Bowing down to international pressure, Sri Lanka in September 2015 co-sponsored a United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution, which made it committed to fulfil a range of measures dealing with human rights, accountability and transitional justice.
Sri Lanka’s new Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, a lawyer-turned-politician, is hailed by the Sinhala Buddhist majority for ruthlessly vanquishing Tamil insurgency, but is also criticised by the international community for his human rights record and for pushing the country into the “Chinese debt trap”. Rajapaksa, 74, earlier served as the country’s president from 2005-2015, becoming South Asia’s longest-serving leader. However, it has not been a smooth sailing for Rajapaksa, a veteran street-fighter politician who entered parliament when he was just 24, becoming the country’s youngest ever parliamentarian in 1970. Known for remembering peoples’ names, Rajapaksa was chosen as prime minister after the general election of April 2004, when the United People’s Freedom Alliance, a coalition led by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, won a majority in Parliament. He was chosen as the Sri Lanka Freedom Party’s presidential nominee in November 2005.
Ending the nearly 30-year-long bloody civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), where all his predecessors had failed, Rajapaksa has turned a cobbled hold over power in 2005 into a thumping win in 2010, leading to political analysts labelling him “a man with a midas touch”. Rajapaksa, who describe himself as “a rebel with a cause”, had acknowledged a number of times that his crowning moment in his over four-decade political career was the victory against Tamil Tigers, who were controlling one-third of the island when Rajapaksa assumed office in 2005. However, he is accused of condoning sexual violence and extrajudicial killings allegedly by Lankan security forces during the civil war, which ended in May 2009 with the death of LTTE supremo Velupillai Prabhakaran. 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.
Bowing down to international pressure, Sri Lanka in September 2015 co-sponsored a United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution, which made it committed to fulfil a range of measures dealing with human rights, accountability and transitional justice. As many as 25 countries, including India, had voted in favour of the document in the 47-nation Council. During his presidency, Rajapaksa used his time in power to consolidate his position. The constitution was changed to allow him to serve a third term, and his three brothers were awarded influential positions, leading to accusations that he was running the country like a family firm. His domestic popularity appeared to wane during 2014 because of rising prices and concerns of corruption and abuse of power, and, in an attempt to secure another presidential term before losing support, he again called for an early presidential poll.
During his tenure as president, Rajapaksa concluded several deals with China, concerning India and the West. Critics say it was due to Rajapaksa that the country has fallen into the “Chinese debt trap”. The Hambantota port, which was funded by a Chinese loan during Mahinda’s regime, was leased to Beijing on a 99-year debt-for-equity swap in 2017 after the country failed to pay off the debt. His tenure as the president — especially during the final defeat of the rebels in 2009 — was dogged by allegations of serious human rights abuses, though when he started his political journey he was seen as a champion of human rights. He blamed the damage to his international image on Western conspiracy.
The presidential poll in early January 2015 proved to be an upset for Rajapaksa, as Maithripala Sirisena, formerly a member of the cabinet, defeated him and was sworn in as president. Later that year, Parliament restored a constitutional two-term limit on the presidency barring Rajapaksa from contesting again. In August, Rajapaksa was elected to Parliament, representing the Kurunegala district. In October 2018, Sirisena fired his Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and appointed Rajapaksa, the former strongman, in his place. Wickremesinghe challenged the move as unconstitutional. After Supreme Court’s intervention, Wickremesinghe was re-installed.
Later Rajapaksa and his supporters in Parliament defected from the ruling party and joined the SLPP, founded by his brother Basil, and he formally became the leader of the Opposition. The Easter bombings on April 21 that killed more than 250 people raised security challenges. The SLPP announced the presidential candidacy of Rajapaksa’s brother Gotabaya, who had served as his defence minister in the final years of the civil war. The brother-duo promised security amid worries about Islamic extremism. Gotabaya won the presidential election, the result of which was declared on Sunday. Gotabhaya on Wednesday named Rajapaksa as the new prime minister after incumbent Wickremesinghe announced his resignation following the election debacle.
Born on November 18, 1945, in Weeraketiya in Sri Lanka’s Deep South, Rajapaksa, who hails from a high-profile political family, is the second of nine siblings — six brothers and three sisters. His father D A Rajapaksa was a prominent politician in 1960’s in the Wijeyananda Dahanayake government and also a founding member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. He did his early schooling at Richmond College in the southern city of Galle. He also pursued his education from the Nalanda College and the Thurstan College in Colombo. He studied law at the Colombo Law College and qualified as an Attorney-at-Law.