A new dawn?

Published : Jul 31, 2009 00:00 IST

in Colombo

THE pieces of the jigsaw puzzle of what could be the future of post-Prabakaran Sri Lanka appear to be falling into place. A three-hour, no-holds-barred interview of President Mahinda Rajapaksa to N. Ram, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu group of publications, on the evening of June 30 appears to throw up several pieces that could fit into the puzzle.

The interview is of enormous significance. It is hasty at this juncture even to attempt to grapple with all its possible aspects and repercussions. Its value is enhanced as it came (published in three parts in The Hindu on July 6, 7 and 8) 42 days after the demise of Velupillai Prabakaran and the elimination of the top brass of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that he led. It covers every conceivable topic of concern to Sri Lanka watchers. The articulation of views on a whole range of issues relief, rehabilitation and resettlement of the 300,000 war-displaced people to the contours of a possible political solution to the ethnic divide, the political and military strategy behind what was widely believed to be an unwinnable war, and so on came from the highest authority in the island nation. What was said and left unsaid by President Rajapaksa in the interview has left his critics, admirers and the in-betweens bewildered. Little wonder that the interview has become a key reference point in public and private debates, discourses and diatribes of the Lanka society.

A recap of the main points is in order. Without explicitly going into the commitments made by his regime on May 21, Rajapaksa underscored his determination to resettle as soon as possible the nearly 300,000 Tamil civilians displaced by the conflict with the LTTE and spelt out his road map of what needed to be put in place to ensure the safety of those who are to be sent back to their villages and meet their basic needs.

I would say the condition in our camps is the best any country has, he asserted, only to concede subsequently that the government was aware of the shortcomings and gaps. Slowly, we have to overcome them. In some camps there are no problems. Revealing that he did not rely on information only from officials, he said that he had sent some people close to me to the camps for verification. His assessment, based on inputs from multiple sources, is that the displaced in the camps are satisfied with the housing and shelter but their real problem was the lack of freedom of movement. It broadly tallies with the evaluation of the 52 United Nations and other aid agencies with varying degrees of access to the camps.

Why can the government not free those above 60, below 10 and those who could go either to their relatives/friends/original places of destination in the east, the Jaffna peninsula and the hill districts?

Rajapaksa said there were security concerns: I dont know how to do that immediately. De-mining had to be completed, and certified by the U.N., in a region where every square centimetre has been mined by the LTTE and if something happens, I am responsible.

He also said: I cant send them to a place without basic facilities. Now were spending on electricity, on roads, on water. We cant send them back to a place where there are just jungles.

The costs of de-mining are high. The infrastructure in Wanni is in such a bad state that everything must be created from scratch. He also sketched his vision of reconciliation and development, stressing that there was no place for racism and anything that creates a disturbance among our three communities Sinhala, Tamil, or Muslim.

On the much-needed and awaited political solution to the ethnic problem, Rajapaksa said: I know what to give and I know what not to give. The people have given me the mandate, so Im going to use it. But I must get these people [Tamil National Alliance representatives] to agree to this. They must also know that they cant get what they want. No way for federalism in this country. For reconciliation to happen, there must be a mix [of ethnicities].

Even tomorrow I can give that [political solution] but I want to get that from the people, he said. He insisted that all parties, and especially TNA representatives, should participate in discussions on the political solution. I am waiting, but it will be after my [re]election [as President]. And that, according to some political observers, may come as early as in November 2009.

It is anyones guess what is on the Sri Lankan Presidents mind. Perhaps he believes that given the wafer-thin majority of his government in Parliament, it is not possible to push through a solution. In the interview he stuck to my theory [that] there are no minorities in Sri Lanka, there are only those who love the country and those who dont. They tried to twist that, but I still maintain that position. He spoke, too, of his assessment of the LTTEs character and capabilities, its military strengths, weaknesses, and the final strategy.

He gave new insights into his own approach to the peace process and what led to the successful military offensive, which, he said, did not come without negotiation or without any reason. He answered questions about triumphalism, the too-powerful presidency, pressures on media freedom, India-Sri Lanka relations, and Indias response to the recent developments.

Is Rajapaksas strategy going anywhere? A cursory look at the fast-moving developments in the country since the end of the war on May 19 shows that the answer, at least as it appears now, is in the affirmative. Take the example of what transpired in Colombo less than 48 hours after the interview. The participation, on July 2, of 22 parties, including the pro-LTTE TNA, in the first meeting of the newly constituted All Party Committee on Development and Reconciliation, and their assurances of cooperation and support to the President in this ambitious project, is nothing short of a miracle compared with the state of affairs just two months before that. The TNA had chosen to stay away from an all-party conference that the President convened some weeks ago.

In the first meeting of its kind since a section of Tamil groups in Sri Lanka took to arms 30 years ago to fight for their rights, N. Srikantha of the TNA, the single largest party of Sri Lankan Tamils in Parliament, expressed his partys gratitude to Rajapaksa for the opportunity to participate in the forum. In the July 2 meeting, the party made a plea for the speedy resettlement and rehabilitation of the war-displaced people. Our party assures all support to you and all democratic parties in achieving democratic solutions, Srikantha said. He told the conference that the TNA believed the country now had the political will to solve the national question.

Speaking in Parliament on July 8, Srikantha, who represents the Jaffna district, referred to Rajapaksas interview with The Hindu and said that his party could understand the political constraints and compulsions confronting the President. When I say our people in this case, it does not mean only Tamils or Tamil-speaking Muslims. It includes our own Sinhala people as well, he said. He said that there were many aspects that united these communities.

We are there with you to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of this country, he said. We are not interested in terminologies in this case, he said. He emphasised that all sections should leave the past behind and unite now. In the past, there were instances where we fought against each other and together as well. We were united against the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Why cant we unite now? he asked. He concluded his speech saying: United we stand, divided we fall.

A far cry from the call for Eelam. Does it signal a sea change? Since the formation of the TNA, Srikantha said, his party had accepted the LTTE as the representative of the Tamil people in negotiations with the government for the resolution of the problem. But it was not because of any love for them. We had been aware of the deeds and misdeeds of the LTTE.

Similar voices, though faint, are being heard from the Tamil diaspora. Lanka Guardian reported Dr. Raju Selva from Melbourne as saying, I am a Tamil living outside Sri Lanka, hence by mere definition, unfortunately, I belong to Tamil Diaspora which I am ashamed of myself of being one of them and I am making this appeal again to the misled pro-LTTE Tamil Diaspora to lay down the ideology Eelam.

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