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Can Janaka Deliver?

For a party that gives every appearance of having lost its oomph and joie de vivre, the UNP certainly pulled a rabbit from its hat in nominating Gen. Janaka Perera as its candidate for chief minister of the North-Central Province. While on the one hand the appointment appears to be a spark of inspiration, it is also perhaps a sign of growing desperation in the wake of a string of election defeats: most of us have lost count of just how many, but it is somewhere in the teens.

Desperation? We use the word advisedly. Ever since Janaka - as a young lieutenant-colonel - was appointed as area commander of Weli Oya in the mid-1980s, he drew the attention of politicians. In the wake of the Kent and Dollar Farm massacres, the J.R. Jayewardene government frantically sought to prevent an exodus by stabilising the isolated Sinhala settlements of Padaviya and Weli Oya, threatened by LTTE infiltration from all sides. Even by then, despite still being in his mid-thirties, Janaka had caught the eye of the political class. He was hand-picked for the job.

Faced with the challenge of his life, Janaka settled into the assignment with zeal, making it clear that managing his troops and the security of the villages in the area was but one aspect of his responsibility. More important was his new-found authority as the effective political leader of the area (the mainstream politicians had fled). From his tent in the makeshift encampment the army had set up, Janaka set about recruiting to his cause just about everyone who could help - except politicians.

Anuradhapura's dynamic GA (later Defence Secretary) Austin Fernando, UN agencies, heads of government institutions: they were all "invited" to meetings in Janaka's makeshift canvass lean - to where, rather in the fashion later popularised by Muammar al-Gaddafi, he held court dressed in camouflage fatigues.

At Weli Oya (where Janakapura, now a thriving township, was later named for him), Janaka was Czar. He presided over a makeshift cabinet comprising of the local clergy, school teachers, health officials, police officers, road engineers and youth leaders. The area was a hive of activity. Hastily borrowed bull-dozers levelled new roadways; excavators were busy repairing the village tanks; electricity was provided to the local hospital from the generator in the army camp through makeshift wires tied to roadside trees. 'Shramadana' was the catchword, and any Israeli kibbutznik would have been proud of him. Each weekend a medical camp would be held, to which Janaka enticed Colombo's top specialists, medicines and all, to take care of the local folk, already being referred to by him as "My people."

None of this was to endear him to the political class, which from that time on saw in him a rival politician. The man was ambitious, and it wasn't entirely clear whether that ambition was for the betterment of Sri Lanka or for the greater glory of Janaka Perera. To this schism Janaka added spice by habitually referring to himself in conversation in the third person. Charles de Gaulle was known to have the same weakness. In a radio interview with the great French leader the interviewer suggested that the President's politics were right-of-centre. Stopping him in mid-sentence de Gaulle drawled, "De Gaulle is not on the right. De Gaulle is not on the left. De Gaulle is not even at the centre." Then, after a pause, "De Gaulle is... above." And just as de Gaulle was not an altogether likeable character - though he had a magnificent vision for France - Janaka is not everyone's cup of tea.

Question is, is he the UNP's cup of tea? To a party that has been sliced in half and then sliced in half again, the motto must sure be "Any port in a storm."

But even as the UNP's rank and file must see Janaka as a bit of much needed fresh air, the hierarchy may well be wondering whether bringing him into the fold was altogether prudent. Should he win the NCP, Janaka will almost certainly stand to rise as meteorically through the party's ranks as Ranjan Wijeratne. And that prospect must make the old hands - at the risk of mixing a metaphor - quake in their boots.

That said, were the UNP to go the way it has since Gamini Dissanayake was assassinated in 1994, it does not have much chance of ever winning office unless it recruits to its ranks the likes of Janaka Perera (Dissanayake himself was a great admirer of Janaka's, and wanted to see him as army commander). But this is little consolation for the old hands. Janaka has an opinion about everything, brims with self confidence, is exceptionally charismatic and brings a fresh face to a political culture that is tired of the same old faces - and not just in the UNP.

What is more, to a party that has been tarred with appeasing the Tigers, Janaka must come as something of an oddball. He has, after all, been arguably the most successful army officer in the country's history. At a time when 'debacle' was the label most associated with the country's military strategy, Janaka pulled off the greatest victory the army has ever had against the LTTE: 503 Tigers killed in a single night. And unlike the airy-fairy statistics of Tigers killed we get told nowadays, Janaka was able to line up all the uniformed bodies for inspection by the media next day.

How did Janaka pull off a triumph of this scale? Primarily through establishing his own lines of intelligence and putting this intelligence to good use. By the mid-1990s, despite being a middle ranker in the army, Janaka had come to the attention of the intelligence services of India and Pakistan, whose tentacles into the LTTE were arguably better than the army's. The value of intelligence had been brought home to him already, by his having masterminded the capture of Rohana Wijeweera. By carefully cultivating the right diplomats and rendezvousing with them secretly but regularly in Colombo, Janaka was being fed unique information on the LTTE's plans.

Having received a warning of an imminent attack on Weli Oya some days in advance, he gave no intimation even to his own troops that trouble lay ahead. He did not flee to Colombo but remained with his troops. His troops, in turn, were allowed leave and continued with their recreational activities. No hint was given to the enemy that he was on to their plan. It was business as usual.

Then, after dark on the night on which the attack was due, the troops were stealthily withdrawn from the camp, awaiting the Tiger onslaught from the flanks. And when it came, there was a bloodbath. For less than 10 of his own men dead, his troops felled 503 Tigers.

If Janaka was jubilant, he did not show it. He refused to pose in front of the bodies of the fallen, or even to smile for the cameras. Although he had notched up a triumph of staggering proportions, he was far from smug. Asked why he was subdued, he said, "What soldier can be proud of killing 14-year old children? These are also my people. You don't kill your own people."

Then, in 1995, the LTTE laid siege to the Jaffna Fort. Morale in the army, and among the public, was at an all-time low. The routs of Mankulam, Kilinochchi, Pooneryn, Mullaitivu and Elephant Pass, and the A9 and Jaya Sikuru debacles, had taken their toll. A sense of helplessness had set in. As conditions in the Fort deteriorated, desperation gripped the government and a despairing Chandrika Kumaratunga sought Indian help to evacuate the 10,000 troops marooned in Jaffna. But it was Janaka who, as commander of the army's 53 Division, stepped forward to save the day.

In a dramatic operation that captured the nation's imagination, the 53 Division recaptured the Fort. And when the all-clear was sounded, Anuruddha Ratwatte flew north to hoist the national flag on December 5, 1995. Again, Janaka, who should have been jubilant, was far from happy. "You plant flags only when you claim territory that is not already yours," he observed dryly.

Such talk did not endear him to politicians then, and it won't help him much even now. Indeed, it led to his premature eviction from the army, being put to pasture as high commissioner in Canberra and later, as ambassador in Jakarta. One can but hope that these postings helped improve Janaka's diplomatic skills. On his departure from Sri Lanka we observed in this column, "Perera was the only officer whom the LTTE truly feared, and whom the rank and file of the army truly respected."

In politics, Janaka's greatest handicap may be that he has his own opinions. He has radical views, and these are often not welcome. As deputy chief-of-staff he tried, for example, to recruit young Tamil men to the army. He reasoned that if the war to capture the north and east was genuinely a war to liberate the Tamil people of those areas from the clutches of the LTTE, the Tamils should be doing at least part of the fighting. "There is no point in winning the north and keeping it under a Sinhala army of occupation." Again, he justified his view from historical precedent: when the liberation of France by the Allies began on D-day, he explained, it was the French troops under de Gaulle who were first to step on French soil, and later to lead the advance into Paris - not the British and the Americans.

How then, can Gen. Janaka Perera enrich the Sri Lankan polity? He has already made it known that the key to the national question is "Balancing minority aspirations against majority apprehensions." In this respect, he differs from the philosophies of both the UNP and the UPFA. The UNP feels the best way to address the issue is to stop fighting, allow maximum devolution within a single sovereign entity, and get the international community to underwrite the peace through massive development. Ranil Wickremesinghe argues (and correctly, too), that when people are prosperous they do not waste time fighting.

The Rajapakse doctrine, of course, is diametrically opposed to this. The Rajapakses, possibly from playing too much hora polis in their formative years, see the Tamil problem simply as an issue of terrorism and policing: hence their search for a purely military solution. For them, there simply is no "Tamil issue," and minorities are expected to live happily within a Sinhala-Buddhist dominated polity in which, unlike Barack Obama, they have no prospect of ever becoming president.

Though he seeks a relatively minor post as chief minister (then again, remember that in 1994 Chandrika Kumaratunga too, began precisely as that), Janaka has swept into the national political firmament like a breath of fresh air. There can be little doubt that he will go far, for he has everything a good politician needs: charisma, patriotism, a strongly supportive wife, respect for a secular polity, strong Buddhist credentials, a track record of honesty, and above all, no hint of racism. And we almost forgot: he wears national dress, thankfully sans the now hated satakaya.

Only one thing remains to be seen: will Janaka Perera be allowed to live long enough to make a difference?


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