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President Percy Mahendra (aka "Mahinda") Rajapaksa

RajapaksaThe astrologer plays a critical role in Sri Lankan society as he is believed to be able to predict one’s destiny based on the placement of the stars. Auspicious moments are valued because people believe that anything done at a specified time will bear positive fruits. The famously superstitious President Mahinda Rajapaksa took few decisions without first consulting his colourful and most trusted astrologer Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the 5th President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, assumed his second term of office on November 19, 2010. Percy Mahendra (aka "Mahinda") Rajapakse was sworn in as Sri Lanka's fifth President on November 18, 2005 -- his 60th birthday.

Like his predecessor and rival Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, Rajapakse had the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) in his blood, with his father, D.A. Rajapakse, joining Chandrika's father S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike to form the SLFP in 1951, and an uncle serving as a Cabinet Minister in the 1970 government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Chandrika's mother. With his sterling SLFP credentials and with a brother and cousin also involved in politics--and with three young sons possibly contemplating political careers as well--Rajapakse was widely considered to represent the only real challenge to the Bandaranaike family's dynastic grip on the party.

Rajapaksa’s rationale for calling a Presidential Election two years before the expiry of his first six year term was his desire to obtain a nationwide mandate, because in the Presidential Election in 2005, the Tamil population, in the North and East of the country were unable to vote, as the heavily armed LTTE, that was controlling most of those regions, ordered the Tamils to boycott the poll. In this election all communities throughout Sri Lanka were free to exercise their franchise, in the oldest representative democracy in Asia, which has had universal franchise in 1931.

Mahinda Rajapaksa established a record in Sri Lankan political history with being the first Executive President to lead his party to a landslide victory in Parliamentary Elections held just over two months after being elected for a second term of office as Executive President with an overwhelming majority of 1,842,749, polling 6,015,934 votes. His success in Presidential and Parliamentary Elections in January and April, 2010 came after a series of sweeping victories in elections to eight Provincial Councils by the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) led by him. The UPFA had an over two thirds majority in parliament.

President Rajapaksa was elected for a second term of office in the Presidential Election held on January 26, 2010, with the Sri Lankan electorate recognizing him as the national leader who liberated the country from the terrorism of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and set the country on the path to peace and rapid economic development. The left-of-center economic policies endorsed in his campaign manifesto, as well as the quasi-nationalist sentiment in his anti-federalist stand on the peace process, may have reflected a conscious effort by Rajapakse to move the party away from the centrist positions espoused by Kumaratunga over her 11 years as president and back toward its original Sinhalese socialist roots.

In the Presidential Election held in November 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa, as candidate of the United Progressive Freedom Alliance (UPFA) was elected fifth Executive President obtaining 50.29% or 4,887,152 votes polled, while his closest rival Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe, leading the United National Party (UNP) obtained 47.43% or 4,706,366 votes.

In the run-up to the election, Rajapakse was accused of diverting tsunami aid. He denied the charge and, given the partisan hysteria surrounding all issues in the campaign, it was not clear what the facts are.

Although he had been in SLFP politics for more than 35 years, as Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse's views on virtually any issue of national importance were not easy to assess -- primarily because he had seldom voiced any. During his tenure as Prime Minister over a year and a half, Rajapakse kept a comparatively low profile, performing largely ceremonial functions well distanced from contentious policy frays.

His term as Prime Minister revealed an affable, pleasant and obliging interlocutor who seldom had anything of real substance to say. Kept out of "hard" issues like the peace process and tsunami reconstruction by his jealous President, Rajapakse freely admitted to visitors that he had only limited knowledge of these issues -- and no wish to run afoul of Kumaratunga by wandering out of his depth. In the early days after the December tsunami the Prime Minister, despite hailing from one of the worst-hit districts, could say little of substance about the situation on the ground. Rajapakse relatives and some of his political colleagues have commented on his aversion to taking controversial (and sometimes, even non-controversial) stands before his nomination, sometimes lamenting that the southerner would say anything to get elected.

The lack of a "paper trail" documenting Rajapakse's pre-nomination convictions on a variety of issues (the peace process, the economy, foreign relations) made predicting his performance as President difficult. As PM, Rajapakse viewed himself as treading a fine line between two opposing forces: a hyper-suspicious President who saw him as a threat to her dynastic political ambitions and an equally suspicious JVP alliance partner, which saw him as a potential threat to its own empire-building aspirations. He was boxed into a high-profile but politically insignificant sinecure by these competing political forces. His triumph as the SLFP presidential candidate in a difficult race testified to his consummate skill as a political juggler under these challenging circumstances.

Rajapakse had a reputation for astutely outflanking domestic political rivals -- his longevity within the corrosively internecine SLFP bears indirect testimony to this talent -- but his experience on the international stage was limited. Although clearly indebted to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) for his narrow victory at the 17 November 2005 presidential polls, Rajapakse seemed likely to try to limit the former Marxists' influence in his administration. How successful he was in doing so would be one of the most important tests of his legendary political savvy.

President Rajapaksa came from a large family. He had one elder brother, Chamal, four younger brothers, Chandra, Basil, Gothabaya, and Dudley, and two younger sisters, Gandhini and Preethi. As of 2007 Chamal was the Minister of Irrigation and Water, but was not considered influential. Chandra was the Private Secretary to the Minister of Religious Affairs and Moral Upliftment and also at times acted as an advisor the President. Dudley lived in Texas. An elder sister died a few years ago. The Rajapaksa brothers grew up very close and always conferred within the family before seeking advice from others.

President Rajapaksa relied on his brothers, Defense Secretary Gothabaya Rajapaksa and Senior Advisor to the President Basil Rajapaksa, for advice on security matters and political affairs respectively. Fear that Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) stalwarts were disloyal caused the President to lean more heavily on his brothers than on party insiders for support and advice. The President tends to postpone decisions and at times avoids decisionmaking, as well as potential blame for unpopular decisions, by delegating many responsibilities to his brothers. Basil and Gothabaya, however, did not always get along. They rarely appear in public together, seem never to attend the same meetings, and at times offered the President conflicting advice. Nonetheless, the President's brothers play an important and influential role in shaping Government of Sri Lanka (GSL) security and political policy and provide important political cover to the President.

The President's brothers had few advisors of their own. Gothabaya occasionally consulted some of his army colleagues who have retired. Basil had no close advisors and more enemies than friends in Sri Lanka because he makes a habit of trying to "buy people." Wehn Basil worked for the Ministry of Mahaweli Development he earned the nickname "Mr. Ten Percent" for demanding a ten percent commission on every project. Basil continues to be accused of significant corruption.

The President was insecure in his job because Sri Lanka, as a "semi-feudal" society, still had great respect for aristocracy. He feared that because he was not from an elite family, but rather from a village in the deep south, support for him within the SLFP was a thin veneer. The President both feared and despised what he disparagingly refered to as the "Colombo 7 Crowd," Colombo's western-educated, wealthy elite (most of whom live in the 7th district of the city). He did not included them in his inner circle and was not in touch with their views.

Hailing from a politically prominent family from the southeastern district of Hambantota, Rajapakse was the first Sri Lankan president not from Colombo or its environs. (Late President Ranasinghe Premadasa's family was from the south, but he himself grew up in and was elected from Colombo.) Rajapakse identifies strongly with his rural southern Buddhist base (which, incidentally, was the same base eyed by the JVP), even though his family's wealth, education and political prominence obviously distinguish him from the typical Sinhalese farmer. With southern Sinhalese voters, the admiration appears to be mutual; Rajapakse won handy majorities in the six southern districts of Kalutara, Galle, Ratnapura, Moneragala, Kurunegala, Hambantota and Matara.

Percy Mahinda Rajapakse was born on November 18, 1945 in Verukatiya, Hambantota District, the third of SLFP founder-member D.A. Rajapakse's eight children. (An older brother Chamal was also an SLFP MP, while two younger brothers, Godabhaya and Basil, had been living in the U.S. but returned to help with their brother's campaign for the presidency.) He was educated at Richmond College in the southern district of Galle (where his father reportedly had to engage a Sinhala tutor to boost his son's proficiency in his native tongue), as well as Nalanda College and Thurstan College in Colombo.

Rajapakse's attempts to depict himself as a typical village boy were a bit disingenuous. As the son of an MP and Deputy Speaker of Parliament, he enjoyed special advantages, including an English-medium education. As President, his English comprehension was good to fair; at times he struggled with spoken English. As a child, his Sinhala was poor in comparison, and his father had to engage a tutor to boost the young Rajapakse's proficiency in his native tongue. The brick-red scarf the PM habitually wears draped around his neck was a tradition begun by his father meant to symbolize the red earth of Ruhunu -- and thus Rajapakse's legacy as a true "son of the soil."

He did not complete his Advanced Level ("A levels") education, instead leaving his job as a clerk at the library at Sri Jayawarendapura University in the Colombo suburbs in 1970 to run for his late father's seat representing his native Hambantota in Parliament. When he won at the age of 24, he became the youngest MP in Sri Lanka's history to enter Parliament -- a record that still stands. Taking advantage of a decision by the then-Justice Minister to allow MPs to enter law school -- whether or not they had the necessary educational qualifications -- Rajapakse graduated from Sri Lanka Law College in 1974.

Rajapakse lost his seat, along with many of his SLFP colleagues, in his party's landslide defeat in the general elections of 1977. He then turned to the practice of law in Colombo and the south, where his defense of suspected JVP sympathizers first earned him a reputation as a human rights activitst. He frequently contacted the Embassy in the 1988-89 period to complain of disappearances and extra-judicial killings under the then-United National Party (UNP) government, and with fellow southerner and Minister of Ports in the Kumaratunga administration Mangala Samaraweera, Rajapakse formed a human rights organization in 1988, called the Mothers' Front, to advocate on behalf of family members of "disappeared" JVP suspects.

After he returned to Parliament in 1989 (Rajapakse freely admitted to ballot stuffing during that race--but only to balance out just-as-vigorous ballot stuffing by his local UNP rival), Rajapakse served as Secretary to the Committee of Parliamentarians for Fundamental and Human Rights and as Director to the Center for Human Rights and Legal Aid. His standing as one of the few such lawyers in the south who continued to operate throughout the height of the violent JVP insurgency -- despite threats of reprisal from both right- and left-wing extremists -- made him a valuable source for our human rights reporting.

When Chandrika Kumaratunga was elected President in 1994, she named Rajapakse as Minister of Labor and Vocational Training. Rajapakse's fervent pro-union sympathies did not win him many friends in the business sector (he still doesn't seem to have many; the Sri Lankan stock market has dropped by 15 percent since the 17 November 2005 election). As Minister, Rajapakse pushed unsuccessfully for the establishment of labor unions in Sri Lanka's free trade zones, and his personal pet project -- a workers' charter that provided almost no safeguards for management in the face of union agitation -- was soundly defeated in Parliament.

Following this fiasco, Kumaratunga moved Rajapakse from the investment-sensitive labor portfolio to the less controversial post of Fisheries Minister in 1998. When the SLFP lost control of Parliament in the 2001 general election, Rajapakse became Leader of the Opposition 2002-April 2004, returning to head Kumaratunga's Cabinet in 2004 as Prime Minister. The JVP, which as a member of Kumaratunga's United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA) helped the SLFP clinch the 2004 polls, bitterly opposed Rajapakse's appointment as Prime Minister, pushing instead for the late Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar. Kumaratunga ignored the JVP's importuning for several reasons, including a desire to keep JVP influence out of the high-visibility post and a wish to insulate Rajapakse, whom she clearly and rightly viewed as a political rival, from real power by ensconcing him in the premiership, a position large on ceremony and small on substance.

Until near the time of the 2005 election, Rajapakse had been considered one of the closest friends and allies of Anura Bandaranaike, the brother of former President Kumaratunga. (Anura was Rajapakse's best man at his wedding.) When Anura briefly made an end run at his mother's leadership of the SLFP in 1981, Rajapakse joined him -- and was reportedly on Chandrika's wrong side ever since. When Anura left the SLFP in late 1993 after his mother anointed his sister as the party's presidential candidate, many of his closest friends -- Rajapakse included -- were watched suspiciously by the victorious Chandrika faction.

The association did not hobble Rajapakse's electoral prospects, however, thanks to the solid and consistent support of his home constituency. Of the 20-odd SLFP MPs tagged as "friends of Anura," Rajapakse was the only one to make it back into Parliament as an SLFP MP in the 1994 elections. That he won a substantive portfolio like Labor from Kumaratunga -- despite their earlier personal clashes--proves his tenacity as a political survivor.

Rajapakse prided himself on having founded the Sri Lanka Committee for Solidarity with Palestine in the mid-1970s, a post which led to a meeting with the late Yasir Arafat at least once when Rajapakse traveled to Tunis, at Arafat's invitation, in the mid-1980s. Insiders in Rajapakse's campaign for the presidency credit his pro-Palestinian credentials for his comparatively good showing among Muslim voters. Any support he gained among some Muslims was more likely the result of internal divisions within the community than to any personal or ideological loyalty to Rajapakse. Rajapakse spearheaded the fight to close the Israeli Interests section in the 1980s.

Rajapakse led several demonstrations against allied involvement in the Gulf War in 1991. His anti-war actvities stemmed more from solidarity with the Palestinians than from hostility to the US. He has given no indication of anti-American sentiment, has often expressed gratitude for US tsunami assistance and for the American hard line against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and traveled to the US on an International Visitors Program in 1989. Other foreign countries he has visited include the UK, China, Germany and the former Czechoslovakia, where he apparently received a diploma in Trade Unionism from Prague's Trade Union School in 1978.

When the SLFP went into Opposition following electoral defeat in December 2001, in March 2002 he was elected Leader of the Opposition, bringing to that office his many years of parliamentary experience, both in Government and Opposition. After the General Elections of April 2004 in which the United People’s Freedom Alliance emerged winner, he was appointed the country’s 13th Prime Minister on April 6, 2004, in the Government headed by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, and was a key political organizer for the SLFP and its allies at a time of increased political rivalry.

The President was related by marriage to UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe; Ranil's father's sister was married to the President's mother's first cousin. Rajapakse and his wife Shiranthi (a former Miss Sri Lanka) have three sons (Namal, Yoshitha, and Rohitha). A daughter died in 1983. The eldest son, who was about 20 years old in 2005, graduated from St. Thomas, a prestigious private Christian school in a Colombo suburb and was rumored to be contemplating further studies in the UK. Rajapakse and his sons were Buddhists; Shiranthi was raised a Roman Catholic. The President's family was viewed in a positive light by the general public. The President's wife was seen as very "proper" and admired for having raised good, polite sons. The President's immediate family was a huge draw for the public and boosts his popularity.

Leaders like the President, who were not from the political elite, had two options. They can either be revolutionaries and try to destroy the aristocratic system, or they can join the system and try to create their own dynasty. The President had chosen to pursue his own dynasty. Namal, the President's eldest son, was often mentioned as a possible political successor to his father.

Presidential elections were held in November 2005, with Mahinda Rajapaksa becoming President, and Ratnasiri Wickramanayake becoming Prime Minister.

Sri Lanka has a multi-party democracy that enjoyed considerable stability despite relatively high levels of political violence during its 26-year civil conflict. In May 2009, the government declared victory over the LTTE and the LTTE’s longtime leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed. The LTTE’s terrorist activities had generally been aimed at destabilizing Sri Lanka politically, economically, and socially.

President Rajapaksa enjoyed immense popularity among the Sinhalese electorate at the end of the war. He was seen as the political architect of victory in what many thought was an unwinnable war. But critics of President Rajapaksa's abuse of power said that under his leadership, the economy, the political climate, health care, education and international relations had spiraled down reaching a new low in the country's history. They argued governance had broken down and corruption was appallingly bad, found the Rajapaksa family involvement in politics very distasteful and called them "uneducated and uncultured rascals."

On 25 May 2009, the chief prelates of the two leading Buddhist sects, the Kandy-based Asgiriya and Malwatte chapters, conferred the title of "Vishva Keerthi Tri Sinhaladeeshwara", or Universally Renowned Chief of the Tri-Sinhala, on President Rajapaksa. This is only the third instance in 2,500 years of recorded history that this title has been conferred on a head of state. In the other two instances, the title was given to kings of the now-extinct Sinhala royal lineage, who united the country under one ruler centuries ago by militarily defeating warring tribes within the island.

Rajapaksa previously ridiculed political leaders who took kingly titles or behaved like monarchs. However, in late May 2009 he visited the sacred bo-tree (Sri Maha Bodhiya) in Anuradhapura, where the local chief prelates allowed him to embed jewels at the bo-tree site, a privilege reserved previously for the ancient Sinhala kings. State media also proclaimed Rajapaksa as "Prince Diyasena", or the second incarnation of the Buddha. This refers to a Buddhist tradition involving Prince Diyasena appearing 2,500 years after the original Buddha to save the Sinhala Buddhist nation.

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Page last modified: 13-11-2018 16:53:21 ZULU