His name is probably the grandest thing about the man who is known for his simplicity. Gamaralalage Maithripala Yapa Sirisena, who was sworn in as Sri Lanka’s
Friday evening, hails from a middle-class, agricultural family from Polunnaruwa, an ancient royal capital east of Colombo famous for its magnificent Buddhist stupas and temples.
The 63-year-old low-profile minister defected from the ruling party in 2013 after emerging as a surprise consensus candidate for a disparate opposition, turning the tables on the longest-serving head of state in South Asia, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who expected to breeze through after calling an early election.
Sirisena was born in 1951 and received his early education from the Royal College in his native district. He then studied at a school of agriculture for three years and graduated in 1980 in political science from a Russian university.
Sources say the one-time ally of the outgoing president may have first developed a passion for Marxism during his higher education, though he joined the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)'s youth wing in 1967 as a teenager and quickly rose to become a politburo member in 1981.
Sirisena first entered mainstream politics in 1989 representing Polunnaruwa and held several portfolios from 1994. He has been the general secretary of the SLFP and has headed the ministries of irrigation and development.
He was the health minister in the Rajapaksa government till November 2013 when he unexpectedly switched sides a day after sharing a traditional Lankan meal of hoppers (rice pancakes) and curry with the president.
Priyanath Peiris, a businessman who has known Sirisena for several years, told the Hindustan Times that as health minister the new president was passionate about the subject and did all he could to introduce reforms in the drugs sector, resisting attempts by pharmaceutical companies to force decisions favourable to them.
“He is one of that rare breed of politicians who has an extremely clean reputation; nobody can point fingers at him,” said Peiris.
The son of a World War II veteran, Sirisena said he was a soft target for the separatist Tamil Tiger (LTTE) rebels with the militants trying to assassinate him on at least five occasions.
Sirisena escaped unhurt in 2008 when a convoy he was part of was attacked by an LTTE suicide bomber at Piriwena Junction in Colombo. One person was killed and seven others injured in the attack.