President Maithripala Sirisena, the 6th President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, assumed his term of office on January 9, 2015, after the Presidential Election held the previous day.
His election came with the defeat of the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was seeking an unprecedented third term as Executive President. Contesting as the candidate of the Common Opposition, Mr. Sirisena obtained 6,217,162 votes (51.28%) while Mr. Rajapaksa obtained 5,768,090 votes (47.58%) of the total 12,264.377 votes polled with a turnover of 81.52%, obtaining a majority of 449, 072 votes.
Maithripala Sirisena is the first member of the rural agricultural population to be elected as President of Sri Lanka, and hails from Polonnaruwa, where is located the second ancient capital of the country, stablished in 1070 AD. Polonnaruwa remains a rural region largely populated by rice cultivators, and is the home of many irrigation reservoirs, historic places of Buddhist worship, and other monuments of the history of Sri Lanka, and the Ancient City of Polonaruwa is a declared World Heritage Site.
A person with no previous family links to politics, Pallewatte Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena comes with a long personal history in politics, especially as a representative of the rural people. The son of a middle-class farming family, whose father was a veteran of World War II, and cultivated five plus acres of paddy land in Polonnaruwa near the historic Parakrama Samudra. The son of Sinhalese Buddhist parents, Maithripala Srisena was born on 3rd September 1951, and brought up as a Buddhist, with close associations with the Buddhist temples.
A friendly and unassuming person, Maithripala Sirisena shows the traditional Buddhist values that prevail in the rural areas of Sri Lanka. He has shown a great commitment to duty, service to the people, an emphasis of simplicity in living and an attachment to family values that make the core of the Sri Lankan rural tradition to this day. His political life has its roots in his youth, from the time he was 16 years of age, and has since grown with a deep understanding of social and political issues. He has shown a demonstrable commitment to ease the economic and social burdens of the rural and working people who comprise the majority of the Sri Lankan people. This has brought him from the politics of youth leadership, to participation in protests, moving up to Parliamentary representation, leadership in political party organization, holding of important ministerial positions and now to the highest office of Executive President of Sri Lanka. His campaign for election as President, which was focused on the need to reduce the powers of the Executive Presidency and pave the way for good governance in a functioning democracy, with unity among all communities of Sri Lanka is the new challenge that he faces.
Having received his primary education at Lakshauyana School, Polonnaruwa, he moved for secondary education to Topawawa Maha Vidyalaya – Polonnaruwa and finally to Royal Central College – Polonnaruwa. Having a keen interest in academic studies, and the agriculture that surrounded him in his home region, he excelled in aesthetic studies – especially singing, dancing, music and cultural activities. In 1973 he obtained a Diploma in Agriculture from the Sri Lanka School of Agriculture at Kundasale, the premier center for agricultural training. His interests in political science later saw him obtain a Diploma in Political Science from the Maxim Gorky Academy in Russia, in 1980.
Although having an initial interest in the left wing politics of the Communist Party, his interest moved towards progressive and moderate politics, and in 1967 he joined the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the political party of the Middle Way, and soon became Secretary of the SLFP’s Youth Organization in Polonnaruwa, while completing his GCE (Ordinary Level) Examination at the Royal Central College, Polonnaruwa. In 1970, he was very active in the election campaigns of the SLFP that year.
During the extreme left wing youth uprising in 1971, led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), he was arrested and imprisoned on unproven allegations, at a time of widespread suspicion of youth in politics, although he was not involved with the JVP and its insurgent activities. He underwent much hardship while being incarcerated for nearly 15 months, until finally released with no charges against him.
He obtained his first employment as a Co-operative Purchasing Officer at Polonnauruwa in 1974, and in 1976 he became a “Grama Niladhai” or Chief Village Officer, attending to a wide range of localized administrative matters at the village level, which brought him into very close association with the rural people, and also sharpened his political thinking on rural issues.
Continuing his interest in politics with his links and concerns for the rural people and issues, saw him take a greater interest in the politics of the SLFP, and rose in its ranks, becoming President of the All Island SLFP Youth Organization in 1983. He has since continued his close association with the SLFP, which has seen his rise in politics and national service
Appointed Secretary of the SLFP’s Central Committee in the Polonnaruwa electorate in 1977, he played a leading role in the General Election campaign of the same year that saw a major defeat for the SLFP island wide, with a considerable post-election violence after the victory of the United National Party (UNP). He had to face much hardship due to this politically oriented violence of the ruling UNP at the time. This experience contributed much to his deciding to resign from his position as Grama Niladhari, and take to full time politics in 1978, during which year he attended the International Youth Congress held in Havana, Cuba.
The office of Executive President which he won in the recent national election was established by changes to the Constitution of Sri Lanka, by the government of the UNP that was elected with a huge majority in 1977, under the leadership of the late JR Jayewardene, the first Executive President of the country. Over the years he saw the many dangers to the democratic process through the Executive Presidency, and the changes made in the Parliamentary Electoral System, which were made worse after gathering of more powers to the Executive Presidency by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, under whom he served as Secretary of the SLFP and a Minister of the Cabinet. This experience led to his moving for major changes in the country’s political system, giving more strength to democratic processes, and full meaning to universal franchise that Sri Lanka obtained in 1931, the first country in Asia to do so.
The year 1979 was also of significance in his political life, being elected Secretary of the SLFP, Polonnaruwa District, at a time of considerable political hardship for the party. He was arrested and briefly held in judicial custody for taking part in public demonstrations of protest against the decision of the ruling UNP to strip the leader of the SLFP, former Prime Minister Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike of her civic rights.
The following year he was appointed SLFP Polonnaruwa District Organizer, and began leading the party at the District Level. Very soon, in 1981, he was appointed Treasurer of the All Island SLFP Youth Organization, and obtained membership of the SLFP’s Central Committee, the highest level decision making body of the Party.
His entry to Parliamentary politics took place in 1989, when he contested for election to Parliament from the Polonnaruwa District, and saw his first election to Parliament on 15th February 1989, having contested under the “Hand” symbol of the SLFP. This was to see the beginning of a remarkable rise in the SLFP and in national service through Parliament.
In the General Elections of 1994 Maithripala Sirisena was again elected to Parliament from Polonnaruwa, obtaining the highest preferential votes from the District, and in the government that was formed was appointed Deputy Minister for Irrigation. His rise continued with the appointment to the Ministerial Portfolio of Mahaweli Development and Parliamentary Affairs, and was also elected Assistant Secretary of the SLFP, and in the following year, 2000, was elected as Vice Chairman of the SLFP.
In 2001 he was elected to the 12th Parliament and in July of the same year was appointed the General Secretary of the SLFP, which position he continued to hold when he announced his decision to be the Common Candidate of the Opposition in the 2015 Presidential Election that saw his victory, and is the person who has held this position in the SLFP for the longest period.
In February 2004 Maithripala Sirisena signed the important Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) which led to the birth of United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA). In the subsequent Genera Election, he was elected to the 13th Parliament of Sri Lanka and was appointed as the Cabinet Minister of Mahaweli, River Basin & Rajarata Development, and the Parliamentary Leader of the House.
In November 2005, he was given the two portfolios Minister of Agriculture, Irrigation and Mahaweli Development and The Minister of Environment & Natural Resources.
A significant move in 2006 saw him sign a Memorandum of Understanding between the SLFP and the Opposition UNP for cooperation between the Government and the Opposition party to end the armed conflict in the country caused by the separatist terrorism of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).
Subsequently, he served as the Minister for Agricultural Development and Agrarian Services Development, during which period he introduced the special agricultural cultivation drive of the ministry “API WAWAMU – RATA NAGAMU” (Let us Grow – Raise the Country), a program which led to an agricultural boom throughout Sri Lanka including accelerated field crop production to sustain the agricultural sector in Sri Lanka.
On 25th January 2007, he initiated and started the Moragahakanda – Kalu Ganga project under the Mahaveli Master Plan, which was a 90 billion Sri Lankan Rupee irrigation and development project. In addition to providing water for irrigation and drinking purposes in North-Central, Northern and Eastern Provinces, the Moragahakanda project was also to generate 25 MW of power, fulfilling a long-term need for domestic and industrial electricity demand.
Threats from terrorism
In March 2007 the Minister Maithripala Sirisena escaped injury from the terrorist suicide-bombing attempt by the LTTE in Welikanda. The Security Forces later learnt that 3 terrorist attackers remained on the hunt, but they killed themselves at the time of capture, by swallowing cyanide capsules they wore on their necks.
Once again in 09th October 2008, he was targeted by the LTTE, in an attack carried out when he was returning from the “Wap Magul Ceremony” held in Bandaragama. This was seen as a miraculous escape; in an attack where 4 people died 15 were injured.
Since 2005, at the height of the war against terrorism in Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena functioned on five occasions as the Acting Defence Minister of Sri Lanka, and was in this position in the final days of the war in Sri Lanka, in the absence from the country of the President who is also Defence Minister.
In the Year 2010, Minister Maithripala Sirisena was re-elected to Parliament and was appointed as the Minister of Health of the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) government. This saw the beginning of a major record of service in the Health Sector. This included his initiative to introduce the “National Drug Policy Act” from 2010 to 2014, for meaningfully implementing of the National Drug Policy recommended by late Dr. Senaka Bibile, to ensure a rational and people friendly drug supply system in the country.
He also took a major initiative to introduce the legal requirement for “Pictorial Warnings on Tobacco Packaging”, having to fight with the multinational tobacco company, both in and out of the courts to ensure such packaging, which became a reality, with a court ruling, and to educate the general public on the adverse effects of the smoking.
His work was well received by the World Health Organization – WHO – which awarded the ‘World No Tobacco Day Award 2013’for his determined action taken to stop tobacco smoking in the country. This is the first time a Sri Lankan was awarded with this honour.
He also received ‘2013 Harvard Ministerial Leadership in Health Award’ from Harvard School of Public Health & Kennedy School of Government, United States of America, in recognition of his commitment to innovative leadership in his tenure as Minister of Health, Sri Lanka. This is also the first time a Sri Lankan was awarded with this honour.
The leadership he rendered to the G15 Group of Countries at 2013 World Health Assembly in Geneva, where he presented the G15 Statement on health related issues to the Assembly was notable, and saw him elected as one of the four Vice-Presidents of the World Health Assembly 2014.
He has also taken an important initiative as the Health Minister to ensure the approvals to purchase locally manufactured medicines directly to the Ministry of Health, thus empowering the local medicine manufacturers. As Minister of Health he also saw an important agreement between Sri Lanka and Bangladesh to establish the proper conditions for Sri Lanka to get quality medicines at good prices to help the needy people of the country.
He took a bold new step in his political life in November 2014, when he announced his agreement to be the Common Candidate of the Opposition, when the country’s Executive President Mahinda Rajapaksa, decided to call for a snap election, two years before the end of his second six year term, with the hope of being elected for a third term of six years, under a controversial amendment to the Constitution that had been passed removing the two term limit for the Presidency. He campaigned to rescind this Amendment to the Constitution, and for the restriction of the powers of the Executive Presidency, with more power sharing in a democratic manner and spirit among the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary, and to ensure a country free of corruption and assured of Good Governance. The theme of his campaign that brought him victory was “Maithri palanayak, sthavara ratak” (A rule with loving kindness, a stable country).
The joint opposition alliance known as the National Democratic Front endorsed him as the Common Candidate for the Presidential Election of January 8, 2015, when he won a clear victory and became the Sixth President of Sri Lanka.
President Maithripala Sirisena is married to Jayanthi Pushpa Kumari and has two daughters and one son.