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Democracy Continues, Sri Lanka Style...
Mad Hatters Tea Party
Sri Lanka Morning Leader
Amidst intense fighting in Vakarai that had by last week left 24 soldiers dead and 60 injured � with the actual figures likely to be much higher, President Rajapakse is again compelled to indulge in political gymnastics in Colombo. Much of Rajapakse�s political angst stems from the majority report of the experts committee presented to him last Wednesday (6) which jettisoned the concept of a unitary state and called for maximum devolution at provincial level.
The 11-member majority report also called for a merger of the north east for a period of 10 years following which a referendum would be conducted in the east for the people to decide on the fate of the merger. The report however immediately met with stiff resistance from the extremist gallery with the National Patriotic Movement (NPM) and a coalition of pugnacious nationalists holding a protest rally at Lipton�s Circus Monday (11). The NPM called for the government to proscribe the LTTE and to abrogate the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA). A deflated Wimal Weerawansa, recently riddled with allegations of sexual harassment and misuse of power, however sufficiently exercised his vocal chords to warn that failure to meet the NPM demands would result in public agitation against the government.
Demonstrations in High Security Zones (HSZs) are banned under new emergency regulations. However NPM supporters were allowed to enter the HSZ and demonstrate near Temple Trees making it clear to even the politically most na�ve that the entire campaign was orchestrated by the government no less.
That the sharp divisions in the experts committee leading to four diametrically opposing reports being handed over to President Rajapakse is a reflection of the divisions in society on the subject is evident.
Meanwhile Rajapakse�s decision to introduce new emergency regulations and re-invoke the provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has further polarised the body politic. Ironically it has exacerbated divisions along ethnic and religious lines shoring up old arguments and abnormally highlighting differences in ideas that have little to do with race or religion, but will perhaps be over simplified as such, by ultra nationalists feeding to an extremist agenda.
Last week while the NPM, the JHU and the JVP plastered the walls of Colombo with anti-CFA propaganda, numerous churches in Sri Lanka concerned with human rights violations and equality, condemned the revival of the draconian anti-terrorism law by the government.
Anglican Bishop Duleep de Chickera of Colombo stated, "Many still have painful memories of the harsh impact of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) on the life of the nation not too long ago. It was political wisdom coupled with political will that finally led to it being suspended."
Meanwhile Rajapakse last week justified the decision to promulgate the laws in a televised address to the nation, stating there was no room to assist terrorism directly or indirectly and talk about democracy. He also condemned democracy that creates an opportunity for terrorism as a deadly joke.
The President knows well however that a mutated democracy will pave the way for not only a dictatorship but also the creation of despots. Surely it is not democratic values and the rule of law that create an opportunity for terrorism but the lack thereof. It is a lack of democracy that creates an opportunity for terror � state sponsored or otherwise.
The PTA itself has proven demonstrably inefficient in combating terrorism with even legal experts and security officials calling it redundant while more efficiency could be achieved by well-formulated emergency regulations under the Public Security Ordinance. The revival of the PTA however was Rajapakse again playing to the gallery.
Be that as it may, with Rajapakse again moving towards an extremist agenda, he has begun to lure UNP MPs to join the government and accept cabinet office. As reported in our sister paper The Sunday Leader last week, Rajapakse was concerned he would be walking into a peace trap which would alienate him from his extremist allies, the JVP and the JHU, if he went ahead with the UNP in terms of the MoU between the two parties.
If Rajapakse is to go with the majority report of the experts committee he will be fully backed by the UNP leadership in terms of the MoU but to do so Rajapakse would have to further distance himself from the JVP and a hard-line stance.
This time, it�s personal
Following the attempt on the life of his brother Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, for the President, well known to act in haste and on emotion, the ethnic issue has become a personal battle of revenge rather than a national battle against terrorism.
Needless to say one of his own advisors, Dayan Jayatilleke, in an article in the state media last Saturday stated that it is Sri Lanka�s tragedy that those who endorse Rajapakse�s address to the nation would not endorse the majority report.
Jayatilleke himself states that the majority report contains a reasonable and generous proposal for devolution and autonomy within a united Sri Lanka that could pull the rug from under the LTTE, neutralise the Indians and regain the country�s lost international initiative.
The majority report was tabled by a group in the experts committee comprising six Sinhalese, four Tamils and one Muslim and was a true reflection of the pluralistic nature of Sri Lanka�s society.
Jayatilleke meanwhile stated in his article that if the UNP opts out of the political process because the solution falls short of federalism it would provide the conditions for an alignment of an SLFP-UNP reformist faction.
Jayatilleke also states that such a government would be the vehicle for ushering in the political reforms set out in the majority report even if it takes another election or referendum to do so.
Nonetheless last week Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe told The Sunday Leader, the majority report was representative and would be acceptable to his party and could be developed on the basis of the SLFP-UNP MoU.
He also said there was an understanding with the President that offending words such as �unitary� and �federal� will not be used in the proposed new constitution. In fact according to the majority report the words used are �one free, sovereign and independent state� rather than the words used in the present Constitution in Article 2, which reads �The Republic of Sri Lanka is a unitary state.�
Wickremesinghe is scheduled to meet President Rajapakse to discuss the report after his return from the United States. Wickremesinghe left last Friday (8) to attend several meetings in the US.
Therefore it is not within the UNP leadership but within his own ranks and amongst his extremist allies that Rajapakse will face the most resistance to the majority report. Even though his own advisor Jayatilleke envisages for the government a moderate line in terms of the majority report, the President himself knows all too well that such a report will be unacceptable to the hawks in his own camp including the likes of the JVP and JHU.
So much so Rajapakse was furious that the contents of the majority report had been leaked to the media and shaken by the fact that the contents would be seen as the policy of his government.
Reportedly when JHU members inquired if the contents reflected the government stand on the matter, Rajapakse had said the four reports were mere alternatives for deliberation and did not reflect government policy.
A disgruntled Rajapakse determined to distance himself from the majority report in order to pander to the hard-liners has now called on the All Party Conference Experts Committee to sort out the differences in the four reports and to come up with an acceptable model or consensus.
Constructive malicious desertion
Rajapakse in a perpetual state of confusion over policy has now also been advised to force the UNP to withdraw from the MoU marriage by inviting 14 of the 17 rebel UNP members to join the government. He is likely to then proceed to dissolve government and seek a fresh mandate on a hard-line platform.
According to The Sunday Leader, the three UNPers not likely to be accepted by the government as indicated by Presidential Advisor Basil Rajapakse at a dinner hosted by Central Bank Governor Nivard Cabraal were M.H. Mohamed, Mahinda Wijesekera and Dharmadasa Banda.
For Rajapakse, given his confused state of mind, ditching the UNP at this juncture would be the best possible course that would once again endear him to the extremists and draw applause from the gallery.
But even if Rajapakse were successful in getting the UNP rebel group to accept portfolios and crossers-over to government, on what basis would they jump ship in order to publicly legitimise the switch?
The UNP and its leadership have already declared that the majority report is acceptable to the party therefore wiping out that particular avenue of pole vaulting. It also explodes the basis of the argument proffered by presidential advisors that the UNP reformists would get together with the SLFP reformists to form a common platform.
No southern consensus
Rajapakse will also face stiff opposition from his own ranks on the redistribution of the spoils. For instance Prof. G.L. Peiris will demand not only a high-end portfolio but also perhaps Visumpaya, a residential address he negotiated for even with the Ranil Wickremesinghe government when he crossed over to the UNP from the SLFP.
Visumpaya, which was in happier times occupied by Peiris under both the PA and the UNP, is now occupied by Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike.
From such matters as political territory to cabinet office to official residences Rajapakse will have a civil war on his hands within the SLFP.
Such a move would also shatter Rajapakse�s concept of a southern consensus, as he cannot achieve a consensus with merely a small group of UNPers. The large UNP vote base is commanded not by individuals but by the party as a whole. Rajapakse by picking out a few individuals will therefore not achieve his goal of a southern consensus.
Meanwhile discussions are underway to form a new political alliance comprising moderate forces in the government including sections of the SLFP, LSSP, CP, NUA, CWC, and the breakaway group of the SLMC ministers opposed to Rajapakse�s tendency to work to an extremist agenda.
That the government is run on the dictates of the Rajapakse brothers is also a sore point with the ministers. Such an alliance it is learnt will also have the support of a powerful political personality currently watching from the sidelines.
Furthermore even if Rajapakse were to cull members from the UNP and go to the polls seeking a fresh mandate he or the crossers-over would not get the support of the grass-root UNP supporter. The UNP has half of the nation�s vote. That is not going to waver by the likes of Prof G.L. Peiris crossing over to the government ranks especially given that he consecutively lost his own constituency, Moratuwa.
A move to lure UNP MPs will also not serve any purpose in parliament and cannot be used as a convenient pole to hang a flimsy argument for crossing over as the MoU already envisages that the UNP would support the government in parliament as part of good governance.
For Rajapakse, the move to take in UNPers would only serve to alienate his government from moderate forces and propel him towards the hawks, and this in fact is his game.
The moment he accepts the UNP members the UNP-SLFP MoU also becomes untenable and the UNP would be forced to withdraw, clearing the path to a full-scale war.
Certainly for Rajapakse, governance has become a Mad Hatter�s tea party. The UNP crossers-over have no legitimate cause to do so except to feather their own nests and receive a number of political and economic perks.
North east violence
Meanwhile the violence in the north east has intensified and with it human rights violations and civilian deaths. Rajapakse has a plantation workers strike, which enters its ninth day today, which has crippled the tea industry. The tourism industry is all but dead with hoteliers complaining that occupancy rates are as low as 20 % even though this is the high season.
A coterie of rag tag adventurers having cottoned on to Rajapakse are now indulging in corrupt practices with no regard for cabinet approval on any matter including commencing new government owned airlines at great public cost with no prospect of returns except for a handful of the President�s mediocre men.
Meanwhile false stories of Treasury Secretary P.B. Jayasundera resigning are being planted in the state media willy nilly while Rajapakse, as the Finance Minister continues to remain clueless to such an extent he did not see it fit to include in his budget speech the proposed new airline at an investment of Rs. 3,616 billion, even though he thought it fit to include an investment of Rs. 5 billion � the Lankaputra Bank.
Rajapakse must now realise that as President he needs to take a firm decision on where this country is heading. He cannot remain on the fence any longer while the country is teetering on the edge of disaster
Three options for Mahinda
The All Party Conference (APC) has been a hackneyed political ploy of Sri Lankan governments when faced with a grave crisis in the north east. It was tailor-made for President Mahinda Rajapakse who shows a penchant for dilatory tactics when faced with intractable crises. But the APC has boomeranged on him quite soon revealing that humanitarian problems have very short time limits.
When the President appointed the APC, this newspaper stated very clearly that the APC by the very nature of the composition of its membership would not be able to produce the desired result of finding a solution to the vexed Tamil problem.
Firstly, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) was not invited to participate and even if a solution was found it would have no relevance if the TNA and its godfather, the LTTE, rejected it.
Secondly, if the objective was to find what has been described as a �Southern consensus,� it would be an exercise in futility because of the diverse political parties, holding diametrically opposed views not only on the north east issue but almost every other issue of national importance. This was the opinion not only of this newspaper but also a great majority of people and some political pundits too.
A committee of experts representing diverse political parties and interests was appointed by President Rajapakse to draft a solution to the existing problem and present it to the APRC but this has imploded and produced four different reports which probably would result in the APC groping in the dark.
It has sent the President into a rage accusing certain sections of the media of attempting to project the view that a report signed by the majority of members in the experts committee, is the view held by the government.
Information Minister Anura Priyadarshana Yapa in a statement issued had said that the elements and institutions involved have arrived at this conclusion �in a bid to belittle the political and legal validity of the laws and regulations enforced with a view to decisively defeating LTTE�s fascism.�
This is absolute gibberish. The imagination of an Angoda inmate is required to reason out how the opinion expressed by a section of experts appointed by the President himself could be used to belittle the legal validity of the emergency regulations promulgated last week against terrorism!
A committee of experts were appointed to present a report to the APRC to help them reach a consensus. Now the committee has not been able to do it. If the committee of learned professionals could not reach consensus it is unlikely that the APC comprised of squabbling and cantankerous politicians holding opinions that are poles apart would be able to do it.
It is political optimism of a high order to hope for unanimity or even consensus to be reached by simply throwing in people of diverse political opinions into the conference rooms of the Presidential Secretariat. Persuasion and direction with an enlightened leadership are required. Unanimity can never be achieved with extremists in the fray. Consensus is possible under a strong leadership. The APC is lacking in such leadership or direction.
If President Rajapakse is expecting to work out a compromise that will satisfy the Tamil people while being allied to the extremist JVP and JHU he is simply not facing reality or has some other strategy in mind other than a political solution. If so he should come out and declare his strategy openly.
He has the option of seeking UNP support, the UNP having declared that they will go along with the views expressed by the majority section of the committee of experts. He could get the required majority in parliament with UNP support.
It is apparent that he is not too keen in proceeding fast enough with the memorandum of understanding with the UNP. Probably his thinking is to ward off attacks by the UNP with this MoU while he dilly-dallies. To him, friendship with the UNP while in power seems profitable but friendship and co-operation with the JVP and JHU during elections are absolutely essential, but how long can he go on like this with the east in flames and thousands of people fleeing from their homes and living in refugee camps? The suffering caused to the people should be considered far more important than survival in politics.
All major aspects of the Mahinda Chinthana have come to nought during his first year as President. His friendship with the JHU has not brought him any positive results other than opprobrium from other political parties and the international community. His attempts to get support from India have failed. His MoU with the UNP appears to be a sham. And now the APC is stalled in its tracks.
There are three options available to him: Seek peace in a genuine and realistic way instead of making personal political interests his priority.
Wage war, but the prospects of victory are remote particularly because he will get no support from the international community.
Last of all, dissolve parliament and seek a comfortable majority to rule without seeking support from other parties.
But given his performance so far, he will not do any of the above and the country will continue to slide towards anarchy.