By D.B.S. Jeyaraj
Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa, known to his country and the world at large as Mahinda Rajapaksa, celebrated his 69th birthday on 18th November. Sri Lanka’s fifth Executive President has been at the helm of the nation for nine years since November 2005. Currently he is poised to create a record of sorts by contesting presidential elections for the third time. Whether he wins or loses History would be made.
Once the presidential poll is in progress the media spotlight will beam on this son of the Ruhunu even more powerfully than the past in the days to come. It is perhaps a sign of the times that the Editor of the Daily FT has asked me to write a personality piece about President Mahinda Rajapaksa at this juncture.
Delving deep into research about the man from Medamulana and his colourful background is both an interesting and fascinating task. There is no doubt that Mahinda Rajapaksa the politician is demonised by his opponents and deified by his supporters. On the other hand there is no denying that the metamorphosis of Mahinda from a mischievous boy into becoming the responsible Head of State is a tale worthy of narration. In that context the Daily FT Editor’s request provides an opportunity to shift focus from the current politics of the President to that of his personal story and family history.
Apart from reading a lot on the topic and talking and corresponding with a number of people who have interacted with the President personally, I am also relying on notes taken some years ago during lengthy conversations about Mahinda and the Rajapaksa family with former Parliament Secretary-General and Ombudsman Sam Wijesinha and former Parliamentarian and lawyer Buddhika Kurukularatne. Both, like Mahinda, are sons of the southern soil. Interestingly enough, both are familiar not only with the Rajapaksas, but also with the Attapattus – the family that competed with the Rajapaksas for political supremacy in the region.
Dominant family in Lankan politics
Currently the Rajapaksas have established themselves as the dominant family in Sri Lankan politics. Apart from Mahinda Rajapaksa as President, family members and extended family members monopolise plum positions. Various posts in different spheres – from defence secretary to diplomatic representative – are held by the clan. Some have been elected to office while others have been appointed. Some have proved themselves by efficiently discharging their duties while others have failed miserably demonstrating the negativity of nepotism.
It is an open secret that no major enterprise or project can be undertaken in the island without the blessings of at least one Rajapaksa. Most movers and shakers in Sri Lankan society derive their power and energy from the Rajapaksa dynamo. Opposition members allege that nearly 56% of the National Budget is controlled directly and indirectly by the Rajapaksa siblings.
Family bandyism in the Sirima Bandaranaike Government of 1970-’77 was aptly pinpointed through a UNP publication ‘The Family Tree’. If a similar exercise was to be undertaken now about the Rajapaksa regime, it would not be a mere tree but an entire grove.
Rise of the Rajapaksas
The rise of the Rajapaksas as a formidable political family in the Ruhunu began with Don David Vidanarachchi Rajapaksa, the grandfather of Mahinda and siblings and the great grandfather of niece Nirupama Rajapaksa – the Water Supply and Drainage Deputy Minister.
Don David Rajapaksa hailed from Buddhiyagama in Weeraketiya in the Southern Hambantota District. The ancient Ruhunu kingdom of the Sinhala kings consisted of what are today the Administrative Districts of Galle, Matara, Hambantota and Moneragala. Don David or D.D. Rajapaksa was the hereditary Vidane Arachchi or village headman of a cluster of villages and hamlets known as ‘Ihala Beligalla Korale’.
This semi-feudal practice of village headman adopted by the British has now been replaced by the Grama Niladari system. The Grama Niladaris of today are toothless Government employees whereas the Vidane Arachi of colonial vintage was a potty despot of his area of authority.
The area inhabited by the Rajapaksa family was the division known as Giruweva/Giruwapattuwa. It was an agricultural region where the growing of crops and vegetables, coconut cultivation and buffalo/cattle rearing was the basis of the local economy. ‘Slash and burn’ chena cultivation was a fact of life. Cultivation of kurakkan or millet was widely prevalent and the region was regarded generally as ‘Kurakkan Country’.
In the latter half of the 19th century an enterprising southerner from Sapugoda, Galle arrived in Giruwapattuwa. Don Constantine De Silva Waniga Chintamani Mohotti Ralahamy was his name. Known generally as Mohotti Ralahamy, this entrepreneur purchased lands in Giruwapattuwa and began adopting comparatively modern techniques in agriculture. One of his new methods was to hire agricultural workers on a daily wage basis.
Mohotti Ralahamy needed a trusted and able man from the locality to supervise the workers and oversee cultivation. The reality of prevailing caste and regional differences meant that only a man from the area could handle the task. What better man than the Vidane Ralahamy of Ihala Beligalla Korale? Thus began a partnership where Mohotti gave a share of the profits to D.D. Rajapaksa as remuneration.
Invigorated by this project, D.D. Rajapaksa also began leasing farm lands in the region owned by some rich Muslims from Galle. D.D. Rajapaksa and his sons were models of incorruptibility. They were diligently honest and did not fleece the absentee partners or landlords.
Entry into politics
D.D. Rajapaksa had three sons and a daughter. The eldest was Don Coronelis Rajapaksa or D.C. Rajapaksa, who served as coroner of the area. The second son was Don Mathew Rajapaksa while the youngest son was Don Alvin Rajapaksa.
The direct entry into electoral politics was made by Don Mathew Rajapaksa or D.M. Rajapaksa who was elected State Councillor during British times. He was succeeded as State Councillor by younger brother Don Alvin Rajapaksa or D.A. Rajapaksa, who later became a Member of Parliament after Independence.
D.M. Rajapaksa’s sons Lakshman and George Rajapaksa became MPs in the post-Independence period. George Rajapaksa served as a Cabinet Minister also. His daughter Nirupama is now a Deputy Minister. D.A. Rajapaksa’s sons Chamal, Mahinda and Basil also became Parliamentarians like their father. As is well known, Mahinda is President, Chamal is Speaker and Basil a Minister today.Another brother gotabaya is a powerful ministry secretary. Mahinda’s son Namal is an MP while Chamal’s son Shasheendra is the Chief Minister of the Uva Province.
Independent Sri Lanka has witnessed the wide spread phenomenon hereditary or family politics.Family oriented politics is prevalent among all communities in the country.There are a number of families who dominate or have dominated politics at multiple levels. The foremost and powerful political entities in the past have been the Senanayake-Kotalawela-Jayawardene-Wickremesinghe extended family combine and the Bandaranaike -Ratwatte family dynasty.Now it is the time of the Rajapaksas from the back waters of Hambantota district.
The disproportionately powerful expansion and rise of the Rajapaksas in the present day creates the impression that they are ‘Johnnies-come-lately’. This was not so. The Giruwapattuwa Rajapaksas have been involved in politics from the time S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike entered the State Council.The Rajapaksas are an old and respected Southern Province Govigama family. They have deep Buddhist roots and were wedded to the land. Unlike some other eminent Sinhala families who obtained posts and perks from the colonial masters, the Rajapaksas of Giruwapattuwa remained sturdily independent.
Lion of Ruhunu
The finest example of that sturdy independence and anti-colonial spirit was D.M. Rajapaksa, known popularly as the ‘Lion of Ruhunu’. When universal suffrage was introduced and elections to the State Council were held in 1931, D.M. Rajapaksa supported V.S. Wickramanayake in the Hambantota Constituency. Wickramanayake was elected. In 1936, D.M. Rajapaksa himself plunged in and faced hustings. In those days candidates used different colours for their respective ballot boxes. D.M. chose brown, the colour of kurakkan, to symbolise ‘Kurakkan Country’. He won with a majority of 12,097 votes.
Don Mathew Rajapaksa was a man of the people. He gave voice to the oppressed and stood up for the underprivileged. He did much for the emancipation of the Rodiya community. Though the British were the rulers at that time, the ‘Ruhunu Sinhaya’ would brook no nonsense from pompous bureaucrats. Once he slippered the English Government Agent for being callously indifferent.
It was D.M. Rajapaksa who first started the practice of wearing a kurakkan-coloured shawl to symbolise Giruwapattuwa. This was followed by his brother and later his sons. The ‘sataka’ worn by the Rajapaksas of today is not merely due to notions of sartorial elegance. The practice has deeper meaningful roots.
Unfortunately D.M. Rajapaksa died at the age of 49 in 1945. His eldest son Lakshman had not even reached the voting age of 21 then. The mantle therefore fell on his unassuming younger brother Don Alvin Rajapaksa. Their father D.D. Rajapaksa had died in 1912. While D.M. Rajapaksa had taken to social service and politics, his brother D.A. Rajapaksa had tended to look after the family occupation of farming and livestock breeding. The elder brother lived at the Mahagedara in Kondagala and the younger at the Medamulana Mahagedara.
After D.M. Rajapaksa’s demise the people of Giruwapattuwa wanted D.A. Rajapaksa to step into his brother’s shoes. The simple D.A., content with his agriculture, refused.
Finally a deputation of notables went in procession to the paddy field where D.A. was engaged in ploughing. The delegation had with them the nomination papers and pressed D.A. to replace his brother in the State Council. Finally Don Alvin agreed. He washed the mud off his hands and legs and signed the nomination papers, whereupon one person removed his shawl and wrapped it around D.A. Rajapaksa in a symbolic gesture. The kurakkan sataka tradition continued.
Launching of the Chandrika Wewa reservoir and southern irrigation schemes in 1958: Land Deputy Minister D. A. Rajapaksa, Minister Wimala Wijewardena, Prime Minister S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, Agriculture Minister Philip Gunawardena and Commerce Deputy Minister Lakshman Rajapakse atop a tractor at Chandrika Wewa site in Embilipitiya-pic: dailynews.lk
D.A. Rajapaksa was elected unopposed to the State Council representing the Hambantota constituency on 14 July 1945. His second son and third child Mahinda Rajapaksa was born a few months later in Weeraketiya on 18 November 1945. According to Sam Wijesinha, the feeling among many rural villagers then was that D.M. Rajapaksa had been reborn as Mahinda Rajapaksa. Sam Wijesinha who hailed from Getamana close to Medamulana was a family friend.
I recall Sam Wijesinha telling me that Mahinda was more like his uncle D.M. Rajapaksa in spirit and temperament. Both were aggressively fierce in political approach and had empathy for the underdog, he said. Wijesinha said that Chamal Rajapaksa was more like his father D.A. Rajapaksa in both looks and outlook. Both were mild-mannered, unambitious persons. Judging by his steady rise in politics and fearless demeanour, it appears that Mahinda has to some extent taken after his “Loku Thatha” whom he never saw.
D.M. Rajapaksa’s sons
D.M. Rajapaksa’s sons, Lakshman and George, entered politics later on. Lakshman, an ebullient person with an abiding love for the south, was a maverick. Lakshman won the then Hambantota constituency in 1947 as an independent and in 1952 on the LSSP ticket. In 1956 he won on the MEP ticket and became Deputy Minister. In 1960 March, Lakshman won Tissamaharama on the MEP ticket. In 1960 July he won the same on the SLFP ticket. He lost in 1965 and 70 but in 1976 he re-entered Parliament again as an SLFPer in the Mulkirigala by-election caused by his brother George’s death.
George Rajapaksa won Mulkirigala in March (MEP) and July 1960 and in ’65 and ’70 on the SLFP ticket. He was Fisheries Minister in the 1970 Government but like his father died young at the age of 50 in 1976. George Rajapaksa was a much loved,much respected man. His daughter Nirupama has been in Parliament from 1994 to 2000 and from 2005 to date. In 2005 she succeeded Mahinda in Parliament when he became President. Nirupama currently serves as Deputy Minister.
D.A. Rajapaksa was an old student of Richmond College Galle and was well-versed in English. He captained the Soccer Team and was Vice Captain of the Cricket Team. It is said that the ground record he set up in the match with Prince of Wales College, Moratuwa, still stands. Yet he had no qualms about becoming a full-fledged agriculturist after leaving school. When he entered the State Council and took his oaths on 8 August 1945, he became a member of the Executive Committee on Agriculture and Lands.
Mahinda’s father D.A. Rajapaksa represented the Beliatta seat in Parliament from 1947 to 1965 with a short break in 1960 March when he lost to D.P. Atapattu of the UNP. D.A. Rajapaksa lost in 1965 to D.P. Attapattu again. D.A. Rajapaksa won Beliatta on the UNP ticket in 1947 and thereafter on the SLFP ticket till ’65.
Don Alvin Rajapaksa was a loyal deputy of S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike, who crossed over from the UNP to SLFP on 12 July 1951. Five others (A.P. Jayasooriya, George R. de Silva, Jayaweera Kuruppu, D.S. Goonesekera and D.A. Rajapaksa) were supposed to follow suit, but when the moment came, only D.A. Rajapaksa crossed the floor behind Bandaranaike like his faithful shadow. The others got cold feet to cross over in the House but did so later.
Birth of the SLFP
On 2 September 1951, the SLFP was formed. D.A. was one of the 44 signatories giving notice of the formation of the SLFP. In the 1952 May elections, the fledgling SLFP won nine seats. D.A. Rajapaksa was one of the nine victors. In spite of these impressive credentials and loyalty, D.A. Rajapaksa was not a cabinet minister in the 1956 Cabinet or 1960 July Cabinet.
This writer’s first thought was that D.A. Rajapaksa had been deprived of his rightful due in the SLFP despite his seniority and loyalty. But I learnt later that this was due to D.A. Rajapaksa’s simplicity, lack of ambition, love of his roots and abhorrence for the trappings of power. These characteristics of D.A. Rajapaksa contrast sharply with the conduct of some of his descendants who are now ensconced in the corridors of power.
In 1956, S.W.R.D. offered D.A. any Cabinet post other than the one to be given to C.P. de Silva, but D.A. declined firmly and only wanted nephew Lakshman to be given a deputy minister’s post, so Lakshman was made Deputy to Trade and Commerce Minister R.G. Senanayake. But the people of Hambantota under the leadership of Tangalle lawyer Wickramasuriya protested strongly to S.W.R.D. and D.A. so a reluctant Rajapaksa was forced to be Deputy Minister of Land and Lands development under C.P. de Silva.
During Wijayananda Dahanayake’s short-lived Cabinet after S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike’s assassination on 26 September 1959, D.A. Rajapaksa was briefly the Minister of Agriculture and Lands. He resigned in two weeks on 10 October to pre-empt dismissal by the eccentric Dahanayake who was sacking his ministers en masse and appointing fresh ministers.
In July 1960 Mrs. Bandaranaike became Premier and offered a Cabinet portfolio to D.A. Rajapaksa, who declined it. Then she offered him the office of speaker. This too was refused. It is said that Rajapaksa said that he preferred his home in Medamulana to Mumtaz Mahal. He continued to remain in a room at Shravasti when in Colombo.
On 6 November 1962, upon the death of Deputy Chairman of Committees Wariyapola MP A.M.A. Adhikari, D.A. Rajapaksa was appointed to fill the vacancy. When the Speaker R.S. Pelpola resigned on 24 January 1964 to accept a ministerial portfolio, the then Deputy Speaker Hugh Fernando became Speaker. D.A. Rajapaksa succeeded Hugh Fernando as the Deputy Speaker, which position he held until the defeat of the Sirima Bandaranaike Government in December 1964. D.A. Rajapaksa lost his seat in 1965 and passed away in 1967.
Mahinda Rajapaksa’s childhood
Don Alvin Rajapaksa married Dona Dandina Samarasinghe Dissanayake of Palatuwa, Matara. They had nine children – six boys and three girls. Their names in the order of age are Chamal, Jayanthi (deceased), Mahinda, Tudor, Gotabaya, Basil, Preethi, Dudley and Gandini.
The eldest Chamal and second son Mahinda were extremely attached to each other as children. Though the given name at birth was Percy Mahendra, he was called Mahinda by family and friends. Chamal and Mahinda were admitted by their father to his alma mater Richmond College, Galle, run by the Methodist Church then.
According to information provided by Buddhika Kurukularatne in his eminently readable series of articles published in ‘The Island’ under the column ‘Men and Memories,’ Mahinda was a naughty child but quite studious. The brothers were initially boarded at the Galle residence of Weeraketiya village council chairman Bandara.
Mahinda then six years old had cried when his father and mother left after leaving him with the Bandaras. He had also refused to go to school the following morning. Mrs. Bandara however had dressed him up and taken him to school. After a few days Mahinda and Chamal together with other students in the vicinity began walking to school and back.
Mahinda got well-noted for his mischievous ways then. He would often shake his little suitcase from side to side while walking. Another habit was to keep kicking stones like playing football. He was also fond of walking on the railway track and would place coins on it before a train approached. Mahinda was apparently delighted by the sight of flattened coins after the train ran over them. Another amusement was to climb a rock by the rail track and hoot at passengers.
Mahinda also liked to play ‘Tarzan’ at times. There were large ‘pusbatri’ creepers hanging from two huge mango and breadfruit trees near a junction. Mahinda, like the Tarzan of Edgar Rice Burroughs, would jump and hang on to the creepers, swinging wildly like the ape man did.
Another encounter was with a tame elephant tethered in the compound of a house. Excited by seeing the pachyderm at close quarters, young Mahinda ran up to it and hit the jumbo on its legs and challenged it. Fortunately the good-natured elephant took no notice of the tiny brat who was pulled away by grownups (perhaps Mahinda’s anti-UNP tendencies came to the fore when he saw the elephant).
Mahinda’s mischievous conduct
Mahinda’s stay with the Bandara family did not last long. Young Mahinda’s mischievous conduct made Mr. Bandara often resort to the cane in a bid to discipline the ‘Manthrithumage Putha’. Naturally Mahinda resented it. He would often run away before the elderly Bandara could reach him with the cane. Matters came to a head when Mahinda threw a stone at Bandara and drew blood. The boy ran away to another house in the neighbourhood and refused to return.
Finally Mahinda’s mother had to move to Galle and rent a house and live with her children Chamal, Jayanthi, Mahinda and Tudor. The house was known as ‘Singapore House’. This helped things and soon Mahinda began studying well. He took away the class prize when in the upper kindergarten and in standard two for two years in succession at Richmond.
There was a small playground nearby which was close to the railway station. The boys used to play cricket there in the evenings and weekends. Once young Mahinda wanted to bat but was not allowed to do so. Peeved by the refusal, Mahinda went near the railway station and climbed the steel ladder to the top of the signal post, refusing to climb down unless he was given a batting chance.
Apparently Mahinda had often resorted to climbing high and making demands. According to a story related by Chamal Rajapaksa to Buddhika Kurukularatne, Mahinda had once climbed a huge cashew tree in the Medamulana house compound when their father had attempted to cane him for some prank of his. Mahinda had run away and climbed to the very top of the cashew tree. He demanded that his father should throw the cane away if he wanted him to get down from the tree. With a lot of support from a very frightened and concerned mother, Mahinda won his first demand, with the father meekly giving way by acceding to his son’s ultimatum.
Another story about mischievous Mahinda lingering in the collective memory of his Medamulana household was about how a missile thrown by D.A. Rajapaksa’s second son collided with Sir John Kotelawela. Apparently D.A. Rajapaksa had gone to see the laird of Kandawela at Ratmalana. Chamal and Mahinda were in the family car bering an EY series number plate.
While the loku putha remained in the vehicle, podi putha had got down and plucked a mango. He was happily chewing on it when Sir John and his father came out. Seeing Mahinda and the mango, Sir John had humorously asked the boy who gave him permission to pluck and eat the mango. Angry at being questioned, the enraged boy had thrown his half-eaten fruit at Sir John hitting him in the chest. An embarrassed D.A. apologised profusely, while an amused Sir John chuckled at the boy’s impertinence.
Mahinda’s parents moved to Colombo in the mid-fifties. While Chamal and Jayanthi were placed in the hostels of Richmond and Southlands respectively, the younger kids including Mahinda were taken to Colombo. Mahinda was enrolled at Nalanda College. After a few years in 1957 he was moved to Thurstan College.
After a few years Mahinda’s mother went back to Medamulana and D.A. Rajapaksa began staying at the Shravasti MP hostel when in Colombo. Mahinda was first boarded at a home near Thurstan College but later began residing more and more at Shravasti itself than in the boarding. Often he would travel to and from Shravasti to Thurstan.
An impish student
According to contemporaries at Thurstan, Mahinda was an impish student in College who often fell foul of the master in charge of discipline – the late Kingsley Fernando. Mahinda played cricket and rugger. Apparently he was good in batting being a ‘polladiya’ but was a horrible fielder known for repeated ‘bokkus’. In rugger he played in the pack as both prop and lock forward. He was good in athletics also and was the putt shot champion. Mahinda also ran in the 4×400 relay team. He was also a good orator and debater in Sinhala.
Mahinda left school after completing his A/Levels and worked as an assistant librarian at the Vidyodaya University later to be made the Vidyodaya campus and now the Sri Jayewardenapura University. Colleagues remember him as a jovial, fun-loving person. “Kana bona minihek” (eating, drinking man), described one. (Of course nowadays the President is both a teetotaler and a vegetarian.)
It was during this time that Mahinda got enamoured of left-leaning politics. He became a card carrying member of the Ceylon Mercantile Union (CMU).
Appointment as Beliatta Organiser
Meanwhile elder brother Chamal Rajapaksa joined the Police force as a Sub-Inspector. Their father D.A. Rajapaksa who had lost elections in 1965 passed away on 7 November 1967. Sri Lanka Freedom Party Leader Sirima Bandaranaike offered the post of party organiser for Beliatta to Chamal after D.A. died. Chamal however declined and recommended his malli Mahinda instead. Initially Mrs. Bandaranaike was hesitant thinking Mahinda was too young and somewhat irresponsible. Later on she relented and appointed Mahinda as Beliatta Organiser in 1968.
This brought about a marked change in Mahinda. He buckled down to the task and strove to meet the challenge. He gave up his Assistant Librarian job and relocated to Medamulana. He began working with the people at grass roots level.
All the Rajapaksa brothers had been nurtured and brought up in a simple, down-to-earth lifestyle by their parents. Despite the posts they hold today, all of them have experience in ploughing a field or driving a bullock cart. Thus it was quite easy for Mahinda to capture the hearts and minds of the ordinary people. Besides, the name Rajapaksa casts a magic spell on the denizens of Giruwapattuwa.
Entry into Parliament
The 1970 elections saw the United Front sweeping the polls with the SLFP getting 91 seats and the LSSP and CP winning 19 and six seats respectively. Percy Mahendra Rajapaksa defeated his rival from the UNP, Dr. Ranjith K.P. Atapattu. Mahinda got 23,103 votes and Ranjith 16,477. In 1977 the roles were reversed with Ranjith Atapattu winning with 24,289 votes while Mahinda Rajapaksa got 17,896.
Interestingly Mahinda’s father D.A. Rajapaksa and Ranjith’s father D.P. Atapattu had been rivals contesting Beliatta in each election from 1947. Sadly both fathers were not alive to see their sons become Beliatta MPs.
Mahinda Rajapaksa from Beliatta and Edwin Wickremaratne from Mahiyangana were the youngest MPs in the newly-elected Parliament. It is widely-claimed that Mahinda was the youngest MP then, though there are some who say Wickremaratne (who is no more) was younger by a few months. Those were the days when ministers were proportionately few and the fresher Mahinda remained a backbencher throughout the life of the 1970-’77 Parliament.
Mahinda also used to lag behind Anura Bandaranaike in those days. He accompanied Anura on jaunts abroad as well as in domestic trips. Both were close friends then and despite being an MP, Mahinda remained in Anura’s shadow. People compared their friendship with the relationship between their fathers. Mahinda used to refer to Anura as “Lokka”.
Some changes made in the admissions criteria to Law College enabled Mahinda to enrol as a law student.This was while being an MP. In July 1977 he lost the election but completed his legal studies and took his oaths as an Attorney-at-Law in November that year. After becoming a lawyer, Mahinda moved to Tangalle and established a lucrative practice in the south. His politics too continued albeit on a lower scale.
Wooing Shiranthi Wickramasinghe
Mahinda got married in 1983 to Shiranthi Wickramasinghe, the daughter of Navy Commodore E.P. and Mrs. Wickramasinghe. Shiranthi is an old student of Holy Family Convent, Bambalapitiya and a Catholic by religion. She is professionally-qualified in child psychology and pre-school education. The First Lady is a former beauty queen who was crowned Miss Sri Lanka in 1973. She was also a contestant representing Sri Lanka at the Miss Universe beauty pageant in Athens and the Miss World Competition in London in the same year.
It is said that Mahinda was helped by former Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva in ardently wooing Shiranthi Wickramasinghe. Though the President and ex-Chief Justice are politically estranged now, it was Sarath who played both cupid and matchmaker in bringing the couple together.
The Chief Justice of that time Neville Samarakoon and the Parliamentary Commissioner (Ombusman) of the day Sam Wijesinha were the attesting witnesses. They have three sons – Namal, Yoshitha and Rohitha. All three are old Thomians, with an abiding interest in rugby and racing.
Though the SLFP was shattered by the colossal defeat of 1977 and the removal of Mrs. Bandaranaike’s civic rights in 1980, the party began reviving itself to some extent after the 1982 presidential poll and referendum. The swing was more visible in the Ruhuna.
In 1985 Mahinda’s elder brother Chamal Rajapaksa contested the Mulkirigala by election. Mahinda led the campaign for Chamal. There was a shooting incident and Mahinda was arrested and remanded for three months. Subsequently he was cleared by courts. It was during this time of imprisonment that the matriarch Mrs. D.A. Rajapaksa passed away and to Mahinda’s eternal sorrow he was not allowed to attend the funeral of his mother.
The 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord saw Mahinda playing an active role in opposing it. In 1989 he was elected to Parliament from the Hambantota District under the new election procedures. While in Parliament Mahinda along with Matara District MP Mangala Samaraweera worked tirelessly in opposing the UNP Government of the day and reinvigorating the SLFP. This was also the time of the second JVP insurgency and the country was in the grip of terror and counter terror.
Among the many political activities of Mahinda during this time was his involvement with the Mothers’ Front formed by Dr. Manoranee Saravanamuttu, the mother of Richard de Zoysa. Apart from Mothers’ Front meetings and demonstrations, Mahinda also organised protests such as the Pada Yatras and Jana Goshas. He also went to the UN in Geneva with Vasudeva Nanayakkara to complain about the human rights violations of the Premadasa regime. On one occasion he was stopped at Katunayake Airport and the documents in his possession were confiscated.
Silver screen appearance
A somewhat rowdy incident in Parliament where Mahinda was involved resulted in him acting on screen. What happened was that the Deputy Speaker of that time, Gamini Fonseka, was in the chair when a commotion took place. Gamini Fonseka ordered that the man responsible, SLFP Matara District Parliamentarian H.G. Sirisena, be ousted.
When the Sergeant-at-Arms Ronnie Abeysinghe tried to go near Sirisena, he was blocked by C.V. Gooneratne the pugnacious Colombo district M.P.. An angry Deputy Speaker then ordered the Police to remove Sirisena bodily from the Chamber. When the Police walked into the Chamber, the news reached Mahinda Rajapaksa who was outside. Mahinda then rushed in and confronted the Police together with Gooneratne. After a hectic melee, the cops withdrew and sittings were suspended by Gamini Fonseka.
This incident however saw Gamini Fonseka viewing Mahinda Rajapaksa from the perspective of a filmmaker. He pressed Mahinda to act in a film he was making. After much persuasion Mahinda agreed and played the General to Gamini’s Colonel in ‘Nomiyena Minissu’ (The Immortals). Thus Mahinda became an actor on the Sinhala silver screen.
Later Mahinda was to quip to Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta on the NDTV’s ‘Walk the Talk’ show that though his brother Gotabaya had served in the Army as a Colonel, he, Mahinda, had in one shot gone up higher to be a General.
Road from Medamulana to Janadhipathi Mandiraya
The 1994 elections saw the People’s Alliance forming a Government. Chandrika Kumaratunga became Prime Minister and later President. Mahinda was first appointed as the Labour Minister and later Fisheries Minister in a Cabinet reshuffle.
In 2001 the UNP formed the Government while Chandrika continued to be President. Mahinda Rajapaksa became Leader of the Opposition. In 2004 the UPFA formed the Government and Mahinda became Prime Minister. In 2005 the presidential elections were announced. Despite many intra-party obstacles, Mahinda Rajapaksa secured nomination as the presidential candidate in the November 2005 elections. The rest, as they say, is history!
The road from Medamulana in Giruwapattuwa to President’s House in Colombo has not been easy. It has been said in lighter vein that a postage stamp’s success depends on its ability to stick to the envelope until it reaches its destination. Mahinda’s success too is due to his ability in sticking to his party through fair and foul weather, through thick and thin, instead of deserting it during leaner seasons.
In earlier times Mahinda was quite content to play second fiddle to Anura Bandaranaike and then Chandrika Kumaratunga. However, he began asserting himself at one point and began staking his claim for what he felt was rightfully his. The Opposition Leader and Prime Ministerial posts had to come to him as his rightful due. There was no other person worthy of those posts than Mahinda in the SLFP at that time. Thereafter the ‘Mahinda Gamana’ could end only at Janadhipathi Mandiraya.
This then is the story of how the Rajapaksas of Ruhunu achieved pride of place as the foremost political family in contemporary Sri Lanka. The underlying thread in this tale is the monumental rise of a mischievous boy from Medamulana who became His Excellency the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka!
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This Article was written by D.B.S.Jeyaraj exclusively for the special Supplement published by the “Daily Financial Times”newspaper of Colombo. It appears under the heading “Monumental rise of a mischievous boy from Medamulana” and can be accessed at the following link: