By Dharisha Bastians in Medamulana
The monk’s voice booms through rustling coconut fronds, carrying on the soft breezes over lotus ponds and endlessly green fields of paddy.
“What is this title ‘former’ president? Is that how we refer to our ancient kings?”
On Esala full moon Poya day, the sleepy southern village of Medamulana is buzzing with activity, its narrow rural roads choked with traffic as people turnout in van and busloads, travelling through the night from Ratnapura, Divulapitiya and other far-off places. On every vehicle, stickers and banners feature a moustachioed man, wearing a wide grin and signature red shawl.
Ode to a moustache
As the final stragglers wend their way into the rambling gardens of the Medamulana Mahagedara , Mahinda Rajapaksa’s ancestral property in the Hambantota District, the monk breaks into a brief ode to this ‘jet-black’ moustache.
“When people are defeated, usually their physical appearance is also diminished. But look at you, you are looking better than ever. Look at that black moustache, how it adds to your strong personality!” the Buddhist priest waxed from within the house, his words carrying out to large crowds gathered under marquees set up in the garden and across the village roads on a public address system.
Ever since their defeat in the presidential elections on 8 January, the Rajapaksa family invites large crowds of devotees into their home garden in Medamulana every Poya day for religious observances. The hour-long bana or Buddhist sermon on Wednesday (1) was to be the precursor to a major announcement by the ‘former’ President.
Under the circumstances, Medirigiriye Assaji Thero, transported from Polonnaruwa to Medamulana for the ‘special’ Poya day event, performed admirably, adjusting his sermon so it became a sonnet of sorts about the virtues of Mahinda Rajapaksa and his family. He acknowledges this, saying that rather than preach the dhamma, on Wednesday he had chosen to tell Mahinda Rajapaksa about the people’s aspirations.
“This great Poya was made for you, this is the day you begin again,” Assaji Thero encouraged, “today you must tell the people you are coming back. We know that on the 17th of August, you will be the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.”
“They can’t bear it, that you look after your sons, that you look after your brothers and your family. They are jealous of this family unity,” the monk charged, referring to Rajapaksa opponents.
The Rajapaksa theatrics
Once the sermon ends, the crowds wander slowly at first over to the small stage constructed under a big tree, still empty except for the small podium flanked by black tele-prompters. The anticipation to hear the former President speak is heightened by an hour-long wait, with crowds building slowly around the stage.
The Rajapaksa theatrics at Wednesday’s event were unmistakable. Nothing was accidental, nothing was left to chance.
Drone cameras, first seen during Rajapaksa presidential rallies in December 2014 and January 2015, were dusted off and used to scan pictures of the 5,000-6,000 strong crowd. Patriotic songs glorifying the ex-President were played until he stepped out at the auspicious moment. In staggered fashion, politician after politician took the stage, each time heightening anticipation that President Rajapaksa would be the next person out the door.
Between songs, artistes told limericks about former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and the UNP Government, drawing wild hooting from the crowd. Security personnel, now in civilian clothing, fought to keep over-eager supporters off the stage that had been constructed to hold only 15 people.
The entire scene had a rock-concert feel, with screaming fans tripping over each other to catch a glimpse of their heroic leader. “Move away and let me see him, haven’t you people seen enough of him? You are the ones that ruined him,” screamed one woman near the stage, whose view of the former President was being obscured by the wide girth of UPFA Galle District MP Nishantha Mutuhettigama. By spells the woman soothed her toddler, begging her not to cry. “We came all this way to see Mahinda mahattaya, don’t you want to see him?” she asked the little girl.
Mahinda Rajapaksa had elected to make his major announcement under the same tree made famous by his father Don Alwin Rajapaksa, who reportedly gave all his political speeches under the shade of its leafy boughs. The former President had beckoned his party faithful and supporters to the garden of his village home, in a classic ‘back-to-basics’ move.
Crowds bussed in for the event looked bigger in the garden than they might have in a municipal park or stadium. In the gardens of Medamulana, they were tightly packed, jostling and fighting each other for a better view of the stage. The able-bodied managed the best view, perched on branches of margosa and mango trees that fill the estate property. Blue flags lined the paddy fields leading to the Rajapaksa property. Grass-scented breezes blew across the gardens as the people waited anxiously, the heat of the day increasing with every minute, until they could finally hear their hero speak.
An ‘ordinary man’
During his nine-year rule, even when his sons were racing luxury sports cars on Colombo’s roads and his family members were raising baby elephants as household mascots, Mahinda Rajapaksa constantly projected himself as an ordinary man.
He was the ‘game-miniha’ (man from the village), always distinct from the rest of Sri Lanka’s ruling class traditionally drawn from the elites. A story is told that when Rajapaksa first entered Parliament in 1970, then Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike handed him over to a senior party member and asked him to show the young Hambantota MP around the city of Colombo.
While the Rajapaksas have secretly nursed grudges about this difference, in public they embraced the image of being village people, and therefore best placed politically to understand the aspirations of the farmer and the teacher.
To craft the story of his political ‘rebirth’ therefore, Mahinda Rajapaksa went back to his village.
“On 8 January, I bowed to the verdict of the people. I gave up office, I handed over the party leadership and I returned to the village,” he read from the tele-prompters on stage.
Yet, ultimately, the message he had for the large crowds he had drawn to Medamulana was still ambiguous, coloured deeply by the controversy surrounding his nomination on the Sri Lanka Freedom Party ticket for the August election.
“It is clear we must contest the upcoming Parliamentary elections,” the former President thundered, alluding to himself and a group of others, but stopping short of declaring that he himself would contest personally for a seat in Parliament.
Rajapaksa aides claimed earlier this week that all that mattered was obtaining a nomination on the SLFP/UPFA ticket; they were confident the question of prime ministerial candidacy could be tackled on the campaign trail.
While campaigning they assumed a majority of SLFP members would acknowledge Rajapaksa as the leader of the party’s general election campaign and therefore, presumptive premier.
But on Tuesday, President Maithripala Sirisena took the wind out of their sails, when he declared in a media release that the SLFP had not nominated the ex-President as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. The statement from President Sirisena’s office went on to state that the UPFA would only pick its prime ministerial nominee if it wins the forthcoming election.
The idea that Rajapaksa could get a nomination from a party led by President Sirisena has irked political parties, civil society movements and trade unions that strongly backed the opposition candidacy in the January poll. Without the nod from his own party, the former President and his faction of loyalists must now mull their options and decide whether they will attempt to wrest control of the UPFA, currently in the hands of SLFP stalwart Susil Premajayantha, or if they will field Rajapaksa from a separate political party. That would plunge the SLFP into crisis, and give the UNP a big edge to sweep the polls in August, political analysts told the Daily FT.
Rajapaksa may prove capable of drawing a few SLFP heavyweights to his side, but if others choose to stay with the Sirisena-led party, the former President will find himself contesting alongside an unsavoury mix of politicians, many of whom took the stage with him in Medamulana on Wednesday, nearly all of them dogged by major allegations of corruption. Every factor that led to his defeat in the 2015 presidential election, will be reinforced by this re-entry alongside the worst of Rajapaksa cronies rejected in January.
Alienating minority communities
During Wednesday’s speech, the former President set the tone for his future election campaign, making it clear that he would fight for Sinhalese majority votes, taking a hard line on national security issues and concessions to the Tamil minority.
This strategy cost him the presidential election in January, and while the Parliamentary election is a different beast, it remains unlikely that an alliance led by Rajapaksa that actively seeks to alienate the minority communities will manage to muster significant enough numbers in the next Parliament.
But to his adoring public, nearly all of them drawn from Sinhala Buddhist heartlands in the Southern, North Western, Western and Sabaragamuwa Provinces, none of these political calculations that could affect their hero’s electoral fortunes really matter. Many of them were barely interested in what the ex-President had to say in Medamulana that day, they only cared for a brief glimpse of the man or a swift touch of his bejewelled hand.
“I know that after the defeat on 8 January, some of you didn’t eat. You didn’t light the hearths in your home. In your hearts, the National Flag was flying at half-mast,” President Rajapaksa thundered and the people agreed. “Now we will start rebuilding the country, we are ready to form a future government,” Rajapaksa promised. The crowd went wild.
Beyond Matara, many parts of the South remain firmly Rajapaksa country. Pennants and cut-outs of the former President, omnipresent throughout the island pre-8 January, are still standing in the towns of Devinuwara, Weerawila and Tangalle.
In Medamulana, a large cement monument marks the entrance to the road upon which stands the ancestral mansion. Two tear-shaped silver pods at the centre of the monument glitter in the sunlight, as a larger than life cut-out of President Rajapaksa waves through the trees at visitors. Time appears to have stood still here, in the heart of the Rajapaksa power base.
The classic showman, with a flair for the dramatic, Mahinda Rajapaksa set out to prove on Wednesday that he could still command national and international attention and draw crowds to his feet in mad anticipation of his re-entry to the political fray.
Over his rule spanning nearly a decade, Rajapaksa fashioned a cult of personality that has remained etched in the hearts of his most ardent supporters. Six months after his defeat, now a much older man and beginning to look it whatever the priest might say, the memory of his glory days can still draw a crowd.
For nine years, while the Rajapaksas turned Sri Lanka into something akin to a personal fiefdom, the remote village of Weeraketiya would have been in thrall to the power wielded by an old feudal family from the area. Loyalists of the ex-President like to say he was born in a small village in southern Sri Lanka and went on to conquer the world. Starting again from the politician’s ancestral village, they hope he can pull it off again.
Much has changed in Sri Lanka since 8 January. But some things have stayed the same.
Mahinda from Medamulana, can he rise again?