Mahinda Rajapaksa: A man of the Masses
Mahinda Rajapaksa became Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in April 2004. An attorney-at-law, he was first elected to Parliament from the Beliatta seat in 1970, being the youngest member in the house, aged just 24 years. His father, D. A. Rajapaksa had represented the same seat from 1947 to 1965.
Although many of the past leaders of Sri Lanka’s major political parties have been born outside Colombo, hardly any of them truly had roots in rural Sri Lanka. Mahinda is one of this select few. Born in Weeraketiya, Mahinda schooled in Richmond College, Galle, later moving to Nalanda College and Thurstan College, Colombo, only in order to attend secondary school. Throughout his parliamentary career, except for the period from 1994-2001 when he was a minister, he continued his law practice in Tangalle. despite being the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka , Mahinda’s home is in Sri Lanka’s deep-south, a region to whose emancipation he has dedicated his life.
From the very outset of his career, Mahinda has adopted a centre-left political stance, identifying himself with labour rights and becoming a champion of human rights. His interest in world affairs is manifested from the close interest he has taken in finding a peaceful solution to the Middle East problem within the framework of a sovereign Palestinian state. He is also the President of the Sri Lankan Committee for Solidarity with Palestine for past 25 years.
Throughout his career, Mahinda has given leadership to the cause of uplifting youth, striving to achieve a higher quality of education and training (especially in rural areas) as well as working to reduce youth unemployment. Deeply aware of the violent rebellions of 1971 and 1987, which led to the death of thousands of young people especially in the South, Mahinda has worked tirelessly to prevent yet another such tragedy by striving to strengthen the process of representative democracy and working to reduce social and economic barriers. His remarkable record of human rights activities was honored by the Vishva Bharathi University of Culcutta in India with Professor of Emiratus.
Mahinda proved to be a remarkably successful Minister of Labour, despite suffering a major setback in being unable to bring his brainchild, the Worker’s Charter, into law. The charter sought to establish trade union rights, a Wages Commission, social security, a National Trade Union Training Institute and facilities the adjudication of industrial disputes. He also created the Vocational Training Authority to recognize the rising need of unemployed youth. He was equally dynamic Minister of Fisheries, initiating several important programmes such as housing programme for fishermen to improve the lives and livelihood of fisher-folk, and also strengthen the industrial base of the fisheries industry. Inland fisheries too, benefited from these reforms, with the national harvest almost doubling between 1994 and 2001. Infact he initiated the first ever University for Oceanography known as Sagara Vishwavidyalaya. Establishing a Coastal Guard Unit, a much needed security system for an Island nation was one of his remarkable steps taken as the Minister of Fisheries. In addition to the Portfolio of Fisheries, he also held the Portfolio of the Ports and Shipping for a short period of three months. Within this period he started and gazetted the much needed construction of Hambantota Harbour.
In opposition, Mahinda has been both respected and feared. He stood fearlessly against the autocratic regime of Ranasinghe Premadasa ( 1989-93), bravely opposing totalitarianism and working to restore democracy. His jana gosha, pada yatra, peaceful protest campaigns held the then government to ridicule and precipitated the reforms that followed the ascent of D. B. Wijethunga to the presidency. Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed to the post of the opposition Leader in March 2002.
Loyalty to principle and party has been the hallmark of Mahinda’s political philosophy. Loyalty was, after all, what his father, D. A. Rajapaksa, was especially remembered. When the SLFP’s founder, S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, crossed over from the UNP to the SLFP in 1951, he was amazed to find that all his promised allies had abandoned him, but for D.A.R., who crossed with him.
A devout Buddhist and an ascetic at heart, worldly wealth has never beckoned to Mahinda. He was honored by the most venerable Malwatte Chapter by offering him an honorary title of “Sri Rohana Janaranjana” in the year 2000 which is a very rare occasion for a citizen of Sri Lanka. Even when he was a cabinet minister, he shunned security and lived the simplest of lives with the family and his sons continuing to attend a suburban missionary school. He was never tainted with the stigma or corruption, and is widely recognized for his integrity. Despite his strong “Southern Buddhist” identity, Mahinda has carefully steered away from bigotry and chauvinism. He has put his support firmly behind the on-going peace process, while warning of a need to look beyond addressing mere grievances, to realizing the full aspirations of the people, whether of the South or the North-East. Indeed, he has been one of the few post-Independence politicians who have found it possible to cast petty politics aside when dealing with national issues, such as the rights of minorities.
It has been written of Mahinda Rajapaksa, “If there walks on this earth today a man whose heart beats as one with the workers of the world, that man is this man.” Mahinda is a leader with his finger firmly on the pulse of the people. He is a rebel with a cause and he has the vision to bring prosperity, peace and equity to all the people of Sri Lanka.