I first met President Rajapaksa when I was 11 years old. I had won a national short story competition and the Ministry of Cultural Affairs had taken me and several other winners to Temple Trees to see the President. He was a rare and skilled politician. He knew the game and he played it very well. He had a clever way of making people feel comfortable around him. He patted our heads spoke to us for a long time; asked us about school and home. We were infatuated. He had us hooked. The other kids and I would go home and tell our friends and family what a great man he was. He was simple, loving, almost god-like. “He’s like a father, not a President,” the kid from Mahiyangana who was the winner of the Sinhala short story category said on our way out. Little did we know, that was all politics. Politics was all PR and propaganda; and Rajapaksa knew this very well.
I met him again when I was sixteen, when I won the State Award for the Best Novel of the year. By then I had read many books on democracy and governance, and I was starting to realize what Rajapaksa was up to. He was playing us. He was satisfying his electorates in every way he could, and ignoring the rest of his duties. By 2012 at least 30% of the people had noticed this, with the way he treated General Fonseka and his supporters, and by 2013 40% of the people were talking about the growing nepotism. By 2014, he had resorted to creating internal conflict within religious communities to distract the people from the economic menace that the country was in due to mishandling of state resources; bad move on his part, and his opposition grew to 50-55%. His propaganda was no longer effective and come 2015 elections, he is defeated.
Although Sri Lanka was declared an electoral democracy in 1948, Rajapaksa’s political propaganda referred to him as the “king” of Sri Lanka. His henchman, locally renowned historian and artist Jackson Anthony even went a step further to tweak Sri Lanka’s history to tie up the Rajapaksa’s to King Suddhodhana of India, Lord Buddha’s father. According to Jackson Anthony the Rajapaksas weren’t just royalty; they were holy. But as the 2015 elections came closer, and the poll predictions and the public support went further away from him, Rajapaksa showed his true colors. In his campaign concluding speeches, he asked his people to vote for him because he was “the known devil.” This post explores the life and leadership of a rare holy devil: Mahinda Rajapaksa, the last king of Sri Lanka.
Rajapaksa came to power in 2005 in an inhumanly rigged in election. An alleged political deal with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam, (also known as LTTE, the separatist terrorist group that led the 30 year civil war in Sri Lanka) stopped the war-struck citizens of Northern Sri Lanka from voting. On Election Day, bombs were set off at polling stations. LTTE motorcades roamed the streets, watching out. Vehicles that attempted to transport voters were set on fire. The few who were rebellious enough to still go to the polling stations were assaulted, sometimes killed. In Jaffna, the heart of the North, a youth activist was beaten to death in the Hindu College grounds. One man who voted had his inked finger cut off, clarifying the message to the others. With his voter base lying majorly in the island’s ethnic minorities, all the voters who were suppressed from voting in the North were supporters of candidate Ranil Wickremesinghe and his more conciliatory stance on the ethnic issue (as opposed to Rajapaksa’s militarist- solution) Mahinda Rajapaksa suffocated the lion of Sri Lankan democracy and made a red carpet out of its leather to make his illegitimate entrance to leadership with a 50.2% majority “victory”. His extensive plan for the next three years, brings a military solution to end Sri Lanka’s 30 year civil war. Rajapaksa runs for a second term immediately after the military victory, and has a landslide win thanks to the nationalist citizens elated over the end of the war.
Early Life and Political Career
Percy Mahendra (Mahinda) Rajapaksa was born to a prominent political family in Southern Sri Lanka. His uncle D.M. Rajapaksa began the family trend of wearing the earthy brown shawl that represents kurakkan (finger millet,) cultivation of which makes the livelihood of most his electorate. Rajapaksa studied at Richmond College in Southern Sri Lanka and later moved to Nalanda and Thurston more prominent city schools in Colombo. Mahinda Rajapaksa is also a talented actor who played roles in several Sinhala movies, skills acquired from which came to his benefit later in his political career. Following his father’s death in 1967, Rajapaksa is replaced as the SLFP candidate for the Beliatta constituency and was elected to the Parliament of Sri Lanka in 1970 as the youngest Member of Parliament at just 24 years old. In 1994 Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed the Minister of Labor under the incumbent president Chandrika Bandayanaike Kumaratunge. When he lost is position in the government in United National Party’s sweeping victory in 2002, he was appointed the leader of the opposition. Following the General Elections of 2004, Rajapaksa is appointed the 13th Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and also the Minister of Highways.
Corruption, media- repression and violence
The deadly tsunami of 2004 hit Sri Lanka during Rajapaksa’s time as the Minister of Highways and Prime Minister. There are many strong allegations of tsunami aid embezzlement by the Rajapaksas, allegations which would very well explain Rajapaksa’s very expensive political campaign (and alleged rigging deal with the LTTE) in the following year. The Golden Wave by Michele Gamburd speaks very descriptively of the debate of the Rs. 83 Million of Tsunami aid that Rajapaksa transferred to three private bank accounts of his. In Sri Lanka, however, these conversations have been very cleverly hidden away. Rajapaksa being a militaristic leader often used the power of forces as self-defense mechanism. Rajapaksa had the media on his hook. The Sunday Leader was one of the few media sources that was fearless enough to question Rajapaksa’s extremely unethical and suspicious way of handling the tsunami aid. The Sunday Leader questioned Rajapaksa’s Helping Hambanthota project which he claimed he was using the international aid funds for. It questioned why the aid meant for the entire countries rehabilitation was scheduled to be used only in Hambanthota, why the aid was transferred to private accounts, and why the signatories of the accounts were not government officials. Although the other local media corporations succumbed to Rajapaksa’s oppression, The Sunday Leader continued to speak of Rajapaksa and his administration’s allegations of corruption. Before long, the editor of The Sunday Leader, Lasantha Wickremethunga was brutally murdered by four armed assassins riding motorcycles who broke into his vehicle breaking its window and shooting him in broad daylight amidst (high security zone) Colombo’s traffic. Lasantha is one of many journalists who have been killed, abducted or reported missing during the reign of the Rajapaksa regime. Almost all active mainstream media outlets that criticized the Rajapaksa regime were banned and attacked (Capital Maharaja, the country’s leading private media corporation was once burnt to the ground, invaded and attacked by 15 masked gunmen who destroyed their equipment another time)
From Democratic Socialist to Competitive Authoritarian
During his time as president Mahinda Rajapaksa was able to successfully transition Sri Lanka from a democratic socialist republic to a competitive authoritarian regime. Competitive authoritarian regimes are civilian regimes in which democratic public institutions exist and are generally viewed as the main means of gaining power, and those in power use their power abusively to gain an advantage over citizens, often creating elite capture. Those in power in competitive authoritarian regimes have executive power over legislatures. Civil liberties including free and fair elections, the right to criticize the government are violated. Elected leaders of the Rajapaksa regime did not have the real authority or control. In his last year as president Rajapaksa resorted to promoting government driven internal insurgency by funding ethnic clashes between the Sinhalese and Muslims. He believed that this would reactivate his Sinhala extremist nationalist voter base.
Nepotism too was large defining element of the Rajapaksa Regime. Two of Rajapaksa’s brothers held key executive branch posts as defense secretary and the minister of economic development, while a third brother was the speaker of Parliament.
The Last Act
After almost a decade as President, Rajapaksa was overthrown from his position in the 2015 election reaffirming the power of the people and the dominance of civil society. While the people are the most significant element of a nation’s politics it is important to identify the role of leaders and their methods of convincing the people of their vision. Some do this through well-constructed, organized political propaganda, others do it through a genuine exemplary lifestyle and personality. Most do it through a balance of both of these methods. However being a political figure merely driven through political propaganda is exhausting and often hits a dead-end after a while. Rajapaksa was a product of well thoughtout political propaganda.
Efforts of Reincarnation
Rajapaksa has plans to contest in the parliamentary election of 2015. Many argue this is an attempt to regain his Presidency. A valid concern: if Rajapaksa runs for Parliament and is by chance elected Prime Minister, he is one gun shot away from becoming President again. This has to be his agenda, and I will explain why.
A retired president is entitled to the same privileges as a cabinet minister, i.e. he is entitled to:
- A residence of his choice
- Equal protection/ security as a Cabinet Minister.
- Ninety seven thousand five hundred rupees monthly allowance scheme.
- Official office and staff
- A bulletproof official car and security vehicles
- Fuel Allowance
- State sponsorship to pursue invitations from foreign governments.
As of right now, about 30% of The country’s voter-base is for the SLF and another 30% is for the UNP another 8-15% is committed to supporting other parties . If Rajapaksa is to pursue his dream to be Prime Minister he has to contest either from SLFP or UNP, if not the chances of his appointment as PM are statistically little to nil.
When I see people blindly support Mahinda Rajapaksa, despite his corruption, racism and selfish unethical way of life, I understand it to some extent, because at one point in my life I was blind to it too. It is easy to be misled. I’ve realized that a lot of the time when people are scared of democracy, it is because they have seldom been exposed to it in their lifetime. What we can learn from the story of Rajapaksa is that when nations are vulnerable due to many reasons ranging from conflict to low standards of education, it is easy for its people to be manipulated by political propaganda. Moving forward we need to make sure that lessons are learned and the same mistakes aren’t repeated.
This post has been copied by several news sites and blogs under various headlines. This is the original version of this post.
 Welikumbura, Ceylon.net