By Alasdair Pal and Uditha Jayasinghe
COLOMBO (Reuters) – Mahinda Rajapaksa, who dominated Sri Lankan politics for nearly 20 years and whose government crushed the Tamil Tigers to end a long civil war, resigned as prime minister on Monday after intensified anti-government protests.
In a statement, his office said he was stepping down to help form a unity caretaker government, after weeks of sometimes violent protests across the country over shortages of fuel and other vital imports and soaring prices.
A charismatic and gregarious leader who has often ruled in partnership with his brother, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, Mahinda, 76, is a member of and popular with the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist majority.
But his government, like the Tigers, has been accused of war crimes during the 26-year conflict. His critics also accuse him of nepotism and of failing to prevent the kidnapping, torture and murder of government critics. He strenuously denied all charges.
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Born into a wealthy family active in local politics in the southern district of Hambantota, Mahinda trained as a lawyer before becoming Sri Lanka’s youngest lawmaker when he entered parliament in 1970.
He first became prime minister in 2004, then narrowly won his first term as president a year later as Sri Lanka was in the midst of a fragile ceasefire with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, one of the most violent guerrilla groups in the world fighting for an independent state in the north.
Peace talks came to nothing and in 2006 Mahinda turned to Gotabaya, a retired infantry officer whom he had appointed as Defense Secretary, to devise a plan to defeat the Tigers once for all.
The Tigers finally conceded defeat in 2009 following a fierce government offensive in which the United Nations estimated that up to 40,000 Tamil civilians were killed in the final months of the war alone.
The government said the rebels were guarding thousands of civilians as human shields, adding to the death toll.
The United Nations estimates that up to 100,000 people have been killed over the course of the conflict and in 2021 its Human Rights Council passed a resolution that gave the office of the chief human rights officer a new personnel, powers and a $2.8 million budget to examine the Sri Lankan 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 has also brought Sri Lanka closer to China, inviting heavy investment to the wrath of traditional ally India, which fears its neighbor could become a Chinese military outpost.
Amazingly, he lost the 2015 presidential election to a former cabinet colleague who turned against him.
But in 2019, suicide bombings coordinated by Islamist militants that killed more than 250 people saw Gotabaya Rajapaksa rise to power on a national security platform.
In August 2020, the government increased its two-thirds majority in parliament, again allowing the Rajapaksas to repeal laws limiting presidential power.
Gotabaya reappointed his brother as prime minister and, as Mahinda did before him, placed other relatives in ministerial roles, once again cementing the family as one of the most dominant in history. country’s post-independence.
But the pandemic, rising oil prices and government tax cuts are putting increasing pressure on the island nation’s economy, leaving the country with as little as $50 million in usable foreign exchange reserves.
Shortages of fuel, food and medicine have taken thousands to the streets amid more than a month of protests demanding the resignation of the Rajapaksas.
Mahinda offered his brother his resignation on Monday, hours after his supporters broke through police lines to attack anti-government protesters with iron bars, setting fire to their protest camp in the commercial capital Colombo.
(Reporting by Alasdair Pal in Colombo; Editing by Mike Collett-White and Nick Macfie)
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