A political icon | Daily News


A political icon

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa completed 50 years in Parliament yesterday, having first entered the August Assembly on June 7, 1970, following the General Elections of May 27, 1970. Along with Vasudeva Nanayakkara and Athauda Seneviratne, Prime Minister Rajapaksa is the only living politician to pass this significant milestone this year.

Politics came naturally to young Mahinda, whose father D.A. Rajapaksa was a founding member of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party in 1951. Rajapaksa senior was a reluctant entrant to politics, having been persuaded to do so upon the death of his brother D.M. Rajapaksa, the Lion of Ruhuna. But it did not take too long for him to win the hearts of the people in the Deep South and enter Parliament with their support.

When Mahinda Rajapaksa entered Parliament just three years after the death of his father, he was only 24 and the youngest MP in the House as well as in the Government led by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was described in a recent interview by Prime Minister Rajapaksa as one of the most inspiring figures in his life. This was a record that would not be broken for 30 long years, until Duminda Dissanayake was elected as a MP for Anuradhapura at the age of 21 in 2000.

Mahinda Rajapaksa showed his potential for leadership from his early days in Parliament, actively contributing to the debates and activities of Parliament. The Prime Minister valued his inputs as a representative voice of the youth, especially in the context of the 1971 insurrection that surfaced as a result of youth frustrations over several factors such as marginalization, lack of opportunities etc. Not surprisingly, he played a leading role in highlighting the oppression of youth and human rights violations during the second Southern youth insurrection that occurred 17 years later. From Jana Gosha to Pada Yatra campaigns, he showed his commitment these causes and emerged as a potential leader of the SLFP. Just five years later, Mahinda Rajapaksa would be appointed as a Minister and a decade later, as the country’s 13th Prime Minister.

With the Presidential Election of 2005 looming, there was a debate in political circles over who would become the SLFP/PA Presidential Candidate, with the incumbent President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga having completed the constitutionally mandated maximum of two terms. But the leadership could not ignore the massive groundswell of grassroots and public support for Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa and his presidential candidacy was inevitable. Many political forces including the JVP supported his candidature.

Although many foreign commentators described him as a “hawkish” President upon his election in 2005, Mahinda Rajapaksa had publicly stated the need for peace talks with the LTTE. (A ceasefire was in effect, largely in name only, as the LTTE had breached it many times). The LTTE pulled out of peace talks in 2006 and continued a killing spree, though Government Forces acted with utmost restraint. However, the final straw was the LTTE’s blockage of the Mavil Aru anicut, which denied water to more than 15,000 farmers. President Rajapaksa said “water was a non-negotiable fundamental human right”. The battle for Mavil Aru extended all the way up the final liberation of the entire East.

The attention – and battle lines – naturally shifted to the North, where, after a massive, gruelling campaign, the Security Forces crushed LTTE terrorism on May 19, 2009. President Rajapaksa’s political leadership as well as giving a free hand to his younger brother Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa to coordinate the military strategy had been widely attributed to the success of the assault against the LTTE. It is for this single and singular event that Mahinda Rajapaksa will be remembered for and defined by for all time, even if one forgets his other achievements from expressways to massive development projects that continued amidst the war and afterwards.

This was something that even his bitterest critics agreed on. Once, when an interviewer asked one of his fiercest political opponents why the modern Mahawamasa has dedicated at least three chapters for President Mahinda Rajapaksa for winning the war, the simple reply was “he deserves more”. That illustrates how Sri Lankans viewed this achievement, though sections of the international community had quite a different idea. This difference of opinion on the final stages of the war would continue throughout his second term as well, with Western powers threatening to sanction Sri Lanka. Yet he steadfastly maintained that Sri Lankan Security Forces did not commit any human rights violations.

In 2015, when he was defeated, his initial pledge to move away from the mainstream of politics did not materialize as a massive campaign built up to bring him back to the political forefront. Today, as Prime Minister, he has the unique distinction of carrying on his legacy with his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The Coronavirus pandemic has once again brought his leadership qualities to the fore at a time when the country needs it most.

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