Image: Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa
Eranga Jayawardena  /  AP
Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, center, flanked by military officials, sings the national anthem during the National War Celebration, held to mark the military victory over the Tamil Tiger rebels, in Colombo on Wednesday.
updated 6/3/2009 6:03:18 PM ET 2009-06-03T22:03:18

President Mahinda Rajapaksa, criticized internationally for his conduct of the war against the Tamil Tigers, has been all but crowned king inside Sri Lanka.

In the weeks since Rajapaksa declared victory in the country's 25 year civil war with the rebels, a string of music videos have praised him as the nation's savior. Giant billboards with his image have been erected across the capital. He has been hailed as the modern-day incarnation of a warrior king who unified this island nation more than 2,000 years ago.

"He is a lion. He is the father of Sri Lanka," said R.S.P. Nishantha, a 38-year-old tennis instructor. "He has done what others did not dare to do."

Though many in the Tamil minority disagree and have expressed distaste with the nonstop celebrations, these are heady days for Rajapaksa, a provincial politician who just barely won election in 2005.

Embracing his role as the standard bearer of Sri Lanka's mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority, Rajapaksa embarked on a victory lap across the country after the military routed the Tamil Tigers two weeks ago, ending their dreams of a separate homeland for mainly Hindu Tamils in the north and east.

He addressed tens of thousands of cheering Sri Lankans at a rally outside parliament. Sri Lanka's top Buddhist monks presented him with the highest national honor, essentially naming him "Guardian of the Sinhalese nation." He made a pious offering at a sacred tree believed descended from the Bo tree where the Buddha gained enlightenment.

"My dear son, daughter. I am the happiest head of state to see a younger generation that so loves its country," he told a parade Wednesday that was billed as the final victory rally. "I am the proud father of that generation."

Praise from the people
What Rajapaksa will do with his new popularity is not yet clear. His term expires in 2011, and with the opposition in disarray he seems to have little competition for re-election. His ruling coalition has already won full or partial control of every province in a string of polls timed to coincide with successes on the battlefield.

Jehan Perera, a political analyst from the dovish National Peace Council, said he cannot remember a Sri Lankan leader with such overwhelming popularity among the Sinhalese and expects Rajapaksa to further consolidate his power.

"The temptations will be great for him to believe that he cannot make a mistake and (to have a) sense of infallibility," he said.

Many Tamils remain wary of the president, who repeatedly brushed off international calls for a cease-fire in the fighting to protect civilians trapped in the war zone. The U.N. estimates tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed or injured and nearly 300,000 remain in displacement camps in the north.

Fearing repercussions, few Tamils will speak out against the president or the government. "We are afraid of the armed forces," said Satgunanathan, a resident of the Manik Farm displacement camp who like many Tamils uses one name.

For electoral purposes, Rajapaksa's popularity with the 74 percent of the country that is Sinhalese is all that matters. But if the government is not able to assuage the political grievances of the 18 percent that is Tamil, a new round of ethnic violence could flare.

Prominent roots
Rajapaksa, 63, was born into a prominent political clan from the rural south, though he was not a member of the dynastic Colombo families that dominated this country since it gained independence from Britain in 1948.

He was elected the youngest member of parliament in 1970 at the age of 24. In a 12-year break from politics after losing his seat, he became a human rights lawyer, defending ultranationalist Sinhalese insurgents then at war with the government.

In a sign of his enduring commitment to his rural Sinhalese base, he wears a brown shawl the color of a local maize variety.

He narrowly won the presidency in 2005 only after the Tamil Tigers enforced a vote boycott in the north and east that deprived Rajapaksa's opponent of tens of thousands of votes.

Now, Rajapaksa's image with his arms raised in gesture of victory is plastered on billboards across Colombo proclaiming him king and the savior of the nation. In some, he is hugging his brother, Gotabhaya, the country's defense secretary. Others include a second brother, Basil, a powerful presidential adviser. A third brother is the ports minister.

Video tributes
The biggest music video in the country — played incessantly on state television — shows Rajapaksa waving to adoring crowds, kissing babies, hugging world leaders and trudging through rice paddies.

"This great king performed a miracle to unify our country. May you live long, great king," the singer warbles.

The song's lyricist, Sunil R. Gamage, said he intentionally used the word "miracle," normally associated with the Buddha, to describe the president.

"He is a rare leader," he said.

At least four more videos praising Rajapaksa have been getting serious airplay, and the number appears to be growing.

Many commentators have compared Rajapaksa to King Dutugemunu, a legendary Sinhalese sovereign who routed a rival Tamil monarch and unified much of the country under his rule more than two millennia ago.

Rajapaksa's near deification has sparked a mild backlash, with even the hard-line Island newspaper advising the president to ignore the praise and the endless victory rallies and get to work solving the country's thorny economic and ethnic problems.

"There must be a limit to inflating political egos," it said.

More on: Tamil Tigers

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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