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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2896

Gota, the Change Agent We need– Here is why

By Sanjaya Mohotti Arachchige (former editor of defence.lk)
Colombo, 28 October, (Asiantribune.com):

Are you one of those odd types in society who dream of being part of a mission-driven organization? What I am referring to is a kind of organization where the skilled are valued than henchmen, and bullshitters cannot rule the day? If you are not one, then don't waste your time reading further, but if you are, you are going to enjoy this.

Probably the first thing you might want to know is that you are not alone. There are many like you in the silent majority, doing the right thing even under a skewed system, with untiring tolerance. I once had a singular opportunity to be part of such an organization. I was also fortunate enough to witness that organization achieving its cardinal mission.

There, I saw an unprecedented shift in leadership style in the top management that changed everything about that organization. A traditionally slow, mediocre government ministry that had failed horribly in its role for a very long time, swiftly became the most accomplished one in the entire nation within three years!

I was just a small cogwheel of large machinery, but I observed passively everything that transpired in it. I realized that the catalyst of change was none other than the leadership itself. That change agent turned the tables for the organization and the entire nation.

The genesis

It was just after the 2005 presidential election that I first heard the name Gotabaya Rajapaksa. I was a staff officer at Joint Operational Headquarters, Colombo, at the time. I had heard senior officers mentioning him as a "good Genta," a term in military jargon, referring to an "officer and a gentleman." We knew that he was soon to be the secretary of the ministry of defense. However, it was not news of any importance to us, we were getting another "boring secretary," that was it. But things did not turn out that way.

Newly elected president Mahinda Rajapaksa was planning for his first overseas trip, an official visit to India. The final policy document on national security that he was going to present to the Indian government was prepared at the Joint Operational Headquarters. It was a "for your eyes only" document. Since I happened to be the one who handed it over to the Chief of Defense Staff, after making the last minute changes, I knew the content. As the facts are no longer secrets, I take the liberty to divulge the most salient point in it, though it is not directly relevant to this anecdote of mine.

The document clearly stated the Sri Lankan government's stance towards the LTTE. It said that the government would resort to military action if the LTTE continued to violate the ceasefire. It was a bold policy decision taken by the head of the state himself. He was visiting India to win the Indian government support for his policy. I am confident he was successful, and the rest is known to you.

I sidetracked to mention this additional fact because there is a politically motivated rigmarole about who should get more credit for the war victory. The policy decision was clearly taken by the president himself as the head of the national security council. If I am not wrong, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka was not even appointed as the commander of the army at the time of this visit.

Following this visit, things started to change rapidly. A vision turned to a policy, and the policy was enacted with bold action with no reservation.

A Paradigm Shift

In early 2006, I received a phone call from a senior official of the Ministry of Defense requiring me to sit for a written examination. I was not even aware of the purpose of it other than it was a test on language proficiency and current affairs. A group of young officers from the army, navy, and air force sat for the exam.

Within a few days, I was informed that I was selected to lead a special operation. I am not at liberty to divulge every detail of this operation that came under a broader domain of information warfare. The aim of the operation was surprisingly simple, to garner local and international support for the successful enactment of the government's defense policy. This included psychological operations, counter-intelligence operations, propaganda, research, and more. How these operations were carried out, I cannot tell, but if you were a grownup at that time, you saw its results.

This was the first-ever information warfare operation planned at the grand strategic level in Sri Lanka. Please note that this was months before "Mavil Aru," it was an epitome of a foresighted vision prudently put into action. It was a paradigm shift, something I was sure the none of our veteran Generals, Admirals, or Marshals would be capable of conceiving. Soon I met its designer, a soft-spoken gentleman (really, he was far from that "scary monster" image that NGO-types want to paint in your mind), who was crystal clear on his objectives.

One of the leading products of this operation was the website www.defence.lk, a website that soon displaced LTTE propaganda mouthpiece TamilNet. As the operation unfolded, many things changed, so-called "broiler chickens" became "war heroes", virtually unknown senior military officials became household names, those NGO hypocrites got the name they deserve "dollar – kaakkas," and the "international community," though never sang hosannas for us, at least refrained from hampering too much. In fact, contrary to popular belief, India and the United States provided valuable assistance to the Sri Lankan Government in defeating terrorism.

Personally, this was a moment of truth for me. I was given a vision that I could share wholeheartedly, a brilliant team selected entirely on competency, and the freedom to be innovative. We had formidable challenges with resources and red tape, but those were nothing to us since we had the proper motivation and a clear mission. If you one of those odd types I mentioned at the outset, you know what I mean. No hurdle is too high if you are passionate about what you are doing.

If I managed to keep your attention this far in this article, I am sure you know what I am trying to get at. My firsthand experience with Gotabaya Rajapaksa convinced me that he respects skill than anything else in people. This demeanor was soon rationalized, the man was entirely mission-focused, and entertained nothing that can deviate him from achieving that. It was a trait uncommon to typical Sri Lankan organizational culture of nurturing "personal favorites." He realized that defeating terrorism needs perseverance in military efforts, and that needed a new holistic and coordinated approach, a paradigm shift. That was precisely what he did.

The Change Agent

From day one, we were required to continuously monitor the situation in the country and use that information for our work. It was a 24/7 operation. When we first started, we had only three officers and three non-commissioned personnel for the team. We were given two old computers, and 10 x 6 feet small space, partitioned from the canteen.

We were trained military personnel not used to a government ministry culture. In fact, it surprised us at first. By 4:30 PM, the place was deserted, we were locked in till the next morning. As the sun goes down, there came the cockroaches in millions swarming down from dirty ceilings. Then came the rats, throngs of them, running the canteen for the night. The smell of the toilets would make you feel faint. It was such a badly degenerated place in the early days of the year 2006.

Most of the civilian ministry employees were the perfect embodiment of lethargy and unfriendliness. There was one peon who used to tell me, "Lieutenant, you better know that even brigadiers salute me here because their important letters go through to me." Then there was an additional secretary, the most senior one, to be precise, who was utterly confused about her role. The good lady freaked out when I first used the word "terrorist" against the LTTE in my articles. She summoned me the next morning to reprimand me. I still remember her words, "You guys are anyway recruited to die, but we are not, I don't want to be shot in the streets because your stupid work," (this was the time when LTTE pistol group was very active in Colombo). I soon realized why we lost the war for thirty years; for our ministry of defense, the enemy was the people in uniforms, not the LTTE.

This was the state of affairs in the organization when I first joined there. But things started to change quickly. Some people changed, some had to leave and soon replaced with competent people. I would say Gotabaya Rajapaksa began his Colombo development with the Ministry of Defense. He got the place cleaned and gave it an excellent facelift. His premise was simple enough, "it was not a proper place to invite foreign dignitaries to talk about defense affairs." Afterward, we saw ambassadors, foreign defense officials, representatives of international organizations coming almost daily to the ministry. The facelift changed the attitudes of its members too. The ministry was dressed for success, and that was precisely what followed.

The change I witness was not easily achieved. There was inertia, there was definite resistance. However, I never saw Mr. Rajapaksa shouting in filth, or venting out his frustration on the weak. He was not a crowd-pulling public speaker either. But when he talked to someone, he was unequivocal and forceful. He made sure that everyone shared the vision of the organization and understood the big picture. He articulated the mission very clearly and bought-in people to play their role to achieve the greater mission.

Central to his leadership style was empowerment. He was not a micromanager. When things moved forward as desired, he never interfered, but when they did not, we saw people being replaced. Even I was replaced. When the operations grew beyond my capacity to administer, there came another officer, a true gentleman, with sufficient seniority to deal with the challenges we had. Even that selection was intelligently made, for we got exactly what we lacked, and the operation thrived.

Notably, every project under Gotabaya Rajakapsa was objectively monitored, there was no room for tale carriers to create opinions. He understood the difference between objective intelligence and subjective tattletales very well. As a true change agent, he made the change, normal.

The Questions

With my short anecdote, I tried to create a vivid picture of my experience in your mind to stir your imagination. I know you cannot be new to bland organizational cultures described above. Also, I am sure you have heard all those management buzzwords that I used – "vision, mission, empowerment, holistic," etc. many times before. Writing a treatise on management theories was not my intention. But do you see the connection? The connection it has to the sorry situation we are in as a nation, and where we really want to be. My effort is to draw your attention to the opportunity we have, to fill that gap – as some people suggest, the last chance we got. Let us look at the facts.

Isn't the political culture in our country is as toxic as what I saw in the ministry? We have politicians take people's mandate for granted. They laugh at people's sorrow. Extremists, separatists, and all other enemies of the people are so dear to them. They lie, deceive, engage in all sorts of debaucheries and yet pompously ridicule our intelligence. For instance, think about how our politicians change their party loyalties, how they sell their poisonous tongues with no shame. I say our democracy has been hijacked by a group of corrupted politicians. People are not only held hostage by them but also continuously abused.

On the other hand, leaders are nothing but a specimen of a broader community they represent. Whether we like it or not, we, too, are part of the same corrupted culture. Just like the most notorious criminal becomes the leader of a crime syndicate, our political leaders can be considered the best of each group they represent. There is a saying on leadership that goes, "you are only good as your team," perhaps in our scenario, we can say "they are only bad as us whom they lead." No offense intended.

But we all desire change, am I right? We wanted it in 2015, too, and now we want it very badly. In 2015, it did not work well for us. In my opinion, we failed because we were confused about the kind of change we wanted. We elected a group of leaders- an apathetic oligarchy based on future expectations ignoring their past performance. Our emotions blinded us to the past performance of Ranil and the quisling cabal. I am not blaming anyone, for I too know that Mahinda Rajapaksa became a painful eyesore, thanks to all the bad people around him during the latter years of his presidency. He was blind to his mistakes as we were to ours. The change we desire needs a proven change agent, a paradigm-shifter, and obviously not another brick in the wall.

Not Another Brick in the Wall

Many a time, I have heard bigwigs of Gotabaya Rajapaksa's political party say that he was offered the candidature because Mahinda Rajapaksa cannot contest under 19th amendment. That may be true for them, but if that were the case, I would not bother to write something like this. Unquestionably, I respect Mahinda Rajapaksa as the greatest president we ever had, but he is also another brick in the wall, but Gotabaya is not.

When that man says that his government will place the trust in young blood, he really means it. I was only 29 when I was selected for the aforesaid task, and the others were much younger than me. I had no connection whatsoever to him or any other influential VIP. I was not from his alma mater, and not from his hometown. The team was selected purely on the skills objectively tested.

When he says that he values human capital than anything else and believes in a knowledge worker, he is not wasting his words. He asked us to study the Joint Doctrine of Psychological Operation of the United States thoroughly and ordered us to research on the concept of "embedded media. It was based on those findings that you saw civilian media teams moving with the forces afterward. There was abundant freedom allowed to be innovative and learn. This trait was not limited to our small team, it was visible in all other projects he managed.

Even when it comes to the welfare of the people, one should not consider his words as empty political promises. He started massive housing projects for war heroes, established excellent schools for their children, built first-class rehabilitation and caring facilities for the wounded ones, and the list goes on and on. One specialty he consistently displayed was his ability to recognize the most critical and pressing needs of people, and accordingly, he prioritized the projects.

(Sadly, our islandish minds were so gullible to propaganda ploys such as "war-heroes cleaning streets after the war," we failed to notice that the perpetrators of such canards were the same "dollar kaakkas" working against our nation. Supporting civilian projects is one significant peacetime role for the military in any country.)

When Gotabaya Rajapaksa reiterates the importance of technology, he knows what he is talking about. After all, he was a system analyst by profession. He promoted the use of new technology and research and development in the security forces. I see no other political leader in the presidential race, genuinely passionate about technology than him.

Finally, who else among our politicians can wholeheartedly say, "I love my country, I am proud of my country" other than Gotabaya Rajapaksa? Let us look at the facts with no politically colored glasses.

• He was an infantry officer who served a full 20 years of active service during the height of the war, risking his life for the country. He was a decorated officer with many gallantry awards, and left the army with an unblemished career. (Compare the fact with a deserter who had engaged in politics while in active service against military law, and now made an NGO-sponsored presidential candidate.)

• He returned to the country during an epoch of turmoil to take over a national mission. It is one thing to come back to the country when your brother has become the president, to enjoy VVIP treatment at public expense; but it is another thing to take over a mission that put you on the top of the hit list of the world's most ruthless terrorist organization at the time. He survived an assassination attempt. On the other hand, he did not risk his life to gain anything personal, but for a mission benefiting the entire nation. I do not doubt him when he says, "I have succeeded in every duty entrusted on me," because I saw him doing that.

• We have politicians like Ranil Wickremasinghe, who have been rewarded with VVIP lives at public expense for over 40 years. What contribution have they ever made to this country? Or have they made any sacrifices for this land? Gotabaya Rajapaksa, on the contrary, left a comfortable life and a stable career in a developed country to take over a perilous mission. On achieving that mission, he was rewarded with a heap of politically motivated lawsuits, and incessant harassments. He did not flee the country. He was made a political leader by the people (not by politicians or some supernatural god living in an Indian kovil). To take up that challenge, he sacrificed his hard-earned United States citizenship. Forget about the politicians for a moment, how many of us can take such a risk?

I hope you would not ask lame questions like "why did he migrate then?" or "why does he go to Singapore for medical treatment?". This article is not intended for that kind of hypocritic audience. A national leader must have a genuine passion for the nation they lead, and Gotabaya Rajapaksa has shown enough evidence that he has this passion, probably than many of us. This is why I do not consider him to be another brick in the wall.

If you've read this far, you probably think of me as a sycophant who has nothing but praise to offer. To be frank, during the time I worked under him, I have detected only one weakness that is worth mentioning in this context. That was his unbending propensity to defend and standby his people when they do not deserve it. I have not met the man in 10 years, but I believe people can change for the better. And if you thought I am a paid propagandist; you can let go of that doubt.

As a concluding remark, all I have to say is that choosing the president of your country is no joke. You must not let it be decided by extremists and ignorant people with parochial party loyalties. The silent majority does exist and has the power to be the critical mass if involved. I request you to open your minds to the facts and think critically at this vital juncture of our nation. Let's do the right thing.

- Asian Tribune -

Gota, the Change Agent We need– Here is why
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