Asia

Profile: Mahinda Rajapaksa

  • 18 August 2015
  • From the section Asia
Former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa (14 August 2015)
Image caption Mahinda Rajapaksa's powerbase has come from rural Sinhalese voters

Long-time Sri Lankan leader Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in the presidential elections of January 2015, while his efforts seven months later - as a newly elected MP - to return to the higher echelons of power by becoming prime minister were also thwarted.

As president Mr Rajapaksa was credited by many Sinhalese people with winning the war against Tamil Tiger rebels who fought for more than 20 years for self-rule.

But his time in office - especially during the final defeat of the rebels in 2009 - was dogged by allegations of serious human rights abuses.

It may be that for the rest of his career he will gave to defend himself against these allegations, and also claims - which he strenuously denies - that he was corrupt while in power.

While he and his supporters argue that he had to act firmly and decisively to defeat one of the world's most dangerous terror groups, critics say that he presided over the indiscriminate shelling of civilians at the end of the war and has done little or nothing to stop the alleged rape and torture of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan security forces since it concluded.

Furthermore it is alleged that he made no real effort to seriously engage with Tamils - who comprise about 15% of the population - but instead opted to order a wave of repression directed at those who questioned his authority.

Image caption The defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009 is now commemorated but it came at a huge cost
Image caption Many Tamils blame Mr Rajapaksa for the deaths of loved ones during the war

Mr Rajapaksa is a former lawyer who has described himself on his website as "a rebel with a cause". His core support is rural, conservative, Buddhist and dominated by the Sinhalese majority.

Renowned as a cunning political manoeuvrerer, his career throughout 2015 underwent a significant nosedive. He underestimated the level of support for his rival to the presidency, Maithripala Sirisena, in January and failed the following August to secure full political rehabilitation by winning the premiership.

Ruthless streak

Mr Rajapaksa won power in 2005 and went on to become South Asia's longest-serving leader. He sought an unprecedented third stint in office in January 2015, having defeated his last challenger - former army chief Sarath Fonseka - to win re-election to a second term in January 2010.

Gen Fonseka was later jailed for implicating the government in war crimes.

Image caption General Sarath Fonseka lost a power tussle with Mr Rajapaksa

In both triumphs, Mr Rajapaksa's critics say he displayed a ruthless streak and a capacity to condone or overlook the use of violence if it served his political purposes.

The former president has consistently denied this, arguing that at the end of the war it was the rebels who failed to separate combatants from civilians, thereby exposing innocent people to incoming fire.

Whatever the truth, his hold on power was not seriously challenged for almost a decade, either from within his own party or from the ranks of the opposition. Reports abounded that he was grooming his eldest son, Namal, to succeed him.

However, Mr Sirisena - a former cabinet minister and ally - stood against him in the most recent election and won the backing of many voters and main opposition parties. Mr Rajapaksa accepted defeat and left the presidential palace hours before official results were announced.

'Unbridled corruption'

Mr Rajapaksa used his time in power to consolidate his position. The constitution was changed to allow him to serve a third term, and three brothers were awarded influential positions, leading to accusations that he was running the country like a family firm.

Image caption For much of his career Mr Rajapaksa towered over the opposition UNP, but in August 2015 they celebrated the triumph of their candidate becoming prime minister ahead of him
Image caption Mr Rajapaksa is now in danger of spending the remainder of his career defending himself against war crimes and corruption allegations

The dynasty effectively controlled much of the national budget.

He was also accused of condoning a crackdown on dissent, and his supporters are alleged to have been involved in the murder of journalists who were critical of the government, claims rejected by the authorities.

The most high-profile example of this was the murder of newspaper editor Lasantha Wickrematunge in January 2009.

His case was all the more remarkable because he wrote an editorial - published posthumously - which accused President Rajapaksa's government of being responsible for his death.

"In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other president before you," Mr Wickrematunge's editorial said in words addressed directly to the president.

The president and his supporters insisted that they had nothing to do with the murder.

His tenure was also characterised by impressive economic growth and ambitious infrastructure projects, including the construction of a new section of motorway connecting Colombo's international airport with its political and commercial centre.

His supporters say that continued economic growth also brought other benefits, ensuring for example that food supplies remained constant after the devastating 2004 tsunami.

When money from the West dried up because of concerns over human rights abuses towards the end of the civil war, Mr Rajapaksa tried to offset this by making overtures to China.

Some $360m (£226m) of borrowed Chinese money helped build a huge deep-water port at Hambantota - near the former president's birthplace - on the southern coast. It has been a project mired by corruption allegations.

Other major projects include a 35,000-seat cricket stadium, a convention centre, a new international airport and a broad-gauge railway.

Hardliner

Mr Rajapaksa, 69, became the country's youngest ever parliamentarian in 1970 at the age of 24.

Image caption The former president even has a cricket ground - the Mahinda Rajapaksa stadium - named after him

He went on to become leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, prime minister in 2004, and then president in 2005.

He comes from a political family - his father, DA Rajapaksa, represented the same region of Hambantota from 1947 to 1965.

His cause was helped by his image as a folksy, back-slapping man of the masses. The former president is renowned for remembering peoples' names, and stripping to the waist when he visited temples.

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