COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa did what four of his predecessors could not do, and many thought was impossible -- win one of the world’s most stubborn civil wars.
Now, the veteran politician, 64, must win the confidence of Tamil people scarred by decades of brutality and suspicious of his support from hardline Sinhalese nationalists.
That is where his knack for persuasiveness and common touch may come in handy, after he displayed a steely presence in seeing one of Asia’s longest-running wars through to its bitter end.
Rajapaksa fended off fierce Western criticism in the waning weeks of the war, arguing the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) should not be given another chance to avoid defeat.
Ironically, Tamil Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran may have sown the seeds of his own destruction by ordering Tamils not to vote in the 2005 election that brought Rajapaksa to power.
Tamils were expected to have given former prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, now the main opposition leader, the votes he would have needed to beat Rajapaksa.
To get the required support, Rajapaksa forged pacts with the hardline Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna party and extremist Buddhist monks, who detest the Tigers.
A lawyer by trade who habitually wears the traditional dress of white knee-length shirt, sarong and a red sash, Rajapaksa hails from the southern port of Hambantota, where Chinese companies are now building a massive port.
He first entered parliament in 1970, and has served as both labour minister and prime minister.
Although history will remember Rajapaksa for winning the war, his battle-hardened brother Gotabaya, the nation’s defence secretary was instrumental in building up the military to defeat the well-armed Tigers.
A decorated infantry officer in his own right, Gotabaya Rajapaksa worked closely with his former comrade-in-arms, army commander General Sarath Fonseka, in leading the fight against the LTTE.
The war success has driven Rajapaksa’s popularity up, and helped him sideline the main opposition United National Party (UNP) in recent local elections. Analysts and allies expect him to call early presidential elections to capitalise on the victory.
But now that the war is over, Rajapaksa must face the dual challenges of healing divisions between the Tamil minority and Sinhalese majority and boosting an ailing $40 billion economy.
“We have been victorious in facing one challenge. Time is now raising a new challenge before us. It is the challenge of building the motherland,” Rajapaksa said in his victory speech on Tuesday.
“This great battle for national revival will be waged with the aim of raising the lives of the Tamil people in the north and east of our country, too,” he said.
Already, Rajapaksa has said he expects major development aid to rebuild in the former Tiger-controlled areas. Sri Lanka is also seeking a $1.9 billion IMF loan to ease a balance of payments crisis.