COLOMBO – President Mahinda Rajapakse may be a pariah to some of his Commonwealth peers, but for many of his fellow Sri Lankans he is a national hero who ended four decades of bloodshed.
The combative Sri Lankan leader has long battled allegations that his troops killed some 40,000 civilians in the closing stages of the island’s ethnic conflict, which ended in May 2009.
His refusal to countenance an international inquiry into alleged abuses at the end of the war has prompted the leaders of Canada, Mauritius and India to all stay away from this weekend’s Commonwealth summit in Colombo.
Others who are attending, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron, are promising to have “tough conversations” with the 67-year-old Rajapakse.
But for all the international criticism, Rajapakse’s popularity has stood firm back home, where the people endured 37 years of war before government troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels once and for all.
“People were getting killed for 30 years; at least after 2009, we have stopped it,” Rajapakse said in a typically unapologetic performance before the press in Colombo on Thursday. “There is no killing in Sri Lanka today.”
Former Sri Lankan diplomat Dayan Jayatilleka says Rajapakse — who was overwhelmingly re-elected in January 2010 — still has no shortage of credit with the majority Sinhalese community after overseeing the end of what many thought was an “unwinnable war.”
Jayatilleka likened Rajapakse’s image to that of Vladimir Putin, who restored Russian pride and prestige by ending the war in Chechnya — even if there was also a heavy human cost.
“Mahinda has the same kind of appeal as Putin. He has done something that none of his predecessors could,” said Jayatilleka, adding that he generated a sense of patriotism among the majority.
Ordinary Sri Lankans, questioned on the streets of Colombo, were quick to voice their support for Rajapakse, even if they had less kind words to say about his government.
“People are still grateful to him for ending the war,” company executive Nilantha Perera said. “He is seen as the man who defeated terrorism. He did the impossible. Whatever his flaws in governance, many are willing to overlook all that. We are a grateful people.”
Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella acknowledged that Rajapakse’s military success was still a strong draw at national elections. “I will vote for him any day because he won the war and stopped the daily bomb blasts we had to face for over 30 years,” Rambukwella said. “People trust him.”
The U.N. estimates that at least 100,000 people were killed in the fighting between 1972 and 2009, making it one of the longest and bloodiest ethnic conflicts of the 20th century.
Rajapakse is widely regarded as an astute politician, managing to shift blame for corruption onto others in an administration that includes several of his brothers in senior positions.
He has also been helped by the opposition’s failure to come up with a credible challenger.
U.N. Human Rights chief Navi Pillay is among the international voices who have accused Rajapakse of becoming increasingly authoritarian. But he strengthened his grip at his last electoral test in September, when he won two of the three provincial council contests. His only defeat was in the north, where the main Tamil party unsurprisingly won in Jaffna.
Tamil politician Dharmalingam Sithadthan said the rise in international criticism actually helps Rajapakse consolidate his nationalist credentials. “He projects Western powers as the new enemy of the state, and he is fighting them,” Sithadthan said. “This has proved a very successful strategy.”