Sri Lanka’s Minister for Justice and Buddha Sasana, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, appears to be making a bid to capture the island’s core political constituency – the Sinhala Buddhist-Nationalist constituency – in the absence of credible senior claimants..
The constituency was well served by Mahinda Rajapaksa until he messed up his political career by a variety of indiscretions in the last part of his two-term stint as President of Sri Lanka.
However, even now, Rajapaksa’s prospects for a comeback in 2020 look bright, given the political confusion in, and the lackluster performance of, the coalition government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.
But popular though Rajapaksa may be, there is a bar against his becoming President now. The 19 th. constitutional amendment of 2015 had put a two term cap on Presidents and Rajapaksa has served two terms.
Therefore, even if his group captures power, Rajapaksa can, at best, only be a Sonia Gandhi, remaining in the background and functioning through remote control.
His political prospects are also marred by the numerous and apparently credible corruption and even criminal charges against him, his family and cohorts, which are being investigated by several agencies.
Incumbent President Maithripala Sirisena is quintessentially a Sinhala-Buddhist-Nationalist leader, but his rule in the past two years has not earned him much credit, partly due to the unwieldy coalition he has saddled himself with to win the January 2015 Presidential election.
It is therefore unlikely that Sirisena will be a credible Sinhala-Buddhist-Nationalist candidate in the elections due in 2020, a necessary condition for getting votes from the majority Sinhala community.
Among the younger Sinhala-Buddhist-Nationalist leaders, the Minister of Megapolis (Town Planning) Patali Champika Ranawaka, and the Minister of Justice and Buddha Sasana, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, stand out.
Out of these, Ranawaka has had an explicit Sinhala-Buddhist-Nationalist background being a long time leader of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party). But for some time now, he has been in secular non-communal politics. He was part of the set which engineered the ouster of Rajapaksa from power and after becoming Minister in the successor government, he has been a technocratic man devoted to town planning.
That has left the field open to Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, a member of the United National Party (UNP) , Minister of Justice and Buddha Sasana and a staunch Sinhala-Buddhist-Nationalist.
When President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe formed the “Yahapalanaya” or Good Governance government in 2015, it came under pressure from the international community represented by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to agree to several measures to bring about post-war ethnic reconciliation.
These measures included: 1) release of Tamil Tiger detainees 2) drafting of a new law to replace the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA).
While Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and the then Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera were willing to give in to international pressure if only to save the country from sanctions and get the European Union GSP trade concessions, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, as Justice Minister would not give in.
He refused to release Tiger detainees without completion of the legal process, notwithstanding inordinate delays. On the issue of reforming the PTA, he presented a draft new law which, according to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.A. Sumanthiran, was worse than the PTA.
Rajapakshe would not allow arrested terrorist suspects to be aided by lawyers during their first questioning, though it is in the initial stages of interrogation that torture is used to extract confessions.
By refusing to budge, Rajapakshe was addressing a deep-seated concern of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority – concern about the return of Tamil separatism and terrorism in the post-war era marked of lax security.
Rajapakshe lambasted US Special Rapporteur on Torture Ben Emmerson for his arrogance.
“I reminded him that confessions are admissible in UK as well and therefore, invited him to repeal their laws first. Then he queried about the lack of action against armed forces personnel accused of crimes, to which I responded saying we are simply following British Prime Minister Theresa May. She vowed to protect British troops who fought in Iraq from legal abuse,” Rajapakshe said.
This struck a chord with the nationalist Sri Lankans.
Rajapakshe has also been fighting the case of the Sinhalese Buddhists in relation to Muslims in the Eastern province, where there is a conflict brewing between the Tamils and Sinhalese on the one hand, and the more enterprising Muslims on the other. He created a stir among the Sinhalese, and dismay among the Muslims, by declaring that 32 Sri Lankan Muslims had left for Syria to join the ISIS.
When his own party leader and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe got Sri Lanka to lease out Hambantota port to a state-owned Chinese company for 99 years on payment of US$ 1.12 billion for a 70% stake, Rajapakshe publicly stated that he would not rest until he had retrieved the national asset from foreigners.
While this was music to the ears of nationalists, Rajapakshe’s utterances ruffled feathers in the ruling United National Party (UNP). Minister Harsha de Silva rapped him for flouting the collective responsibility of ministers for cabinet decisions as the deal was sanctioned by the cabinet.
Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne said mockingly that lawyer Rajapakshe did not know the difference between “lease” and “sale”. Champika Ranawaka has asked the government to pass a resolution against Rajapakshe. Some UNP MPs have even threatened to submit a Motion of No Confidence against Rajapakshe.
But Rajapakshe is unfazed, because he has the support of the three Mahanayakes. The Mahanayakes have warned that they will oppose the government if there is a No Confidence Motion or a resolution condemning him.
Rajapakshe has been a rebel and a fighter against corruption in the past – the last quality being appreciated by the voting public. But others accuse him of defending the security firm Avant Garde against which there is a case.
A maverick, he had refused to take the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs when it was offered to him in 2004. He was also the only backbencher in the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) at that time.
Following the 2005 Presidential elections, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed him Minister of State Banking Development. But Rajapakshe resigned in April 2006 on a matter of policy. He also resigned from the post of the SLFP Organizer of the Maharagama electorate.
In 2007, when he was Chairman of the parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), he was recognized as a crusader against corruption in the public sector.
In 2012, Rajapakshe was elected President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and in that capacity he supported former Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake when she was impeached on account of political vendetta.
Rajapakshe is not a Govigama, considered to be the highest caste among the Sinhalese, and from which come Sri Lanka’s top leaders. He is a Wahumpura, which accounts for about 30% of the Sinhalese population.
Though the Wahumpura may have Western Christian names Cyril Mathew (who was a cabinet minister in J.R.Jayewardane’s government) they take pride in the fact that very few or none of them got converted to Christianity in 500 years of European rule. Known to be staunch Buddhists, the Wahumpura have close links with the Buddhist clergy.
But unlike the Govigama, they have not used caste as a tool to garner political support which explains why they are under-represented in the Sri Lankan parliament.
However, they have flaunted their being staunch Buddhists. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe appears to be doing precisely this in his bid to make political headway. Earlier, President Ranasinghe Premadasa of Washerman caste, had also stressed his strong Buddhist affiliation to cut across caste divisions in appealing to people to support him.