Given the conditions of the electoral agreements he entered into with the JVP and JHU, it was widely forecast in the run-up to the presidential election that Mahinda Rajapakse’s victory would plunge the country into war. For its part, the Rajapakse camp countered the UNP’s scare-mongering with a scare of its own: vote for Ranil Wickremesinghe and watch him divide the country, hand in glove
with Velupillai Pirapaharan.
That Wickremesinghe was not in truck with the LTTE was made abundantly clear from the Tigers having so ruthlessly scuttled his election. That said, no one could seriously believe Mahinda Rajapakse will knowingly and deliberately plunge Sri Lanka into war. The President has been called a lot of names, but no one has until now questioned his patriotism.
Nevertheless, Rajapakse must realise that he has painted himself into a corner. Egged on by the JVP-JHU combine, he planned to jettison the Norwegians and rejected federalism, espousing only a unitary framework. There is no gainsaying that if there is a Sinhala consensus, it is that there is no room for federalism. Mahinda Rajapakse and Ranil Wickremesinghe had a near tie for the presidency, but given that the latter was
overwhelmingly supported by the minorities, including the Indian Tamils, Muslims and Catholics, it is clear that the Sinhalese majority itself was divided 60/40 in Rajapakse’s favour.
Rajapakse could be forgiven for thinking that there is no point in pursuing a federalist agenda to which 60 percent of the Sinhalese are themselves opposed. Even if he were to find a device to force a solution on the nation, as J.R. Jayewardene and Rajiv Gandhi tried to do in 1987, everyone (especially the Tigers) knows it is most unlikely to last. And even as the Sinhalese have just rejected federalism as conceding too
much to the Tigers, the Tigers themselves have just rejected federalism as not conceding enough to themselves. Never since the 2002 ceasefire took effect has the division between the LTTE and the Sri Lankan government been so trenchant: with positions fixed as they are, the prospects for a peace process — indeed, for peace itself — are slim indeed.
Rajapakse has ambitiously tied himself publicly to a 90-day time frame for presenting a southern consensus to the LTTE. He has said he will do this after consultation with all political parties and other interest groups: remember the All Party Conference convened by President Premadasa, and where that got us? Sixteen of the 90 days have already passed, and there is no sign yet from the President as to how he intends to set
about seeking a consensus view from the south.
Rajapakse needs to remember that the Tigers scuttled Wickremesinghe’s dash for the presidency for a reason: they felt that were he to be elected, he would have, with international backing, foisted a federal solution on them. For his part, Pirapaharan knows full well that the Tamil diaspora that funds him, and the suicide cadres who die for him, do not do so merely for a Tamil federal canton or regional council: they are
doing so for a sovereign state.
And now, with a freshly elected Sri Lankan government rejecting the only solution Pirapaharan has ever agreed to explore, the cause of a sovereign state has suddenly received a new infusion of hope. How could the international community come to the aid of a government that has spurned a solution that found universal consensus not just with the LTTE but also with both mainstream political parties?
As his address to parliament 10 days ago confirmed, Rajapakse has not mellowed his rhetoric since ascending to the presidency. The only ray of hope came from his address to the diplomatic community last week, in which he significantly softened his stance. But given his rejection of the Oslo Declaration, the President can no longer count on unconditional international support. Goodness knows that even while the Kumaratunga
administration was committed to this principle, there was little enough evidence of the much-touted international safety net even as acts of LTTE terrorism mounted. Of course, the worldwide condemnation of Lakshman Kadirgamar’s assassination and the consequent travel restrictions on the LTTE were nice to have, but these are if anything a consequence of 9/11 and not global empathy for Sri Lanka’s plight.
Thus it is that with his self-proclaimed 90-day time frame fast running out, Rajapakse (and Sri Lanka with him) is unwittingly about to become a victim of a new war, an assertion underlined by a frantic LTTE fund-raising drive in the West ‘for the mother of all battles.’ What should the President do? It is impossible that he could effect a volte face and now embrace federalism: that option is history. On the
other hand, should he tout a unitary state much longer, international support will be pre-history.
Thus it is that Mahinda Rajapakse has to come to terms with the cold, hard fact that war is almost inevitable. With the world alienated from our cause, and our shutting the door on the only solution that ever emerged after two decades of war, there are no other choices left. It goes without saying that the first shots will be fired not by the armed forces but by the LTTE. And as has been the case consistently before, the
question of who it was that first pulled the trigger will be largely academic after the initial volley.
It does not take genius to read between the lines of the statements made last Sunday by Velupillai Pirapaharan, and this Sunday (as represented in today’s edition of The Sunday Leader) by Anton Balasingham. The Tigers have taken Rajapakse’s three-month time frame literally, and unless some rabbits of impressive proportions are pulled out of the Presidential hat in short order, we are already on the downward
spiral to tragedy.
What should Mahinda Rajapakse now do? First and foremost, he must prepare the armed services for war. When the Tigers broke the ceasefire with Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1995, they did so with an assault on Trincomalee harbour, sinking two naval vessels in the process. When they abrogated their ceasefire with Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1991, they did so by slaughtering hundreds of servicemen confined to barracks in the Eastern
Never again must the armed forces be allowed to fall victim to such political naďveté. As Defence Minister and Commander in Chief, the President must without delay set about preparing the services for war even while doing everything he can to avert a war. Training, ordnance, fortifications: they must all go hand in hand even while making it clear that the government will only engage in a renewed war if it is thrust upon
them. But come what may, we have a sacred duty to make sure the services are prepared for any eventuality.
Next, Rajapakse would do well to strengthen international confidence in his case for peace. He needs to recognise that to the developed world, the JVP’s Marxist ideology and extremism is a bizarre anachronism. This sort of thing was fine in the 1970s, but the JVP’s rhetoric today finds resonance only in North Korea, the planet’s leading pariah state. It is also no secret from the world that the JVP’s closest ally in
the President’s ranks is Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera. While Colombo’s cognoscenti know Samaraweera to be a right-leaning pragmatist singing off the JVP’s extremist hymn sheet only for reasons of political expediency, his alliance with the far left is mystifying to the outside world. Rajapakse needs to assuage international suspicion of his administration and engage in a foreign policy offensive that will have the world on Sri Lanka’s
side in case war breaks out.
Last but not least (to employ a weary cliché), Rajapakse needs to engage without delay with the UNP. Whether or not such engagement takes the form of a national government, he needs to realise that his hand will be infinitely strengthened by having the opposition — which by just 28,000 votes could have deprived him of the presidency — on his side.
At the same time he should know from almost three decades of personal experience that Wickremesinghe is a man he can trust: indeed, for the whole of their recent campaigns, each of them was careful personally not to malign the other. What the President would be unwise to do, however, is to aim to snipe individual UNP MPs so as to bolster his parliamentary majority: that is a recipe for recrimination and will put the seal on
any prospect of inter-party collaboration.
Whether waging war or suing for peace, Rajapakse will gain immensely from having the UNP at his side. For his part, Wickremesinghe can hardly spurn an offer from the President given that in his own campaign he explicitly promised to invite the SLFP to form a national government with him.
The making of Mahinda Rajapakse can come only from bold and imaginative steps now, not after the proverbial dirt hits the fan. It is in these hours that his mettle will be tested and the fate of his presidency decided. For his own sake, and that of Sri Lanka, one can but hope that he will rise above divisive politics and put Sri Lanka first. Our nation is set to enter a time that will test men’s souls. Rajapakse
follows a president who sat in office for 11 years and achieved precious nothing. Whether his destiny lies in similar ignominy is now what hangs in the balance. The next few weeks will tell.