Mahinda Rajapaksa, Rajapaksa also spelled Rajapakse, (born November 18, 1945, Weeraketiya, Sri Lanka), Sri Lankan politician who served as president of Sri Lanka (2005–15).
Rajapaksa was born into a large upper-caste family and was brought up as a Buddhist. Throughout much of his childhood, his father, D.A. Rajapaksa, served as a member of the Sri Lankan parliament, holding the Beliatta seat from 1947 to 1965. Rajapaksa did not pursue undergraduate study, but he received a law degree from Colombo Law College in 1974.
In 1970, at age 24, Rajapaksa became the youngest-ever member of the Sri Lankan parliament when he was elected to the seat that his father had vacated just five years earlier. After losing the seat in 1977, he focused on his law career until reentering the parliament in 1989, this time representing the Hambantota district (1989–2005). Viewed as a centre-left politician, he became known as a defender of human rights—a reputation that would later be undermined during his presidency when Sri Lanka was recognized as one of the world’s most dangerous countries for dissenting journalists. Rajapaksa served as labour minister (1994–2001) and minister of fisheries and aquatic resources (1997–2001) under Pres. Chandrika Kumaratunga. In 2004 Kumaratunga appointed Rajapaksa prime minister, and the following year she announced her endorsement of him as her successor.
Rajapaksa was elected president in 2005 as the candidate of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). At the time, the Sri Lankan government was in the midst of ongoing peace talks and a precarious cease-fire agreement with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), better known as the Tamil Tigers, the guerrilla organization that sought to establish an independent Tamil state in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. Nevertheless, Rajapaksa announced his intention in 2006 to eradicate the separatist group, which had operated as both a rebel army and a de facto government in parts of Sri Lanka for more than 20 years. In 2009 the Sri Lankan army defeated the Tamil forces, ending the country’s long civil war. Rajapaksa’s popularity surged, but international observers criticized his army’s brutality in the war’s final battle, which had led to many civilian deaths. Throughout Rajapaksa’s presidency he worked to develop the country’s business and tourism sectors as well as its infrastructure. His brothers—Gotabhaya, Basil, and Chamal—held prominent positions in his administration, serving respectively as secretary of defense, special adviser, and ports and aviation minister. Their support was instrumental in the defeat of the Tamil Tigers, but the concentration of one family in the country’s most powerful posts elicited charges of nepotism from the president’s detractors.
In late 2009, four years into his six-year term and hoping to capitalize on his popularity following victory over the Tamil Tigers, Rajapaksa called for a presidential election in early 2010. Retired general Sarath Fonseka, who had commanded the Sri Lankan army in the final battle against the Tigers, emerged as his main opposition. In the January election Rajapaksa easily defeated Fonseka, winning 58 percent of the vote, though the general protested the results. Despite questions arising from Rajapaksa’s possible misuse of state funds for his campaign, independent observers held that no voting fraud had taken place. The following month Fonseka was arrested on charges of corruption and of engaging in political activity while on active military duty. Immediately following the arrest, Rajapaksa dissolved the parliament in advance of early parliamentary elections. The vote, held in early April, gave the UPFA a strong majority of seats in the parliament. Although the UPFA failed to secure the two-thirds majority necessary to amend the constitution, in September an amendment was approved by the parliament, with the support of some opposition members, that removed limits on the number of terms a president could serve, granted judicial immunity to the president, and gave the president broader powers in making governmental appointments.
Sri Lanka’s economy performed well during Rajapaksa’s second term, showing sustained growth, and he continued to enjoy the strong support of the large Sinhalese majority in the country. His administration, however, became increasingly associated with strong-arm tactics and other repressive measures against political opponents and civil rights advocates. In addition, relations with Western countries were strained over Sri Lanka’s refusal to allow independent investigations of the military’s treatment of Tamils at the end of the civil war in 2009. Rajapaksa’s domestic popularity appeared to wane during 2014, and late in the year he again called for an early presidential election. The poll, in early January 2015, proved to be an upset, as Maithripala Sirisena, formerly a member of the cabinet, defeated Rajapaksa and was sworn in as president. Later that year Rajapaksa was elected to the parliament, representing the Kurunegala district.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa Sri Lanka's self-described "rebel with a cause" extended his four decades in politics with a landslide victory on Jan. 27 in the country's first election since the end of its 26-year civil war. Upending predictions that the contest would be a close fight, Rajapaksa easily beat his challenger, General Sarath Fonseka a former ally in Sri Lanka's military victory over the separatist Tamil Tigers with 57.9% of the vote. Though he was hailed by many members of Sri Lanka's ethnic Sinhalese majority for emerging victorious from the decades-long conflict with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, Rajapaksa's reputation was dented by international criticism of his headlong rush into the war's final battle. Dismissing calls for a last-minute cease-fire, Rajapaksa pushed to corner and crush the rebels, resulting in thousands of deaths among the 300,000 civilians stranded in the combat zone. Despite claiming an overwhelming majority in the Jan. 26 vote, Rajapaksa fared less well in the north and the east areas that are home to most of the island's Tamil population. Though the Tamil minority is fearful of how it will be treated by the man who crushed its hopes of a homeland, during his speech following the election results, he said, "I am the President of those who voted for me and those who did not."(See TIME's complete coverage of the Haiti earthquake.)
Born Nov. 18, 1945, in the district of Hambantota in southern Sri Lanka. His father was a member of the Sri Lankan Parliament from 1947 to 1965.
A Buddhist and human rights lawyer, at the age of 24 in 1970 he became the youngest person ever elected to Parliament.
Married to Shiranthi Rajapaksa; the couple has three sons.
Became Labor Minister under President Chandrika Kumaratunga, and later the Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.
Was appointed Prime Minister by Kumaratunga in April 2004 after the Sri Lanka Freedom Party won the general election.
Was endorsed by Kumaratunga as her successor; in November 2005 he was elected the fifth President of Sri Lanka.
The highest point of his presidency thus far is the defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers in May 2009 thereby ending the country's civil war, which was waged for 26 years.
Has three brothers who are serving in his administration, a fact that has led to charges of nepotism.
"Today we have been able to liberate the entire country from the clutches of terrorism. We have been able to defeat one of the most heinous terrorist groups in the world."
Declaring the end of civil war with the announcement that Tamil Tiger rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran had been killed (BBC, May 19, 2009)
"I reject that totally. There was no violation of human rights. There were no civilian casualties. If I did that, it wouldn't have taken 2½ years to finish this. I would have done this in a few hours. These are all propaganda."
Responding to accusations that the cost of ending the Sri Lankan civil war was too high (TIME, July 13, 2009)
"Today's victory will be remarkable ... We expect a peaceful election and are getting ready to enjoy a better tomorrow."
After voting in Medamulana, his rural district on the southern coast, on Jan. 26 (Reuters, Jan. 26, 2010)
"I am the President of the those who voted for me and those who did not."
Reacting to the announcement of the election results on Jan. 27 (TIME, Jan. 27, 2010)
"You are a divine gift to the country. May the gods bestow their blessings on you."
Enormous banners displayed in the Sri Lankan capital city, Colombo, following the end of the civil war against the Tamil Tigers in May 2009 (TIME, July 27, 2009)
"[Rajapaksa] has liberated this country."
O.K. Dingininya, 85, a resident of Medamulana, who insisted on voting for the first time in 15 years despite being barely able to walk (Reuters, Jan. 27, 2010)
"The President keeps his promises. I hope that he will be a savior for Sri Lanka."
Gamage Banduwathie, a former member of the opposition United National Party, who left to support Rajapaksa in the election (The New York Times, Jan. 27, 2010)
"There is no democracy. This government is behaving like murderers."
Sarath Fonseka, Rajapaksa's challenger in the 2010 election, after the election results were announced. He immediately rejected the results, alleging vote rigging, and claimed his life was under threat from the government (TIME, Jan. 27, 2010)