3rd November  2002, Volume 9, Issue 16















The Fall of Camelot

HIGH Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya must have had a sense of walking with destiny when he pronounced a verdict of 'guilty' on Velupillai Prabhakaran last Thursday, colourfully sentencing the LTTE leader to 200 years rigorous imprisonment. No one in his right mind could doubt Prabhakaran's complicity in the bloody attack on the Central Bank on January 31, 1996, the evidence against him being far more compelling than that against Osama Bin Laden vis-…-vis the twin towers bombing. Seldom has there walked on this planet a mass-murderer with the bloodlust of Prabhakaran. The fact that after almost 20 years of war in which upwards of 15,000 troops lost their lives, the LTTE held only seven prisoners is testimony to that. Thousands were murdered, the vast majority of them in cold blood. If there is therefore such a thing as justice in this world, then Prabhakaran should be confined to a prison cell for the rest of his living days on Earth.

But will that give us peace? For 20 years - a whole generation - successive Sri Lankan governments took a militaristic line with the LTTE. Our armed forces had 10 times as many troops, the great majority of their leaders having been exposed to the best military academies of the world. We had armoured seagoing warships, and we had mastery of the air. For a time, even the whole world affected to be behind us. For yet another time, the Indian Army tried, for three whole years, to control the Tigers. But all that came to naught. For two decades we fought this war with the stated aim of "bringing the Tigers to the negotiating table." Now that we have reached the table, it is difficult for many to put the humiliations of the past behind them.

When nations turn to war, they must accept the outcome. This is the fact that Saddam Hussein is learning, much to his discomfiture, these days. In our own land, the JVP attempted twice to do what the LTTE did, and failed. The fact that they have, after 30 years, grown content with seven percent of the MPs in parliament is testimony to their failure to wrest control of the entire state. What is more, they paid a price far higher than the LTTE has been called upon to pay, and in blood.

Likewise, for all the satisfaction Judge Ambepitiya's judgement might give us, the fact is that it merely reflects a failure on the part of the Sri Lankan state. It is thanks to that failure that we will, whether through negotiation or otherwise, yield far more to the LTTE than most of us feel comfortable in doing. We will each have to dig deep into our pockets to pay the price of peace.

Judge Ambepitiya could not have timed his sentence better. It certainly put a damper on the talks in Thailand, despite Team Leader G.L. Peiris's attempts to gloss over the LTTE's discomfiture. Since the rapprochement between the Tigers and the UNF began end last year, Prabhakaran has grown accustomed to receiving government leaders, whether local or foreign, with the panoply of a head of state. He has now once again been reduced to the rank of a common criminal, yet another Slobodan Milosevic in the world catalogue of mass murderers.

Given the process that is now in motion, the Tiger leader has no choice but to grin and bear it. But it is not a humiliation he will lightly brush aside, and it is the Sri Lankan nation that will pay the price, in land and in rights, for Judge Ambepitiya's bravery.

The extreme right, led by President Kumaratunga, the JVP and the Sihala Urumaya, will take courage from this judgement. Prabhakaran will now remain a convicted criminal and a fugitive until such time as the President decides to give him a free pardon: something that only she can do. And that is unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Regardless of how well the bridge building between the LTTE and the government progresses, the Muslim wildcard that has just been played has given the UNF government something of a jolt. First in the east, and now in the heart of Colombo, Muslims have chosen to make a clear statement that they too, want their pound of flesh. No doubt many of them think that after two decades of war with the Tamils, the Sinhala nation is so weary that it will give just anything for peace.

In doing this, the Muslims may be making a big mistake. Sinhala paranoia vis-a-vis the Tamils stemmed largely from the fact that Tamil Nadu to the north of us offers an infinite reservoir of money and encouragement for the Tamil cause. While this is no longer true - the South Indian Tamils are far too busy making money and building up their own state - it certainly was very much the case so long as the Gandhis endured.

To those given to paranoia however, the Muslims offer a much greater threat. Of Sri Lanka's neighbours, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Maldives are almost 100% Muslim. India may not be quite as 'bad,' but there are upwards of a 100 million Muslims there. With Muslims hovering about the 7 percent mark here, Sri Lanka is the only maritime South Asian nation where Muslim extremisms has not been an issue: until now.

Muslim leaders would do well however, not to try Sinhala patience too far. Parties such as the SLMC, who are set on carving out a separate identity for the Muslims, are making the same mistake the Tamils did 20 years ago. Given that they stand to antagonise both the Tamils and the Sinhalese by their present day actions and rhetoric, they also stand to lose much more. And thanks to Osama Bin Laden, the world's patience with the Muslim cause, whatever that is, is running rather thin. Hakeem, to his credit, understands these ground realities and at the negotiating table in Thailand adopted a give-and-take approach which contributed largely to the success of the talks on vital issues such as the Joint Task Force.

For her part, President Kumaratunga is playing her role as de facto leader of the opposition all too well. Her statement following the Sinhala-Muslim riot last week was careful to distance her from the events she "regretted," which so "shocked" her. She claimed that no such incidents had ever taken place during the PA government, deftly glossing over the Mawanella riots that claimed far more in terms of both life and property.

Kumaratunga must not forget that she is still President, and enjoys a constitution that gives her almost unfettered power.

If, in her opinion, Tilak Marapone and John Amaratunga have not done a satisfactory job, she should sack them forthwith. It is her sworn duty to protect and defend the republic, and she should not shy away from this. Indeed she has a responsibility to so do and exercise the powers vested in her office by the constitution. Failure to so do will make her more culpable than the ministers whose actions she has chosen to call into question with regard to the handling of the situations that have arisen. She cannot hope to escape culpability by pointing the finger at her subordinates without performing the duties she has not only sworn to perform but is also paid to by the tax payers.

Kumaratunga must at least now come to terms with the fact she is the head of state and not the leader of the opposition and the failures of this administration are her failures too. The only way she can abdicate that responsibility is to call it quits.

However, with the failure of the 19th Amendment, the split within the SLMC, the 200-year sentence on Prabhakaran and these latest riots, the peace process initiated by Ranil Wickremesinghe is severely under pressure. Sinhala chauvinism is again on the rise, and attitudes against peace are hardening rapidly. The danger is that the country will once more be plunged into war, and this time, the Tamils will happily blame it on us for all the world to see. Sri Lanka is heading towards the brink and with Kumaratunga distancing herself from the peace process and the reform of the state and military structures, unless Wickremesinghe takes charge and shows that he is in charge, the end of his Camelot may come all too soon.




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