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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."
Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Tamil National Forum

Selected Writings - Karthigesu Sivathamby

On President Rajapakse

North Eastern Monthly, November 2006

Very 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 the people.

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 Rajapakse)

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 underplay.

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.


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