COLOMBO (Reuters) – Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has dominated Sri Lankan politics for nearly 20 years and whose government crushed the Tamil Tigers to bring an end to a long civil war, resigned as prime minister on Monday after intensifying anti-government protests.
In a statement, his office said he was quitting in order to help form an interim, unity government, following weeks of sometimes violent protests across the country over shortages of fuel and other vital imports and spiraling prices.
A charismatic and gregarious leader who often ruled in partnership with his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, 76-year-old Mahinda is a member of and popular with the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
But his government, as were the Tigers, was accused of war crimes during the 26-year conflict. His critics also accuse him of nepotism and failing to prevent the abduction, torture and murder of government critics. He strenuously denied all charges.
Born into an affluent family active in local politics in the southern district of Hambantota, Mahinda trained as a lawyer before becoming Sri Lanka’s youngest legislator when he entered parliament in 1970.
He first became prime minister in 2004 and then narrowly won his first term as president a year later when Sri Lanka was in the middle of a fragile ceasefire with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, one of the world’s most violent guerrilla groups which was fighting for an independent state in the north.
Peace talks yielded nothing and in 2006, Mahinda turned to Gotabaya, a retired infantry officer whom he had made defence secretary, to draw up a plan to defeat the Tigers once and for all.
The Tigers eventually conceded defeat in 2009 following a ferocious government offensive in which the United Nations has estimated as many as 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final few months of the war alone.
The government said the rebels kept thousands of civilians as human shields, exacerbating the death toll.
The United Nations believes up to 100,000 people were killed over the duration of the conflict and in 2021, its Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that gave the human rights chief’s office new staff, powers and a $2.8 million budget to look at Sri Lanka’s war with a view to future prosecutions.
After the war ended, Mahinda’s popularity soared and he won a landslide re-election in 2010, promising to heal the country’s deep divisions.
His second term saw his party win a two-thirds majority in parliament, allowing him to remove some checks on presidential power, including term limits.
Mahinda also drew Sri Lanka closer to China, inviting heavy investment to the ire of traditional ally India, which fears that its neighbour could become a Chinese military outpost.
Surprisingly, he lost the 2015 presidential election to a former cabinet colleague who turned against him.
But in 2019, coordinated suicide bombings by Islamist militants that killed more than 250 people saw Gotabaya Rajapaksa sweep into power on a platform of national security.
In August 2020, the government increased its majority to two-thirds in parliament, allowing the Rajapaksas once again to repeal laws limiting presidential power.
Gotabaya reappointed his brother as prime minister and, as Mahinda did before him, put other relatives into ministerial roles, once again cementing the family as one of the most dominant in the country’s post-independence history.
But the pandemic, rising oil prices and government tax cuts put increasing strain on the island nation’s economy, leaving the country with as little as $50 million in useable foreign reserves.
Shortages of fuel, food and medicine brought thousands on to the streets in more than a month of protests demanding the Rajapaksas resign.
Mahinda offered his resignation to his brother on Monday, hours after his supporters broke police lines to attack anti-government protesters using iron rods, setting their protest camp in the commercial capital Colombo alight.
(Reporting by Alasdair Pal in Colombo; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Nick Macfie)