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Resting on laurels

Print edition : Nov 16, 2007 T+T-

At the end of two years in office, President Mahinda Rajapaksa remains far from meeting his promise of solving the ethnic conflict.

in ColomboPresident Mahinda Rajapaksa.

NOVEMBER 19 marks the second anniversary of Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksas tenure in office. The presidential race in 2005 was closely fought and controversial, with Rajapaksa beating his sole rival Ranil Wickremesinghe of the United National Party (UNP) by a few thousand votes. Vexed by the violence and the unending uncertainty, people of the majority Sinhalese community voted Rajapaksa to power in the hope that he would carry out his promise of an early resolution of the 25-year ethnic conflict. Two years down the lane, there is no light at the end of the tunnel.

On the contrary, the daily dose of killings and mindless violence has got worse. Sri Lankan forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are locked in a fierce, undeclared war that threatens to increase the vulnerability of ordinary citizens. The economy, despite the proclaimed 7 per cent growth, offers no solace to the common people; inflation is hovering at around 20 per cent.

The crux of the problem lies in the thinking of the Rajapaksa regime that a solution to the conflict could flow only out of a military defeat of the LTTE. The assumption is that the Tigers are the chief source of the ethnic problem and unless they are eliminated, there can be no meaningful attempt to address the grievances of minorities, including Tamils. The government is convinced it can crush the Tigers and views the series of victories against the LTTE in the east and elsewhere as proof.

Unfortunately, the optimism is not shared by most within and outside Sri Lanka. An overwhelming majority of those familiar with the ethnic strife concede that the Tigers are partly the cause of the problem, but certainly not fully. While this section has fully backed the governments response to the military challenge posed by the Tigers, many are disheartened by the governments failure to fast-forward the political package meant to satisfy the genuine aspirations of the minorities in the country. They advocate a judicious mix of military and political strategies to tame the LTTE.

For several months now, the Rajapaksa government has actually been battling on two fronts militarily against the LTTE and politically against the opposition to its strategy in the country and abroad. Rarely a week passes without a row between the government and its domestic and foreign critics. In a way the situation is of the governments own making it views anyone with a different opinion with suspicion. Consequently, it has not only failed to marshal all the support it could but has also actually alienated a few constituencies that stood by it in the past.

The state of affairs is particularly ironical as Rajapaksa enjoyed the advantage of a combination of factors, pushing into the background all the bad vibes generated in the run-up to the presidential contest. This was an advantage no regime in Colombo could even dream of since the ethnic strife spilled on to the streets after the enactment of the 1956 Sinhala Only Act. The unprecedented offer of cooperation extended in October 2006 by the principal Opposition party in every sphere of national life, including the ethnic question, best illustrates the point.

The enthusiasm of the government over the military victory in the east, which saw the ouster of Tigers from all their bases after a gap of nearly a decade, and over the series of setbacks suffered by the LTTE in recent months, is not shared by most, including sections of the ruling combine. The UNP leadership has turned more bitter than ever before. The Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), an electoral ally of the ruling party, has for all practical purposes crossed over to the Opposition benches.

India is uncomfortable with the Rajapaksa regime for a variety of reasons. The international community is disappointed over the tendency of the government to view all suggestions towards a solution to the conflict and the slightest criticism of human rights violations in the country as a conspiracy against the island nation. Colombo and the rest of the world are on different wave lengths on the Norwegian-brokered 2002 Cease Fire Agreement (CFA) and the role of Norway as the official facilitator of peace.

The LTTEs suicide

Rajapaksa began his innings on a promising note by mooting an All Parties Representative Conference (APRC), within six months of assuming office, in an attempt to strive for a consensus among the political forces representing the majority community. Its task was to work out the most acceptable or least unacceptable formulation on sharing power with other minority groups, including the Tamils. Rajapaksa reinforced the popular perception of being a pragmatic leader when he constituted, in July 2006, a multi-ethnic panel of experts to advise him on the options before his government.

It was followed in October by a totally unexpected bonus in the form of an unprecedented Memorandum of Understanding between the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and the UNP, under which the two sides pledged to bury the past and work on a common approach to resolve all issues faced by the country. The political pact, which included a broad common outlook on the resolution of the ethnic conflict, was considered a watershed in the history of Sri Lankas partisan politics. It provided the government an opportunity to distance itself from the hardliners, including the JVP.

Just around the same time, the Supreme Court in a judgment on a petition filed by three members of the JVP declared null and void the temporary merger of the North and the East, which took effect under the 1987 Indo-Lanka Accord. The verdict, given on purely technical grounds, was considered a setback to Tamils, who saw the merger as the most tangible achievement of the Accord and a foundation stone for a resolution of the conflict within a united Sri Lanka. The Rajapaksa government could have intervened to neutralise the impact of the verdict as the Court had questioned not the merger per se but only the procedures adopted by successive governments to keep the merger intact without the mandatory referendum. Moreover, the UNP gave loud hints that it was ready to cooperate with the government for a re-merger of the North and the East through the parliamentary route. For reasons best known to it, the government chose to maintain a stoic silence.

Since then, it has been a downhill journey for the Rajapaksa government. It missed yet another opportunity when it chose to distance itself from the majority report of the multi-ethnic experts panel in December. There was nothing extraordinary about the recommendations in the report of 11 members of the 17-member committee. They merely sought maximum devolution of power with the province as the basis of administration. Four days after the media published the contents of the report, Information Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa issued a statement taking exception to the leakage of the report and maintained that it could be an attempt to belittle the steps taken by the government to deal effectively with the fascist designs of the LTTE.

The real reason for the governments outburst became clear on December 12 when the ultra-nationalist JVP walked out of the APRC citing the report as the reason. The JVPs pique, in reality, was over the MoU between the ruling combine and the UNP.

In January, the President and his party nullified the MoU with the UNP when it allured some UNP members with ministerial portfolios and the spoils of power. After the President inducted 19 defectors from the UNP into the government in the last week of January, an enraged UNP leadership tore the MoU into pieces. There was no logic in the governments move to wean away a section of the UNP and incur the wrath of the party, particularly when it had given a blank cheque of cooperation in all spheres.

The inductions from the UNP created tensions within the ruling party and led to the birth of a dissident group led by Mangala Samaraweera. The new group, christened SLFP (Mahajana), joined hands with the UNP to float an alliance called National Congress with the sole objective of ousting the Rajapaksa regime. It has secured the backing of former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. One of the main charges of the new alliance against Rajapaksa is that he had bribed the LTTE to ensure his victory in the presidential election. The new alignment might not pose an immediate danger to the position of either the President or his government; but it remains a symbol of the deep divisions caused by the brand of politics practised by the ruling combine.

Adding to the confusion, the SLFP, one of the last parties to respond to the APRCs request for proposals to resolve the ethnic conflict, disappointed everyone with its package envisaging the district as the unit of devolution. The SLFP package is essentially a rehash of the 1984 proposals rejected by Tamil parties of all hues. Later, in closed-door meetings with party leaders, Rajapaksa is reported to have agreed to retain the province as the unit of devolution. But the damage had been done. The APRC today is reduced to a non-entity. Far from its original goal of forging a consensus for a solution to the ethnic divide, the biggest challenge before the APRC currently is to stay afloat as a credible entity.

The opportunistic manoeuvrings of the Rajapaksa regime have dashed to the ground hopes for a southern consensus a phrase employed in the Sri Lankan context to connote a shared view among parties representing the majority community. The President and his managers would have to get their act together to initiate measures to win back the support and sympathies of the Opposition, the minorities and the international community by putting efforts for a political solution on the fast track. It should not be the burden of the military alone to take on the LTTE. Only a credible political package can galvanise the anti-LTTE forces to throw their weight behind the government wholeheartedly. Otherwise the hard-earned military gains may prove short-lived and the polarisation within the country is bound to widen.