17th December, 2006  Volume 13, Issue 23

First with the news and free with its views                                     First with the news and free with its views                             First with the news and free with its views                                    


Mahinda has his work cut out

President Mahinda Rajapakse appears to be leading the country into a long and prolonged military conflict with the LTTE which could have incalculable political, economic and social consequences not just for himself, but Sri Lankan society as a whole.

In recent months his masks of peace have been falling down and his only option now seems to be seeking a military solution. The All Party Conference (APC) was shown off to be his trump card for a political solution not just locally but also internationally.

Experienced observers however noted that Mahinda Rajapakse, the veteran politician from the south, would have realised that the APC had many a time failed to achieve its objective: Reaching a consensus even among southern parties on the Tamil problem. Thus, when he inaugurated the current APC in grand style at the Presidential Secretariat with most of the participants of disparate political beliefs clad in pilgrim white and declared their commitment to finding a solution to the much vexed problem, he would have realised that all that was old hat which had failed before.

To expect even the fire-eaters of the JVP and those staid UNPers to reach a political compromise would indeed have seemed far fetched. But then again Rajapakse had got away with fooling the people for some time now and could not be faulted for believing he could get away with it yet again as with the ‘Helping Hambantota’ case.

To reach southern consensus would have been possible but not southern unanimity. A solution acceptable to Tamils was possible with the UNP but not with the JVP and JHU. With the UNP a two third parliamentary majority was possible. But he had locked himself into an agreement with the JVP and JHU even before he was elected. So Mahinda Rajapakse — to describe in Sri Lankan cricketing terms — played a pottay shot (closed his eyes and swung the bat hoping for the best) — the APC. Now the APC has come a cropper.

The All Party Representative Committee (APRC) which was supposed to give guidance to the APC has come up with four different reports, each differing vastly from one another, wrecking the APC. Not all Mahinda’s advisors and hangers on are capable of putting the APC back together again though yet another show will be made of it.

On Tuesday, SLFP’s political ally, the JVP announced its withdrawal from the APRC. JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe was quoted saying: "Our decision to withdraw from the APC as well will depend on how the government is going to respond to the APRC decision." The majority report of the committee had taken into consideration only recommendations of a pro-LTTE NGO, the JVP Leader alleged. Amarasinghe was severely critical of the majority report of the Experts Committee.

While the President had denied that he was backing any particular report and the JVP and JHU allege that the government is backing the majority report, it does appear that there is an element of deception, in that indications are that the government is with the JVP and JHU on this issue.

Last week, the National Patriotic Movement (NPM) staged a demonstration against the majority group report from Lipton Circus to Temple Trees through the High Security Zone (HSZ) to hand over a petition to President’s Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga. Political observers note that permission from the government would not have been forthcoming if they were not sympathetic towards the NPM whose sympathies are identical with the JVP and JHU. Government Spokesman, Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa on Thursday while regretting the withdrawal of the JVP from the APRC, had hoped that the JVP would come back to the committee.

The UNP despite its MoU with the SLFP appears to be kept at arm’s length like an unwanted suitor by a prospective bride. Much publicity was drummed up with the MoU being signed and great hopes were being expressed all round by the country’s leaders. But President Rajapakse does not seem to want the UNP to get any closer. Ranil Wickremesinghe has offered to back the majority report of the Experts Committee but such enthusiastic support has not been welcomed officially.

On Thursday the new Party Chairman, Rukman Senanayake had said that the party will send its representatives to the next APRC meeting. The UNP seems to be throwing itself at the SLFP even though Mahinda Rajapakse is not welcoming any embraces. The Mahinda Chinthana appears to want to keep the UNP as friends to prevent attacks — at a safe distance, but not get involved in embrace lest it infuriates the JVP and JHU. The UNP like a beggar however keeps going back to Rajapakse despite fully realising he is only play acting for international and domestic consumption.

Whatever the good intentions of UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe may be, he should realise that it is President Rajapakse who needs UNP support and not vice versa. Besides UNP supporters expect their party to play the role of a responsible opposition. It will be recalled that Wickremesinghe lost the last presidential election by a very narrow margin and the result may have been different if not for some political skulduggery such as tampering with voters lists and the LTTE enforced boycott in the north and east.

It is certainly honourable politics to support a government on national issues but if it appears that the nation’s leaders are taking a headlong dive into a political abyss, the duty of a responsible opposition is obvious. The UNP will be remiss in its duty by the public if it does not do the job the public is paying it to do for fear of Rajapakse hijacking its members to government ranks. If that was to be the case, Wickremesinghe should say, so be it and do his duty as a responsible opposition and let the people judge the opportunistic politicians who are after petty perks of office.

The UNP’s role as an opposition party is vital in today’s context with indications of attempts to stifle the media and civil liberties. The state controlled media are of course in full blast with Bakthi Gee for President Rajapakse while some of the so-called ‘independent media’ too are singing praises of the President for various favours and reasons with Rs. 300 million bank loans also on offer courtesy a state bank. That the President himself is on a massive ego trip is evident from the proliferation of his cutouts dotting the entire city.

Meanwhile government guns and those of the LTTE were in full blast in the Eastern Province last week. Soldiers and LTTE cadres are being killed in large numbers. Thousands of civilians are being displaced. And the world is looking aghast at this tragedy. Sinhalese, Muslims and Tamils in the Eastern Province have fled their homes. There is likely to be a large influx of Tamil refuges to Tamil Nadu and the cycle of Tamil Nadu politicians pressurising New Delhi to take action is already on. If Sri Lanka is not cautious, a repeat of the mid 1987 incidents may well take place. International opprobrium is bound to follow with arms embargoes and threatened economic sanctions.

President Rajapakse’s plight needs appreciation though it is largely of his own making. His forces are under attack by an intransigent terrorist organisation that is using civilians as a human shield which in turn is causing most of the problems for Rajapakse. His solution should have been intense diplomatic lobbying backed by a reasonable and acceptable solution to Tamils. But this he has been unable to do without breaking free of the shackles he put on himself by agreeing to the JVP and JHU demands.

He is also faced with another dilemma. The UNP can help him while in power but at election time will be the most formidable opponent. The JVP and JHU on the other hand while making things difficult for him in power have to hang on to his kurakkan satakaya at election time.

But will he be able to place the interests of the Sri Lankan nation above his personal political fortunes? The path he seems to have chosen to traverse, through the killing fields, has been long and difficult and so far defied all logic, but then again his political strength has always been brawn as opposed to brain and true to form Mahinda Rajapakse is playing to his strengths..

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