Countdown begins

Published : Jan 29, 2010 00:00 IST

President Mahinda Rajapaksa at his first campaign rally in Anuradhapura on December 18.-REUTERS

President Mahinda Rajapaksa at his first campaign rally in Anuradhapura on December 18.-REUTERS

THE year 2010 will be a watershed year in Sri Lankan politics irrespective of whether or not the incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa becomes for the second time the peoples choice for the countrys most powerful executive job.

No Sri Lanka-watcher would have imagined a few months ago that the January 26 presidential election, called prematurely by Rajapaksa two years before his current term was to end, would turn out to be a contest mainly between the President, with 40 years of political experience, and General Sarath Fonseka, the military commander who prematurely retired from service and entered politics a few months ago. One week is a long time in politics; and there could be very few instances in contemporary history where the dictum has proved so accurate.

What makes the presidential race supremely ironic is not only the circumstances and situation that have pitted Rajapaksa and Fonseka against each other, but also the fact that they have pushed under the carpet the core issues pertaining to the root cause of the ethnic conflict. In the words of Tisaranee Gunasekara, a perceptive writer and a keen observer of Sri Lanka politics, the contest has been reduced to a clash of egos between the President and the man who claims to be the main architect of the military defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

In an article penned for the Kathmandu-based Himal magazine under the title Election on a precipice, the author says, Most Sinhalese regard President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Defence Secretary and brother of the first citizen Gotabhaya Rajapakse and Commander of the Army Sarath Fonseka as the heroic trinity responsible for their historic triumph over the LTTE. Today, that war-time triumvirate has collapsed and the Sinhala South is compelled to witness the unseemly sight of its saviours battling each other for power.

How, when and why did the situation come to this pass? The answers to these questions are indeed crucial during the presidential campaign, what with a cacophony of high-pitched voices in both the camps trading callous charges. There is enough direct and circumstantial evidence by now to prove that it all began no sooner than the LTTE was defeated militarily and its supreme leader, Velupillai Prabakaran, was slain in May 2009.

First, it was a tussle for the spoils of war and for the credit for the successful military campaign against the Tigers. Fonseka, who faced an attempt on his life by a suspected LTTE woman suicide cadre, is convinced that it was the single-minded pursuit of the men and women under his command that delivered the results.

Even if one were to evaluate the victory purely through the prism of a military battle, the simplistic assertion conveniently ignores the role played by the Air Force, the Navy, various wings of the intelligence, the disgruntled elements within the Tigers, the altered world view on the LTTEs acts of violence, and the role played by all the neighbours of Sri Lanka, India in particular.

It would be unfair to leave the President out of the equation involving factors and personalities that contributed to the decimation of the LTTE. Rajapaksa fought and won the 2005 presidential election on the plank of the liberation of the island nation from the clutches of the LTTE. His election manifesto, endorsed by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party), among other things, explicitly talked about the abrogation of the Norwegian-brokered 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) and the ouster of Norway as the official facilitator of the peace talks between the government and the Tigers. The Rajapaksa regime demonstrated a rare raw courage in warding off pressures from very influential quarters, particularly the United States, on the war against the LTTE and on several other matters.

The death of Prabakaran and the near elimination of the Tigers from the shores of Sri Lanka has meant that there will be no war on the island, but for real peace to dawn much work is necessary to win the hearts and minds of the Tamils and other minority communities in the North and East. To prepare a road map to peace, the active participation of all mainstream political parties of both the majority and minority communities is imperative. But the presidential election has only further accentuated the polarisation of Sri Lankan society.

The President, in his capacity as the supreme commander of the armed forces, did contribute to cementing the retired generals perception that he was the real war hero by giving him a blank cheque in the course of the 34-month-long Eelam War IV. The President and his managers had then defended to the hilt some of the high-handed tactics of the general, fashioned with the knowledge, and sometimes at the behest, of Gotabhaya Rajapakse. An impression was allowed to gain ground that the Army under Fonseka was infallible and its conduct was above scrutiny.

There is little doubt that the decision of Rajapaksa to advance the election was opportunistic, aimed at cashing in on the euphoria in the majority community, which constitutes 75 per cent of the electorate. He simply did not want to take chances by letting the parliamentary elections, due before April 22, decide the future course of events. He was determined to secure a second term for himself and thus be in a commanding position to decide on the contours of the new Parliament and tailor a political solution of his choice to the ethnic problem.

Rajapaksa had not factored in the possibility of Fonseka throwing a spanner in his works. The retired general had a score to settle, particularly after he was relieved of his responsibilities as the Army chief on July 15 and shunted to what he termed as the powerless office of the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS). A stubborn and slighted Fonseka, egged on by the mainstream opposition parties, did not take kindly to the President sidelining him after Prabakarans death and so plunged into politics.

Faced with a seemingly invincible Rajapaksa, the opposition parties, diametrically opposed to each other on every major issue of debate in Sri Lankan society, have clung to the retired general like the proverbial last straw. Little thought has gone into the consequences of propping up a man who until the other day was portrayed as the worst Army chief in the 60 years of independent Sri Lanka as the ideal candidate to take on Rajapaksa.

Fonseka has undoubtedly put life into what otherwise would have been a listless presidential race. Projecting himself as Mr Clean and as the harbinger of the much-needed break from the dynastic politics of the Rajapaksa clan, the retired general, with ample help from the political rivals of the President, has managed to catch the imagination of some of the electoral constituencies.

Predictably, it comes with heavy costs. To begin with, it would be the first presidential election in the island nation in which there is just one contender from a mainstream political party. The general has succeeded in bringing the two arch rivals, the main opposition United National Party and the ultra-nationalist JVP, on one platform, but the moot question is for what purpose and duration. The attendant danger in the candidature of Fonseka is that for the first time in Sri Lanka a mainstream effort is being made to politicise the military, which has unswervingly stuck to its job unlike some of its counterparts in the region.

The development could not have happened at a more inopportune time as the country stands at a crossroads of history following the comprehensive military defeat of the LTTE. There was and still is an opportunity to redefine and settle the terms of the unstable relationship between the 75 per cent Sinhalese majority and the Tamil and Muslim minorities on the basis of genuine devolution, equality, and justice. However, going by the conduct of the influential sections on both sides so far, there is a good chance that Sri Lanka will yet again miss the bus. The mud-slinging and recrimination has touched a new low. The campaign by sections of Rajapaksa loyalists hitting the general below the belt, with all kinds of allegations, is a matter of serious concern.

The general, on his part, wittingly or perhaps acting as per someone elses script, in an interview to a Sunday weekly, stunned the nation with a charge that the Defence Secretary had instructed a key ground commander in the North that all LTTE leaders must be killed and not allowed to surrender. The reference was to Nadesan, Pulidevan and Ramesh, who reportedly wanted to surrender but whose bodies were discovered on the morning of May 18. Within 24 hours of the interview, the general went back on his statement, but the damage had already been done. Doubts about the events in the last few days of the war in general and the fate of the LTTE leaders and their families have been revived. The government, on its part, only messed it up further, first by talking about taking the general to the court and, subsequently, putting the matter in cold storage by referring the interview and a letter from the United Nations on the basis of Fonsekas comments to a ministerial committee with the mandate submit to a report before the parliamentary elections.

As voting approaches, there is an air of uncertainty with apprehensions of bloody clashes. Doomsday scenarios are being speculated and the minorities feel vulnerable. Pro-LTTE elements, still day-dreaming about their Eelam project with little concern for the plight of the nearly three lakh war displaced, are also complicating matters for the very community whose interests they claim to champion.

There is just no evidence of any introspection or realisation of the ground realities among them in the post-Prabakaran era. Publius, a commentator in the Sri Lanka-based citizens journalism initiative groundviews, in an article titled Dayan Jayatillekas critique of Tamil nationalism: A comment said:

It is a question Tamil nationalism should have started asking itself several years ago, in my view the last opportunity was the ceasefire period commencing 2002, when an unprecedented domestic and international political space opened up for the constitutional institutionalisation of an extraordinary level of autonomy short of independence....

As it happened, the remarkable achievement at Oslo on 5th December 2002, when both federalism and internal self-determination were put into a negotiating framework, was cheaply and vaingloriously squandered. Thus the unitary state will always win over devolution. In these circumstances, and keeping in mind that 2009 merely ended the war in Sri Lanka, but not its defining conflicts of pluralism, both honesty and consistency require that we stop pretending that devolution under the unitary state, in terms of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution of 1978 together with our unreconstructed political culture is something that is remotely viable, if we are serious about power-sharing in 2010.

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