First of Three Part Series
The Rise of Mahinda Rajapaksa
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s biggest achievement is usually thought to be defeating the LTTE while he was the Executive President. It was no mean achievement, all right, but it comes nowhere near the feat of surviving President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, whose aristocratic feathers Mahinda dared ruffle on several occasions. Many thought it was curtains for him politically when Chandrika became the President.
In the late 1980s, during a Mothers’ Front rally in Matara, riled by Chandrika’s presence on the stage in the company of other Opposition firebrands and her attempt to hog the limelight, a pugnacious Mahinda pounced on her, uttering expletives. She was made to leave. Little did he realise that he had got under the skin of a Bandaranaike and made a sworn enemy. He repeated the same mistake in 1992, when Chandrika was trying to return to the SLFP’s fold. The late Anura Bandaranaike, the then heir apparent to the late SLFP leader Mrs. Sirima Bandaranaike, and Mahinda were leading a protest march against the Premadasa government, from Horagolla to Colombo, when Chandrika tried to join it near the Sangabohdi Vidyalaya, Nittambuwa. An irate Mahinda, apparently not wanting to share the credit for the protest with anyone else, or given his visceral hatred towards her, had her booed off.
Chandrika succeeded in rejoining the SLFP despite protests from some party seniors, becoming the Prime Minister in August 1994 and securing the executive presidency two months later. She sought to return the favour; she would have been more than happy to deny Mahinda a ministerial post, but she knew he was a force to be reckoned with within the party. She tried to make him the Buddha Sasana Minister so that he would be without any clout to further his political interests, but her loyalists such as Mangala Samaraweera prevailed on her to change her mind. Mahinda was appointed the Minister of Labour first and then Minister of Fisheries. All that Mahinda needed was a toehold in Chandrika’s Cabinet, and he got a foothold.
It is said that he who pursues the stag regards not the hare. Mahinda had presidential ambitions though he was careful not to draw others’ attention thereto unnecessarily. He launched his presidential election campaign, a low-key one at that, the day he was appointed a Cabinet minister.
Former Prime Minister and SLFP leader Sirima Bandaranaike was not getting any younger and Chandrika could not serve more than two terms. Mahinda was young enough to wait. And wait he did patiently, winning over the SLFP seniors who appreciated his camaraderie and loyalty to the party. Anura Bandaranaike’s exit from the SLFP in a huff, following a row with his mother, who had him sacked from the party, and joining the UNP stood both Mahinda and Chandrika in good stead.
Try as she might, Chandrika could not undermine Mahinda in the party. She, as the President, asserted herself in the SLFP and nobody dared incur her wrath. Instead, everybody tried to humour her. It is said that all ministers used to get up even when her dog entered the room where they had the weekly Cabinet meeting, at Temple Trees. The truth, however, was that the arrival of her favourite canine signaled her grand entry—albeit a few hours behind schedule on most occasions. Mahinda did not take her on while she was the President, but he knew more than one way to skin a cat.
News about crucial Cabinet decisions and issues which were detrimental to the interests of the Kumaratunga government were leaked. Chandrika suspected Mahinda and accused him at Cabinet meetings of leaking information to the media. She called him the Reporter of her Cabinet. Mahinda once raised objections when she called him a reporter. He jokingly requested her to call him an editor because he was now a Cabinet minister.
Mahinda’s PR worked and in the early Nineties, the majority of party bigwigs were with him; Chandrika had been reduced to a lame duck president. Her attempt to abolish the executive presidency and continue to be in power as the Executive Prime Minister had come a cropper in 2000 and her days were numbered. Her attempt to introduce a new Constitution to abolish the executive presidency with more powers devolved to proposed regional councils was torpedoed by the UNP and the JVP jointly in Parliament.
Mahinda’s rise in the SLFP became manifest during the UNP-led United National Front government (2001-2004) of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who toppled the Kumaratunga administration in 2001 by engineering mass crossovers. Mahinda became the Opposition Leader and an opportunity presented itself for him to prove himself as a fighter again. Chandrika would regret having appointed him to that post.
Mahinda is what he is today because of his penchant for fighting and his remarkable ability to start over from scratch. He became the youngest MP in 1970, at the age of 24, representing the Beliatta electorate. But, seven years later, he failed to retain his seat vis-à-vis the UNP’s mammoth victory at the 1977 general election. He had to resign himself to a 12-year-long stay in the political wilderness. The proverbial silver lining of the dark cloud of defeat, however, was that he was able to pit himself against the mighty J. R. Jayewardene regime and, thereby, make a name for himself in national politics while endearing himself to the party’s rank and file as well as the general public. The SLFP had to fight back against tremendous odds and Mahinda was in it for the long haul, unwaveringly. He led the party’s battle from the front.
Mahinda’s right arm still keeps him reminded of his Opposition days. Those who are close to him are aware that he is troubled by a nagging pain in that limb. That pain has a history. He was flanking former Prime Minister and SLFP leader Sirima in the late 1970s at a public meeting when a man under Dutch courage said something uncomplimentary about her. Mahinda flew off the handle and jumped off the stage in a bid to assault the culprit, but someone grabbed him by his right arm to prevent the drunkard being beaten to a pulp. A furious Mahinda was already airborne and slap-bang he fell between the stage and the tippler with his hand still held by his comrade; the jerk nearly dislodged his arm.
He would continue to fight and get thrown behind bars by the JRJ government, which accused him of possessing un-authorised firearms. That charge was later dropped and he was released. He became even more popular.
The heavily rigged 1982 presidential election and the referendum which followed provided Mahinda with an opportunity to prove himself as a political matador, capable of taking the UNP bull by the horns. The second JVP uprising, which plunged the country into a bloodbath, provided the up-and-coming SLFP leaders with a whole lot of opportunities to prove their mettle. Mahinda, a lawyer by profession, seized time by the forelock. He campaigned tirelessly against widespread human rights violations including arbitrary arrests, illegal detention, torture and extrajudicial killings, which were the order of the day. His human rights campaign helped him project himself as a man of the people.
Mahinda, accompanied by NSSP firebrand, Vasudeva Nanayakkara, went to Geneva to take up Sri Lanka’s human rights violations under the Ranasinghe Premadasa government. Interestingly, the most ardent defender of that regime, in Geneva, was the LTTE! Prabhakaran was dependent on President Premadasa for arms, funds and building materials in its war against the Indian army, inducted in the North and the East, at that time. It was a supreme irony that about 20 years later, as the President, Mahinda would have others going to Geneva and accusing him of blatant human rights violations on his watch!
Mahinda revolutionised anti-government protests which had been limited to marches and rallies earlier. He introduced novel, impressive methods such as ‘human chain’ and ‘Jana Gosha’ and fashioned protest marches into much longer and more effective Paada Yaathras. He emulated protest movements in Latin America. The most successful of his protests was his famous march from Colombo to Kataragama during the Premadasa government, which was notorious for suppressing democratic dissent.
A seasoned protester and political strategist, Mahinda, as the Opposition Leader (2002-2004), took to anti-government demonstrations like a duck to water and used his newly gained position as a stepping stone to premiership.
It is believed that incumbent Prime Ministers win presidential elections. This is why Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe is bending over backwards and stomaching all indignities at the hands of President Maithripala Sirisena to keep the present government going until the next presidential election. Mahinda had been eyeing the premiership when the 2004 general election came about after Chandrika had sacked the UNF government. He wanted to contest the presidential election the following year.
Mahinda has made numerous blunders in spite of his political acumen and southern cunning. One of them was to throw in his lot with Anura and another to antagonise the JVP, after it had coalesced with the SLFP in 2004. He was averse to a coming together of the JVP and the SLFP and drummed up support for his efforts to scuttle the alliance in the making, but in vain. Following the impressive win the SLFP-led United Freedom Alliance (UPFA) scored at the 2004 general election, the JVP, which obtained 39 seats and ‘donated’, retaliated by pressuring President Kumaratunga not to appoint Mahinda the Prime Minister.
The JVP, in a confidential letter dated April 05, 2004 and signed by its General Secretary Tilvin Silva, urged President Kumaratunga to appoint Lakshman Kadirgamar the PM. It insisted that if he was not considered for that post, it should go to either Anura Bandaranaike or Maithripala Sirisena and no one else. It issued a not-so-veiled threat to pull out of the newly elected coalition unless its demand was heeded. Many thought Kadirgamar would become the PM as he was very popular in the party and close to Chandrika. But, the party was convinced otherwise; it wanted Mahinda as the PM. Anura could not be considered for the post because he had once defected to the UNP and the party’s rank and file would have rebelled against Chandrika if she had tried to make her wayward sibling the PM. Sirisena refused to accept premiership, saying that Mahinda was the party’s choice. Finally, Chandrika had to swear in Mahinda as the PM.
Battle for presidency
In 2005, President Kumaratunga was of the view that the next presidential election would be held the following year. She thought she could complete her 12th year in office though she had obtained her second term prematurely in 1999. But, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) invoked the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, seeking a determination. In the meantime, the SLFP, at a Central Committee meeting, selected Mahinda as its next presidential candidate. His name was proposed by the late Alavi Moulana and the decision to field him was unanimous. Sirisena tells us, in his biography, Aththai Saththai, that Chandrika thought the presidential election would be held in 2006 and the effect of Mahinda’s nomination, which went down well with the public, would be lost on the electorate with the passage of time; his popularity would be on the wane by the time of the election was called, and Anura would be able to run for President.
Luckily for Mahinda, the Supreme Court decided that the presidential election had to be held in 2005 itself. Chandrika had to retire, nay she was retired. Both she and her brother were furious. The latter publicly said the apex court ruling had been the outcome of a political conspiracy. He was not alone in holding that view, though. Mahinda is known for working in mysterious ways!
Chandrika did not throw her weight behind Mahinda in the presidential race. The state media were ordered to remain neutral and the electorate got the impression that Chandrika was backing Ranil. Sirisena tells us, in the aforesaid book, that having returned from an overseas tour, one week before the presidential election, Chandrika asked him who was going to win. Upon being told that it was Mahinda, Chandrika told Sirisena, “The party will benefit if Mahinda wins and Ranil’s victory will be good for me.” Sirisena tells us that he walked away, infuriated. Ironically, 10 years later, Sirisena, as the President thought likewise when Mahinda contested the 2015 parliamentary election in a bid to secure premiership.
President Kumaratunga made a public display of her animosity towards Mahinda in a bid to ruin his chances of winning. She took him on publicly at the SLFP’s 54th Anniversary celebrations at the Race Course on Sept. 02, 2005. She kicked up a row with Mahinda and vented her spleen on the latter in full view of the media. Mahinda had done that to her about 16 years ago in Matara and the boot was now on the other foot. A section of the state media carried out a campaign against Mahinda much to the advantage of UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, in the fray.
The UNP and a section of the SLFP loyal to Chandrika flogged the Helping Hambantota issue—alleged misuse of tsunami funds—in a bid to queer Mahinda’s pitch. Speculation was rife in political circles that he might even be arrested and remanded over that allegation on the eve of the presidential election. But, what was speculated did not come to pass.
Elephants and Tigers
The key contenders in the presidential fray were Mahinda and Ranil, and the honours were even. In a closely contested presidential election, the votes in the then LTTE-controlled areas would have tilted the balance in favour of Ranil. But, Prabhakaran decided to prevent the election being held in the areas under his control. His decision dealt a severe blow to the UNP’s campaign.
Prabhakaran needed a hawk as the President. He was desperate to regain international sympathy, which he was losing due to numerous ceasefire violations, and resume hostilities. A combat force like the LTTE needed action. There was no way Prabhakaran could provoke Ranil, who was given to appeasement, into retaliating and providing him with a casus belli. The LTTE had pulled out of negotiations under the UNP-led UNF government and was preparing for Eelam War IV at that time, having exploited the fragile ceasefire to the fullest for that purpose.
It is being argued in some quarters the LTTE got money to declare a polls boycott, which stood Mahinda in good stead. Whether the Rajapaksa’s bribed the LTTE or not cannot be independently verified. Prabhakaran is dead. He was the LTTE and the LTTE he. The decision to boycott the 2005 presidential polls was solely his and no one else’s. However, there is a person who may be able to enlighten us on this at least to some extent. It is TNA Leader R. Sampanthan, who announced the polls boycott in Kilinochchi in Nov. 2005.
The SLFP was not fully supportive of Mahinda in the presidential race. But, some members of Chandrika’s kitchen Cabinet backed him to the hilt. They included Mangala Samaraweera, Sirisena and Nimal Siripala de Silva. They got Chandrika’s goat for doing that. The JVP, which had done its damnedest to prevent him from becoming the PM, made an about-turn and chose to throw in its lot with him; it carried out his propaganda work very effectively. Mahinda won the race by a whisker.
Uneasy lies the head …
By the time Mahinda became President, the JVP had left the UPFA government on Chandrika’s watch in protest against a move to share tsunami relief with the LTTE in accordance with what came to be known as ‘the joint mechanism’. Mahinda inherited a shaky government, whose survival was in doubt. The uphill task before him was to shore up his administration.
Whether Mahinda is given to reading books is not known. But, he seems to have read one particular book, several times over, during his brief stint as an assistant at the Sri Jayewardenepura University library before entering politics. That is Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. He became a manipulator of the highest order. Faced with the prospect of losing power in Parliament, he chose to spring crossovers from the UNP at a rate. His strategy was to weaken the UNP so that it would not pose a threat to his government. His modus operandi worked. The UPFA government regained stability and completed its full term.
Fighting the war
Prabhakaran underestimated Mahinda and continued to violate the ceasefire agreement, which the western powers were keeping on a heart-lung machine, so to speak. He stepped up claymore mine attacks on police and military personnel. Mahinda took it all lying down initially, not wanting to antagonise the international community which was not well disposed towards him. The LTTE got emboldened so much so that Prabhakaran closed the Mavilaru anicut on July 21, 2006, depriving more than 20,000 people of water and pushing Mahinda against the wall. Mahinda had to act. He took up the gauntlet Prabhakaran threw down, and Eelam War IV broke out.
Prabhakaran was not prepared for a broad-front assault by the army as he could not fight on several fronts simultaneously. He lacked combatants and could not match the army’s fire power which has been boosted by newly acquired multi-barrel rocket launchers. Mahinda knew Prabhakaran’s weakness and capitalised thereon ruthlessly, by launching several successful recruitments drives and enhancing the army’s flexibility and ability to take casualties without calling off operations. He had a good team—Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, Army Commander Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, Navy Commander Vice Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda and Air Force Commander Air Vice Marshal Roshan Goonetileke. The police and the Civil Defence Force also played a vital role in the war. The combination clicked and Prabhakaran realised his blunder. He summoned the TNA MPs to Kilinochchi and asked them to bring international pressure to bear on Colombo to call off military offensives as on previous occasions. He said he could fight on until such time. He apparently thought the army would suspend or end operations within one year or so. It was a terrible military miscalculation. His plan went awry though foreign powers including the US, the UK and several other EU member states worked tirelessly to put the brakes on the Vanni war and remove the trapped LTTE leaders to safety.
The LTTE built a large airstrip at Iranamadu, which was capable of taking big planes. It struggled to keep it in good shape even at the height of war in spite of having small aircraft which could use even highways to take off and land. It looked as if Prabhakaran expected his saviours to come flying.
Mahinda had to fight a war on the diplomatic front. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner rushed to Colombo during the final stage of the war in April 2009 and did their best to enter the fast shrinking LTTE stronghold. They were denied permission. If they had managed to get there, the army would have been compelled to stop operations to ensure their safety, and the western powers would have made use of that opportunity to evacuate Prabhakaran and other Tiger leaders the way Indian had done in 1987, when the LTTE leader was trapped in Vadamarachchi. Mahinda must have seen through their strategy.
While the war was raging, the UNP-led Opposition, ably assisted by the JVP, went all out to topple the Rajapaksa government. They targeted the national budgets in 2007 and 2008. Their plan was to defeat a budget vote, forcing the government to resign. Much is being said about bribes given to the MPs of the current Parliament by Perpetual Treasuries and its subsidiaries, but, in 2010, the then Transport Minister Dallas Alahapperuma told a media conference that LTTE sympathisers had used foreign call girls as part of their campaign to get some UPFA MPs to vote against the budgets in 2007 and 2008 so as to bring down the government. Mahinda managed to retain control over Parliament.
Meanwhile, Norwegian special envoy Erik Solheim visited Colombo while Prabhakaran was offering stiff resistance in the Vanni. He met President Rajapaksa at Temple Trees and tried every trick in the book to get the latter to agree to a truce. Claiming that he was au fait with the LTTE, he spoke highly of Prabhakaran’s military powers. The Tiger chief was a brilliant strategist and he was capable of springing a big surprise for the army at a time of his choosing, Solheim said. President Rajapaksa minced no words when he told the Norwegian: “Prabhakaran is from the jungles of the North and I am from the jungles of the South. You wait and see who will emerge victorious.”
Mahinda knew that managing India was half the battle in defeating the LTTE. Scores of Tamil Nadu politicians sympathetic to the cornered Tigers were cranking up pressure on New Delhi to intervene to bring military operations in the Vanni to a close. Prabhakaran was pulling out all the stops to get Tamil Nadu to derail the war, which he was losing. In Tamil Nadu, M. Karunanidhi staged a fast unto death, demanding an end to Sri Lanka’s war. Respected former civil servant, Lalith Weeratunga, who was the Secretary to President Rajapaksa for ten years, has explained, in an article, published by Counterpoint on May 18, 2018, how India was managed by a Troika (Weeratunga, Basil Rajapaksa and Gotabhaya Rajapaksa). The Indian Troika consisted of M. K. Narayanan, National Security Advisor, Shankar Menon, Foreign Secretary and Vijay Singh, Defence Secretary.
India almost had the Vanni offensive stopped in April 2009, weeks before the elimination of Prabhakaran. New Delhi rushed Narayan to Colombo on April 24, 2009 with President Rajapaksa’s consent for a meeting at Temple Trees. Lalith has said in his article: “It was at this meeting that Narayanan conveyed a request of the Indian government to President Rajapaksa to stop any military activity in the North as the State Government elections in Tamil Nadu were to be held in mid-May that year. After an initial outburst, the President explained to the Indians that there was no possibility to let the LTTE off the hook in the last stages of the fight against terrorism.”
The use of the term, ‘outburst’ in the above-quoted para is of interest. It is an understatement. Lalith, being the refined ex-bureaucrat that he is, has put it very diplomatically for obvious reasons. This is what actually happened at that meeting. On being requested to stop military operations in view of the Tamil Nadu elections, President Rajapaksa went ballistic. He sprang to his feet, thundering: ‘I won’t stop the war. We will finish off terrorism even if you drop parippu again.’ The President was beside himself with rage and everyone present was stunned. The next moment, he composed himself and sat beside Narayan, saying: “My friend, we can’t stop military operations. We have to finish this war for the sake of all Sri Lankans. We deserve peace. We must let the whole world know that terrorists are not invincible. You cannot make peace with these savage killers who harm innocent men, women and children. I understand your position very well and you have to appreciate ours. Ask for anything else.” Before the meeting was over it was decided to stop firing heavy weapons. That decision, which was subsequently endorsed by the National Security Council, was conveyed to New Delhi straightaway. Delhi was happy. Karunanidhi gave up his fast, and Prabhakaran took one step closer to his grave.
During the final week of the Vanni conflagration, Mahinda avoided taking international calls, which came from Washington, London and, in short, from the four corners of the earth, urging him to declare a ceasefire. In the end, he went to his favourite hideout in Embilipitiya. A few days later, Prabhakaran, who had plunged the country into war by closing off a mini reservoir, died a painful death in the shallows of the Nandikadal lagoon.
(Next in the series: The fall of Mahinda Rajapaksa)