Mahinda Rajapaksa

Self-proclaimed ‘man of the masses’.

Photo by Downing Street.

The first trip taken by President Mahinda Rajapaksa after the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) had been crushed was to Burma. On 15 June 2009 he ‘thanked the Government of Myanmar for its support and co-operation to curb the illegal activities of the LTTE’. The two regimes clearly see themselves as having a lot in common – besides a belief in astrology and, not least, the weaponry of their armed forces, much of which comes from China.

This weaponry has now been put to full use in Sri Lanka, where the military defeat of the Tigers may have killed 20,000 civilians, displaced 300,000 into military internment camps and left 9,000 suspected Tigers detained without charge. There are reliable reports that civilians and a field hospital were deliberately bombed or shelled by the Sri Lankan armed forces, which constitutes a crime against humanity.

On 17 May President Rajapaksa celebrated ‘an unprecedented humanitarian operation’. Unfortunately for him, no-one can substantiate his claim. The UN and humanitarian agencies were regularly denied access to the scene of the conflict. Sri Lanka is also rated as the worst self-styled democracy in the world for press freedom. Among dozens of similar incidents, the most notorious is the murder in January 2009 of Lasantha Wickrematunga, editor of the Sunday Leader, who was known for investigating official misdemeanours. He left a testament stating that in the event of his murder the Government would be responsible.

Rajapaksa is not, of course, exclusively liable for all the woes of Sri Lanka, nor for the brutal 30-year civil war with the Tamils, which had its roots in the colonial past. Nevertheless, he is a scion of the Sinhalese political dynasties that have, over the years, derived their power increasingly from corruption, patronage, an appeal to sectarian loyalties and the persecution of reasoned dissent.

Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa was born in 1945, the son of DA Rajapaksa, who represented the region of Hambantota in parliament from 1947 to 1965. Trained as a lawyer, and briefly working as a film extra and librarian, after the death of his father Rajapaksa was elected to parliament in 1970 at the age of 24. He took to wearing an earthy brown shawl that represents the finger millet cultivated in the region. Clambering ruthlessly up the political ladder, Rajapaksa developed a Man of the Masses image as the champion of poor farmers and fisherfolk. After parliamentary elections in 2004 he became Prime Minister. A rival, Lakshman Kadirgamar, was subsequently assassinated.

Following the tsunami on 26 December 2004 Rajapaksa set up a ‘Helping Hambantota’ fund and was accused of expropriating $800,000. The charge was dismissed in court as ‘political’. According to the first official report, however, aid agencies constructed 4,478 houses in Hambantota, though only 2,445 were needed. In the Tamil-dominated area of Ampara, the worst-affected district on the east coast where more than 10,000 people died, a mere 3,136 houses were built for the 18,800 families whose homes were destroyed.

For most of his political career Rajapaksa had apparently favoured a peaceful settlement with secessionist Tamils. But, sensing a political opportunity, as the presidential candidate of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in 2005 he announced his intention to withdraw from stalled negotiations. He forged an alliance with two ultra-nationalist parties. He won by just 190,000 votes, aided by massive Tamil abstention, which was enforced by the Tigers.

As President, Rajapaksa became commander-in-chief of the armed forces. He appointed his brother, Gotabaya, Minister of Defence. A lieutenant-colonel, Gotabaya had quit the army under mysterious circumstances in 1991 and emigrated to the United States, where he became a US citizen. On his return, his view was simple: the Tigers should be exterminated. Another brother, Basil, was employed to mastermind the political and diplomatic strategies to accompany the war effort. The size, and the budget, of the armed forces doubled.

Rajapaksa is now a national hero among broad sections of the Sinhalese and Buddhist majority. There are moves to have him made President for Life, or at least re-elected unopposed. A degree of relief that the brutal civil war may now be over is widespread, but unlikely to endure. Bitter historical grievances have been intensified, not least among some three million Tamils. The persecution of the independent press continues. As a lawyer, Rajapaksa may some day apprehend that the verdict of history could finally be settled by his indictment for crimes against humanity.