18 May, 2022


The Mixed Legacy Of Mahinda Rajapaksa

By Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

People are remembered. They leave behind legacies. Those are remembered too. That they can be remembered for all the wrong reasons is another story, but the point is that giants rise and fall. When they fall, they usually leave behind a mixed legacy, with its share of critics and champions.

Winston Churchill, for example, is remembered for ending a war, but this does not preclude his critics from bemoaning his political legacy. People remember Qaddafi for quite a number of things as well, and not just his dictatorial rule. Even Prabhakaran, that megalomaniac despot, will be championed. There will be hurrah-boys and cheering squads no matter who the guy is. That’s natural. Nothing to complain about.

So how will Mahinda Rajapaksa be remembered? If there are so many things to remember him by, then what best encapsulates them all? And if there are lesser things he is known for, will they negative those greater victories he accomplished?

Mahinda’s legacy is mixed. He ended a war. He ensured peace. He ushered in investment sans the biggest obstacle foreigners had (the war, of course). That he abused and distorted the market courtesy of his brothers who got themselves involved in unholy deals with companies and banks is, though not peripheral, to be left for another debate altogether. For the time being, however, he will be remembered. And thanked.

Mahinda Ampara 20 12 2014 MR FBHe also did lesser things. Lesser acts. That’s natural too. He’s frail, after all. There were massive abuses of power under him, and while I cannot really say that he oversaw them all, I have to admit that if he were the strong leader he projected himself as to everyone, he could have at least forced those who flouted laws to toe the line. Didn’t happen. The problem was especially so because, as one commentator put it to me recently, while Mahinda embodied strong leadership, he could not (tragically) make the transition from populist leader to statesman. Unlike S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike.

Still, remembrance doesn’t come naturally in a country where politicians promise everything and deliver nothing. There were leaders who promised rice from the moon. There were leaders who promised money to anyone and everyone who earned below a certain amount. There were promises of peace, reconciliation, and what-not, couched of course in hazy terms so that whenever they weren’t realised, the “ruler” could always fall back on the “I am as human and frail as my voters” excuse.

Mahinda didn’t do that. From day one, thanks largely to a coalition that supported him right till the end (save the JVP), he acted. All the way. He delivered. At a time when peace in name only remained the campaign signature of the opposition, he took a hard line against terrorists. That’s the main thing we remember him for. Not that there aren’t others. But they all pale into insignificance, naturally I suppose.

He also took a hard line against those who came from overseas, who abused our courtesy and piled up their demands on us, as though we were their serfs. I can never forget the day David Miliband and Bernard Kouchner visited Mahinda. Instead of affording them all the luxuries that his aides could come up with, he made them sit and wait. That’s class. Shows courage. Big time.

It’s still too early to tell whether he will be thanked for all these. Too early to see whether those minus-points will outweigh the rest. Personally, I don’t think so. He’s still popular, even among those who voted against him. To be fair, they didn’t actually vote against him: they voted against those abusers he had licensed and allowed free rein in his own government. This doesn’t absolve him, but the point is that he needed to lose. A third term, to be honest, would have tarnished his image even more.

He has handed over his party’s chairmanship to Maithripala Sirisena. We don’t know why. I am an optimist, however. I would like to think that he did this out of humility. Granted, it was not humility that sanctioned abuse and murder on a large scale, and most certainly not humility that provoked dissent from his own party.

He has his imperfections. He is corrupt. We all are. None of us is a lily-white angel, after all. If it’s about corruption, about large-scale pilferage, I know that some of those who were involved with Sirisena’s candidacy, especially those who went on a rampage against Mahinda (for no reason), have bigger and more horrendous allegations of power-abuse levelled at them. If at all for this reason, they lost even their own electorates to the man they were vilifying.

Mahinda Rajapaksa is a name etched across our history books. Don’t get me wrong. History records both good and bad. It will be the same thing with him, this much I know. But he still is popular. He shouldn’t try to make a comeback, at least not yet. He should gracefully retire to Medamulana and remain there, without echoing his less than dim predecessor and trying to make a saint of himself wherever he goes. We know him and know him well. That’s enough. At least for now.

So now, change has come. That’s inevitable. No-one’s immortal. There is still disappointment in those who cheered him. Natural, considering how he had projected himself as invincible all these years. This doesn’t license those diehard opposition loyalists who vilify him for crimes uncommitted, who conveniently forget the large-scale plunder of resources committed by some of those they now back. Doesn’t matter. We elected Maithripala Sirisena. We can trust him.

It’s difficult to picture someone else like Mahinda Rajapaksa within the past 50+ years here. Glancing at them all, I can come up with only two leaders who could gain this much popularity: the two Bandaranaikes. Like Mahinda, they were imperfect. Like Mahinda, they were kicked out, one unduly through murder and the other through a successor who for no rhyme or reason stripped off her civic rights.

But it’s time to reconcile and forgive. It’s time to move on. Mahinda Rajapaksa has realised this more than anyone else. I don’t know about you, but when all the Dumindas and Mervyns will be forgotten, there will be one name that will rise up. Notwithstanding all those diehard party loyalists who will blindly adulate or vilify him, he will stay and be remembered. Always.

*Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com. His articles can be accessed at fragmenteyes.blogspot.com.

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Latest comments

  • 9

    I suggested after your last article you should travel widely to broaden your horizons.

    I suggest that again.

    SWRD is no statesman. He is remembered for starting the whole mess we are in right now with regard to the ethnic problems. He and Athuraliye Rathana like monks destroyed the racial amity that existed in this country. That is no legacy to be proud of.

    • 2

      Agree with the above comment.

      The worst Banda did was to leave his power to his widow. She came and took all our lands our foreign ancestors had robbed from the locals and left for us.

      The silly woman limited land ownership to just 50 acres, forcing some of us to leave the country and go to places like Canada where we even tried politics.

      Now we are back in the saddle with Ranil becoming PM, but fear the rural revolution for the remaining land.

      The writer also says, “He [MR]has his imperfections. He is corrupt.”
      But WHERE IS THE BLOODY EVIDENCE? stop chanting this mantra that will come back as a curse to the 100 day non-government.

    • 2

      ”He ended a war.”
      A. Robert
      ”you should travel widely to broaden your horizons”
      Can’t agree more.

      B. Uditha
      ”He ensured peace.”

      War meant peace for the South because suicide bombings of the LTTE stopped.
      War continues in the North?East as suppression by armed forces and ”Presidential Task Force for Northern Development” physically, administratively, socially, economically and environmentally.

      How can you be so ignorant AND a writer?

      OR just as BBS was created to physically harm the ethnic minorities, are you created to psychologically harm them?

    • 1

      Before he starts traveling he can even read the reports by International Displacement Monitoring Centre.

  • 8

    Not sure what the fxxk you are trying to say!

    • 4

      This is another avatar of Ben Hurling.

  • 7

    “It’s difficult to picture someone else like Mahinda Rajapaksa within the past 50+ years here”

    From 1948, all PMs and presidents did bad things to Tamils. The worst one is Mahinda Rajapaksa.

    Ceylon got its independence in 1948 on the back of the Indian nationalist struggle. Hence it did not go through the process of nation building that a nationalist struggle involves. Instead, it was regarded as a model colony -with an English-educated elite, universal suffrage, and an elected assembly – deserving of self-government.
    These however turned out to be the trappings of capitalist democracy super-imposed on a feudal infrastructure – a democratic top-dressing on a feudal base. But then, colonial capitalism is a hybrid, a mutant. It underdevelops some parts of the country while the part it develops is not consonant with the country’s needs or growth. Nor does it throw up institutions and structures that sustain democracy. Capitalism in the periphery, unlike capitalism at the centre, does not engender an organic relationship between the political, economic and cultural instances. It is a disorganic capitalism that produces disorganic development and a malformed democracy.
    Power, then, was still in the hands of the feudal elite, the landed aristocracy. And almost the first thing that an independent government under D. S. Senanayake, “the father of the nation”, did was to disenfranchise the “plantation Tamils” who were now into their third and fourth generations – thereby establishing a Sinhalese electoral majority in the upcountry areas. This was followed by colonisation schemes that settled Sinhalese peasants in the predominantly Tamil-speaking north-east – thereby changing the ethnic demography of the area. And although elections were on party lines, the parties themselves – with the exception of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Trotskyists and the Communist Party (CP) – operated on feudal allegiances. Hence the government that ensued was government by dynasty. The first prime minister was succeeded by his son, Dudley Senanayake, and subsequently by his nephew, Sir John Kotelawela and so on. So that the ruling United National Party, (U.N.P.), was more appositely known as the Uncle Nephew Party.
    The breakthrough came in 1956 when the Oxford-educated Solomon West Ridgeway Dias Bandaranaike decided that the only way that a distant relative like him could break into the dynastic succession was to resort to the ethnic politics of language and religion that would guarantee him a ready-made electoral majority. The Sinhala speaking population, after all, amounted to something like 70 per cent (the Tamils around 20 per cent) and they were mostly Buddhists. All he was doing, as a nationalist and patriot was returning power to the people, restituting their ancient rights. And so he came to power on the twin platforms of making Sinhala the official language and Buddhism the state religion. The language policy was to be introduced within 24 hours of his taking office – and all government servants would have to learn to conduct business in Sinhala within a given period if they were to keep their jobs. Sinhala would also constitute the medium of instruction in schools.
    Bandaranaike had struck at the heart of Tamil livelihood and achievement. Coming from the arid north of the country, where nothing grew except children, the Tamil man’s chief industry was the government service, and education, English education, his passport. And Britain’s divide and rule policies encouraged and reinforced the growth of a class of Tamil bureaucrats. So that at independence they were over-represented in the administrative services and the professions.
    Bandaranaike’s policies were meant to put an end to that but, in the event, they degraded the mother tongue of a people who held up Tamil as an ancient language (which it was) and its considerable literature as their bounteous heritage. In protest Tamil leaders staged a mass non-violent sit-down in front of the Houses of Parliament and were beaten up by government-sponsored goondas for their pains – giving meaning to the phrase sitting ducks.
    And there begins the two trajectories of ethnic cleansing: the “legal” and the illegal, the civil and the military, the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary, each overlapping and reinforcing each other. Ethnic cleansing is a process not an isolate, genocide its logical conclusion.
    The prime minister, having divested himself of his Oxford bags for national dress, Christianity for Buddhism, English for Sinhala, was caught now between his social democratic principles and his nationalist practice, and proposed to make Tamil a regional language. But his ministers and the Opposition upped the racist ante and the Buddhist monks, whom Bandaranaike himself was instrumental in bringing out of the monasteries and on to the hustings where their influence was decisive, demanded that he return to his original remit. Peaceful Tamil demonstrations were met with police violence, participants travelling to a Tamil convention in the North in May 1958 were taken off the trains, cars and buses and beaten up by goon squads organised by Sinhalese politicians. Attacks on Tamils in their homes, on the street and work-places right across the country followed. Bandaranaike vacillated and a monk shot him dead. The chickens had come home to roost.
    From then on the pattern of Tamil subjugation was set: racist legislation followed by Tamil resistance, followed by conciliatory government gestures, followed by Opposition rejectionism, followed by anti-Tamil riots instigated by Buddhist priests and politicians, escalating Tamil resistance, and so on – except that the mode of resistance varied and intensified with each tightening of the ethnic-cleansing screw and led to armed struggle and civil war.

    successive Sinhalese-dominated governments that led to the spiralling cycle of repression and resistance. If Mr Bandaranaike had cut out the mother tongue of the Tamils, it was left to Mrs Bandaranaike to bring the Tamils down to their knees – by using the language provision to remove and exclude Tamils from the police, the army, the courts and government service generally, further colonising traditionally Tamil areas of the north-east with Sinhalese from the South, repatriating the already disenfranchised Indian Tamil plantation workers and, more crucially, requiring Tamil students to score higher marks than their Sinhalese counterparts to enter university – on the grounds that Tamils should not continue to be over-represented in higher education and the professions.
    At one stroke, Mrs Bandaranaike had cut the ground from under the feet of Tamil youth. At one stroke she had blighted their future. You take away a people’s language and you take away their identity. You take away their land and you take away their livelihood. You take away their education and you take away their hopes and aspirations. They had seen their parents try reason and reconciliation, but to no avail. They had seen them try non-violent resistance only to be met with violence. They had seen their representatives in the Federal Party running between the government and the Opposition with their electoral begging bowl. And they had seen the Left, the Trotskyists and the CP, who had once stood square against racist laws and for the parity of language, succumb at last to Mrs Bandaranaike’s blandishments of nationalisation in exchange for dropping their call for parity, and join her United Front government.
    The Left in Ceylon, and the Trotskyist LSSP, in particular, had hitherto had a noble history. Formed in the 1930s, during the malaria epidemic and led by doctors, they had set up people’s dispensaries in the villages to treat patients free of charge. They had, along with the CP, politicised the urban working class and engendered a flourishing trade union movement. And in 1953, when the UNP government withdrew its subsidised rice ration at a time of rising food prices, they brought out the country in a hartal (cessation of all work) and drove a beleaguered cabinet into the safety of a ship in the harbour. But 1953 also marks the Left’s failure – for instead of pressing home the advantage, a middle-class leadership took fright at the enormity of its own success, agreed to talks and called off the hartal. The moment of revolution had passed, and from then on Parliament became the Left’s pitch – landing them, as I mentioned before, in Mrs Bandaranaike’s racist government. But the final degradation was yet to come. Asked to frame a new constitution, Dr Colin R de Silva, LSSP historian, now made a constitutional proviso for the repatriation of disenfranchised Tamil plantation workers.

    The degradation of the Left engendered the degradation of the intelligentsia who now turned to middle of the road reformist politics. The Tamil youth looked around and saw no allies in the South. Nothing and no one seemed to work for them. They had only themselves to rely on. They had no choice but to take up arms. (The violence of the violated is never a matter of choice, but a symptom of choicelessness – and often it is a violence that takes on a life of its own and becomes distorted and self-defeating.)

    In 1981 security forces burnt down the Jaffna library, with its “ola” manuscripts and rare literature, the epicentre of Tamil learning and culture. In the same year Gandhiyam, a refugee camp turned farm, set up by a Tamil doctor to restore refugees to some sort of normal life, was over-run by the police – and its organisers killed or imprisoned. In 1983 the Tigers killed thirteen soldiers in Jaffna and the government brought their bodies to Colombo and put them on display before an angry Sinhalese crowd and so provoked “the riots”(pogroms really) that followed culminating in the killing of Tamils prisoners in Welikade jail, awaiting trial under the PTA, by Sinhalese prisoners whose cells the guards forgot to lock!

    That’s when the civil war began in earnest – with each side, the government and the guerrillas, ratcheting up the terror count, with the occasional pause for “talks” or peace mediation, during which each side refurbished its forces and came out more intransigent than ever. The government now added an official military dimension to civil ethnic cleansing by letting loose its private armies to terrorise Tamils and drive them from their homes. Refugee camps were attacked, its inmates killed or driven out, Tamil plantation workers were forcibly taken from their houses and dumped hundreds of miles away by thugs in the pay of the Minister of Industries in trucks provided by him. (The state against its Tamils.)

    But the President’s own actions since the defeat of the Tigers and, more importantly, the political culture that his government, even more than all the previous governments, has created, belies any such democratic outcome. For what has evolved in sixty years of independence is an ethnocentric Sinhala-Buddhist polity reared on falsified history reinforced by feudal customs and myths, with a voting system that seals the ethnic majority in power for ever – while reducing the party system to a war between dynasties, flanked by monks and militias.
    And within that polity the Rajapakse government or, rather cabal (he has three brothers in the cabinet) has instituted a regime of blanket censorship under cover of which it has conducted a ruthless war not just against Tigers but against harmless Tamil civilians, a “war without witness” someone termed it, while feeding the Sinhalese public with government-manufactured facts and seeing off any journalist who dared to criticise the government. (You will all remember the case of Lasantha Wickramatunga, the editor of the Sunday Leader, who sent a letter to his friend President Rajapakse, excoriating him for murders of outspoken journalists and predicting his own at the hands of government thugs. And so it came to pass.)

    What, in sum, we are faced with in my country today, is a brainwashed people, brought up on lies and myths, their intelligentsia told what to think, their journalists forbidden to speak the truth on pain of death, the militarising of civil society and the silencing of all opposition. A nation bound together by the effete ties of language, race and religion has arrived at the cross-roads between parliamentary dictatorship and fascism.

    – A. Sivanadan

    Hope it will get better.

  • 5

    “The election victory of Sri Lanka’s new president Maithripala Sirisena has been hailed by the West’s media and opinion-makers as a rejection of his predecessor’s violent past, including the coldblooded killing of Tamil civilians. But Sirisena was the country’s acting minister of defence when some of the worst atrocities occurred during the civil war. Is the West willing to subject Sirisena too to the same scrutiny for possible war crimes, or let him off because it can do business with him?” – Will Sri Lanka’s new president be held to international standards of justice? By JS Tissainayagam Jan 15, 2015 2:35PM UTC

  • 1

    All I have to say is the Sinhalese saying ” kiri Dowala iwara wela goma tikak muhu kalaaa wage. Ganna deyak naa

    After milking the cow, accidentally adding a minute amount of cow dung to the milk. The milk is spoilt.

    That is MR. Won the war and everyone was full of praise then his and his cronies corrupt conduct over shadowed everything else.

  • 0

    Great article which really puts things into perspective.

    Rajapaksa should yet, not be let go like that. We must therefore have 2 PM’s (if Ranil can’t be ousted). One for the democratic needs of the masses viz. MR, and one for the democratic needs of the 1% who own 99% of the wealth viz. Ranil.

  • 2

    A good rule of thumb when you write under another identity is to change your writing style. A dead giveaway.

    • 0

      Another smug retort? Get some idea of Sri Lanka’s cultural depth, and then you won’t need to resort to fallacies of irrelevance.

  • 4

    I will remember Mahinda Rajapaksa as the most uncouth, unscrupulous, corrupt, and wicked President we ever had. That is his true legacy.

  • 3

    ‘He failed to make the transition from unscrupulous politician to statesman’. I think that says it all. He had the opportunities in his hands. He lost out. No excuses, please.

  • 2

    ” where politicians promise everything and deliver nothing”:

    Successive governments have been controlling damage at the UN by ”appointing commissions”. That led to Amnesty International’s report:
    Sri Lanka:Twenty years of make-believe. Sri Lanka’s Commissions of Inquiry, June 2009.

    In the last nine years the past President appointed 18 Commissions/Committees on murders (of journalists, Tamil politicians, students, aid workers, etc) , disappearances, corruption, etc to ward off international pressure and he published only the report of LLRC(recommendations of which remain to be implemented) and refused to publish the other 17 reports:
    List of Commissions of Inquiry and Committees Appointed by the Government of Sri Lanka (2006 – November 2013), Centre for Policy Alternatives, January 2014:

  • 2

    So, here we go again with another writer attempting to quarantine Mahinda Rajapakse (MR) from the sins of his regime. Uditha Devapriya (UD) would have us believe that all the fell deeds were done by MR’s family and cronies and MR himself was innocent of any wrong doing, that he was some a hapless prisoner of those around him. What rubbish! The MR Administration was the Administration OF MR. And that means it is an administration for which he must take responsibility. It is ridiculous of writers like UD to try to distance MR from the sins of his regime.

    On MR, UD saya “At a time when peace in name only remained the campaign signature of the opposition, he took a hard line against terrorists. That’s the main thing we remember him for. Not that there aren’t others. But they all pale into insignificance, naturally I suppose”. I am not sure whether UD refers only to MR’s “hard line against the terrorists” or also has in mind MR’s role in the defeat of the LTTE. In either case, to say that in comparison others “all pale into insignificance” is to make an extravagant claim. “Pale into insignificance” – That’s saying a lot. UD, a freelance writer seems to be very free with his words!

    It would seem that David Milliband and Bernard Kouchner came to SL on a meddling mission and in an effort to stop the offensive against the LTTE, and hats off to MR and his brother for standing up to them. But I cannot see how you can applaud MR for making them “sit and wait”, saying, “That’s class. Shows courage. Big time”. To me, making them “sit and wait” reflects rudeness. It shows no class, just a puerile attitude.

    UD says within the past 50+ years there are only two other leaders, SWRD and his widow, who could “gain this much popularity” as MR. This is debatable. To me, Dudley Senanayake towers over all three of them, and is perhaps the most respected of post independence political leaders. He was admired by all communities, and the many thousands who came to pay their respects upon his death bear ample testimony to the affection with which he was regarded.

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