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Going Soft On The Tigers

President Mahinda Rajapakse vested with powers of the executive presidency, holding portfolios of the Ministries of Defence and Finance and being ex-officio Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces as well as the police force is expected to have a firm grasp of government policies and their implementation and speak authoritatively on all important affairs of state. However it is becoming increasingly apparent to the embarrassment of Sri Lanka that he neither has a grasp nor the knowledge expected of an executive president and in recent times has been making even contradictory and nonsensical statements.

On Tuesday he summoned a media conference (to which The Leader newspapers were not invited) and went on to make some startling revelations which were not only contrary to what his officials had attempted to project to the public with regard to the recent spate of violence but down right ludicrous to say the least.

On Tuesday he made the startling assertion that the string of recent bomb explosions in Colombo and the south may not be the work of the LTTE but 'other groups.' 'It is not like the work of the LTTE to set off bombs to cause only huge sounds and no casualties' he had said and asked why the LTTE should risk their men to plant these 'dumb bombs' when they are used to causing huge casualties. Now have you heard of a dumber statement from a politician in recent times with possibly the exception of his buddy, Mervyn Silva?

However, in the south which has been quiet and is the President's own backyard, 50 people have been killed so far this month much to his embarrassment and yet the Chief Executive believes the Tigers may not have had their paws in those grisly massacres. 'Political and business interests' may have been linked to such attacks, he had said though not vouchsafing in the public who or what those political and business interests are.

The President obviously was only speculating and his suspicions have been based on deduction if not political expediency. The people who are undergoing great privation due to the colossal amounts invested in defence are entitled to something more than mere speculation and deduction. Those behind these bombs - harmless or not - have to be traced and brought to book. Such assertion alone is poor consolation to the public who are scared to their wits end with bombs going off frequently in the city and parents opting to keep their children from school at the mention of a mere rumour. Now the President no less has contributed in no small measure to the growing confusion.

Since the President has spoken of 'political interests' it is certainly necessary to identify the criminals. If it is the UNP, there is no doubt at all that some, guilty or not, will be behind bars already.  The LSSP and the CP are allies of the government and it is quite unlikely that they will be engaged in such an exercise. The JVP of course are legendary bomb makers and bomb throwers with a reputation for massacring innocents and even if they are allies of Rajapakse, need to be investigated considering their revolutionary past and continued commitment to their revolution.

The SLFP is known more for their damp squibs (pus vedillas) and are unlikely suspects but government personalities using armed service personnel and more recently paramilitaries is a known SLFP practice and there have been instances of powerful personalities being accused even of murder in this respect. The President should not rule out such a possibility.

Whether the President and his advisors are able to read the mind of the LTTE terrorists is much in doubt and exculpating them by deduction is poor consolation to the vulnerable public though no doubt a huge boost for the Tigers who can now tell the international community, the Sri Lankan President has personally absolved them of blame for the dastardly attacks which were condemned by the free world.

The most surprising revelation at the media conference was that Mahinda Rajapakse who appeared to be a 'hawk' or 'hardliner' towards LTTE terrorism, going soft on the movement possibly due to nostalgia. For, if not for Velupillai Pirapaharan and his boys enforcing a boycott of the presidential election in the north and east, he would have been relegated to the politics of Medamulane. After exculpating the LTTE from 'dumb bombs' he appeared to somersault in his military strategy. The aim of the on going military operations in the north was not to take territory from the LTTE but to check terrorism he had said.

This is quite contrary to his previous tenor and that of his officials towards resolving the ethnic problem - 'elimination of the LTTE terrorists.' What was the reason given for the recent abrogation of the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA)? It was because it hindered the military operations against the LTTE, we were told. The people were told in no uncertain terms that LTTE terrorism had to be eliminated through military means for peace to be established. Occasionally the President struck a note of a 'negotiated settlement' to appease the international community but his message to the Sinhala electorate was quite clear.

On Tuesday he declared his defensive military strategy: 'We hit if we are hit'.. 'The recent operations in the north are not aimed at advancing (into Tiger territory). I don't believe in a military solution.'

How does this square up with statements made by his Army Commander General Sarath Fonseka? Gen. Fonseka in an interview with the Daily News of December 31 stated that 'over 500 Tigers had been killed by the armed forces in the last few months.' He had declared that his daily target was to kill at least 10 LTTE fighters which he said would lead to annihilation of the Tigers by August this year, the government's estimate of the LTTE's limited field strength being 3000 cadres.

President Rajapakse's defensive strategy is not something new. He announced it when the Mawilaru offensive commenced. The forces would attack only if they are attacked by the LTTE, he said and went on the offensive in the Eastern Province. The forces drove out the LTTE thanks very much to LTTE renegade Karuna which incidentally was a direct result of the much maligned CFA. Even though LTTE cadres were on the retreat, contrary to the defensive strategy, government forces went on the offensive. Thus, whether Mahinda Percy Rajapakse is to repeat himself in the north as well, time will tell.

The sudden softening towards the Tigers at the media conference happened on the same day the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Gandhi and visiting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a joint statement in New Delhi calling upon the Sri Lanka government to forward a credible devolution package to resolve the ethnic conflict in addition to stating that there is no military solution to the conflict. Earlier Japan's Special Envoy to Sri Lanka Yasushi Akashi issued a very stern warning threatening to cut of its economic assistance to Sri Lanka and calling for an acceptable devolution package to all communities including the LTTE. Such calls and warnings had been made earlier to the Rajapakse regime but to no avail. But this time has it resulted in a positive response?

The recent grovelling of the Sri Lankan President before Indian leaders as well as the panjandrums of the New Delhi Foreign Office has also led to speculation that Rajapakse now sees his salvation in New Delhi. In his recent TV interview with Editor of The Indian Express, Shekhar Gupta, Rajapakse openly declared that he preferred Indian mediation to that of Western powers. He contradicted himself by inviting India to mediate while saying that India should try Pirapaharan for the murder of Rajiv Gandhi while in the same breath stating he hoped for a negotiated settlement with or without Pirapaharan. This is one instance where Rajapakse appeared to have lost his marbles about Indian involvement and a negotiated settlement with Pirapaharan.  He then went on to lament that Sri Lankans had not been appreciative enough of IPKF's contribution to this country and said that a special monument would be unveiled near parliament in memory of the Indian jawans. Elsewhere in today's issue we deal with what Rajapakse thought of the IPKF when he was a MP representing the SLFP in 1989.

Even though the President may be suffering from amnesia, not so the people. It was just 20 years ago that Rajapakse was one of the SLFP leaders who took to the streets to protest against the Indo-Lanka Agreement and calling for the Indian troops to quit Lanka. It was pressure from the SLFP and the JVP that compelled President Premadasa to ask the Indian troops to leave Lanka before their job was completed.

Now our President is clutching to the 13th Amendment which was planned and produced in New Delhi and force fed to the Jayewardene government, over which Rajapakse and his colleagues protested vehemently. It is 20 years since it was enacted as law but which few cared or dared to implement except in parts. The APRC Chairman, Tissa Vitharana has worked hard to produce a package that could satisfy the minorities but Rajapakse under pressure by the JVP and JHU has force fed the same 13th Amendment to the APRC and calling it 'full implementation' when the reality is far from it as revealed by columnist Suranimala in today's issue.

All this political jugglery and somersaults has an explanation. Mahinda Percy Rajapakse's objective is political survival. Attempts to resolve the national question is only a means to his survival and not with the objective of alleviating the suffering of the Sri Lankan people. God Bless Sri Lanka.

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