‘Hitler’ comparison hurts Sri Lanka presidential hopeful

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa

A senior Buddhist monk counselling former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to emulate Hitler and establish a military dictatorship may have seriously hurt his bid for the presidency, according to close associates.

A chief priest of the Asgiriya chapter, Vendaruwe Upali, blessed Rajapaksa on his 69th birthday Wednesday by urging him to follow the German dictator Hitler and take over the country even if it means establishing military rule.

The monk, delivering a sermon at the private home of Rajapaksa, prayed that the youngest among the Rajapaksa siblings should be the next leader of Sri Lanka as the country needed a “Sinhala Buddhist leader.”

“As the clergy, we feel the country needs a religious leader… Some people have described you as a Hitler,” the venerable monk said referring to Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. “Be a Hitler. Go with the military and take the leadership of this country.”

A senior aide of Rajapaksa said the comments which were initially broadcast over the Derana television and later widely shared on social media had backfired and led to an avalanche of criticism.

The controversial sermon quickly became grist to the meme mill on facebook and Twitter. A widely shared meme had the Buddhist Dharmachakra turned into a Nazi Swastika.

Gotabhaya himself was portrayed with the “toothbrush moustache” of Hitler while a monk’s Watapatha (fan) had a Swastika painted on it.

A close associate said the monk’s remarks was quite damaging and led to recriminations with the camp.

President Maithripala Sirisena fired the first public salvo vowing he will never allow the return of a dictatorship after toppling the former regime in January a January 2015.

“In January 2015, people did not vote for food or jobs,” President Sirisena said addressing a meeting Nikawaratiya. “They voted for freedom and democracy. I have restored both and will not allow this country to slip back to a dictatorship.”

He was saddened by the call of the Anu Nayaka 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 monk during his sermon, attended by former president Mahinda and his siblings, including other presidential hopefuls Basil and Chamal, said the clergy felt the country needed a “religious leader.”

“Some people describe you as a Hitler,” the monk told Gotabhaya Rajapaksa. “Be a Hitler! Go with the military. Take the leadership of the country.”

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s own press team known as GR Media released the highly controversial sermon via his Twitter account and suggested that he fully endorsed the comments of the monk.

Venerable Upali, who is a number two in the Buddhist hierarchy in the Asgiriya chapter, made it plain that he preferred Gotabhaya to any other Rajapaksa sibling to lead the country in 2020.

Finance and Media Minister Mangala Samaraweera condemned monk Upali’s comments as going against the basic teachings of the Buddha and called for a purge of the clergy to get rid of those inimical to the sasana, or the Buddhist order.

Samaraweera echoed President Sirisena’s sentiments and pledged that the government will not allow a return to dictatorship.

In a five-page statement, minister Samaraweera said several retired military officers backing Gotabhaya were already calling for death for political dissidents. Ven. Upali’s call for the former defence secretary to be a “Hitler” fitted into that cast.

Retired army Maj Gen Kamal Gunaratne had advocated a death penalty for those supporting a new constitution. Samaraweera noted that Gunaratne made the remarks at a meeting in Gampaha in October presided over by Gotabhaya.

Gunaratne had also said those supporting constitutional reforms should be treated as “traitors” and they should not be allowed dignified funerals.

Another retired military officer supporting Gotabhaya had vowed a future government under Rajapaksa will hang those supporting the office of missing persons established to trace tens of thousands of people missing during and after the Tamil separatist war.

“These comments show that the Rajapaksas want to establish military rule in this country,” Minister Samaraweera said. “We must be aware of the rogue Buddhist monks who support their objective.”

The Asgiriya top priest’s comments also drew a scathing attack from another Buddhist monk, Kirama Vimalajyothi, who is also seen as a close supporter of Gotabhaya Rajapaksa.

In a public address on Friday, the ven Vimalajyothi said “time wasting sinners in robes in Malwatte and Asgiriya” were trying to keep the Buddhist clergy divided. He did not name monks, but said they were perpetuating divisions created by British colonial rulers.