COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – Former Sri Lankan strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa, defeated in this year's presidential election, said Wednesday that he's re-entering politics and contesting a Parliament seat in August.
Addressing a rally in his native village of Medamulana in southern Sri Lanka, Rajapaksa declared that he's heeding demands from his supporters to return.
"I am not prepared to reject your request, I have no right to do so and I will contest the next elections for the sake of the motherland. We are ready to march forward," he announced amid cheering of hundreds of his supporters, shown in a live telecast on a private TV channel with close ties to his family.
Rajapaksa lost the Jan. 8 election to his former health minister, Maithripala Sirisena, who campaigned as the common opposition candidate after defecting from Rajapaksa's government. Sirisena won on a pledge of full-scale political reforms, but lawmakers loyal to Rajapaksa have resisted implementing the changes that include reducing presidential powers.
Sirisena dissolved Parliament last week and called fresh elections for the 225-member body on Aug. 17 in an attempt to consolidate power and carry out his promise of reforms.
A majority of the lawmakers in the dissolved Parliament belonged to the United People's Freedom Alliance, which Rajapaksa led until his defeat. His return to politics may diminish Sirisena's hopes of electing a new parliament cooperative to him.
Sirisena is also keen to secure cooperation of a new Parliament ahead of an internal investigation into war crimes allegations in the final stages of the country's civil war.
In March, Sirisena secured postponement of a United Nations report on the alleged atrocities by promising a domestic investigation. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights is expected to release the report in September.
Calling an election ahead of the report is also an apparent bid to deny Rajapaksa an opportunity to use nationalism in the election campaign.
Rajapaksa is still popular with the country's majority Sinhalese, who oppose international involvement in Sri Lanka. He is considered a war hero among Sinhalese for ending the three-decade civil war in 2009.
Prosecuting wartime abuses remains a delicate issue that divides the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamils.
The conflict ended after government troops crushed the Tamil Tiger rebels, who fought for a separate state for the Tamils.
Tens of thousands were killed in the war and accusations of war crimes were made by both sides.
The victorious president at that time, Rajapaksa, proceeded to tighten his grip on power, weakening democracy and the rule of law, which isolated Sri Lanka internationally. His government resisted international pressure to account for the dead, leading to the U.N. inquiry.
The new government of Sirisena has eased restrictions on media and civil society that were imposed by the increasingly authoritarian Rajapaksa, and Sri Lanka's diplomatic relations with the United States and Western nations have improved.