Focus/Spotlight

A political legend who changed the face of the nation

 Mahinda Rajapaksa, whom I am fortunate enough to call my father

By Namal Rajapaksa

Fifty years ago, on 27 May 1970, the journey of a political legend began. Sri Lanka’s political destiny changed when Hon. Mahinda Rajapaksa decided to follow his father’s footsteps by entering the political arena, representing the Hambantota District.

He was only 24 years old when he was elected to Parliament, as the youngest MP ever in Sri Lanka’s political history. He entered the political sphere with one aim, one vision – to serve the country, to sacrifice himself for his people, and bring the country up to its true potential. Since then, his career has only revolved around strengthening the local sectors and working for the public. He realised back then that Sri Lanka’s strategic geographic location in the Indian Ocean was a lifelong advantage for all its citizens and that this country could prosper and transform into a gem, if led strongly.

Whilst being an MP, Mahinda Rajapaksa took oaths as an Attorney-at-Law in November 1977, at the age of 31. That same year, although he lost his parliamentary seat while contesting from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), he made a strong comeback in 1989 after he was re-elected from the Hambantota District. During the gap between 1977 and 1989, Mahinda Rajapaksa worked according to the pulse of the masses, understanding their difficulties. He stood up for his people who were struggling during the second youth uprising in Sri Lanka. When he re-entered Parliament, he knew what this country had to do for its people.

In 1994, under the Chandrika Kumaratunga Government, Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed as the Minister of Labour – his first entry as a Minister on a subject which was very dear to him, as he was a strong voice for the youth and the working class back then, realising the difficulties they faced. During his term as the Minister, he introduced the “Labour Charter” to protect the working class and uphold their rights as they were the backbone of the economy. He was a strong fighter for the rights of the working class and still is to this day. He also worked on expanding vocational training institutions across the country which was a significant achievement back then as he foresaw the challenges we were going to face in the future. Back then, before the world realised the importance of technical and vocational training, Mahinda Rajapaksa realised its importance. This however, was not taken very seriously by the Government back then and for him to work on this was a struggle.

Also, during his term as the Labour Minister, foreign employment was a weak sector here. It was a time when going to Japan and Korea for employment had just hit the markets, regionally. I remember my father narrating his experiences back then on how he went from house to house in Beliatta convincing and encouraging people to go to Japan and Korea for employment. Back then, people here did not prefer going overseas for employment.

They were always home-oriented. However, after much convincing, many of those who went for foreign employment back then to these two countries are today grateful to Mahinda Rajapaksa as they are well-off businessmen now. At that time, they blamed my father, lamenting, that while they expected jobs in the Government, why were they being pushed by him to work in a foreign country? However today, their children have successfully taken over their fathers’ businesses and are all well settled. To this day, they visit my father, appreciating his struggle back then.

Then in 1977, after a Cabinet reshuffle, Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed as the Minister of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources, a subject which he did not have much experience in back then. But being the fighter that he is, he accepted the challenge as he knew the fisheries sector had immense potential and the politicians back then had failed this vital community.

The change of the ministries back then was interpreted as Mahinda Rajapaksa being sidelined by former President Kumaratunga. Many thought it was the end of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political career as he did not represent the fishing community. But what people did not realise back then was that this Ministry had immense potential and it was given to Mahinda Rajapaksa as it was one of the key ministries which he had to transform, just as he did with the Labour Ministry. He ended up being one of the best fisheries ministers this country has witnessed.

Within months after he took over, Mahinda Rajapaksa began expanding inland fishing and launched “Divara Nivasa”,
a housing scheme for fishermen. No other minister had thought of launching a housing project for the fishing community back then; for both those living along the coastal belt and those living inland. Even today, when I visit these villages, they value the hard work Mahinda Rajapaksa put in and his contributions towards this community, stating that he was a Minister who understood the mindsets and struggles of the fishing community. He also launched the vital “Sagara Vishwa Vidyalaya” project, which was initially launched to educate the children of the fishing folk on ocean and marine studies.

Most of the Harbour constructions were also started under the helm of Mahinda Rajapaksa. For example, starting
from the Kudawella Harbour, it expanded to the southern belt and then into Negombo and Chilaw.

This was launched under the Fisheries Harbour Expansion Project, which was one of the greatest projects launched in this
country. Multi-day trawling also was transformed into a separate industry in Sri Lanka under Mahinda Rajapaksa as he worked
towards its development. This created many jobs and changed the destiny of such fishermen.

Today, Kudawella and many fishing hotspots have leading small and medium entrepreneurs because of this industry alone, all
due to Mahinda Rajapaksa’s era. What my father did for the ports industry during his term as the Minister is still being seen and felt today.

He knew then that ports could emerge as our strongest assets and worked on it accordingly. Every ministry, every sector he
touched, he worked tirelessly, abiding by his vision. And today, we are reaping its benefits.
Another very memorable experience worth sharing from Mahinda Rajapaksa’s legacy is “Pada Yatra” which he began, up to
Kataragama. In his experiences, he recollects how during the late Ranasingha Premadasa’s administration, the Yatra was to be
halted from Wellawatta. However, he scraped through, with much difficulty, and as the youthful politician that he was back then, he led this historic Pada Yatra for the first time to Kataragama, to protest against the 1988-89 killings and the political unrest in the country.

My father shares a very close relationship with the Marijan family from Beruwala. It was during the time of the Holy month of
Ramadan that the Pada Yatra was to pass Beruwala. This family, my father recollected, cooked meals for all devotees who took part in this walk and from this, emerged an issue as several Muslim families back then protested this family cooking meals during the fasting period. But after realising this food was to be served for people taking part in the Yatra, it symbolised a new unity between the Muslim and Buddhist communities in Beruwala, which lasts to this day.

Mahinda Rajapaksa’s political legacy has many stories to tell. In 2005, this politician who struggled and sacrificed endlessly for this country was elected as the President, during a time when the world’s most ruthless terrorist organisation was active, raging a full-fledged war.

His presidency was the toughest challenge as he entered with only one aim – to end the war, to end the bloodshed, and to end the
struggle, which no politician back then had been successful in doing. Within four years, Mahinda Rajapaksa led the nation into
eliminating terrorism from our shores. The sacrifices he made were immense. I remember that day in May, in 2009, when the war had ended, he came back home with a tear. His tear was for those who had died in battle and due to the bombs. But then I saw new courage in my father – to develop this country and raise it to its true potential.
This year, as my father completes his 50th year in politics, I too complete my 10th year in the political arena. I am yet to achieve
even a fraction of what my father has achieved as my journey to work for this country has only begun. But I am confident to work
for the citizens of this nation, as I try to follow my father’s footsteps.

I will not let the sacrifices my father made for this country go in vain.

After all, he changed the face of this nation and emerged the true leader of the Sri Lankan citizens. I wish my father all the very best and many more years of dedication for his first love – Mother Sri Lanka.