Profile: Mahinda Rajapaksa

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa attends the inaugural session of the commonwealth business forum in Colombo on 12 November 2013 The president's core support is rural, conservative and Buddhist

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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is credited by many Sinhalese people for winning the war against Tamil Tiger rebels who for more than 20 years held the country hostage by suicide bombings and gun attacks.

But to human rights campaigners and many in the minority Tamil community, his tenure in power - especially at the time of the final defeat of the rebels in 2009 - has been dogged by allegations of serious human rights abuses.

While the president 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 allegations of rape and torture of Tamil civilians by the Sri Lankan security forces in the four years since it concluded.

Furthermore it is alleged that, since 2009, he has made no real effort to seriously engage with the Tamil community - who comprise about 10-15% of the population - instead opting to order a wave of repression directed at those who question his authority or the authority of his government.

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.

Ruthless streak

Apart from defeating the rebels, the high point of his political career has been his election win over Sarath Fonseka in January 2010.

A Tamil woman carries fallen leaves and branches in Jaffna Few in Sri Lanka's Tamil community are admirers of the president

In both triumphs, his 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 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 has, over the last eight years, not been seriously challenged either from within his own party or from the ranks of the opposition. Reports abound that he is grooming his eldest son, Namal, to succeed him.

The president has in fact used his time in power to consolidate his position: The constitution has been changed to allow him to serve a third term and dozens of his relatives hold government posts. They are estimated to control nearly half of the country's annual budget.

During his first stint in the top office he was accused of condoning a crackdown on dissent. His supporters were alleged to have been involved in the murder of journalists who were critical of the government, claims rejected by the authorities.

'Unbridled corruption'

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

Polling officers carrying ballot boxes walk with police officers as they prepare to go to their polling centres ahead of first provincial polls in 25 years in Jaffna (20 September 2013) Critics say the president has consolidated his hold on power despite losing elections in Tamil-majority Jaffna in September 2013

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 at the president.

The president and his supporters strenuously denied any involvement in the murder.

Mahinda Rajapaksa

  • Born on 18 November 1945 in the southern rural district of Hambantota
  • Educated at Richmond College, Galle, Malinda College Colombo and later Thurston College, Colombo
  • Became the youngest Member of Parliament at just 24 in 1970
  • Studied law at Sri Lanka Law College in 1977
  • Appointed minister of labour in 1994 and became leader of the opposition in 2002
  • Became prime minister in 2004 and president in November 2005

His tenure in power has also been characterised by economic growth - the government says that it is now at 7% a year - while embarking on several new infrastructure projects including the recent 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 has also brought other benefits, ensuring for example that food supplies remained constant after the devastating 2004 tsunami.

When money from the West looked as if it may dry up because of concerns over human rights abuses towards the end of the civil war, the president tried to offset this by making overtures to China.

A huge deep-water port, built with $360m (£226m) of borrowed Chinese money is being built at Hambantota - near the president's birth place - on the southern coast, as is a new 35,000-seat cricket stadium, a convention centre and a new international airport. A broad-gauge railway is likewise under construction.

The combination of victory in war and economic progress has ensured that the president's support in the south has remained constant.

His cause has been helped by his image as a folksy, back-slapping man of the masses. One writer has described him as more of an uncle than an ogre, exuding the hearty bonhomie of the rugby player he once was.

The president is renowned for remembering peoples' names, and stripping to the waist when he visits temples.

"He comes across as the home-grown country boy [to the poor farmers and fishermen] whom they feel comfortable with," analyst Jehan Perera told the Associated Press.

Hardliner

Mr Rajapaksa, 68, became the country's youngest ever parliamentarian in 1970 at the age of 24.

Sri Lanka's Mahinda Rajapaksa Stadium The 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.

When Mr Rajapaksa became prime minister, he was seen as someone who favoured a negotiated settlement with the Tamil Tiger rebels.

But after signing a poll deal with two nationalist parties, his stance became increasingly hard-line.

He launched his campaign for the presidency by rejecting the rebels' demands for Tamil autonomy.

After four years of bitter fighting, President Rajapaksa hailed the defeat of the rebels as a vindication of his tough and uncompromising stance against them.

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