soon we will be reading innumerable tributes and encomiums to the
achievements of Mahinda Rajapakse as he completes his first year in
office as the president of this country.
The fact that Rajapakse obtained a wafer-thin majority over Ranil
Wickremesinghe, and that too because of the call to the Tamils of
the North to refrain from voting, is now virtually forgotten. What
is more, the Colombo-based Sinhala and English media have been
successful in presenting the Rajapakse presidency as a string of
achievements, mostly of a military nature.
Being the first son of Ruhana to attain the highest office in the
island, the president is very popular with the Sinhala peasant and
worker. In fact, the support of the JVP, the Hela Urumaya, and the
nominal backing of the SLFP he was able to command during his
election campaign, have given Rajapakse a robust Sinhalaness. It
cannot be denied that he has emerged as a leader whose achievements
are not because of the connections he had with the ruling families
of the South – the Senanayakes or the Bandaranaikes. There is a
feeling that he comes from within the people and speaks directly to
One factor that dominates the thinking of Sri Lankans when they look
back on Rajapakse’s first year in office is that they will have him
for another five years whether they like it or not. Convinced of
this, political forces in the South have begun to arrange and
rearrange themselves so as not to be at a distance from the centre
of power. ‘Mahinda chinthanaya,’ mostly an effort of JVP propaganda,
looms large in Sinhala-Buddhist consciousness with associations of
devoutness the word ‘Mahinda’ evokes.
The last year has conclusively proved that Rajapakse is not of the
same mould as former presidents J.R. Jayewardene, R. Premadasa and
Chandrika Kumaratunga. It is not only a question of variations in
style; it seems a more basic difference of personality – of being
too accommodative and perhaps less precise.
This is well reflected in the cabinet Rajapakse has formed. (Even
the secretary to the cabinet, I am sure, will not be able to respond
immediately to the question of which minister is in charge of which
portfolio. We are waiting next year’s desk diaries to find out who
the ministers are, their portfolios, and more important, the
government departments that come under their purview. Perhaps, Sir
Ivor Jennings would have had a lesson in cabinet government through
the formations and deformations of the cabinet system under
There has also been a very significant upsurge in worker
consciousness, which has come out into the open in the last one
year. People have not been shy to use the weapons of industrial
action and strikes to achieve their demand for better wages.
Further, it was not entirely possible to exploit the slogan ‘war
against the Tamils’ to silence the demands of the workers. The
president has however found an easy way out by promising a
full-scale salary increases for all workers in the next budget.
In the field of foreign affairs, Rajapakse has been seen as wooing
both India and Pakistan. Of course pressure by the co-chairs of the
Sri Lanka aid group is becoming increasingly evident. It was the
JVP’s brand of politics that first created problems for the
president with the international community. Today, beside moves from
within the SLFP, there is also external pressure emanating from the
international community for Rajapakse to dissociate himself from the
JVP’s aims, and more important, its language.
While the above present a mixed bag of successes and failures, the
most crucial turn of events in the last one year has been the
resumption of the war against the LTTE.
When Rajapakse came to power, dislocation had been already caused to
the Tigers by the breakaway group. It was generally accepted that
the Sri Lankan security forces had something to do with the
increasing belligerence of this group. And this breakaway group was
able to establish itself within the Batticaloa District.
Soon after assuming office, Rajapakse appointed Lieutenant General
Sarath Fonseka as commander of the Sri Lanka army. It was rumoured
that Fonseka was sidelined by the preceding president. Soon
afterwards it became clear that the army was taking the initiative
in attacking the LTTE. And it should be accepted that as far as
Batticaloa was concerned, the armed forces were able to keep the
LTTE at bay.
Evident success of military operations in the East prompted the
security forces to export the same type of activity to the North.
Vavuniya came first; next was Jaffna. The pattern of operations in
Jaffna was two-fold: (1) was to hit at LTTE positions and (2) to
instil a sense of fear among the people of the Jaffna District about
forging close relations with the Tigers. The LTTE responded with
claymore mines, which resulted in the army on the one hand becoming
more defensive, while being more severe on the civilian population
on the other.
It was around this time that a crucial turn of events occurred.
While the security forces were concentrating on Jaffma, imagining
perhaps that the East was under their control, the LTTE struck,
showing thereby, it was not so. Mavilaru revealed that the East was
not fully under the authority of the army.
Even though the Mavilaru episode ended with the LTTE reopening the
controversial irrigation canal, it was clear there were areas in the
East which could only be considered no-man’s land, over which there
was no strict government control. Mavilaru demonstrated the LTTE
strategy of not necessarily holding on to the areas it chose to
attack. The significance of this was realised fully when the
operational areas shifted from Mavilaru to Muttur, and from Muttur
to Sampur and finally to Kilali-Muhamalai.
The significance of Muttur is that it was here, for the first time,
that the Muslim community in the East was caught between the army
and the LTTE. But soon, government propaganda, helped along by some
deft handling by the seven Muslim ministers, turned tables against
the Tigers and more or less named the rebels as the sole
perpetrators of the violence. It was at this point that the army
decided to reclaim an area that was under the LTTE. This is known as
the great Sampur war.
The army’s reclamation of Sampur was considered the most significant
victory that any Sri Lankan government had ever had over the rebels
in the field of battle. Rajapakse was hailed for achieving something
which had eluded Jayewardene, Premadasa and Kumaratunga. The
‘victory’ did not end with cutting the victory cake at Temple Trees.
It was also used to show that the Tigers were now on the run from
Batticaloa, Muttur, and even Jaffna.
Meanwhile, in actual fact, the Tigers attacked army positions at
Kayts, Kachchai and Mandatheevu. There was also a fierce battle at
the Kilali crossing. The government claimed the LTTE had initiated
these attacks, while the LTTE responded saying that their action was
only to dislodge army positions to prevent an imminent attack on
Elephant Pass to wrest it back into government control.
At the same time, the air force began to bomb areas under the LTTE.
The state media presented a picture of ‘aerial victory’ whereas the
rebels highlighted the impact such raids were having on civilians.
The politics behind the bombardment soon caught the attention of
Tamil Nadu, which even Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi could not
The most gruesome aspect of the war on the Tamils is an aspect which
never gets covered in the Sinhala media, but the Tamil media is full
of – the killings taking place in the Jaffna District, especially,
in and around Jaffna town. Unsuspecting people, mostly youth who
have nothing to do with any political resistance, and even
middle-aged males, are killed indiscriminately.
This was when the Muhamalai confrontation took place, where for the
first time since the loss of Sampur, the LTTE caused significant
reversals on the enemy and the army demonstrated conclusively it was
not able to stand up to the LTTE. The Tigers seizing upon their
victory at Muhamalai undertook two quick operations outside the
Northeast – at Habarana and Galle. The logistics of these operations
apart, these two attacks came as a shock to the Sinhalese man and
woman. While on the one hand there was concern for civilian
security, there was also the question as to how the Tigers, who were
supposedly “on the run,” had bounced back.
The political moves of Rajapakse following Muhamalai debacle and
reversals at Habarana and Galle, reveal a very uncomfortable
politician unable to dissociate himself from the JVP’s language, but
wanting to forge a UNP-SLFP unity in a show of ‘moderation’ for the
benefit of the international community. He realises that he needs
the SLFP because it is his base, and that he cannot rely on the
goodwill of either the JVP or Hela Urumaya.
It is in such turmoil we see military targets getting confused with
political ones. True enough that Jaffna can be reached by sea and
cargo can be sent by ship, but there is the more pressing question
of how those who are keen on the unitary character and undivided
sovereignty of the state, can justify the unequal way essentials and
consumables are distributed in one part of the country.
As Rajapakse ends his first year in office, one of the most
significant indicators of where this regime is headed can be seen by
the open accusation by leading commentators that the Muhamalai
attack by government forces was not known to either the political
higher-ups in the cabinet, the National Security Council or even at
the highest echelons of the military.
The matter does not end here. When discussions on the resumption of
talks in Geneva were underway, the army put out a statement that it
was for “action towards peace.” This was the icing on the cake, so
to speak. To fall back on a Leavesian formula: what does the army
actually want to say? More important, what is its position in
relation to the political leadership of the government? Is not the
military a part of the government?
The political statement by the army raises many questions that
relate to the nature of the president’s authority. Are we
militarising politics, or politicising the military? This question
assumes greater relevance against the background of the JVP trying
to ally itself with the army and to give political justification to
the military initiatives.
The current problem the country faces over opening of the A9 is
actually due to its unabashed military priorities. It is now
conveniently forgotten that reopening of this highway is one of the
main objectives of the CFA. It is supposed to be clashes at
Muhamalai that prevents its reopening. The truth of the matter is
that for the first time, a major political decision is being taken
for military reasons. This is the most critical outcome of the
Rajapakse regime’s first year in office.