Can ‘bull and buffalo’ talks save Rajapakse?
‘I am a president who is willing to discuss and listen’ was the banner headline of a government controlled daily on Friday to a report on President Rajapakse’s address to the Asia Society in New York. Whether the declaration of a president of a democratic country that he is ‘willing
to discuss and listen’ should be headline news, we leave it to the Sri Lankan newspaper readers to decide. It is only when presidents are not willing to ‘discuss and listen’ do problems arise. They are then called dictators and all kinds of rude names.
Still the reiteration by the President of an accepted principle of democratic leadership is reassuring but it has to be judged from the decisions that result. One complaint we have made is that the President backtracks on the decisions he makes. We have in previous columns dealt at length on this feature — one step forward two steps back.
President Rajapakse’s meeting with Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg in New York indicates that he is once again backtracking on one of the main issues he campaigned on and won the presidential election. It may be for the future good but still he is retracting from his pledges.
Reports from New York last week said that in his meeting with the Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Rajapakse had advocated upgrading bi- lateral relations and said that Norway’s role should not be restricted to the peace process. He had said that Norway-Sri Lanka relations should be one between two sovereign countries and also stressed that the LTTE cannot be given parity of status with the
state of Sri Lanka. Reports did not mention the response of the Norwegian Prime Minister.
However, it is important to note relations between the two countries worsened with the visit of the Norwegian Special Envoy to Sri Lanka Jon Hanssen- Bauer. It was an attempt to renew peace negotiations between the LTTE and the government. The special envoy it appears was by no means pleased with the attitude of the government towards the LTTE. On his return home in an interview with the media he had
said: ‘They wish to brand the LTTE as terrorists and isolate them internationally. That is where we differ from the pattern they wish to create.’ Apparently there is still a wide gulf between the two countries and much has to be done to improve relations with Norway.
Mahinda Rajapakse, whether he likes it or not, is compelled to come to terms with the Norwegian government. The Norwegians may have seemed to be partial towards the LTTE, probably because as facilitators they had given some leeway. The situation may have been worsened with the virulent attacks on the Norwegians by a section of the Sri Lankan media as well as Mahinda Rajapakse’s faction in the SLFP
before elections and his allies, the JVP and JHU. But the hard fact is that having had foreign powers involved in the peace process and Norway having been acknowledged as the facilitator and monitor, it cannot be got rid off.
Sri Lanka is placed in a position today that it cannot do away with foreign involvement. The most powerful nations are involved as the Co-Chairs to the peace process along with India’s backing. And they, particularly the United States keep repeating in their statements that they have much faith in Norway as an experienced facilitator in peace negotiations, apparently to remind those Sri Lankans who
have second thoughts about Norway.
President Rajapakse’s meeting with the Norwegian Prime Minister and his call for a closer relationship between the two countries may have helped in removing some of the animosities that have been building up in the past few years but developments back at home would have placed serious doubts about the future development of friendly ties between the two countries.
We pointed out earlier that talks between the JVP and the SLFP for the JVP to join the government on a 20 point plan was on at the time when President Rajapakse left for New York. For whatever reason, on Tuesday JVP’s leaders decided to lambaste President Rajapakse and his party at a meeting organised by their student wing at the New Town Hall on the very issue of relations with Norway.
The JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe had said that the SLFP was ‘neither here nor there’ and failed to come out with a clear cut answer to the 20 point plan presented by the JVP. Calling for the abrogation of the Ceasefire Agreement, he had said that it should be jettisoned while ousting the Norwegians from the peace process. Norway had always been with the country’s enemy and therefore should be
ousted without any hesitation as the Indian Peace Keeping Force was sent out of the country,he had said. This outburst of pyrotechnics against Norway is not something new. But it would have been specifically meant as a message to President Rajapakse in New York as well as to the Norwegians and other foreign powers involved in the peace process.
The JVP macho men are flexing their muscles on the public stage to flaunt their political clout — without their support in parliament the government has no majority and could be ousted. The JVP leader Somawansa Amarasinghe had declared that President Rajapakse would have to go for a presidential poll if he went against the mandate they pledged at the elections. He had said: "The President wants
to go for a general election. He should go for a presidential election as well. If he wishes to work against the people’s mandate we would mobilise all forces against him. We will not stop there. We will force him out of office.’
President Rajapakse is well and truly in the horns of a dilemma. If he wants to stay in power he needs JVP support and would have to go along with them. But the JVP has no solution to the north-east conflict other than war. But without foreign military, economic and diplomatic support a war cannot be won. If he refuses the JVP they can bring down his government.
But there is an alternative emerging: joining up with the UNP and these talks are progressing rapidly. ‘Bull and buffalo talks’ (ela harak saha meeharak katha) was how Somawansa Amarasinghe saw it. However Amarasinghe sees it, it would save the day not only for Rajapakse but for the country as a whole.