World Affairs








Winning the propaganda war and the Govt.'s politics of survival

Ranil Wickremesinghe, Basil Rajapakse, 
Shiv Shankar Menon, Mahinda Rajapakse 
and Mervyn Silva

President calls Mangala's mother to 
woo him back

Mahinda calls Mervyn after SLRC 
attack to show solidarity

Presidential Advisor says Mahinda has to be
concerned only about the Sinhala Buddhists

Ranil meets Indian Foreign Sec. and NSA in Delhi

Indian Prime Minister won't stay at Visumpaya

While fierce battles raged in the north last week between the security forces and the LTTE leaving in its wake death and destruction, President Mahinda Rajapakse was busy wrestling with his political options given the unstable political and economic conditions confronting the government following the bruising budget confrontation in parliament that reduced the UPFA administration to a minority.

True, whatever be the ground reality, the public perception is that the war is being prosecuted successfully because the government has ensured through a tight control of the media, only its spin on the battles waged get play and anyone who dares to step out of line is called a traitor.

Such is the unofficial censorship in force no electronic media can for example report on the battle field realities other than quote the official position dished out by the government, and the print media is in no better position with access to the theatre of war completely cut off.

This move has helped the government forge ahead in the propaganda war and use it as an effective tool to keep a lid on dissent over economic mismanagement and the rising cost of living holding out in the process the hope of ending the war before the Sinhala and Tamil New Year.

Marketing strategy

The public too has bought into this marketing strategy of the government with stories doing the rounds that LTTE Leader Velupillai Pirapaharan was injured in an air strike and exaggerated figures of Tiger casualties from the battle zone being the order of the day, giving further credence to the perception the war is about to end.

To a discerning observer of the psychological warfare and the propaganda waged by the state during the last few weeks in particular, it will not be lost that for every soldier killed, at least 10 to 20 Tigers paid the ultimate price, thus helping keep the morale in the south at an all time high.

The President however knows only too well such propaganda will only buy him limited space and with the full impact of the economic crunch expected to bite the people before end April as the  government gets set to print more money to fund its expenses the feel good bubble is bound to burst, unless of course the LTTE is in fact militarily defeated.

That, the President knows is a tall ask with international pressure too expected to intensify with the inevitable flow of refugees from the Wanni as the security forces continue with their  ground and air offensives, and it is in this overall context, he was looking at his political options after the budget shake up.

Fickle public opinion

Furthermore public opinion is as fickle as the British weather and all it would take is one setback or a bomb explosion in the city to once again put the government on the defensive with regard to the military option as former presidents have learned the hard way and such realities too, the defence establishment is conscious of notwithstanding the propaganda overkill.

Thus it has become doubly important for the President to ensure he has safety in numbers in parliament when the going gets tough and people begin to question how true the military successes projected are, hence the decision to re-work the arithmetic.

There is no gainsaying the narrow shave at the budget was a rude awakening for the President who is now fully alive to the corner he has been painted into by the JVP with the Marxists not only demanding a Rs. 3000 wage hike for the labour force  but also threatening mayhem if the political package promised by Rajapakse sees the light of day in addition to the  series of strikes threatened.

Agitational campaigns

For the JVP too, justifying  their budget decision which helped the government survive is a hard sell and will no doubt step up the threatened agitational campaigns as price increases hit the people in January in a bid to distance themselves from any responsibility, which fact too the government is well aware of.

Thus the first political option the President considered in this situation was to bolster his numbers in parliament and towards this end looked to inviting into his fold, the breakaway SLFP members with promises to restore the status quo prior to their expulsion from  cabinet in February 2006.

With that objective in mind, the President last week tried several  times  to make telephone contact with Mangala Samaraweera, offering even to visit him at his residence through an emissary albeit with no success, but Rajapakse did not relent.

Having failed to speak with Samaraweera, the President finally settled for a telephone chat with the SLFP (M) Convener's mother Khema, a chat that lasted 70 minutes, on a wide range of issues from her health to politics.

"Everyone makes mistakes"

The President told Samaraweera's mother, everyone makes mistakes and he regrets some of his actions and that Mangala too should forgive and forget and return to the government which they collectively formed without allowing outside forces to dominate. The President whose comments were seen as a hint at the JVP had also said he was prepared to meet the Samaraweeras at their home if necessary.

Having listened to President Rajapakse, Samaraweera's mother said she would communicate his sentiments to her son and ask him to take an appropriate decision on the matter, which she duly did.

At the same time a message was also sent to the SLFP (M) Convener through Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle that the President had issued specific instructions not to remove the name of Mangala Samaraweera or his father from the plaque on the bridge the President was to ceremonially open in Matara on the third tsunami anniversary, December 26.

That, the President hoped would  soften Samaraweera and help bury the hatchet. The work on the bridge was infact done by Mangala Samaraweera and it was to be named after his father, former Housing Minister Mahanama Samaraweera.

Obscene attack

However, with the SLFP (M) Convener not responding to Rajapakse's overtures, in a state of pique, the President took Labour Minister Mervyn Silva for the ceremonial opening on December 26 where in characteristic fashion the man launched a vituperative and obscene attack on Samaraweera, his late father Mahanama, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and Anura Bandaranaike, much to the astonishment of senior SLFP members like General Secretary  Maithripala Sirisena. They on hearing what happened expressed their displeasure but not so the President who was seen enjoying the caustic comments made by the Labour Minister.

And Mervyn Silva was unrepentant at the criticism leveled by fellow ministers given the fact he was invited to speak at the ceremony by none other than the President and furious that his speech was not telecast by Rupavahini, he walked in to the news room the following day, Thursday, December 27 with an armed group and assaulted the news director which not only brought himself but the entire government into disrepute and contempt.

Interestingly given the humiliation Mervyn Silva was subjected to at the hands of an enraged Rupavahini staff following the assault, it was none other than President Rajapakse who was livid, and called on the police and the army to explain why they did not ensure Silva was rescued from the scene without harm coming his way.

Earlier that morning, the President had also shown his displeasure to Media Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa over Rupavahini's failure to telecast Mervyn Silva's Matara speech and no doubt such support from Rajapakse would have emboldened the Labour Minister to continue his merry way.

Growing frustration

For the President, the attack on Silva was much more than an isolated incident and reflected the growing frustration of the people against the government and wanted  it nipped in the bud. Moreso considering the fact Silva was seen by the public at large as one of the blue eyed boys of the Rajapakse brothers.

Thus, even as Silva was getting the rough treatment at Rupavahini, Rajapakse personally handled his rescue operation and even called the Director General of the National Hospital, Hector Weerasinghe and told him to make all arrangements for the Minister's admission.

And with Silva being bundled out of the Rupavahini building and whisked away to safety, it was President Rajapakse who was to call him on the mobile and offer words of support.

The President told Silva he will take care of what happened later and for the Minister to rush to the National Hospital and get himself admitted. The President also told Silva he had already spoken with Hector Weerasinghe and made all the arrangements, and by the time the Labour Minister arrived at the hospital, Weerasinghe and no less than 25 doctors and nurses were at hand to comfort him.

Political hit man

Such support from the President saw Silva, who just hours earlier was cowering in fear inside the Rupavahini building, telling the police and well wishers from his hospital bed that he would deal with those who were responsible for the attack on him once the dust settled.

In fact, Mervyn Silva has not only become the political hit man of the Rajapakse brothers but practically their saviour as revealed by Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapakse to UNP MP Dayasiri Jayasekera in the lead up to the budget vote on December 14.

Speaking to Jayasekera in the parliamentary lobby, Basil Rajapakse had said Mervyn Silva was one of their biggest assets and that was the reason for him being attacked by the opposition.

Such endorsements apart, the President's strategy of unleashing Silva in Matara backfired with Samaraweera's mother aghast at the personal attack launched on her late husband and son by Silva in the very presence of Rajapakse just days after the overtures made to her to woo the SLFP (M) Convener back to the fold.

Back at square one

With that option thus backfiring, the President toyed with the idea of  inviting UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe to form a government on the understanding he will continue with the war effort but not receiving a positive response to such sounding that idea too was dropped, taking him back to square one.

For, the President now knows that even to pursue the military option a political package must be placed on the table before at least mid January if he is to keep the international pressure at bay but even such a proposition appeared Himalayan given the JVP's opposition and the UNP's withdrawal from the All Party Representative Committee.

And making the issue all the more complicated for the President is a call by India for the government to at least implement in full measure the 13th Amendment to the Constitution whereby the provincial councils would be given the full authority to deal with the devolved subjects including the police.

This move India has said the government should make until such time a comprehensive political package is worked out through the APRC or any other forum.

It is none other than Minister Douglas Devananda who first called on the government to implement the 13th Amendment to the Constitution with an interim administration for the north and east which the President has been slow to act on given the JVP factor, but now India too has backed Devananda's call, with the visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for the 60th Independence Day celebrations also hinging on it.

Made a hash of invitation

The government has already made a hash of the invitation extended to the Indian Prime Minister by calling on former National Heritage Minister Anura Bandaranaike to vacate 'Visumpaya' to make way for Manmohan Singh even though President Rajapakse's invitation is yet to be accepted by New Delhi.

And embarrassed by being drawn into a domestic political dispute, Bandaranaike has been sent word from New Delhi that even if the Indian Prime Minister was to visit Sri Lanka, he will not stay at Visumpaya thus obviating the need for him to vacate the premises on account of Manmohan Singh.

Be that as it may, raising further questions on the government's commitment to forwarding a political package came with the delaying tactics over the APRC with the entire committee to be sent on a study tour to Spain and Northern Ireland mid January.

The trip sponsored by a non- governmental organisation called the South Asia Peace Initiative and facilitated by Britain will commence on January 14, 2008 and last at least over a week, which necessarily means the APRC proposals will not see the light of day before the February 4 Independence Day celebrations.

Interim administration

It is this delay and the futility of the exercise given the fact  the JVP, UNP and TNA are out of the process that has prompted even India to urge the full implementation of the 13th Amendment, which too the President is reluctant to proceed  with over fears of devolving police powers and the formation of an interim administration for the north and east.

Caught in this catch 22 situation the government has now opted to continue with the hard-line approach hoping it will keep the JVP silent and at bay over the spiralling cost of living and the imminent price increases in January on fuel and electricity.

This hardline approach was best reflected by Presidential Advisor Sunimal Fernando, who is considered a moderate, on Wednesday, December 26 at a Christmas party hosted in Kandana by UNP MP, John Amaratunga and son-in-law Dinesh Weerakkody where the hawk in Fernando surfaced.

Holding forth in the presence of several guests including National Peace Council activist, Jehan Perera, the Presidential Advisor was to state 80 percent of Sri Lankans were Sinhala Buddhists and since it was they who elected Mahinda Rajapakse, he should be concerned only about that constituency. And for good measure, Fernando added the President need not bother about the Muslims, Tamils or the Christians.  

"They deserve it"

Aghast, Jehan Perera was to say the government did not know the suffering of the Tamil People in the north and that bombs are killing innocent civilians on a regular basis, and pat came the Presidential Advisor's reply: "They deserve it."

At this point, joining the conversation was US Deputy Ambassador, James Moore and carrying on regardless, Fernando said even in the US when such incidents like in Sri Lanka happen all suspect people are treated in a hard way and there was no other way out.

Taken aback, Moore while disagreeing with Fernando used all the diplomatic skills he could draw on to explain such parallels could not be drawn arbitrarily, but what the Presidential Advisor's comments did reflect was the government psyche that Sri Lanka is today indeed a land for only the Sinhala Buddhists.

In the meantime UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe decided to trek his way to India and discuss the current political developments in the country including the peace process or rather the absence of one and on Friday, December 28 met with Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and National Security Advisor, M. K. Narayanan, where detailed  discussions were held on the unfolding developments in the country.

Lack of political will

Wickremesinghe was to also use the opportunity to explain the constitutional amendments he has proposed to strengthen the role of the legislature and limit the powers of the executive presidency. Further he spoke of the lack of political will on the part of the government to submit a political package to resolve the ethnic crisis and adverted particularly to the delaying tactics over the APRC proposals.

The Indian side for their part gave the UNP Leader a patient hearing and reiterated New Delhi's policy there is no military solution to the crisis and that the issue should be resolved politically, a position Wickremesinghe did not disagree with.

And on his return to Sri Lanka later this week, Wickremesinghe is to fine tune the agitational campaign the party is to launch together with the SLFP (M) and the Muslim Congress in addition to other interested groups commencing end January.

At the same time with the government and the LTTE all set for a major showdown in the north, the people are bound to experience not only escalating prices, but blood and gore as well in the coming weeks however disconcerting that prospect is.

It sure is not what the people would want to look forward to in the new year ala the Mahinda Chinthanaya but there appears to be nothing else on offer than more of the same.

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