THE REIGN OF MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA Part 8
Posted on April 14th, 2019

KAMALIKA PIERIS

Among certain segments of Colombo urban middle class, Mahinda Rajapaksa emerged as the most controversial and most hated ruler in post independent Sri Lanka, said Kusal Perera.  Yet in suburban and rural Sinhala south he ‘carried his charm over ordinary Sinhala people’ and polled a massive 5.78 million votes in 2015. How did he grow into this larger than life icon in Sinhala politics.

Kusal Perera in his book Rajapaksa the Sinhala selfie” tells us how. Mahinda Rajapaksa’s grandfather, Rajapaksalage Don Davith, originally from Halgahapotha in present Embilipitiya area, was vidane arachchi of Ihala Welikada korale now known as Giruwa Pattu. He married into the Weerakoon Ratnayake clan of Getamanna, Beliatta. This was a linking of two petty village nobilities.   Rajapaksa family was a landowning one with paddy fields and coconut plantations.

Don David Rajapaksa’s son Don Mathew Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa uncle, was elected to the Hambantota seat in the State Council in 1936. Don Mathew died in 1945 and at the resulting by-election his brother D.A. (Don Alwin) Rajapaksa, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s father, was elected without a contest.D.A. Rajapaksa was thereafter elected MP for Beliatta in the 1947 General election. D.A. Rajapaksa was associated wih SWRD Bandaranaike when the SLFP was formed in 1951. DA was     a ‘quiet and unseen character’ in SLFP politics, said Kusal Perera.

 DA’s son Mahinda Rajapaksa is the third in a family of seven. He grew up in Medamulana, a hamlet in Weeraketiya, in the Matara district. He   attended Richmond College, Nalanda College and Thurstan College from where he did his O” levels and left school. ‘He was a popular youth idling in Colombo with many friends to roam with,’ said Kusal.

A relative who was the Registrar at Sri Jayewardenepura University took him in as a library assistant there. The JVP was firmly installed in that university. Mahinda knew this group, whowere also from villages in the south. According to Kusal Perera, Rajapaksa had participated in trade union work. He was made the Branch secretary of the Ceylon Mercantile Union. ( Kusal Perera p 15)

D.A. Rajapaksa , Mahinda’s father died in 1967.  Prime Minister Sirimavo  Bandaranaike,  attending the three months dane,  offered the now vacant post of SLFP  party organizer in Beliatte to the sons. Chamal was employed so their mother suggested that it be given to Mahinda. In 1968 Mahinda Rajapaksa took over his father’s position as the SLFP organizer. He was barely 21.  ‘Politics was nothing new to the Rajapaksas and to Mahinda’, observed Kusal.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was thereafter elected to Parliament in 1970 on the SLFP ticket,  as the youngest Member of Parliament, at just 24. He was carefully watched by his mother as he prepared for the 1970 election, said Kusal. Mahinda’s mother  had been the wife of a  rural politician and knew the culture.  She told Mahinda  not to drink in his new job.

While in Parliament, Mahinda , probably for the first  and last time in his life,  turned seriously to studies. He studied law at the Sri Lanka Law College and took oaths as an attorney-at-law in November 1977.  It appears that Mahinda Rajapaksa   has pursued a legal practice  running parallel to his politics.  We did not know this.

Throughout his parliamentary career, except for the period from 1994–2001 when he was a minister, he continued his law practice in Tangalle, said Wikipedia.  He  appeared in the Magistrates courts in Embilipitiya, Hambantota and Tangalle. He was in  close touch wih Colombo  lawyers such as CR de Silva and  Tivanka Wickremasinghe, said Kusal Perera. Mahinda had a  very close   personal relationship with Tivanka and often sought  advice for his own cases.

  In 1977 Mahinda Rajapaksa lost his Beliatta seat in the landslide defeat of the SLFP.  But by this time, according to Kusal,  Rajapaksa  had    cultivated  ‘for himself , a social space among influential personalities in Colombo as  an outgoing , young, friendly figure”. Till 1989, Rajapaksa was an obscure politician in the south, engaging in his law practice, said Kusal.

In 1983 Rajapaksa married the very pretty Shiranthi Wickremasinghe. She has been Miss Sri Lanka in 1973. Rajapaksa has been blessed with a happy marriage and a stable family life. When he took oaths as Prime Minister in 2004, the media commented on the demeanor of his three sons, who were very young at the time. The media said that they did not even know that Mahinda Rajapaksa had  three sons until the sons made an appearance at the father’s swearing in. At Rajapaksa first swearing in as President,  his wife and sons stood quietly as he signed and promptly returned to their seats as instructed.

In 1989, Rajapaksa was elected to Parliament to represent Hambantota District.  He started to develop contacts in Colombo. In the early 1990s Rajapaksa was making late night stopovers at different places In Colombo to meet different persons not necessarily directly involved in politics, said Kusal. At Sravasthi Rajapaksa met both government and opposition politicians. He mixed with politicians ‘of difference hues.’ He had a good rapport with the Communist Party politicians but not with the LSSP, said Kusal. He  also  met loyal SLFP business men.    

1991 and 1992 were important and successful years for Mahinda Rajapaksa as an Opposition MP, said Kusal Perera. They were the years that established Mahinda as a national political leader, within anti-UNP politics. He was sought after by numerous groups and trade unions to campaign against the Premadasa government. In the process, Rajapaksa was dragged into issues he was not familiar with but was compelled to take on, such as privatization of public enterprises, cost of living, inflation.  This would have been a  valuable learning experience for him.

He was not a very articulate speaker In Parliament, but  he was  a very provocative anti –Premadasa presence in the Opposition, said Kusal.  He obtained information from varied sources. Editor of Desathiya  ‘dropped in’ to give Mahinda some information for his speech in parliament on the    budget debate of 1992. He had very good rapport with journalists, and they gave good coverage to his outbursts in Parliament.

In 1992 Rajapaksa launched a very successful ‘Pada Yatra’ from Colombo to Kataragama. At Kataragama people had come the previous night and had camped along the route. A Saaravita betel seller who travelled the whole length of the Pada yathra from day one, gave Rs 200 for the Pada Yathra and went away saying he would pray for Mahinda mahattaya.

The ‘Kurahan satakaya’ which his uncle, D.M. Rajapaksa had introduced into politics,   was first worn by Mahinda  Rajapaksa at the Pada Yathra. ‘Kurahan satakaya’ was an earthy brown shawl  worn by Rajapaksa’s uncle D. M. Rajapaksa, State Councilor for Hambantota in the 1930s, to represent  the kurakkan cultivated by the people of his area.

This Pada Yathra energized the SLFP and the anti UNP voter.  it  transformed  Rajapaksa from a provincial leader to a national leader. Mahinda after Pada Yathra was a crowd puller in high demand at election rallies in all provinces.’ Rajapaksa followed up the  Pada Yathra with a successful Jana Gosha at Lipton square in Colombo.

The 1990s was period of conflict in the SLFP. The disagreements between Sirimavo, Chandrika and Anura helped Mahinda Rajapaksa. It ‘gave  him a leap within the party as one who strived to keep the party together ‘The southern SLFP voter looked towards Mahinda in the absence of leadership from  the Bandaranaikes.

By 1994 Rajapaksa had ‘his presence felt very much in the south’ and was certain of returning to Parliament as a formidable cabinet minister if the SLFP won. The SLFP won  and in 1994 Rajapaksa was appointed Minister of Labor. Rajapaksa proved ‘a very charming negotiator in handling labor disputes’ and a popular labor minister both among the trade unionists and the employers.’ He initiated a National Workers Charter.  He had EPF under him. He was also picking up ideas that could make him a popular minister among the public, added Kusal.

In 1997, following a cabinet reshuffle, his portfolio was changed to Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. He immediately set about using the Fisheries portfolio for his populist politics, said Kusal. He refused the position of General Secretary of SLFP saying it would make him a peon delivering statements of Chandrika. He focused instead on the Maha sangha. He was ‘working stealthily toward winning over the leading Buddhist monks,’ said Kusal.

In 2000, President Kumaratunga mooted a new Constitution, greatly influenced by Neelan Thiruchelvam, and promoting power sharing and devolution. It raised much concern among the Sinhalese.  The Maha sangha were getting ready to object to the draft.  According to Kusal, Rajapaksa led the opposition to this draft constitution. The draft was withdrawn and Rajapaksa‘s stature grew. ‘Within the Sinhala Buddhist psyche in the SLFP, both within and without the Parliament, Rajapaksa  was looked for as their leader” said Kusal.

 In 2001, Rajapaksa became Leader of the Opposition.  But he was not much in the spotlight, said Kusal. He was cultivating an image as a moderate Sinhala leader. SLFP was at the time in disarray under Chandrika. Mahinda played a very calculated game, neither supporting nor disturbing, said Kusal.  Mahinda stayed firmly with the SLFP. 

By 2004 the ‘Sinhala factor’ had got a new southern twist. Sinhala leadership should come from the south. The Sinhala business and trader community of the south  wanted this. This helped Rajapaksa stake a claim for the Prime Minister ship, said Kusal. After the Parliamentary Elections of 2004 Rajapaksa was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s 13th Prime Minister.

He was President of Sri Lanka from 2005 to 2015.  He definitely made a lasting contribution to the country.  He ended the Eelam war, initiated and completed many major infrastructure projects. Rajapaksa was defeated in the  premature  Presidential elections called by Rajapaksa in 2015. The western powers which  were responsible for this defeat were relieved, they thought that was the end of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his brothers.

Then something unexpected happened. The public wanted Rajapaksa back.   Rajapaksa ‘s popularity grew  by leaps and bounds after his defeat, totally eclipsing the  position of Sirisena, Chandrika or Ranil. His admirers were  no longer  confined to the rural south. The urban elites also  recognized  his contribution.  A new political party,  created around  Mahinda Rajapaksa came into being in 2018, the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna,  also known as  Pohottuwa.  Rajapaksa now had his very own political party.

The attitude towards Rajapaksa is ambivalent. He gets many  left handed compliments. D.B. Wijetunge did not create a heroic role around himself  with celebration and public speeches. when he  cleared the east, said Kusal Perera. Sri Lanka would have become another Iraq or Libya since MR had antagonized US, UK and EU said  S.B.Dissanayake. SB conceded that  Rajapaksa  was a great leader. ‘He ended terrorism and developed the economy between 2005 and 2010,  then went berserk.’

It must be admitted that there was  the usual political influence during Rajapaksa rule. I was told of certain appointments to a bank, (I think it was Bank of Ceylon),  where a set of new recruits had been interviewed and selected. Then a young member of the Rajapaksa family, ( name withheld) had turned up, ordered that the full  list be discarded and  his nominees be appointed.   On a visit to Anuradhapura ,  the young taxi driver who took us around said that he had been selected after interview for a particular position, They heard nothing thereafter, and on making inquires found that the project had already started  with a new set of appointees. ‘I  voted for Hansaya’ he said.

There are too many buildings carrying his name, said critics.  There is the  Mahinda Rajapaksa Port  at Magampura ,  Rajapaksa International Airport, Mattala  and the Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium. This is sneered at as egoistical and low. But Sri Lanka also has Senanayake Samudra ( DS Senanayake) Bandaranaike international airport, Katunayake, ( SWRD) Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall ( Sirimavo). The profusion of ‘Mahinda Rajapaksa ‘ buildings is because  he completed more major  projects, in a very short time,  than all the other heads of state put together.

Rajapaksa’s success as a  statesman has not been  studied   academically,  ( it is too soon for this, anyway)  largely because in  elite circles he is seen as  a country bumpkin, an ignorant fellow, a  corrupt rogue,  incapable of delivering anything effectively, much less run a country. On the other hand,  the real corrupt rogues, suave, elite, westernized,  as well as politicians who for years have acted as agents of western countries, are  lovingly presented as  cultured, honest, statesmen who should be admired.

Here are some of  the qualities that made Rajapaksa  successful. Rajapaksa had the ability to   handpick suitable people. He brought  in Palitha Kohona, Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Sri Lanka, 2006 to 2009. Kohona, who had a  doctorate  from University of Cambridge,  was  at the time Chief of the United Nations Treaty Section in New York. Earlier Kohona had worked in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia.  Kohona therefore had academic standing and international exposure. When interviewed   via satellite, Kohona once told BBC interviewer Stephen Sackur not to interrupt him till he, Kohona, finished  answering Sackur’s question. Sackur shut up.

Rajapaksa also  received much support from within his own family. His brothers, Chamal, Gotabhaya and Basil also participated in  government . They were members of Parliament, not by appointment but through popular elections. They made positive contributions. This is something very rare and should be recognized as such. It may be a world record.

Basil was considered a fine organizer, who improved Gampaha. Chamal was   a good Speaker of Parliament  ,and Gotabhaya is much admired for his military and civilian work. All the new foreign investments established in Colombo were Gotabhaya’s achievements, said Rohana Wasala. Dutch Hospital Shopping Precinct in Colombo is a flourishing modern shopping centre today.” People ran to Gotabhaya whenever they  had a problem. One example was the  ancient boat  found at Godawaya.  it  was going  on yet  another journey. This time to a western country.

Gotabhaya Rajapaksa was interviewed by the New Indian Express in 2018. Tell me about your two brothers ,Mahinda and Basil, who served as advisor to Mahinda when he was President. How often do you talk to each other? What is the secret behind this relatively tussle-free relationship in power, the interviewer asked. We always work as a team replied Gotabhaya. We think about the country. During the war,we used to interact more often. This unity comes from our earlier days, what our father  taught us.

Rajapaksa interviewed by Island was also asked the same question. What is the role of  your two brothers Gotabhaya and Basil in your political and personal life. Rajapaksa replied “Ours has always been a very united family. Gotabhaya and Basil came from overseas to help me in my presidential election campaign in 2005 and on my request, they both stayed back to help me administer the country. I did not get them involved in my government simply because they were my brothers, but because they had abilities that the country could use. I think they both proved themselves in the tasks they undertook. Both have made their mark. We have never had any falling out among ourselves.  After I lost power in January 2015, both have faced persecution by this government.

Mahinda Rajapaksa, it appears, actually knows what is going on.  Nahil Wijesooriya said in interview, Interestingly, one day I met President Mahinda Rajapaksa who had come to the Inter Continental hotel for a wedding or conference and was coming out of the lift. He said I heard you are trying to sell the hotel, don’t do it, in another three months the price will go through the roof.” I took his advice – the war was over – and I made a packet. best Investment advice I have ever received! Puts my stock and bank advisers in the shade!”

Rajapaksa ‘s public relations is excellent. We last saw this at his son, Rohitha’s wedding. The wedding ceremony, which was attended by everybody who is somebody in Sri Lanka and the people of the area, had an estimated guest count of well over 5,000 — easily the largest in the past many decades, reported the media.  Rajapaksa had  invited a member of every household from the village. An emissary of his went from house to house to invite them. There was  also a separate enclosure for the drivers bringing in the guests.  The buffet tables for them had  the same  food as in the main hall. (Concluded)

5 Responses to “THE REIGN OF MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA Part 8”

  1. Randeniyage Says:

    People in Sri Lanka don’t even have a decent bus to travel.
    Look at what Ethiopian got.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xz_nJpqvaiE

  2. aloy Says:

    Randeniyage,
    What we really need is an MRT that can take 500 to 800 passengers at a time and reduce the strain on roads network around Colombo, not a thing like the one shown in the above video with only about four carriages. Our LRT is going to cost $100 million a km and take up a valuable corridor where an elevated highway can be built by our own engineers. The MRT can be built at a slower pace so that it will not add any more heavy financial burden on the people

  3. Randeniyage Says:

    @Aloy,
    I agree with you, but you missed my point.
    My point in posting that is we don’t have a decent public transport ( in whatever form , Bus , MRT, LRT ) where public can travel in comfort. We are not a country as poor as Ethiopia, Rwanda or any other African country who have much better transport. Our public is unaware of it and I am sorry you seems to be indifferent to it.
    Please wake up and alert our people to fight for it. You have worked in many south east countries like Brunie and traveled extensively , seeing how buses operate in Singapore, Malaysia and even Thailand as an engineer please shed a tear for my people who loose their lives taking tuk tuk rides and ridiculous lorries of Ashok Leyland shit.

    Equivalent of LTTE is 3 wheeler, all our politicians now need their votes. How many die in accidents involving 3 wheelers per year / It is more than bombs of LTTE – please check. When will we win this war ?

  4. Randeniyage Says:

    Yangoon (GDP per capita $1300)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-PHQn7_dSSs

    Bangkok (GDP per capita $6000+)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eAd_b14SQqI

    Colombo (GDP per capita $4000+)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xW_EiLgtP50

  5. aloy Says:

    Randeiyage,
    Thanks for your sentiments that resonates with mine.
    Couple of weeks ago I wrote two lengthy articles to Ceylon Daily News. They published the first one in the opinion column with some editing. The second was about the roads network that is being improved bit by bit, by carpeting without any regard for road engineering, but they chose not to publish it as I was critical of GOSL When a road is carpeted the vehicles tend to travel faster and with the long wheel base buses that ply on them collision can take place at their backs in the smallest bend unless they are widened appropriately. While they do this sort of checks even in India we do not have a geometric design manual to control the design as yet to my knowledge. We do not have design manuals in other areas like sewerage and drainage also. We lack a building code as well. The foreigners do their design as they wish I suppose. Subsequently this was highlighted in the AG’s report last week. I am actually fed up of writing these things in the media and thought of doing something on my own.
    At the moment I am trying to develop an App to trigger a warning for sleep and drunk driving. I know this is a bit of a tall order to develop the sensor.

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