THE RETURN OF MAHINDA RAJAPAKSE
Posted on March 14th, 2017
Mahinda Rajapakse, President of Sri Lanka, conceded defeat and handed over the government to Ranil Wickremasinghe when he found that he was losing the Presidential election of January 9, 2016. He did so before the final results were announced. Then he took off in a helicopter to go to his house in Medamulana, Hambantota district. His supporters also went. They were there to greet him as he arrived. You tube has the video. They went there the next day as well. From then on, supporters started to flock to Medamulana regularly in buses and coaches. This is most unusual. Usually, the defeated candidate is immediately forgotten.
There were regular gatherings at Medamulana, thereafter. At the meeting on June 1. 2015, the excited supporters were urged not to climb on to the stage because then the stage would collapse before Rajapakse could get on to it. They were asked to sit down so that the meeting can be filmed and sent out to the world. Lastly they were asked to stop yelling and listen to Rajapakse. The audience took no notice. They were too agitated. Even Rajapakse had to ask them to stop making a noise and listen to him. CSN has filmed it and that also is on YouTube.
‘Political watch’ said in May 2015, the buildup of the pro Mahinda camp over the past few months has been an educative experience. “Never in our life times have we seen a phenomenon like this.” The public follow Mahinda Rajapaksa in thousands wherever he goes from the day he was defeated. Have we ever seen anywhere such a phenomenon in connection with a defeated man, asked N.A. de S Amaratunge.
At the request of his supporters Rajapakse contested the general elections of August 2015 and was voted in as MP for Kurunegala. He thereafter started a progamme of visiting temples island wide, offering flowers and making speeches to the audiences who flocked there enthusiastically to wave and call out to him. My guess is that these are the voters who did NOT vote for him and now bitterly regret the fact. The happy looks and cheering resembles that of fans greeting a pop star. Thousands of people also go to see him in his village daily. A phenomenon that has never occurred before. These visits are not originated by anybody, said Dinesh Gunawardene. I have seen this [once before] though on a lesser scale when Sirima Bandaranaike lost her civil rights, he concluded.
Then the mammoth ‘pro- Mahinda rallies’ started, drawing crowds of about 200-300 monks and about 700-800 laymen. The Joint Opposition rally on March 17, 2016 at Hyde Park in Colombo, became a ‘bring back Mahinda rally. ‘The audience overflowed on to the roads around and Rajapakse was given a great welcome. The ‘bring back Mahinda’ movement as it progressed became an opposition movement which was barreling along on its own regardless of whether Mahinda was there or not, observed Chandraprema. At the Matara meeting of June 2015, there much open opposition to American and Indian meddling in Sri Lanka. There was a clenched fist oath taken at this meeting to protect the nation against enemies within and without.
The biggest rally was the Joint Opposition one at Kirulapone on May 1, 2016. Chandraprema reported that the entire High Level Road, all four lanes from near the Kirulapone public market to and beyond the Y junction was one sea of heads and so tightly packed that no one could get through. There were crowds up to Baseline road. All four lanes of Baseline road was also a sea of heads. This was the biggest crowd to ever assemble at a political rally anywhere in Colombo within living memory, said Chandraprema.
The Joint Opposition’s Pada Yatra from Kandy to Colombo, from 28 July to 1 Aug, 2016 made political history, the country has not seen anything like this before, reported Island.
The march attracted massive numbers. It could not have been any bigger given the population of the country. People walked distances that nobody would walk in normal circumstances. It is a grueling and exhausting form of protest but the crowd that participated was larger than at most political meetings. There were more than 1.5 million participants in the Pada Yatra.
At Kiribathgoda, on the last day, police had cleared three lanes. People were walking 25-30 abreast from pavement to the centre fence and the entire road was full of them. It took an hour for the procession to pass one point. The pavements and the balconies of houses had supporters, waving away. Others had prepared refreshments for the participants and were busy serving them. Rajapakse was waving to his supporter like a roly poly king. They were cheering him specifically and he had to acknowledge their cheers.
There were academics, medical specialists, trade unionist, farmer, workers, teachers, artistes in the procession. The whole of Lipton Circus was one sea of heads. There were about 50,000 to 60,000 which is politically significant said Kumar David. While Rajapaksa was speaking at Lipton Circus, the crowd also was yelling on its own, about VAT, ECTA, cost of living. They were not listening to Rajapakse and applauding, as audiences are expected to do. They were protesting on their own. That was what they had come to do, not to listen to speeches. This, I think, is something new in the local rallies.
Support for Rajapakse exists overseas too. Gotabhaya Rajapakse went to Japan in December 2016, on an invitation extended to him by the Sri Lankan community in Japan who are supporting former President Mahinda Rajapakse. Before that Gotabhaya had attended a defence seminar in China in October 2016.
Rajapaksa said he had initially planned to retire from politics following his January 2015 defeat, and ‘take some rest’, but the current government “went after him”. He thought the attacks on his family would stop after a few months. But ‘they are still at it two years later’. He had been told that investigations against him and his family would be dropped if he chose to retire from politics. Rajapakse said he had no secret accounts and pointed out that if he had then it would not have taken this long to reveal their details. He also pointed out that accounts with millions of dollars cannot be operated without attracting the attention of international regulatory authorities, in this day of heightened surveillance of money laundering.
The majority of the Sinhala voters still consider Mahinda as their leader. That seems to be a factor that nobody is talking about openly but it is nevertheless a reality, said Dinesh Gunawardena It is etched in the people’s minds that there is no other leader to match Mahinda. Rajapakse continued to be praised even after he was defeated in the 2015 election.
China, the world power in waiting, took note of all this. China sent Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin to Colombo as special envoy in October 2015 to discuss matters with the government. Chinese envoys only interact with the government, but in this case, the Chinese envoy took the unusual step of meeting Rajapaksa as well. “It was a courtesy call said South China Morning Post. But it was a departure from Chinese policy.
China followed this up with an invitation to Rajapakse to visit China. Rajapakse went to China for a week’s visit in November 2016 on the invitation of the Chinese government. Observers saw this as a “strong message” from Beijing. This invitation points to a public display of support, commented Hindu . President Rajapaksa had made a positive contribution to the development of China-Sri Lanka relations during his term of office. China appreciates what he has done for the friendship between the two countries,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry told The Hindu. This invitation shows how much the Chinese government values their relationship with the former President and appreciates his political stature, said Vasudeva Nanayakkara.
In China Rajapakse had visited Guangzhou and Shenzhen and discussed Hambantota. According to Hindu, Rajapakse had said stick to the original plan, instead of expanding the Hambantota project as the present government had done. If China took 15,000 acres to create a special Chinese economic zone, there will be a takeover of agricultural land and displacement of villagers.
A high-level delegation from China led by Song Tao, Minister of the International Department of Communist Party of China visited Sri Lanka in February 2017. This delegation, too, visited Rajapakse in Colombo at his official residence. They had discussed several issues, including the proposed investment zone in Hambantota, G.L Peiris said. Television news showed the discussion. The two groups faced each other at a long table in diplomatic style.
Rajapakse was an official guest in South Korea in August 2016. Then he went, on invitation, to the International conference of Asian Political parties held in Malaysia in September, 2016.
He led the Joint Opposition delegation. There, he met the Malaysian Prime Minister, other political parties of Malaysia and a delegation from the Malaysian business community. He also met the Chinese Communist Party delegation. The Tamil separatist movement objected to his visit, and hung his effigy in Kuala Lumpur and demonstrated. In reply, huge crowds met him at Katunayake airport on his return.
The ‘bring back Mahinda’ movement has a political energy and a momentum that no other political party has. And this is not even a political party, observed Chandraprema. One reason is the stark contrast between the present state of the economy and the situation that existed when Rajapaksa ran the country, he concluded. The rally at Ratnapura in October, 2016 was also hugely attended. The Joint Opposition rally of Jan 2017 at Nugegoda specifically referred to toppling the government and called for Rajapakse’s return. Crowds had chanted derogatory slogans against Sirisena such as ‘appa hora’ and Rajapakse said he was ready to lead the movement.
Rohana Wasala said, in February 2017, ‘my advocacy of MR’s leadership is not because I want to tout him as an example of the perfect ruler, but because I believe, like many, that there is no other politician with the proven abilities and commitment that he has demonstrated. Mahinda Rajapaksa is the only political leader of national standing that we have who is still most acceptable to all the communities alike, whatever his detractors say. The country is being confronted probably with one of its worst crises since 1948. We cannot do without his leadership at this critical juncture. Honestly, there is still no one among our current leaders to take his place’. Rajapakse will remain a formidable force in our politics, said Izeth Hussein.