Tribune e-zine, and in other publications. My articles routinely attacked the well-connected lobbyist for the diaspora, Washington DC former Deputy Attorney General, Bruce Fein, and his group called “Tamils Against Genocide.” As a result, I was attacked back, and for a time it seemed that I was actually on the LTTE “hit list.” During this critical time, it seems that I was one of the only voices that championed the Rajapaksa Brothers and their war efforts in the international media.

When Ven. Piyananda and I visited Sri Lanka in 2006, not long after the presidential election, he and I both observed that the Government was getting massacred in the international press. Since “all wars are now fought in the media,” we saw the dangers facing Sri Lanka in the court of public opinion. We spent a few days writing a memo to President Rajapaksa about this subject, and we outlined various ways they could fight back in this critical aspect of warfare.

We went to see Gotabhaya and shared the memo with him; he completely agreed with our opinions, but was understandably too busy to get involved in this important task. He asked me to find someone who could effectively help tell the Government’s side of the story. I reached out to a friend in the media in New York City and asked for assistance, and within a few days I had three resumes’ from highly-qualified “spin doctors.” Since Gotabhaya was extremely busy running the war efforts, we presented the résumés to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We were told that, unfortunately, the money for an expense like that “wasn’t in the Government’s budget.”

This was the start of another great tragedy for Sri Lanka because the international media – with the help of Bruce Fein (reportedly paid $100,000 per month) and unlimited funds from the Tamil Diaspora – continued to viciously attack and ultimately defeat Sri Lanka on this important battlefront. The ripple effect in the West for this decision (e.g. the UNHRC in Geneva) continues to haunt the Sri Lankan Government to this day. After all, there was only so much I could do as the lone “journalist” who wrote and got his articles published on a very limited scale. I am quite sure that this situation will be addressed proactively in the next administration.

The reason I am mentioning this media aspect of the terrorist war is because I want the reader to understand the tremendous bias that was generated against Gotabhaya by the Tamil diaspora’s lobbying/disinformation campaign. It became a veritable “rumor mill,” with Bruce Fein and others spewing falsehoods about Gotabhaya and his execution of the war. Stories about atrocities committed by Government soldiers, Tamil genocide, racial revenge, and others were fabricated out of whole cloth by the terrorist campaign to discredit him and turn him into a monster. Not only do they not fit the profile of the man I know personally, none of these spurious allegations are true. Since I was in Sri Lanka at the very end of the war, I witnessed the compassion with which Gotabhaya and the armed forces conducted themselves during the final days. As always, please “consider the source” when evaluating the news that was reported in the international media about that first week of May, 2009.

When the war was almost over, in the fall of 2008, I wrote an article entitled, “Preparing for the Next Crisis: When the Troops Come Home.” In this article I warned of the dangers of winning the war and facing the prospect of thousands of soldiers trained in weaponry returning home with nothing to do and without any way to earn an income. Apparently this article got the attention of Gotabhaya because when the war ended in May of 2009 he created a program that kept the soldiers on the Government payroll. These soldiers became actively employed on various public works projects that included the rebuilding or restoration of approximately 1,000 places of worship on the island. He also made sure his soldiers received proper mental health care, and were properly treated for symptoms of PTSD.

Speaking of “public works projects,” Gotabhaya’s exposure to the beautiful communities of Southern California, such as Santa Monica, Pasadena, Pacific Palisades, Beverly Hills, and others, gave him many ideas for beautifying Colombo. When I visited the country after the war I couldn’t believe the difference in the city landscape. I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was clean, orderly, presentable, and ready to take its place in the “new Asia” that had emerged while Sri Lanka was left behind fighting its bloody civil war for 30 years. I was impressed by what Gotabhaya had accomplished, and disappointed when I visited the next time, which was well into the new administration. Suddenly it was if the city had relapsed into some terminal illness with no doctors at hand. It was dirty, foul, and the improvements that Gotabhaya had made had fallen into complete disarray. I am sure that when Gotabhaya wins the upcoming election he will put the same emphasis on beautification and return the city – improve the city – to meet 21st Century urban world standards.

Speaking of the “upcoming election,” and as someone from the “outside” who has been paying close attention to Sri Lanka for more than two decades, I give my whole support to Gotabhaya winning it; I truly believe that he is the most qualified individual to become the next president of my “adopted country” home. I hope the country’s voters will remember his many accomplishments – not just ending the terrorist war – and trust their vote to him. I know that many in the country think he persecuted the Tamils, has racial bias, has too heavy a hand, and lacks the diplomatic skills to navigate the troubled international waters. I heartily disagree with all of these opinions, and can say, from first-hand knowledge, that Gotabhaya will rise to the occasion and be an excellent president – for all the people of the land. He has the discipline; he has the managerial experience; he has the compassion; he’s the only one who can bring the fragmented elements of the country together; and he has a very clear vision for the future. The next time I visit Sri Lanka I look forward to personally congratulating Gotabhaya on his victory.

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