Image Courtesy: The High Commission of Sri Lanka in Malaysia
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa marked the completion of his second year in office much like how he started his term in November 2019, playing one of his greatest hits for the Sinhala Buddhist voter. He and brother, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, elevated themselves to the place of the old Anuradhapura kings after unveiling the 282 foot Sanda Hiru Seya in the sacred city of Anuradhapura. The stupa as proclaimed by army was dedicated to the Maha Sangha to immortalise the memories of Ranaviru sacrifices. Noble in deed.
That the former Director General of Archaeology advised against such a large stupa in a historically and archaeologically sensitive location is irrelevant. That King Dutugemunu also built a monument to memorialise Elara after the country was reunited under one flag seems inconvenient.
The hyper-symbolism of the entire event was an echo of what had occurred two years earlier when the new President made his first statement as the country’s 8th Executive President by taking oaths at the Ruwanwelisaya. It was a departure from usual locations where those before him had taken oaths. He opted out of the statesman-like backdrop the Presidential Secretariat provided for former Presidents like Chandrika Bandaranaike or even the opportunity to create his own elaborate plastic pageantry like his elder brother did in 2010. It was a far cry from his predecessor’s choice and was a departure from even Ranasinghe Premadasa’s choice of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s intentions with both these ceremonies was to go beyond just affirming a Buddhist identity.
In his inauguration speech, he spoke of the blessing invoked by the Maha Sangha as being the reason for his electoral victory and made no secret – on this and on numerous occasions – that it was the Sinhalese that swept him into power in 2019, invoking the sort of raison d’etre of a 21st century Television Dutugemunu.
He went on to invite Sri Lanka’s Muslim and Tamil community to be a part of his victory. The words didn’t mean much, as was evident just a few months into his presidency. The symbols bore all the weight here.
Symbols help set a precedent and convey things that don’t need to be said out aloud. Sometimes they convey those things that cannot be said. It is a central part of a presidency in this day and age of pre-recorded speeches and social media pages and, for Gotabaya Rajapaksa, it’s a mode of communicating what his presidency stood for in the past two years and will stand for in the years to come for without ever saying a word.
The Sri Lankan flag is unique in that it is one of the few flags in the world that accommodates its minority communities into its design. Well known are the orange and teal vertical stripes representing the island’s Tamil and Moor communities respectively. Not all that well known is that other minorities such as the Malays, the Burghers, the Veddas, the Kaffirs and even the Sri Lankan Chinese are represented in the golden yellow border of the flag.
With this in mind, a browse through a series of images featuring presidents and politicians past and present will reveal an issue of how the flag appears when it is framed when on a television or mobile screen or in photographs. Universal protocol dictates that when displaying the flag indoors at a state meeting or national address, the national flag takes stage to the right of the speaker. As the flag is hoisted, and not fastened, it drops down to resemble a sort of three point fold. This has been a common practice perhaps perpetuated in the West, visible at the White House press briefings and bilateral meetings.
Ideally this wouldn’t be cause for concern, but noting how the Sri Lankan flag not only represents its minorities, but also compartmentalises them to one section of the flag, a photograph or video when framed on a screen would usually account for one portion of the flag and not the other. You wouldn’t be hard pressed to guess which portion it often turns out to be.
This argument becomes especially pertinent when the national flag has been desecrated before; the adoption of flags which remove the place given to the Tamil and Muslim community becoming a rallying point for Sinhalese chauvinists like the BBS and Sinhala Ravaya.
The idea of flag framing, therefore, sees an individual trying to place themselves in a position that creates a visual that could consciously or subconsciously appeal to the country’s largest voter base. It is something even the incumbent opposition leader is clearly guilty of.
All this appears to be a blessing in disguise for aspiring television presidents such as our current head of state as it allows him to place himself behind a maroon background with a roaring lion to his back (a symbol that has been hijacked as another symbol of the Sinhala race). If we were to observe images of the many meetings hosted at the Presidential Secretariat or the manner in which the flag was displayed during his address to the nation, we would find little to no effort being paid to visibly incorporate other parts of the flag into the frame. At times, the yellow border that represents other minorities appears to have been suspiciously folded outwards as well, so as to hide these features from view. Coincidence or not – you decide.
Although the use of the flag has been regulated with rules being brought in to criminalise the printing and distribution of the distorted flags such as those adopted by Sinhala extremist groups (most recently as 2015) there exists no protocol to ensure that when the national flag is displayed, all parts of the flag and thus the communities it represents are accounted for.
What makes President Gotabaya’s exercise in flag framing more concerning is first and most obviously his current office and thus his ability to dictate a visual language that communicates and represents Sri Lanka. Secondly, due to his history of not just pandering to Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist narratives but his participation in it such as in 2015 where after being summoned by the Bribery Commission, he was greeted by supporters in a protest against the alleged political victimisation by the Yahapalanaya government where the Sinhala Only flags were on proud display. Thirdly, it shows an understanding of the power of visual representation and the power it has to create a unique narrative to define his time in office.
The Features of a TV President
The creation of a powerful executive president under the 1978 constitution coincided with Sri Lanka’s first television station, the Independent Television Network. In a twist of fate, less than two months later, the station was taken over by the Jayewardene government. Although Sri Lanka’s early presidents and politicians didn’t seem to have cared all that much about their television personas, with time it became so that the connection every citizen makes to their leader is primarily through the screen, making the visual space and structure that defines a leader having to bear more and more significance.
This visual space and purpose seem to have been best realized and exploited by President Gotabaya. His insistence of not wanting his personal image propagated but of the country’s ‘national identity and cultural values’ shows a keen understanding of nurturing a personality cult not through his person, but rather through his communal appeal. His signalling through the placement of the national flag, repetitive colours and recurring motifs is an identification of what line of communication needs to be maintained and to whom it needs to reach.
A quick comparison between previous presidents and Gotabaya Rajapaksa reveal, for example, that the current president has a fondness for not just framing the national flag, but also surrounding himself with it, much more than his predecessors did, perhaps out of the need to project himself as a ‘true’ Sri Lankan and put to rest any line of thought that might indicate otherwise.
Yet another key comparison could be made between President Chandrika Bandaranaike and Gotabaya Rajapaksa, one that reveals a possible paradigm shift in the game of politics. A google search of images of the two presidents shows a pattern of colours the two seem to favour, especially in the preference of their dress. Former President Kumaratunga seems to favour various shades of blue – the colour of her party – the SLFP. President Gotabaya similarly follows his party’s cue as to what colours he prefers.
The Kurahan Satakaya sported by the Rajapaksas since pre-independence is the legacy and symbol of the family, the shawl and its characteristic maroon being a representation of the millet produced by the southern farmers who were championed by the likes of D. A. Rajapaksa. Here President Gotabaya has chosen to steer clear of the symbolic attire unlike his brothers. His maiden address to parliament was an effort to distinguish himself from this legacy yet hold on to what was most important to him – prioritizing the farmers of the land. Yet with the adoption of the same colour by Sinhala supremacist elements, the heritage Rajapaksa symbol and the concentration of power around the SLPP indicates a shift from the days of party politics to a time of family, community and race based politics. A shift that the modern and technocratic president displays through his casual shirt and favoured coat and tie, with conscious preference to the recurring maroon in his shirt, his tie or even the frames of his spectacles; the 21st century aura of his populist persona.
President Gotabaya’s other choice of wardrobe, his white shirt and military decorations for national day celebrations such as Independence Day, is another exercise of visual signalling displaying his walking of a fine line between presenting himself as a civilian and military president.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa is well aware of the power of creating a visual narrative to his presidency. He and his media team might not be the most adept at it, yet their acknowledgment of how effective it is in reaching a very vocal and active voter base through the constant reinforcing of symbols, colours and motifs is a worrying sign looking ahead to the three years to come. While the President continues to shower himself in an ethnocentric visual display, he is also making strides at crushing anything that does not meet his status quo, understanding how the power of a free and unrestricted media could turn the tide against him. For every musician mouthpiece and presidential media centre, there remains a journalist silenced, a memorial squashed and a bill dictating what free speech is and could be waiting to be passed.
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