It was an year ago that a motion to impeach
President Premadasa was rejected by the Speaker of Sri
Lanka's Parliament Mr. Mohamed. Last month, President
Premadasa was let off the hook again - this time by Sri
Lanka's Supreme Court.
The Court dismissed a petition by Srimavo
Bandaranaike, the opposition leader, challenging
President Premadasa's election in the controversial
poll of December 1988. The election petition sought to
unseat President Premadasa on the ground that there was
widespread violence and intimidation of voters.
Judges under police protection
Unsurprisingly, the judges' ruling was not
received with popular enthusiasm. An attempt by the
Government to 'celebrate' the judgment did not quite
take off the ground when a large supply of fireworks
mysteriously disappeared. And the judges themselves
have been provided with round the clock
Sources in the international media have described
the situation in Colombo as 'tense'. However, to what
extent this is self serving remains to be seen.
Recently journalists, including foreign correspondents,
were assaulted when covering a meeting of the
Democratic United National Front, the party of Lalith
Athulathmudali and Gamini Dissanayake.
A correspondent of Asia Week was questioned by the
police because he had in his possession a cartoon
poking fun at the President. One of Sri Lanka's top
cartoonists, Jiffry Yoonoos, was stabbed and his home
and vehicle were wrecked. The inference is being drawn
that the attack was because Yoonoos had been drawing
cartoons which did not show the President in a good
DUNF being 'promoted'?
A section of the international media have said that
DUNF is 'making rapid strides in the country'. Given
the infighting within the opposition ranks, whether
DUNF is in fact making an impact is another matter.
What is perhaps more significant is that sections of
the international media are saying so.
At the end of August, ex National Security Minister
Athulath-mudali was fired on twice while canvassing
voters. He and his sup-porters were then assaulted with
iron bars and cricket stumps. Athulathmudali suffered
relatively minor injuries but a guard had his skull
The use of violence by Sinhala political parties in
Sri Lanka is of course nothing new. But the systematic
increase in its open use is symptomatic of the deep
seated ills in Sri Lanka's body politic. The last year
has witnessed the destruction by police of an anti
government printing press, a grenade attack on an
opposition meeting, death threats against human rights
lawyers, confiscation of cameras of press photographers
and assaults on opposition local government
Athulathmudali has proposed an impeachment motion in
Parlia-ment accusing President Premadasa of treason,
corruption and gross abuse of power. Meanwhile, Gamini
Dissanayake has report-edly gone on a visit to the
United Kingdom. It is also reported that at a recent
DUNF meeting, Lalith Athulathmudali offered to resign
and Gamini Dissanayake played the role of 'peacemaker'
(and future leader?) and called upon Lalith to stay.
Ex President J.R. Jayawardene cautiously distanced
himself from his erstwhile 'lieutenants'. '' I am not
connected with any political party, even in an advisory
capacity.'' he said. He dismissed as an 'outright lie'
a report that he had advised Lalith Athulathmudali and
Gamini Dissanayake to resolve their differences. ''In
fact I haven't even met them. I advised them to avoid
visiting me as it could be misunderstood.''
But J.R.'s understandable efforts notwithstanding,
President Premadasa continued to be under attack from
former D.I.G. Premadasa Udugampola whom he sacked.
Udugampola made allegations against the President and
called for a Commission of Inquiry. The President
responded by having a warrant issued for Udugam-pola's
arrest. Udugampola went into hiding but continues to
taunt the President through the Cololmbo
Downward spiral of economy
While all this goes on, the Sri Lanka economy
continues its downward spiral. The IMF has broken off
negotiations over a $160m loan to be disbursed this
month. The World Bank called off negotiations for a
$100m loan to have been made available last month. The
World Bank sponsored Aid Consortium due to meet in
Paris in November, has postponed its meeting for May
The Colombo stock market does not know whether it is
coming or going: subscriptions to three of the four new
issues during the past six weeks did not exceed 18% and
the fourth reached 50%. Earlier in the year, new offers
were heavily over subscribed.
The death of the top commanders of the Army in the
landmine explosion in Kayts has not helped President
Premadasa. The opposition DUNF continues to stir up
disaffection by al-leging that soldiers are being
killed with arms and ammunition sup-plied years ago in
different circumstances by the Colombo government. And
the Sinhala Buddhist supremacists, the Hela Urumaya,
continues its vicious anti Tamil campaign.
As President Premadasa increasingly resorts to overt
repression to stem the political tide against him, the
Sri Lankan army (even without Kobbekaduwa) may begin to
play a more decisive and di-rect role in the Sinhala
political arena. That after all is the classical
pattern. You first have ballot boxes, then you stuff
the ballot boxes, and then you get rid of them
altogether, and the army takes over, 'in the name of
democracy' and the promise of 'free' elections in a
conveniently distant future.
Ofcourse, nowadays the international community tends
to be reluctant to support a naked army 'take over' as
this tends to po-larise a people and creates even
greater problems in the medium and long term. The
preferred option would be to go the way of Be-nazir
Butto and Cory Aquino with the army, in the background,
but with its hands on the levers of real power.
But herein, lies President Premadasa's dilemma. He
can no longer keep the rising Sinhala opposition at bay
by keeping a 'low level conflict' going in the
NorthEast. He faces a restless army in-creasingly
concerned with the number of casualties inflicted on it
by LTTE ambushes and attacks and a crisis laden economy
which cannot continue to sustain a 'low level conflict'
But if he relies on the army to try to 'finish off
the LTTE', he knows that even if Jaffna is captured, he
may end up with a pro-tracted guerilla resistance,
increased dependence on an army made more powerful by
whatever successes it achieves, coupled with Goigama
Sinhala opposition forces, which have always re-garded
him as an 'outsider'. He knows that he cannot do a
'JVP' on the entire Sinhala opposition.
Exacting logic of events
Western aid donors have clearly begun to see the
exacting logic of events. They are reluctant to pump in
more and more aid to a Government which is compelled to
resort to more and more repression to hang onto power.
They know well enough that money alone cannot procure
Again, the 'I am your best bet - if not me who else
' line has also begun to wear thin. Presumably, the
Shah of Iran and President Marcos may also have said
something similar from time to time. But there comes a
time when hard decisions may have to be taken, if some
semblance of control and direction is to be
Western aid donors would clearly prefer a ' just'
political solution to the conflict which they may then
sweeten with 'development aid' in the coming months and
years. And, then every body can be happy.
Who then are the parties to the negotiating
But a political solution pre supposes a
negotiating process. Who then are the parties to the
negotiating process? On one side of the armed conflict
stands the Sri Lanka Government. On the other side
stands the Liberation Tigers. It is the LTTE who today
leads the armed resistance of the Tamil people. It is
an armed resistance which arose in response to decades
of systematic, gross and consistent violations of the
human rights of the Tamil people. It is an armed
resistance which is just. It is an armed resistance
which, by any and every test of interna-tional law, is
The sporadic violations by the LTTE of the
humanitarian law of armed conflict, though not to be
condoned, cannot take away from the legitimacy of
the armed struggle that it leads. The words of
Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils (FACT)
are apposite: ''the human rights violations by the Sri
Lankan government are "gross and systematic" whereas
the violations by the combat-ants are sporadic.
Moreover, due to the nature of liberation wars -
'asymmetrical conflicts' - the government controls the
state ma-chinery and all that goes with it, including
the administration of justice; whereas the other party
is significantly worse off in terms of material
resources at its command''.
The legitimacy of the leadership of the
Liberation Tigers springs from the legitimacy of the
armed resistance that it leads. It is they who are
today, the leaders of the Tamil people - and not the
quisling groups who hang around in Colombo for crumbs
from their master's table.
And of course, it may well be asked: talk to what
end? Here let it be said that any political solution
which does not recognise the right of the Tamil people
to choose their political status is a non starter. The
Tamil national struggle has been fertilised by the
blood of a people and by their suffering and for
anybody to imagine that a political solution can be
somehow worked out except on the basis of recognising
the inalienable right of the Tamil people to self
determination, is but to dream in never never land
about never never land.
The question is whether the dilemma that President
Premadasa faces will help to concentrate his vision and
persuade him to see (1) that recognition and
legitimisation will pave the way towards negotiation;
and (2) that, in the end, self-determination
is not a dirty word.