Who is Mahinda Rajapaksa? Hero or war criminal? Sri Lankan leader stands accused

 

Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa was once a human rights activist, campaigning with the mothers of the “disappeared”. Now, he is accused of presiding over war crimes and crimes against humanity, and his government actively prevents the families of the “disappeared” from protesting.

To his supporters, Mr Rajapaksa is still a Sinhala Buddhist hero. Larger than life-sized posters that appeared after the government’s victory in the civil war in 2009 consciously play on ancient historical heroes.

Frequent comparisons are made between the triumphant President and Dutugemunu, the ancient Sinhala King who defeated “invading Tamils” more than 2,000 years ago. “It took 13 years for Dutugemunu to regain lost territory and establish total sovereignty over Sri Lanka. But it took less than three years for Mr Rajapaksa to achieve the same goal,” boasts Sri Lanka’s Ministry of Defence website, adding rather ruefully that kings were “not restrained by issues of human rights”.

After the war ended, Mr Rajapaksa boasted that his “troops went to the battlefront carrying a gun in one hand, the Human Rights Charter in the other”. That is not, however, the conclusion of legal experts at the United Nations, who said in a 2011 report that, “the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law” and accused the government – and the separatist Tamil Tiger rebels – of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The UN said up to 40,000 civilians may have died in the last months of the civil war; and possibly up to 70,000, according to a 2012 UN Internal Inquiry. The majority of the killings were attributed to government forces, directly under the control of the President’s much-feared brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Sri Lanka’s Defence Secretary.

Many say “Gota”, as he’s referred to for short, was the real brain behind the military defeat of the Tamil Tigers, not the shy, affable President. Some even question how much Mr Rajapaksa knew about what was being done in his name. But four-and-a-half-years later he has yet to hold a single person accountable for war crimes and ongoing human rights abuses, including allegations of rape and torture committed by the security forces against their opponents this year.

There’s no question that Sri Lanka is run by a family dynasty now, with a third brother, Basil, as the minister for economic development, a son being groomed as the heir apparent and many other relatives in key positions of power. Allegations of corruption, nepotism and concentration of power have begun to erode some of the popular support for Mr Rajapaksa among the Sinhala majority on the island. However, the Rajapaksa clan knows it has domestic support, so long as it’s valiantly defending mother Lanka against its powerful enemies, be they Tamil separatists or meddling foreign journalists in the pay of the terrorists. In short, it needs an enemy to stay in power.

Judging by their reception in Sri Lanka, one might think the Channel 4 News team is now public enemy number one. The journalists were greeted by protesters at the airport and their hotel and were mobbed in a train trying to go to the north of the island.

It looks as if there’s some disappointment that the Sinhala people didn’t spontaneously come out to show their opposition, but it’s hard to say if that’s a sign of decreasing support on the war issue. Most Sinhalese are still in denial about what happened at the end of the war; few human rights reports are translated into the local language and many ordinary people, who have relatives who served in the army, understandably don’t want to know the full extent of the horror.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
filmIdris Elba responds to James Bond rumours on Twitter
News
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones
film
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Panel & Cabinet Wireman

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Panel Wireman required for small electro...

Recruitment Genius: Electronics Test Engineer

£25000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SME based in East Cheshire, ...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing Assistant

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Do you have previous experience...

Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

Finally, a diet that works

Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

Say it with... lyrics

The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

The joys of 'thinkering'

Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

Monique Roffey interview

The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

How we met

Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

Who does your club need in the transfer window?

Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

Michael Calvin's Last Word

From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015