Dinesh Gunawardena | The Rajapaksas’ man

The new PM of crisis-hit Sri Lanka is a staunch ally of the former ruling clan

Updated - July 31, 2022 05:28 pm IST

Published - July 31, 2022 12:58 am IST



When Sri Lanka’s President Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed long-time Rajapaksa loyalist Dinesh Gunawardena as Prime Minister earlier this month, it was an unexpected promotion for the senior politician.

He is technically the second most powerful man in the Sri Lankan government, taking the job at an exceptional time. The island nation continues weathering a painful economic meltdown for which citizens blame the former rulers and his bosses, the Rajapaksas, but that is only one of many challenges the new Premier faces. Sections among Sri Lanka’s protesting citizens see his appointment, as well as Mr. Wickremesinghe’s ascent to Presidency, as a continuation of the Rajapaksa government in a different name and form.

Mr. Gunawardena, 73, is the son of noted Marxist politician Philip Gunawardena, a founder of Sri Lanka’s oldest political party in 1935, the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), that brought the Trotskyist strain of left politics to South Asia. Following Philip Gunawardena’s death, Mr. Gunawardena inherited, and leads, his father’s Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP or People’s United Front), an electoral alliance-turned-party with a “democratic socialist” ideology. During the Second World War, the LSSP faced a crackdown for its anti-British policies, and Philip Gunawardena fled the island taking refuge in Mumbai. Mr. Dinesh Gunawardena’s aunt Caroline and her husband S.C.C. Anthonypillai, of Jaffna Tamil Christian origin, both moved to Madras where they provided leadership to labour struggles.

Trade unionist

Mr. Gunawardena himself started out as a trade unionist, and still describes himself as one, although there is not much evidence of his leftism in the last few decades. His position is not unlike many others from Sri Lanka’s old left, who aligned themselves with the Rajapaksas on an anti- imperialist platform that is, at its core, Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist. For most part of his political career since his Parliament entry in 1983, he aligned himself with the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP), from the time of former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. He steadfastly backed Mahinda Rajapaksa’s prosecution of the war. Like former President Mahinda, he too believes in a unitary state, while rejecting accountability for war-time crimes against Tamils and substantive power sharing with the ethnic minority.

In the period after the civil war that ended in 2009, the Rajapaksa regime and reactionary groups associated with it were frequently blamed for the rising Islamophobia in Sri Lanka. The Muslim community faced at least two bouts of targeted violence in 2014 and 2018, before being subjected to attacks on the heels of the Easter terror bombings in 2019. They faced fierce discrimination during the pandemic as well, when the government banned burial of Covid-19 victims. Mr. Gunawardena firmly stood by the regime through these years.

Educated at one of Colombo’s coveted elite public schools, Royal College, Mr. Gunawardena was a classmate of President Wickremesinghe. He studied international business at the University of Oregon and is among Sri Lanka’s few politicians who are effortlessly bilingual in Sinhala and English. Modelling himself after his father, he too wears the Sinhala national dress of long-sleeved white collarless shirt and matching sarong as his staple attire, often accompanied by the maroon shawl associated with the Rajapaksa clan.

Amid growing concern from citizens over a “witch hunt” by the state, targeting anti-government demonstrators, PM Gunawardena recently told Parliament that the government is ready to listen to the democratic public protests but cannot accept “acts of terrorism”. In addition to serving as Prime Minister, he holds the Ministry of Public Administration, Home Affairs, Provincial Councils and Local Government. In earlier Rajapaksa governments, he has held portfolios including Foreign Affairs, Labour, and Education, and was Leader of the House from January 2020. As Foreign Minister, he emphasised a “strictly non-aligned and neutral” foreign policy.

As Prime Minister, though, Mr. Gunawardena has minimal powers under an executive President. The 20th Amendment passed by the ousted Rajapaksa administration in October 2020 bestowed the President with unbridled powers and great immunity, while the Premier’s scope of functions and decision-making powers were diminished drastically. It reduced then PM Mahinda Rajapaksa to a “rubber stamp”, as the Opposition famously remarked. Before Mr. Gunawardena, Mr. Wickremesinghe held the post under now deposed leader Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

Mr. Wickremesinghe has promised to enact yet another constitutional change that will restore some of the Prime Minister’s powers while clipping those of the President. If and when that happens, all eyes will be on Mr. Gunawardena to see his own political leadership. Until then, he will be best known as a placeholder for the Rajapaksas.

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