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Editorial

November 4, 2007  Volume 14, Issue 20


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High risk political games and concerns over budget vote


Mahinda Rajapakse, Lalith Weeratunga,
Basil Rajapakse and S.P. Tamilselvan

Lalith Weeratunga in the dark over censorship Gazette

President tells ministers Penal Code will
be used against media

Govt. considers prorogation for fear of losing budget

Why the LTTE wants the govt. to survive budget

Govt. moves to register party for Pillayan

While the JVP struck a timely warning in the face of rising prices last week that the party’s support may not be forthcoming for the government at the budget, the Defence Ministry looked towards draconian measures to stifle all dissent even as the Tigers prepared to seize the upperhand before Velupillai Pirapaharan’s Heroes Day message on November 27.

The JVP has for months grappled with the issue of taking the battle to the Rajapakse brothers head on, but was forced to pull back every time due to differences of opinion internally, especially with Propaganda Secretary Wimal Weerawansa pulling in the government’s direction, and it is to avert a split that the party blew hot and cold.

Hitting people in the gut

In doing so however, the JVP realised it was fast losing the grassroots base with economic hardships hitting the people in the gut and after much soul-searching the Marxists took the view the time was ripe to go all out against the administration with the budget identified as the target.

But still there was one consideration based on which the JVP decided it will take a fresh look at the budget and that was if the government launched an all out offensive in the Wanni, a case Weerawansa was pushing strongly with the high and mighty.

For the government, implementing such a strategy suffered a serious setback with the Anuradhapura debacle, in addition to reports that the LTTE was once again infiltrating the east in small numbers as part of a bigger game plan.

National security considerations do not permit full disclosure of the latest developments in the north and east, but suffice it to say, an all out offensive in the north at this time is fraught with danger since any setback in the lead up to the budget vote could well open the floodgates and this fact the President is all too aware of.

It is in the backdrop of all these developments that the JVP announced after its politburo meeting on Sunday that the party will make known its decision on the budget come November 9 by which time, unless the government has launched its offensive in the Wanni, it will be a ‘No’ vote.

Voting against the budget?

In fact, when making the announcement last week, the JVP was to state their decision was weighted more towards voting against the budget, a signal for the Rajapakse brothers to get it on in Wanni irrespective of the consequences.

For, as the situation stands now, based purely on economic factors, there is no way the JVP can vote with the government, having also challenged the constitutionality of the Appropriations Bill in the Supreme Court, and given the recent military reversals in Yala and Anuradhapura, nothing short of a military onslaught in the Wanni can sway the party the government’s way and the President knows it only too well.

Promoting a local economy

It is for those very reasons that the President on Monday announced at a public ceremony in the presence of JVP Leader Somawansa Amarasinghe and Wimal Weerawansa notwithstanding the economic consequences to the country that the government must look to promoting a local economy similar to the 1970’s without getting bogged down in the open economy.

That kite however failed to fly, and it is the very day that the government looked towards a military strategy whilst taking steps to put a lid on dissent and any form of information reaching the public in the event a decision was taken to wage war.

The government no doubt hoped, in such a climate, it could carry out a propaganda campaign in the lead up to the budget with no room for contradictions, helping the JVP thereby to justify voting with the government using the war as an excuse.

Prohibited

Accordingly, by October 29, orders went out to print the Gazette under President Mahinda Rajapakse’s name, wherein it was stated, inter alia that all reporting on military procurements, and military operations will be prohibited with media outlets subject to sealing if the regulation was violated.

The irony was that neither President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga nor the Attorney General C.R. De Silva were consulted on the matter with it being a Defence Ministry initiative.

Said the gazetted regulation — "Where any person prints, publishes, distributes or transmits, or causes to be printed, published, distributed or transmitted, whether by electronic means or otherwise, any matter in contravention of provisions of Regulation 3, the Competent Authority may, after issuing such directions as he considers necessary to effect compliance with the provisions of such regulations make an order that the press or equipment used for such printing, publication, distribution or transmission shall for such period as is specified in that order not be used for such printing, publication, distribution or transmission of any matter referred to in Regulation 3....."

Howls of protests

By Wednesday afternoon, the Gazette notification leaked to the media and all hell broke loose with howls of protests and the various media organisations cast aside their policy differences and banded together for a concerted campaign to get the regulation repealed.

And by evening, there were mixed signals from the government with President’s Secretary Lalith Weeratunga denying the existence of such a Gazette when queried by the media oblivious to the fact copies were already with the media.

Ironically, Weeratunga was to inform one journalist who asked about the Gazette that there were no such regulations imposed and if any news item is published stating such regulations were in fact introduced, the government would take legal action against those media outlets.

"This is nonsense, how can a Gazette be issued without my knowledge. There is no such Gazette," Weeratunga told the journalists.

It was only later that Weeratunga found out such a Gazette had in fact been printed and in a highly agitated state he was to complain to the President he was not kept informed.

And while the cabinet meeting was in session, Weeratunga was to walk right upto the President, lean over and express his displeasure softly, so that other ministers could not hear what was being said.

Soon after, the President told the ministers he was going to make an announcement on the introduction of new emergency regulations governing the media to cabinet but that since similar provisions were available in the Penal Code, it was decided to drop the matter.

Warning the media

Having done so, the government was to warn the media not to step out of line with the Director General of the Media Center for National Security stating publicly the Emergency Regulations were withdrawn because the government found the media acting more responsibly after the ABC radio stations were sealed. The subtle message to the media was to practice self censorship or face the same consequences as ABC Radio.

And though the government backtracked on the censorship regulations, a planned operation in the north went ahead Thursday with troops breaking out from Mannar, an advance the JVP will no doubt watch closely.

At the same time, the government is also looking at the option of proroguing parliament if the numbers do not look too good for the budget vote with Presidential Advisor and newly appointed national list MP, Basil Rajapakse hinting at this possibility in a series of interviews he gave on Tuesday to the Tamil media, which was to be published by agreement yesterday.

The arithmetic for the government is simple. The UNP has 44 MPs, the JVP 38 and the TNA 22 totalling 104. Add Mangala Samaraweera and Sripathi Sooriyaarachchi and all it takes is seven more MPs to defeat the government. And considering there are six CWC MPs, six Muslim Congress MPs and at least 15 disgruntled SLFP and JHU MPs, the government certainly is not brimming with confidence.

It is in this overall context, the President has looked at the prorogation option if the JVP decides to vote against the budget since it is now certain the TNA would also do so.

Notifying MPs

The TNA in fact having decided to vote against the budget has also notified all 22 MPs, including those currently overseas to be in parliament both for the vote on the second reading on November 19 and the third reading scheduled for December 14.

Interestingly, just as much as the JVP finds it difficult to vote for the budget given the public backlash on the escalating cost of living, so does the TNA for altogether different reasons.

Given the LTTE enforced boycott of the presidential election, the Tamil civilians are now openly stating their suffering is due to Mahinda Rajapakse emerging victorious as a consequence and moreso with allegations that money had passed hands.

Thus, the pressure on both the LTTE and the TNA is not only due to the consequences for the civilians in the north and east as a result of military operations including extra judicial killings and disappearances but also the abduction for extortion racket in other parts of the country with relatives of expatriate Tamils also affected.

Further, if the government survives the budget even as a result of one TNA MP not being present to vote, they know only too well, it will not only add further credence to the secret deal the Rajapakse camp had with the LTTE but also the consequences of renewed conflict.

An open secret

That apart, internationally too, it is an open secret the LTTE lost all credibility for subverting the democratic process at the presidential election and at a time the Rajapakse government is facing strictures over human rights issues, any action on the part of the TNA which helps sustain the administration, they know will be a further setback to their propaganda campaigns. It is for those reasons the TNA has now ordered all its MPs to be present for the budget vote.

On the other hand, Pirapaharan would want to sustain the Rajapakse government to achieve his military goals and justify the demand for independence by citing the extremist policies of the government and its continued military actions without being party to it.

From that standpoint, what the LTTE would be hoping for is that the JVP will sustain the government at the budget and push Rajapakse further into extremist policies whilst the frustration and anger of the people in the south will also mount against the ruling coalition due to the economic hardships which will inevitably follow.

Such a situation, the LTTE no doubt realises will also weaken the war effort, giving the Tigers the upperhand as it prepares for war to achieve East Timor style independence as argued in a letter to the UN.

Responsible for consequences

This the JVP too is not unmindful of, and a majority in the politburo including General Secretary Tilvin Silva and MP Anura Kumara Dissanayake have taken the position the party must vote against the budget despite any military operations launched lest they be held responsible for the consequences that follow.

It is fearing such an outcome that the government is looking at the prorogation option to buy time but one major concern for the President in this respect is the clear message to the country by such action that he has lost the majority in parliament.

That a defeat at the budget is a very real possibility, even Basil Rajapakse has voiced not only during his recent visit to India but also in interviews with the media and this was to be also reflected in the panic reaction of Minister Rajitha Senaratne.

Interestingly, whilst the opposition is tight-lipped about its intended plans, Senaratne boasted that eight UNP MPs would cross over to the government at the budget and pave the way for the JVP to become the main opposition.

Sending a message

Senaratne’s child-like strategy was meant as a signal to the JVP that if it votes with the government at the budget, Wimal Weerawansa can become the opposition leader whilst at the same time sending a message to possible crossers over from the government to the opposition that theirs’ is a lost cause and should therefore not cross the great divide.

But Basil Rajapakse is taking a more practical approach to the threat and in interviews given to the Tamil media said the government stands ready for unconditional talks with the LTTE, a message meant for the TNA MPs.

For that however there were no takers and as a precautionary move, action was taken to register a political party for the Karuna Group in the event of a snap election, whereby the SLFP would have an alliance partner from the east.

Promoting Pillayan

And the task of coordinating the operation was given to the Asian Tribune Website Chief K.T. Rajasingham who is based in Sweden, with a specific brief to promote Pillayan as the leader of the new party, given the negative image of Karuna.

Accordingly, steps are being taken in consultation with two government ministers to register a new political party for Pillayan named Tamil Makkal Sudenthiran Katchchi (Tamil People’s Freedom Party). This new name was decided on since the old name Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal, meaning Tamil People’s Liberation Tigers would have negative connotations in the south.

In doing so, there were few problems to iron out too given the internal disputes within the Karuna Group and it is for that reason Rajasingham spoke with the government and facilitated Karuna’s exit from Sri Lanka.

The plan hatched now is for 29 year old Pillayan to be made the general secretary of the new party with all powers, whilst making Karuna its nominal leader.

Taken for a ride

Realising he was being taken for a ride by the government, Karuna was not only planning to go public with their inside dealings but also despatch a loyalist named Krishnan to Colombo to take over the party until his return.

This information however reached Rajasingham in Sweden and he was to telephone Pillayan and inform him of the development and call for Krishnan’s arrest no sooner he lands in Sri Lanka.

It is in that backdrop reports of Karuna’s arrest in London too have to be viewed, and there is no gainsaying it is part of a bigger game plan to silence the renegade commander.

It should also be noted that it was the government no less that facilitated Karuna’s departure from Sri Lanka in what is speculated as having used false documents with it being reported that Deputy Airport Chief Shalitha Wijesundera no less escorted Karuna to the aircraft. Wijesundera is still to deny that report.

Rajasingham who boasts of getting Karuna to breakaway from the LTTE and later his exit from Sri Lanka, has told government ministers Pillayan is under his control and listens to him completely and would pose no problem.

The idea in registering a new political party, Rajasingham has informed the government, is to outsmart Karuna and that it should be done in utmost secrecy.

These developments prove without doubt, the government’s link to the Karuna Group but for Rajasingham it also presents a business opportunity and that he has pushed with the government for his services.

What Rajasingham has asked for is funding for the Asian Tribune and for a Euro Asian Radio, totalling over US $ 200,000. The projected loss according to the 2007 budget by Asian Tribune he says is US $ 514,428.58.

Rajasingham has therefore asked government authorities to help him with funding arrangements, the carrot being the delivery of Pillayan and his party with Karuna relegated to the background.

The killing

Be that as it may, there was another sting in the tail Friday, with the LTTE Political Wing Leader S.P. Tamilselvan killed in an aerial attack, just 48 hours after Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapakse in interviews to the Tamil media said the government stands ready for unconditional talks with the LTTE.

The death of Tamilselvan no doubt will be counted as a morale booster for the government after the Anuradhapura debacle, but the LTTE will project it as a hit on a political target given the fact that he was not only the head of the political wing but also their chief negotiator, having succeeded Anton Balasingham after the latter’s death.

The Sri Lanka Airforce launched the aerial attack in Kilinochchi having received information the Tiger leadership was meeting at an identified location and hit a bull’s eye, killing not only Tamilselvan but also four others including his trusted Lieutenant Alex, who too attended all rounds of peace talks.

And the LTTE announced Tamilselvan’s death in a one paragraph statement through its Peace Secretariat Secretary Seeran Friday noon in the following terms — "With deep sorrow we announce to the people of Tamil Eelam, the Tamil people living all over the world and the international community that Tamilselvan was killed by the Sri Lanka Air Force aerial bombing. With him Lt.Col. Anpumani (Alex), Major Mukuthan, Capt.Nethagis, Lt. Adchgivel and Lt. Valaikumaran were also killed."

Reaction to setbacks

Coming just weeks before Pirapaharan is due to deliver his "Heroes’ Day" message, it is of course a setback for the LTTE and it remains to be seen how the Tigers will react other than use it for international mileage by claiming the government has taken out a political target.

It would however do well for the government to make note of past Tiger behaviour when such a setback occurs and take adequate steps to beef up security all round.

All in all, given the fast-paced developments, the lead up to the budget will be one roller coaster.

 


 


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