MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA: The most preferred and cherished politician of Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA: The most preferred and cherished politician of Sri Lanka

9 August, 2020

Once again, the entire nation exercised the franchise to give a clear mandate to Mahinda Rajapaksa who they cherish as the most preferred national leader. A decade ago, he liberated the beloved motherland from the clutches of terrorism after 30 years of peril, and set the country on the path to peace, harmony, tranquility and economic development. The landslide victory in the General Elections held on August 5, 2020 amid Covid-19, aptly endorses the brave efforts ofPresident Gotabaya Rajapaksa in controlling the pandemic.

Loyalty to principle has been the hallmark of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political philosophy. In this, he followed the example set by none other than his great father.

His loyalty to his party and the leaders was the cause for the ups and downs in his politics, just like his father’s, from the time he was a youth activist and throughout his political life as a Member of Parliament, Cabinet Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Prime Minister and as the country’s Executive President.

Early life and education

Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa is the second son in a family of six brothers and three sisters. He was born in Weeraketiya in the southern rural district of Hambantota on November 18, 1945. He hails from a well-known political family. His father, D. A. Rajapaksa, was a prominent politician, independence agitator, Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister of Agriculture and Land.

His uncle, D. M. Rajapaksa, was a State Councillor for Hambantota in the 1930s who started wearing the earthy brown shawl to represent finger millet (kurakkan) cultivated in his area, whose cause Mahinda championed throughout his life by wearing the characteristic shawl.

He was educated at Richmond College, Galle, before moving to Nalanda College, Colombo and, later, Thurstan College, Colombo.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was presented with the ‘Nalanda Keerthi Sri’ award in 2004 by his alma mater, Nalanda College. He has also appeared in the Sinhalese film, ‘Nomiyena Minisun’ in 1994 and worked at Vidyodaya University. Later, he entered the Sri Lanka Law College and took oaths as an Attorney-at-Law in 1977. Throughout his parliamentary career, except from 1994 to 2001 when he was a Minister, he continued his law practice in Tangalle.

Family and personal life

In 1983, Mahinda married Shiranthi, the daughter of E. P. Wickramasinghe, an officer who joined the Sri Lanka Navy on December 9, 1940 and retired on May 15, 1973 in the rank of Commander. The Rajapaksas have three sons, Namal, Yoshitha and Rohitha.

In 2010, Namal Rajapaksa was elected a Member of Parliament for the Hambantota district, obtaining the highest number of 147,568 preferential votes.

Namal was again elected to Parliament, obtaining the highest votes of 127,201 from the Hambantota district in the 2015 General Elections. Yoshitha joined the Regular Force of the Sri Lanka Navy in 2006 and is currently serving as a Lieutenant Commander in the Executive Branch.

Several members of the Rajapaksa family are currently active in politics. His eldest brother Chamal has been a Member of Parliament from 1989, and was elected Speaker of the 14th Parliament of Sri Lanka. His younger brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa is the Executive President of Sri Lanka.

His brother, Basil was elected to Parliament from the Gampaha District obtaining the largest number of votes by any candidate in the April 2010 General election, and was appointed Minister of Economic Development.

Legislative career 1970 to 2020

Rajapaksa took over as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) candidate for the Beliatta constituency following the death of his father in 1967, and was elected to Parliament in 1970 as the youngest Member of Parliament at just 24.

Losing his parliamentary seat in the landslide defeat of the SLFP in 1977, Rajapaksa was re-elected to Parliament in 1989 to represent the Hambantota district under Proportional Representation with 13,073 preference votes.

In 1994, following the election victory of the People’s Alliance (PA), Rajapaksa with 78,977 preference votes was appointed Minister of Labour. He held this post until 1997 when, following a Cabinet reshuffle, his portfolio was changed to Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.

When the United National Party (UNP) defeated the PA in the 2001 elections, Rajapaksa secured 81,855 preference votes and was appointed Leader of the Opposition in 2002.

After the parliamentary elections of 2004, in which the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) won, Rajapaksa with 107,603 preference votes was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s 13th Prime Minister on April 6, 2004, along with the ministerial portfolio of Highways.

The position of Prime Minister is largely that of a senior member of the Cabinet who acts as deputy to the President. The Prime Minister is directly appointed by the President ‘who, in the President’s opinion, is most likely to command the confidence of Parliament,’ usually the leader of the party in power.

First term of Presidency 2005 - 2009

Mahinda Rajapaksa was chosen by the SLFP to contest the Presidential Election of November 17, 2005. Despite the huge election campaign led by the UNP, Mahinda was able to gain a narrow victory by 190,000 votes. He received 4,887,152 preference votes or 50.29% of the vote. After becoming President of Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa reshuffled the Cabinet and the portfolios of Defence and Finance in the new Cabinet.

Mahinda Rajapaksa had no sudden rise to the Presidency of Sri Lanka. He came through many decades of service to the people, demonstrating an unfailing loyalty to his political party and its leadership, and boldly facing the rough and tumble of politics.

Mahinda Rajapaksa won the Presidency of Sri Lanka on a wide-ranging policy, which was largely people-oriented and was laid out in the ‘Mahinda Chinthana’- The concepts of Mahinda -which promised, among others, the defeat of terrorism and the advance of democracy.

Immediately following his election in 2005, he appointed his younger sibling, Gotabaya Rajapaksa as Defence Secretary and over the next three and a half years, he admirably spearheaded the Humanitarian Operations, leading the country’s Security Forces in the battle against LTTE terrorism, ultimately defeating the Tigers and killing their leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

Rajapaksa signalled his intention to end the peace process once in power by forging an alliance with the Sinhalese nationalist political parties who opposed the original 2002 peace process as treasonous.

The agreement included provisions which called for a revision of the Ceasefire Agreement to give the military broader powers against the LTTE, as well as ruling out any devolution of power. Sidelining of the Norwegian facilitators due to their alleged bias was also included.

In 2005, a series of mine blasts by the LTTE in the country claimed the lives of many off-duty Security Forces personnel and innocent civilians, pushing the country back to the brink of the battle against terrorism.

Following the closure by the LTTE of a reservoir supplying water to 15,000 people named, ‘Mavil Aru’ in the government controlled areas on July 21,2006, the Sri Lankan Security Forces launched an offensive against the LTTE, bringing the entire reservoir under government control.

Humanitarian engagements have led to the LTTE being driven out of the entire Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. Thereafter, the humanitarian operations in the North were launched. The Government declared total victory over terrorism on May 18, 2009.

Liberation of the country from terrorism

On May 19, 2009, President Mahinda Rajapaksa delivered a victory speech in Parliament and declared that Sri Lanka is liberated from terrorism while paying a glowing tribute to the Security Forces.

He said, “It is truly a miracle to go to a battlefield where civilians have been turned into human bombs, and carry on the battle without shedding the blood of civilians.

It is a great skill to face up to the heaviest monsoon rains and major floods and not retreat a single step…. There was no school of war in the word that could face up to the savage military strategies used by the terrorists of the LTTE.

The world had not seen military sciences able to face a combination of landmines, claymore mines, small vessels, light aircraft that can evade radar, and suicide killer jackets.

Through thirty years the Security forces of Sri Lanka were compelled to find ways and means to face up to all this. Our Security Forces were able to defeat the most ruthless terrorists in the world due to their strict discipline, commitment, and creative use of military strategy.”

Second term of Presidency 2010 - 2015

The second term of Presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa commenced on January 27, 2010 after he secured 6,015,934 votes or 57.88%. It was an era known for initiating high-profile infrastructure projects such as the, Colombo Lotus Tower, Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port, Colombo Harbour South Container Terminal, Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre, Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, Colombo-Katunayake Expressway and Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium.

Sri Lanka also made it to the ‘high’ category of the Human Development Index during this time. Initiating, completing and developing many highways, roads, Colombo beautification projects, rural infrastructure development projects are some of the major projects. Rajapaksa claimed that under him Sri Lanka started to experience a rapid economic growth.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa rallied more than the two-thirds majority in Parliament necessary to pass an amendment to the Constitution removing the Presidential term limits.On September 9,2010 Parliament passed the amendment to remove Presidential term limits from the Constitution. His tenure in office came to an end on January 9, 2015.

Third term bid for Presidency in 2015

Two years ahead of schedule, in November 2014, Rajapaksa signed an official proclamation confirming that he will seek re-election for a third term, after being unanimously endorsed by his party. Though his second term officially was to end in November 2016, he could legally seek re-election after completing four years in office. Rajapaksa released his manifesto, titled Mahinda’s Vision - The World Winning Path, on December 23, 2014 in Colombo.

The manifesto pledged to introduce a new Constitution within a year of being elected - it will be amended and the ‘weakness’ in the parliamentary system eliminated. A naval force and a special security force was to be set up to tackle drug trafficking and other organised crime.

The manifesto also pledged to establish a transparent, judicial inquiry into the alleged war crimes during the final stages of the Sri Lankan battle against terrorism, but Rajapaksa had refused to co-operate with UN investigations. He was not successful in his third term Presidential bid.

Within months, Rajapaksa was elected a Member of Parliament for the Kurunegala district with a mammoth 423,529 preferential votes. He returned to Parliament after his two successive tenures as President, the only former President to do so. In 2016, Rajapaksa loyalists created a new political party, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP).

2018 Local Elections: Landslide victory

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s proxy, the SLPP won a landslide victory in the 2018 local authority elections. They were able to secure a staggering 239 Local Government bodies out of 340. The SLPP called for the resignation of the government and for fresh general elections to be held. On October 26, 2018, Rajapaksa was appointed Prime Minister after the UPFA withdrew from the unity government.

On November 11, 2018, Rajapaksa left the SLFP and joined the SLPP. On December 13, 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to dissolve Parliament 20 months before the end of its term was unconstitutional. The next day December 15, Rajapaksa publicly resigned from the post of Prime Minister at his official residence.

On December 18, 2018, Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed as Leader of the Opposition with the UPFA joining the Opposition benches in Parliament. His brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa gained victory in the 2019 Presidential election contesting from the SLPP and became President on November 18, 2019. Mahinda Rajapaksa returned as the Prime Minister on November 21, 2019.

Historic speech in Tamil on ethnic relations

The content of the President’s historic speech in Tamil at the United Nations was an effort to clearly establish that he is a people’s leader representing all the peoples of Sri Lanka, including the Tamil minority.”While my mother tongue is Sinhala, let me elaborate a few thoughts in Tamil. Sinhala and Tamil are the two languages of the people of Sri Lanka.

Both these languages used through the centuries, are rich in literature, and are widely used in my country, with recognition as Official Languages,” he said in Tamil adding,“With the widening of democracy in the country, the bond between the Sinhala and Tamil people of Sri Lanka will grow stronger and remain a major force for its future development. We will march towards a richer freedom and lasting unity that await us as a nation.” He was referred as a “Father” (Appachchi) and a “King” by his supporters.

Glimpse of a sports loving President

Mahinda Rajapaksa is the only President of a National Body of Athletics in the world to become President of the country among 214 nations affiliated to the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). My association with him blossomed when I was privileged to serve under him during his Presidency at the Athletics Association of Sri Lanka in her 75th Anniversary year of 1997.

Later, with my election as President and Secretary General of the National Bodies of Athletics and Shooting, I was honoured to serve under him all along. As the Prime Minister, he hosted the Team Sri Lanka for the Olympic Games of Athens 2004 and flew to Athens with his gracious lady to inspire the athletes and take part in the opening ceremony.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) bestowed the rare honour of awarding the silver medal to Susanthika Jayasinghe to His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa and I was part of that historical event at Temple Trees. Ever since, throughout his tenure as the President of Sri Lanka I was able to contribute towards his untiring efforts to uplift sports in the country to a higher echelon.

In my successful stint as the Chef De Mission of Team Sri Lanka to win the elusive elite gold medal for the country after 12 years at the Incheon 2014 edition of Asian Games, President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s son, Yoshitha was a prominent member of the National Rugby Team and touched many hearts of the sports fraternity by staying in ‘Athletes’ Village’ throughout the games.

Honours bestowed

He was conferred with two Honorary Doctorates. The first is a Doctor of Law from the University of Colombo on September 6, 2009. The People’s Friendship University of Russia awarded the second degree on February 6, 2010 at its 50 Anniversary celebrations for his contribution to world peace and outstanding success in defeating terrorism.

The Visva Bharati University of Calcutta in India conferred on him the title Prof Emeritus for his record on Human Rights.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa was conferred with an Honorary Doctorate by the Beijing University of Foreign Languages in China in August 2011.The honour of ‘Star of Palestine’ was conferred on him in 2014.

(The writer has a PhD, MPhil and double MSc; his research interests encompasses Olympic Education, IOC and Sports; is a recipient of National and Presidential Accolades for Academic pursuits)