Mahinda Rajapaksa: A Visionary Statesman

Mahinda Rajapaksa is a Sri Lankan politician serving as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka since 2019, and previously from 2004 to 2005. Rajapaksa is considered to be the most popular Sri Lankan politician of his time. He served as President of Sri Lanka from 2005 to 2015, as Leader of the Opposition from 2002 to 2004 and 2018 to 2019, and as Minister of Finance from 2005 to 2015 and 2019 to 2021. The Honorable Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka on 21 November 2019. He has been the Member of Parliament (MP) for Kurunegala since 2015. Rajapaksa was born into a large upper-caste family and was brought up as a Buddhist.

Throughout much of his childhood, his father, D.A. Rajapaksa, served as a member of the Sri Lankan parliament, holding the Beliatta seat from 1947 to 1965. Rajapaksa did not pursue undergraduate study; however, he received a law degree from Colombo Law College in 1974. Mahinda Rajapaksa was the 5th President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. His election for a second term of office in the Presidential Election, held on January 26, 2010, saw 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, stronger democracy and rapid economic development. The re-election of Mahinda Rajapaksa took place in the first nationwide election held after the defeat of the LTTE in May in 2009, and the first where people from all parts of the country were free to participate in elections after more than two decades.

Mahinda Rajapaksa was 24 years when he was first elected to Parliament as a Sri Lanka Freedom Party member (SLFP), from the Beliatta electorate in 1970. He was then the youngest Member of Parliament and represented the same electorate his father did. He practiced law mainly in the southern town of Tangalle, from 1977 to 1994, which kept him closely in touch with the people and their needs, and also the development needs of the southern region, until his appointment as a Minister in 1994. After losing his parliamentary seat in 1977, he regained it in the parliamentary election that followed in 1989. He was re-elected to Parliament from the Hambantota District under proportional representation, and held that position until his election as Executive President in November 2005. At the time, the Sri Lankan government was in the midst of ongoing peace talks and a precarious cease-fire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, the guerrilla organization that sought to establish an independent Tamil state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, Rajapaksa announced his intention in 2006 to eradicate the separatist group, which had operated as both a rebel army and a de facto government in parts of Sri Lanka for more than 20 years. In 2009 the Sri Lankan army defeated the Tamil forces, ending the country’s long civil war. Mahinda Rajapaksa went through the most trying period during the first five months of his Presidency, from barely two weeks after his election, with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launching attacks on the security forces and civilians. From early December 2005 until mid-April 2006, then President Rajapaksa showed considerable patience and forbearance, for which he won international admiration, in the face of provocative violence by the LTTE that killed nearly 600. He allowed limited attacks on LTTE positions only after it carried out a failed suicide-bomb attack to assassinate the Army Commander in April 2006. He demonstrated his commitment to peace and negotiation by re-opening talks with the LTTE, which it had unilaterally walked away from in April 2003. But the LTTE did not reciprocate his moves for peace.

His presidency after ending the civil war is known for the initiating the large scale infrastructure projects such as the, Colombo Lotus Tower, Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port, Colombo Harbour South Container Terminal, Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, Colombo – Katunayake Expressway, Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium. Sri Lanka also made it into the “high” category of the Human Development Index during this time. Initiating, completing and development of many Highways, Roads, Colombo beautification project, Rural infrastructure development projects are some several major projects. Throughout Rajapaksa’s presidency he worked to develop the country’s business and tourism sectors as well as its infrastructure. A key development project was a new port in his home district of Hambantota, built with aid from China. His brothers—Gotabaya, Basil, and Chamal held prominent positions in his administration, serving respectively as secretary of defense, special adviser, and ports and aviation minister. Their support was instrumental in the defeat of the Tamil Tigers.

His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa had no sudden rise to the Presidency of Sri Lanka. He came through many decades of service to the people, demonstrating an unfailing loyalty to his political party and its leadership, and boldly facing the rough and tumble of politics. His Highness Mahinda Rajapaksa won the Presidency of Sri Lanka on a wide-ranging policy, which was largely people oriented and was laid out in the Mahinda Chinthana “The Concepts of Mahinda” which promised, among others, the defeat of terrorism and the advance of democracy. It also offered social democratic approaches to economic and social issues, the continuance of social welfare policies such as free education and free health, an end to privatization of the state sector, a huge commitment to infrastructure development, strengthening of the rural sector of the economy, protection of the environment and the upholding of traditional values such as the humane treatment of animals.

Mahinda Rajapaksa went through the most trying period during the first five months of his Presidency, from barely two weeks after his election, with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launching attacks on the security forces and civilians. From early December 2005 until mid-April 2006, then President Rajapaksa showed considerable patience and forbearance, for which he won international admiration, in the face of provocative violence by the LTTE that killed nearly 600. He allowed limited attacks on LTTE positions only after it carried out a failed suicide-bomb attack to assassinate the Army Commander in April 2006. He demonstrated his commitment to peace and negotiation by re-opening talks with the LTTE

His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa is considered to be the most popular Sri Lankan politician of his time. He is referred as King by his supporters and television ads where songs are sung by school children in his rallies hail him as our father and father of the country. Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was presented with the Nalanda Keerthi Sri award in 2004 by his alma mater, Nalanda College. He has been given three honorary doctorates. The first was a Doctor of Law from the University of Colombo on 6 September 2009. The second degree was awarded by the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia in 2010 for his contribution to world peace and outstanding success in defeating terrorism. Sri Lankan Prime minister was given an honorary doctorate by the Beijing University of Foreign Languages in China in August 2011. The Visva Bharati University of Calcutta in India conferred on him the title Professor Emeritus for his record on human rights. Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, Magampura Mahinda Rajapaksa Port, Nelum Pokuna Mahinda Rajapaksa Theatre, and Mahinda Rajapaksa International Stadium were all high-profile lavish infrastructure projects initiated by Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa during his administration and named for him.

In the mid-fifties the Rajapaksa family moved to Colombo and Mahinda Rajapaksa was admitted to Nalanda College, Colombo. Later in 1957 he transferred to Thurstan College, where he took part in sports such as cricket, rugger and athletics and became the putt shot champion. In the mid-sixties he started work as a library assistant at the Vidyodaya Pirivena and soon became active in leftwing politics. He became a member of the Ceylon Mercantile Union and was elected it’s branch secretary in 1967. His father who had lost his parliamentary seat the 1965 general elections, died in November 1967. The Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) party leader Sirima Bandaranaike offered his father’s post of SLFP party organizer for the Beliatta electorate to his older brother Chamal. Chamal who had joined the Ceylon Police Force as a Sub-inspector, turndown Mrs Bandaranaike’s offer in favor of his younger brother and Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed as SLFP organizer for Beliatta in 1968. Mahinda Rajapaksa contested the 1970 general elections as the SLFP candidate for the Beliatta constituency and was elected to the House of Representatives having gained 23,103 votes against his rival Dr. Ranjit Atapattu from the United National Party (UNP) who gained 16,477. At the time he was the youngest member of parliament (MP) at the age of twenty four years and served as a backbencher in the governing party. Following changes to the admission process to the Sri Lanka Law College, which allowed young MPs to gain admission, he entered Sri Lanka Law College and studied law while serving as an MP.

In November 1977, Mahinda Rajapaksa was called to the bar as an attorney at law. He thereafter started his legal practice in criminal law in the Unofficial Bar in Tangalle, which he did until 1994. His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa is a lawyer by profession, and was first elected to the Parliament of Sri Lanka in 1970. He served as the leader of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party from 2005 to 2015. His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in for his first six-year term as president on 19 November 2005. He was subsequently re-elected in 2010 for a second term. His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa was defeated in his bid for a third term in the 2015 presidential election by Maithripala Sirisena, and he left office on 9 January 2015. Later that year, His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa unsuccessfully sought to become Prime Minister in the 2015 parliamentary election; that year, the United People’s Freedom Alliance was defeated. He was, however, elected as the Member of Parliament for the Kurunegala District. On 26 October 2018, His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed to the office of prime minister by President Maithripala Sirisena after the United People’s Freedom Alliance withdrew from the unity government. He became Prime Minister again on 21 November 2019 after being appointed by his brother, Gotabaya His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had become president on 18 November after winning the 2019 Sri Lankan presidential election. On 9 August 2020, His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa was sworn in as Prime Minister of Sri Lanka for the fourth time at a Buddhist temple on Colombo’s outskirts.

Loyalty to principle and party has been the hallmark of His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political philosophy. In this, he followed the example set by his father, especially in the loyalty he showed to the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), which he helped found and to the late S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike and Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike whose leadership and politics he accepted, and was deeply loyal to Mrs. Bandaranaike and the SLFP, the leader and party that brought him to Parliament. His loyalty to the SLFP, which was responsible for the ups and downs in his politics, just like his father’s, has kept him with the party from the time he was a youth activist and throughout his political life as a Member of Parliament, Cabinet Minister, Leader of the Opposition, Prime Minister and as the country’s President. It is this loyalty that saw him chosen as Prime Minister after the General Election of April 2004, when the United People’s Freedom Alliance, a coalition led by the SLFP, won a majority in Parliament. He had by then risen to the position of Senior Vice President of the SLFP. Loyalty to party also saw him chosen as the SLFP’s presidential nominee in November 2005.

His tenure was characterized 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 center. Rajapaksa’s second term oversaw sustained economic growth, and he continued to enjoy the strong support of the large Sinhalese majority in the country. Mahinda Rajapaksa maintained an image of security and stability in 2020 as the global COVID-19 pandemic took hold, especially as Sri Lanka reported much lower rates of COVID-19 infections and deaths than other South Asian countries.

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About Amna Malik 61 Articles
Author is the President, Center of Pakistan and International Relations (COPAIR) and Editor-in-Chief of ‘Mélange int’l Magazine’ and ‘ The Asian Telegraph’.