Mahinda Rajapaksa’s rise in politics received a turbo boost from the war victory in May 2009, and his popularity reached the zenith. He had two options. He could either secure a second term and retire at the end of it gracefully as a truly national leader after bringing about national reconciliation, rebuilding the economy and restoring democracy or make the most of the unprecedented opportunity and try to be President for life. Mahinda chose the latter.
Rajapaksa is adept at making political mileage out of virtually anything. For instance, in August 2006, a rumour that some Buddha statues were emanating rays spread like a wildfire. Many claimed to have witnessed the ‘miracle’. The electronic media moved in and triggered mass hysteria. President Rajapaksa told a group of media heads at a breakfast meeting that the people were of the view that the ‘miracle’ was due to his government’s Mathata Thitha campaign aimed at creating a sober Sri Lanka.
Needless to say Mahinda exploited the war victory to the fullest to gain the maximum possible political mileage.
The defeat of the LTTE, in May 2009, led to euphoria with the people, painting the town red except in the former war zone which was still in a state of shock. The Rajapaksas’ were busy planning how to take ‘the tide in their affairs at the flood’ so that ‘it would lead to fortune’. They knew the collective memory of Sri Lankans was notoriously short and they had to act fast before the euphoria died down.
The Rajapaksas’ did not want to share the credit for the war victory with anyone else though they commended the commanders of the tri forces for their performance. On the political front they acted differently.
Fonseka’s political war
Meanwhile, the war-winning Army Commander, General Sarath Fonseka became one of the most sought after speakers at public functions. He was as egoistic as the Rajapaksas’ were and had the public believe that he alone had won the war and he would have defeated the LTTE single-handed with or without the Rajapaksas’ at the helm. His boastful claims reminded the discerning public of Bertolt Brecht’s poem, ‘A worker reads history’, wherein the following lines are found:
Young Alexander conquered India.
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Fonseka, the tough-talking officer, was known for his soldierly haughtiness and lack of control over his restless tongue. His increasing popularity was not to the liking of the ruling family.
Within weeks of the conclusion of the war, Fonseka was accorded a tumultuous welcome by the people of Ambalangoda, his home town where he was felicitated at a ceremony. The milling crowds eager to see the Army Commander, resulted in a massive traffic jam, prompting a presidential aide, who passed by the event and was caught up in the slow snarl of vehicles, to telephone President Rajapaksa, and warnthat Fonseka was becoming extremely popular and that he saw an emerging political threat.
Fonseka was kicked upstairs; he was made the Chief of Defence Staff and Navy Commander Admiral Wasantha Karannagoda, who did not get on with Fonseka, was appointed the Secretary to the Ministry of Highways. Fonseka rejected out of hand an offer to appoint him the Secretary to the Sports Ministry. This move riled him beyond measure. Air Chief Marshall Roshan Goonetileke maintained a low profile and avoided controversy, served his full term and hung up his boots.
Enter the JVP
The JVP was instrumental in fueling Fonseka’s presidential ambition. It was looking for a candidate who was strong and popular enough to challenge President Rajapaksa, who, it knew, would go for a snap presidential election. It wanted to get rid of Mahinda lest the SLFP should become stronger at its expense. It managed to convince Fonseka that he stood a better chance of securing the presidency if he became the common presidential candidate of the Opposition.
Fonseka apparently thought that with the JVP, the UNP, the TNA and the SLMC on its side, as the war-winning Army Chief, he would be able to become the President. Little did he realise that politics was a different ball game.
It is said that the JVP had been in touch with Fonseka during the last stages of the war in a bid to persuade him to run for President. But, there is no evidence to support this claim, which, however, has gained currency in political circles.
Election victory and open slather
The 2010 presidential election became an electoral contest between Mahinda vs the entire Opposition (the UNP, the JVP, the TNA and the SLMC) and the western members of the international community and the pro-LTTE groups, active overseas. Mahinda played his Sinhala-Buddhist card, which worked. The Colombo-based ‘commentariat’ or ‘punditocracy’ predicted that the Rajapaksa, the Commander-in-Chief and his former Army Commander Fonseka would finish neck and neck in the presidential race. But, Fonseka’s campaign failed to impress the ordinary people and the UNP did not throw its weight behind him fully.
Fonseka started ruining things for himself big time in politics. He did not care to mind his language and played into the hands of his opponents by going into temper tantrums in public. He went so far as to call his rivals the names of some animals and threaten to throw them behind bars first thing after grabbing power. He vowed to put the Rajapaksas in the prison garb. The Rajapaksa camp succeeded in using such utterances to vilify him as a person who was not fit to hold political office, much less the presidency. People were told that as he acted as a military person he would crush democracy under his jackboot if elected President.
Mahinda benefited from a combination of factors— his popularity, hard work, cunning and luck. With decades of experience under his belt, he overtook Fonseka, a political tenderfoot freshly out of military boots, and won hands down.
The re-election of Mahinda gave him and his family open slather or, at least, that was what they thought.
Mahinda and Einstein
What is the difference between Mahinda and Einstein? Put this question to anyone, and he or she will ask whether you are off your nut. But, the answer is that for Einstein everything was relative and for Mahinda relatives were everything. Many a true word is said to be spoken in jest. Mahinda’s strength has been his family, which has, paradoxically, been his weakness as well. His critics used to say he shared even his executive powers with his family members.
The Rajapaksa siblings got the lion’s share of the budgetary allocations much to the consternation of other ministers, who were wise enough to keep their traps shut without incurring the wrath of the ruling family. Minister Basil Rajapaksa had a finger in every pie in the government. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa kept the military and the police under his thumb.
President Rajapaksa indulged the whims of his three sons. They closed busy roads in Colombo for car races much to the inconvenience of the public. Drag races which disturbed people in some part of the city in the wee hours became the order of the day. Not even the Mahanayake Theras’ could prevent their races in the sacred city of Kandy.
The sky was the limit for the progeny of the President. They indulged, to their heart’s content, their passion for zipping around in flashy cars so much so that the detractors of the First Family coined a pithy slogan, which gained currency among the irate public—unta Lamborghini, apita badagini [Lamborghini for them and pangs of hunger for us).
The beginning of the fall: Attacks on democracy
The fall of President Mahinda Rajapaksa is attributable to multifarious factors, the main being the total mismanagement of his political fortunes. The arrogance of power blinds a leader to the most obvious pitfalls. This was true of President Rajapaksa, who thought no end of his popularity. He did not care two hoots about public opinion. Perhaps, he saw no reason to do so because the Opposition was too debilitated to offer resistance and he duped himself into believing that the people were without an alternative to his government.
The defeat of terrorism would not have been possible but for President Rajapaksa’s unwavering political leadership for the war. But, his government did not hesitate to suppress democracy, which it claimed to have saved, to further its interests.
The Rajapaksa government suppressed democratic dissent ruthlessly and carried out attacks on journalists and media institutions. His first term had seen quite a few instances where journalists were abducted, assaulted or killed. Among the journalist who were killed during President Rajapaksa’s first term were Lasantha Wickramatunga (Editor of The Sunday leader) on January 8, 2009, Paranirupasingham Devakumar (News 1st) on May 28, 2008, Selvarajah Rajeewarnam (Uthayan) on April 29, 2007, Subash Chandraboas (Nilam) on April 16, 2007, Subramaniyam Sugitharajah (Sudaroli) on January 24, 2006.
The Political Officer of the British High Commission Mahendra Ratnaweera and the Course Coordinator/Acting Manager, Press Freedom and Advocacy of the Sri Lanka Press Institute, Namal Perera were assaulted close to the Department of Information in Narahenpita in 2008. In the same year, The Nation Associate Editor Keith Noyahr was abducted and tortured. He was lucky that he escaped a painful death thanks to the intervention of the highest echelons of the Rajapaksa government.
President Rajapaksa did not care to rein in the dark forces that pursued media persons who did not toe the government line. Less than three weeks of the assassination of The Sunday Leader editor in January 2009, an attempt was made on the life of Upali Tennakoon, Editor of the Rivira Newspaper. The MTV/Sirasa and The Sunday Leader became marked targets under the Rajapaksa regime. The Leader Publications printing press in Ratmalana was burnt in November 2007 by a group of thugs. In January 2009, about 20 armed goons razed the MTV’s Depanama studio complex at night and carried out an arson attack after trussing up the security personnel. A white van sans number plates was used for the attack. The Uthayan press in Jaffna was attacked in April 2013 nearly four years after the conclusion of the war. None of the attacks on the media and the Opposition were properly investigated and the culprits went scot free. The present government has re-opened some of the cases, but whether it will go the whole hog to bring the culprits to justice remains to be seen in that, some of them are currently within its ranks.
The human rights situation did not improve under Mahinda’s second term. Attacks on democracy tarnished the image of his administration, both locally and internationally, and facilitated his political enemies’ effort to drum up support overseas, for their campaign to oust him. International human rights watchdogs condemned the Rajapaksa regime vehemently and influenced the Sri Lanka policy of the western governments.
Fonseka jailed, CJ ‘impeached’
The Rajapaksas’ saw a potential threat in Fonseka even after the latter’s defeat at the presidential election. A claim he had made during his election campaign that a group of LTTE leaders who offered to surrender by waving a white flag had been shot dead without his knowledge was used against him. He was imprisoned for treason. The Rajapaksas’ blotted their copy book in the process. He was given a presidential pardon subsequently but the damage was already done.
The Rajapaksa juggernaut would not stop at that; it abused its two-thirds majority in Parliament to remove then Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake from office. A Parliamentary Select Committee, packed with Rajapaksa loyalists prejudiced against Bandaranayake, found her guilty as charged and Parliament impeached her. Various allegations were levelled against her, but it was clear that the Rajapaksas’ wanted to punish her for refusing to fall in line. Minister Basil Rajapaksa felt slighted and the CJ had to go.
In a mighty hurry to get rid of the CJ, the Rajapaksa government did not follow the proper parliamentary procedure and that allowed President Sirisena to reinstate her after the 2015 regime change. They continued to win elections, mostly staggered Provincial Council polls, but public resentment was welling up perhaps unbeknownst to them.
Bribery and corruption
Bribery and corruption became rampant during the Rajapaksa regime, as is public knowledge, though the ill-gotten wealth, amassed by the big guns of that administration, has not yet been recovered. Everything became a deal and someone’s palm had to be greased if a project was to be approved. Cost overruns characterised all development projects and they were considered symptomatic of corruption. The high costs of the Southern and airport expressways became a main election issue in 2015.
Mahinda does not seem to believe small is beautiful. He seems to think the bigger the better. His rule saw an infrastructural boom complete with expressways, an inland port, an international airport in the back of the beyond, a massive tower in Colombo, road development projects etc. A Chinese-funded mega port city project got underway. Big projects mean huge kickbacks for the ruling politicians and their cronies, in this country.
Rajapaksa was not shy of having things named after him. Those who were ready to toady to him and pander to his whims and fancies were many, and they would have him believe that a great deal of political mileage would accrue to him from that practice, which led to an overkill.
The failure of the yahapalana government to trace the wealth of the heavyweights of the previous regime has caused the benefit of the doubt to accrue to the latter, as can be seen from the February 10 local government election results. The fact that the present-day rulers, too, have sullied their hands with corrupt deals and various other rackets including the bond scams have also helped the former rulers regain lost ground.
Legal action has been instituted against some members of the former ruling family and several of their lackeys, but the amounts of funds concerned are nowhere near the sums the yahapalana big guns bandied about before the election. Mangala Samaraweera, once said before being appointed the Finance Minister that the former rulers had stolen as much as USD 18.5 billion and action would be taken to recover the money. Such grossly exaggerated claims and the failure on the part of the government to substantiate them rendered the government’s task of turning public opinion against the members of the previous dispensation even more difficult. People now expect the government to recover billions and not millions of dollars.
However, the then Opposition succeeded in flogging the issue of corruption and making inroads into the Rajapaksas’ vote bank.
Goon squads at work
The Rajapaksa rule was characterised by a culture of impunity. Pro-government goons operated freely and attacked Opposition protests in full view of the media and the police. They remained above the law. On the Independence Day in 2011, they set upon a group of UNP protesters who were calling for the release of imprisoned former Army Commander and unsuccessful Presidential Candidate General Sarath Fonseka. The UNP identified the assailants and lodged a complaint with the police, but no action was taken against them.
Goons, carrying long poles, operated alongside the riot police during a protest by lawyers, Opposition politicians and civil society activists against the ‘impeachment’ of Bandaranayake, at Hulftsdorp in 2013. The Police, when asked by the media why they allowed persons with poles to be present near the protest, had the chutzpah to claim they may have been using poles to ward off stray dogs!
Uniformed shock troops
The police and the military became putty in the hands of the Rajapaksas and were ready to do their bidding. Military intelligence became notorious for doing political work for the ruling family and stood accused of carrying out attacks on journalists as well.
In 2013, a group of protesters who took to the streets against a factory causing ground water contamination in their area faced a military crackdown. The army went on the rampage, beating and shooting unarmed demonstrators. The attack left three youth dead and scores of others injured. Perhaps, the Rajapaksa government expected the crackdown to have a deterrent effect on the public and the Opposition, but it proved to be counterproductive.
Some high ranking police and military officers offered their services as goons in uniform to the Rajapaksa government. They were looked after and some of them were given diplomatic appointments after retirement.
President Rajapaksa allowed himself to be surrounded by ultra-nationalist forces. His association with parties like the Jathika Hela Urumaya and failure to act against the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) etc. over attacks on Muslims led to the alienation of minorities. Having won two presidential elections without the backing of minorities, he apparently believed he could continue to score electoral wins without the Tamil and Muslim votes. He put all his political eggs in the Sinhala Buddhist basket. The TNA and the SLMC also found a perfect foil in the person of Rajapaksa to consolidate their positions as the ‘saviours’ of their communities and retain their vote banks.
The Rajapaksa government did not care to address the ethno-political factors which had given rise to a bloody conflict and that helped hardliners to dominate Tamil politics. It apparently thought a development drive would help win over the northern and eastern voters, who had borne the brunt of the war and were, therefore, resentful. Its strategy did not yield the intended results.
Attacks on Muslims at Aluthgama in June 2014 became the last nail in the coffin of the Rajapaksa government. No action was taken to nip the violence in the bud and calls for action against the BBS went unheeded. The Rajapaksas’ were accused of shielding the culprits.
President Rajapaksa, eyeing a third term, may have thought the only hurdle in his path was the constitutionally prescribed presidential term limit, which he removed by means of the 18th Amendment. Having cleared his path thus, he embarked on his presidential election campaign while the Opposition was in disarray. He saw no one in his rearview mirror. The road was clear ahead of him.
Mahinda was in a hurry to face a snap presidential election for several reasons. He wanted to secure a third term before the Opposition recovered. Pressure was mounting on him in Geneva over the alleged accountability issues mainly because he was perceived to be anti-western and pro-Chinese. He made political mileage out of the UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka as well. He would have the people believe that the only way they could save him from the electric chair was to re-elect him. Speculation was rife that unless he fell in line and accepted the UNHRC dictates, as demanded by the US and its allies, he would have to face economic sanctions.
It is believed that he wanted to face a presidential election and show the international community that he had the people solidly behind him.
He had launched mega development projects with borrowed funds and the economy was apparently in good shape, but he knew there were problems on the horizon. He wanted to be re-elected before his government became unpopular. Another reason for his decision to go for an early presidential election was his blind faith in astrology.
DEW’s advice disregarded
Mahinda became increasingly cocky and impervious to wise counsel. He was intoxicated with power and blinded by superstitions. He apparently thought his raja yoga would last forever. His palace seer led him down the garden path.
When it became evident that Mahinda was toying with the idea of holding a snap presidential election, then Minister and veteran political leader D.E. W. Gunasekera tried to dissuade him seeking re-election prematurely, as the odds were against him. DEW argued that the government’s popularity was on the wane and the anti-incumbent factor was weighing heavily against it. He repeatedly asked Mahinda to complete his second term and do his utmost to improve the people’s lot in the meantime so that he could regain lost ground. Mahinda did not listen to him.
Cuddling two ‘mad women’
One of the main reasons for Mahinda’s downfall was his superstitious beliefs; he allowed virtually everything to be astrologically determined. Voltaire famously said, ‘Superstition is to religion what astrology is to astronomy the mad daughter of a wise mother. These daughters have too long dominated the earth.’ President Rajapaksa, in a manner of speaking, cuddled the two mad daughters close, thereby, bringing about his own downfall. Astrologers duped him into believing that his horoscope was so powerful that nobody could defeat him in an electoral contest.
Overconfidence prevents rulers from acting rationally and cautiously. Towards the latter part of his second term, Mahinda was labouring under the delusion that he was invincible.
Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga worked tirelessly to destroy her bete noire, Rajapaksa, politically. She underestimated Mahinda during her tenure as President. Mahinda underestimated her while he was the President. He considered Chandrika a spent force. The latter chose to maintain a very low profile and her silence was deceptive. She was a political volcano simmering with resentment. She remained active internationally and operated below the radar at home. She knew Mahinda was weak on the diplomatic front, where he had made enough and more enemies.
Some SLFP stalwarts were resentful that President Rajapaksa was favouring the Johnnies-come-lately mostly from the UNP. Chandrika tapped their anger effectively. Among the disgruntled SLFP seniors was the then Minister Maithripala Sirisena, who had once been a member of Chandrika’s kitchen cabinet. He was eyeing premiership and, in fact, he was senior enough in the party to be the Prime Minister. But the Rajapaksas’ were wary of making any promising party stalwart the PM as he would go on to become the President. They wanted D. M. Jayaratne to remain the PM and fade away.
It is widely believed that Chandrika lost one year of her second presidential term due to a conspiracy which Mahinda was party to. The late Anura Bandaranaike said so openly. Mahinda may not have thought Chandrika would pay him back in his own coin ten years later and cause him to lose two years of his second term.
The enemies of Rajapaksa got their act together—for once. They properly assessed his strengths and weakness and knew he could win even without the backing of the minorities as he had done in 2010 albeit with a reduced majority unless he was deprived of a sizeable chunk of the so-called Sinhala Buddhist vote. With the UNP, the TNA, the SLMC, NGOs and the western members of the international community on their side, they needed as the common candidate someone equal to the task of eating into the vote bank of the Rajapaksa government. Maithripala Sirisena fitted the bill and Chandrika succeeded in prevailing on him to run for President. They enlisted the support of Ven. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera, the Ven. Rathana Thera and Champika Ranawaka to make their political movement attractive to nationalists.
The UNP now brags that even its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe would have been able to defeat President Rajapaksa in the presidential race, but the fact remains that it was too scared of facing the contest. If it had been confident of securing the presidency, it would never have fielded Sirisena. It wanted someone to take the chestnuts out of the fire.
Sirisena waited till the presidential election was called to throw the hat into the ring. On the eve of the declaration of the election in Nov. 2014, he had the now famous hopper supper with President Rajapaksa. The following day, he announced his candidature.
The Rajapaksas realised the gravity of the situation when the Opposition campaign got underway. The social media went into overdrive, attacking Mahinda savagely and ruined his chances of winning, to a considerable extent. Guided by Rafferty’s rules, they disseminated stories of all sorts to show Mahinda in a bad light. Some of the stories were defamatory but there was little the Rajapaksa government could do.
The Rajapaksas’ threw money at the problem, and launched a negative campaign to destroy the image of Sirisena. Such tactics are always counterproductive. As DEW had rightly pointed out, the anti-incumbency factor and the economic woes of the public weighed heavy against Mahinda, who, ably assisted by his sons, had also alienated the young voters. The Opposition managed to eat into the Rajapaksas’ vote bank while benefiting from a block vote in the North and the East and in the Central Hills.
The abuse of state resources reached an unprecedented level, but Mahinda could not gain much ground. The public sector workers sided with the yahapalana camp, which promised a 10,000-rupee pay hike among other things. Young voters needed a change and the minorities wanted Mahinda ousted.
Having mismanaged his political fortunes and squandered his chances of winning, Mahinda snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, on Jan. 08, 2015. Even before the results of some districts were announced, it was all over bar the shouting. A crestfallen Mahinda bade farewell to his personal staff and took a whirlybird ride to Tangalle before sunrise.
(Next: The Return of Mahinda Rajapaksa)