COLOMBO - Sri Lanka's former leader Mahinda Rajapaksa vowed on Tuesday to reclaim power in a general election, eight months after he was ousted as president, saying he was "ready for struggle" against an international war crimes investigation.
Defeated by erstwhile ally Maithripala Sirisena in January, Rajapaksa wants to turn the tables at the Aug. 17 parliamentary polls, setting his sights on the post of prime minister that has been beefed up under constitutional reforms.
Launching his manifesto, the 69-year-old sought to mobilize public opinion against a U.N. investigation into suspected atrocities committed against minority Tamils towards the end of Sri Lanka's 26-year civil war.
"We think fresh. We are ready for a struggle and war on behalf of the country," Rajapaksa said as he announced policies designed to appeal to poorer voters in the island nation of 21 million off southeast India.
The U.N. report on human rights in the final stages of the war in 2009, when Rajapaksa's military crushed resistance in the Tamil-speaking north, is due to be released after the election.
The United Nations estimated in 2011 that up to 40,000 civilians died in the final army assault.
Appealing to his core base of Buddhist Sinhalese speakers, who make up more than seven in 10 voters, Rajapaksa said: "Are you going to vote to divide this country and take us to court in Geneva?"
Rajapaksa is also under investigation for suspected misuse and misappropriation of public funds, while his brothers are fighting corruption charges. He denies wrongdoing.
His opponents accuse him of overpaying for investments backed by China. The biggest is the $1.4 billion Colombo Port City project, a symbol of China's influence and a waystation on its most important trade route.
Rajapaksa conceded the leadership of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party after his election defeat, but Sirisena's failure to take control of the party left the door open for him to regroup and contest the election.
There has been no opinion poll on the election, but political analysts say Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe's United National Party-led coalition, which backed Sirisena in January, has an edge over Rajapaksa's party.
Rajapaksa's dwelt on his past achievements as leader and gave few clues as to what he would do if elected, beyond promising cheap goods for the poor.
"I am not sure that is going to win new votes for him," said Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director at the Centre for Policy Alternatives. "They aren't offering anything new. They keep talking about the past."