The RanilW–MahindaR Alliance

The latest article by Tisaranee Gunasekara starts with an incontrovertible truth. The position of Ranil Wickremesinghe in the politics of SL has been strengthened by the generous help given him by President Mahinda Rajapakse. This position is patently clear to anyone who reads the political landscape in SL except to the so-called "patriots". The like-minded thinking of these two politicians go well before the MOU which sealed their alliance. As Tisaranee says RanilW is "waiting in the wings". Well may he wait because the President is carrying out his (Ranil's) agenda. So even if RanilW's chance will never come he will have the satisfaction of seeing that GOSL will offer devolution at least to the extent proposed by the Majority and Minority reports of APC "experts" when MahindaR reveals his own devolution proposals around March-April this year.

According to Tisaranee's analysis it is possible that GOSL will make further military gains in the East and based on this the President may be able to sell his devolution proposal to the electorate in a surprise election which will return the President's party with a handsome majority while decimating the UNP, the JVP and the JHU. Even if this scenario works out as predicted the gains in the East will be elusive. They will be largely due to the unofficial GOSL alliance with Karuna, and Karuna is no friend of SL in the long term. What will happen, perhaps in a post-Prabhakaran situation, is that the LTTE and the TMVP will re-unite resulting in a loss in the recent gains in the East. This possibility is not contemplated by Tisaranee.

Tisaranee is correct is showing that the former RanilW-CBK regime failed to capitalize on the anti-Terrorism in the world to isolate and defeat the LTTE but instead gave the de facto Eelaam to the LTTE. What she fails to emphasize is that this policy still continues under the MahindaR dispensation. There is no way of ending the situation barring a generalized war against the LTTE. The is what the peaceniks, the Helakoti and the Jesuhelas are determined to prevent. So GOSL has no solution and whatever devolution it concedes will have no effect as the LTTE will use that devolution in defining a new base line for its campaign to wrest a fully-fledged Eelaam.

Another forecast made by Tisaranee is that GOSL will be struck by a financial crisis in the second half of this year when foreign aid dries up. Already Germany has cut off aid, and it is persuading that other countries to cut off aid. Foreign pressure is building up for GOSL to concede substantial devolution, and if this is not offered in the promised forthcoming statement by the President there will be disastrous cut in foreign aid. If this happens its effect on the cost of living and inflation can be predicted but not how the general populace will respond to it. Maybe GOSL will surrender to the foreign pressure as it has done all along in this sad story.

The failure of GOSL diplomacy is best illustrated in the second visit to India made recently by MahindaR. This too failed to persuade India to back the President's plan (if he had any!) and the Indian leader did not even allow the customary photograph of the two leaders shaking hands. This was soon followed by the Indian leader entertaining a TNA delegation. This is a clear signal that India is even-handed on the GOSL-LTTE struggle (if there is really one).

Tisaranee's recommendation is to follow the route of the peaceniks and offer devolution to the LTTE. This has already been shown to be a non-solution to the separatist problem in Sri Lanka. It is therefore no necessary to repeat these arguments once again.

Victor Gunasekara


Waiting in the Wings

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

Asian Tribune : 2007-01-14

"The most unhappy of all unhappy positions is that of a prince or of a republic which is reduced to such extremities that it can neither accept peace nor sustain war."Machiavelli (The Discourses)

Appearances might belie it, but Ranil Wickremesinghe is currently sitting pretty, as the sole possible leader of the UNP. He has, with the generous help of President Rajapakse, warded off the danger of inner-party rebellion and neutralized the Karu Jayasuriya factor (in much the same way he neutralised the Sirisena Cooray factor with the help of Chandrika Bandaranaike.)

Political circles are abuzz with stories about the imminent cross-over of a number of UNP parliamentarians. But for Mr. Wickremesinghe defections are a blessing rather than a problem as they rid him of uppity troublemakers; and most defectors would loose at the next (timely or untimely) parliamentary election. For Mr. Wickremesinghe the crux of the matter is that his biggest nightmare, the leadership contest in the UNP, is finally over. Ensconced once again as the "Sole Leader", Mr. Wickremesinghe can look forward to the future with optimism. All he has to do is to wait, and the waiting game is something he is quite proficient at.

Though President Rajapakse has denied any intention of going for a snap poll, this very public denial also contains two exemption clauses, in fine print. Accordingly, a snap poll can happen if the parliamentary balance becomes unfavourable (a warning to the JVP and the JHU) or if a majority of the SLFP Central Committee requests it (an outcome that is not hard to arrange). Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that the President may dissolve parliament, if the Armed Forces are successful in imposing a definitive defeat on the LTTE in the East by March/April. According to media reports government strategists are expecting that the PA and its allies to win around 120-125 seats, while the UNP representation is reduced to about 50 and the JVP to about 10-15 (there is general agreement that the JHU will be lucky to retain even a single seat).

A snap poll would worry the JVP and the JHU, but it would not worry Mr. Wickremesinghe. He is not interested in winning any untimely parliamentary election as he would not want to repeat the mistake of 2001 – form a UNP government with a PA Executive President, who retains his personal popularity. According to a media report, when requested by a UNP parliamentarian to try to form a government via an election or a change in the parliamentary balance, Mr. Wickremesinghe responded by asking why he should take over the burden of the war. Even in 2001 he did not want to unseat the PA government; he was compelled to do so by the April/May 2001 rebellion of the Karu Jayasuriya-Gamini Atukorala faction (and possibly by the LTTE). Incidentally the war is not the only burden Mr. Wickremesinghe would be disinclined to shoulder; he will be quite averse to taking the reins when the country is on the verge of a severe economic crisis. Thanks to President Rajapakse, Mr. Wickremesinghe need not worry about inner-party rebellions, post-defeat. Consequently he will be content with marginally improving the UNP's performance and playing a waiting game - until the next presidential election. That or an Impeachment – made possible by the socio-economic and military fallout of a financial crunch caused by international factors.

Mistakes

Some mistakes have a pattern. The peace of Ranil Wickremesinghe was counterproductive because it dissipated the favourable potential inherent in the post-9/11 global conjuncture. Using Vellupillai Pirapaharan's need to avoid becoming an indirect target of the global war against terrorism (and his concern about the remarkable successes of the LRRP) Mr. Wickremesinghe could have driven a harder bargain with the Tiger and held the Tiger to it. Unfortunately the opposite happened; the LTTE was given the kind of MoU it wanted and was allowed to violate it at will. The permissive peace process of 2002 contained, within it, the seeds of its own undoing.

Similarly Mr. Rajapakse's war effort carries within it the seeds of its own unravelling. Sri Lanka entered 2006 with an enormous reservoir of international goodwill, thanks to the tireless efforts of Lakshman Kadirgamar and the horrendous misdeeds of the LTTE. This asset could have been harnessed to the detriment of the Tigers, if the Rajapakse administration handled its war effort with more sensitivity to humanitarian concerns.

Given the unfavourable light in which the LTTE was regarded from Washington to Brussels to Delhi a modicum of politico-military-verbal restraint on our part may have been adequate. Unfortunately hubris made us loose our collective heads and fritter away that international goodwill. The prospect of economic sanctions, once unthinkable, is becoming a possibility we need to be seriously concerned about.

The experiences of the year gone by indicate that the Rajapakse administration can be as sanguine about the ill effects of its avoidable mistakes on the war front as the Wickremesinghe administration was about the ill effects of its avoidable mistakes on the peace front. And foresight in foreign policy seems to be a quality that is conspicuous by its absence in the Rajapakse administration (domestically too, as evidenced by the stupid and unacceptable attack on the UPM's Nugegoda rally). The regime hailed President Rajapakse's November visit to India as a Triumph. Within a month the Indian Prime Minister was meeting a TNA delegation.

Now we hear that the President's Indian trip was fraught with problems, and that Indian officials even disallowed the traditional joint photograph of the two leaders. If the government heeded these obvious danger signals and engaged in some rapid damage control, it may have been possible to prevent that disastrous meeting between the Indian PM and the pro-Tiger TNA. Similarly the looming EU problem cannot be handled by either ignoring it (as the government is doing) or by calling the German Chancellor Angela Markel a Nazi (as the JHU is doing). Taking legal action against the suspects of the Muttur NGO killing before the EU's March confab on Sri Lanka would be far more helpful in avoiding a generalised aid cut or worse.

The opening paragraph of the Sri Lankan section of the 2006 Human Rights Watch Report (and HRW is not pro-LTTE NGO; it has done more to expose and discredit the Tigers internationally than any Sinhalese leader or scribe) is a word picture of how many of the international players would see the Fourth Eelam War: "Government forces were implicated in several massacres of civilians, indiscriminate aerial bombing and shelling, and complicity in the abduction of children for use as combatants. The LTTE was responsible for direct attacks on civilians with landmines and suicide bombings, targeted killing of political opponents, and the continued recruitment of children into their forces. Both sides conducted military operations with little regard for the safety of civilians in the conflict zone and interfered with the delivery of relief assistance by humanitarian agencies".

We see the pictures of the LTTE bus bombing and we are rightly outraged by the carnage of innocents. The world gets to see and hear about the civilian Tamil victims of our air strikes and our MBRL attacks; the world knows that on two occasions our bombs/shells nearly hit a hospital, earlier in Killinochchi and recently in Vaharai. The world regards the de-merger and the ditching of the Majority Report as attempts by the regime at appeasing Sinhala extremists. The world considers the abduction of the VC of the Eastern University (he is yet to be found) as a symbol of the insecurity and lawlessness faced by civilian Tamils in the democratic South. The composite picture is not an elevating one – it is of a majoritarian regime that pays scant heed to the lives and rights of a beleaguered minority. We need a counter-narrative, strengthened by real life examples, to efface this unfavourable picture and to prove that this is not an anti-Tamil ethnic war but a war of counter-insurgency against the Tigers.

If we do not have the sense to minimise civilian casualties by using force more selectively, the least we can do, in our own interests, is to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Vaharai. We need a repeat performance of the government's successful pre-Christmas relief effort in Jaffna – a concerted campaign to provide every possible facility to the 20,000 plus Vaharai refugees, even as the military offensive against the LTTE continues. Such a massive and verifiable relief effort will help mitigate the political fallout of military operations. The JVP campaign to help some of the Vaharai refugees is praiseworthy; the government should step up its official efforts, in conjunction with the UN relief agencies. Also necessary is a plan of resettlement and compensation for the Tamils of Vaharai, to be implemented as soon as the LTTE is driven out.

Impeachment?

Ranil Wickremesinghe is a bad hand at an election; but any conspiracy would find him in his element. The indications are that he is already preparing for such a scenario. An early signal is the formation of the United Peoples Movement (UPM) by a number of politicians and peace activists who are (open or stealth) supporters of Mr. Wickremesinghe (including the "born again Wickremesinghe loyalist" SB Dissanayake).

He is clearly positioning himself to benefit from the politico-financial crisis the country will be plunged into later this year, because of international aid cuts, high military costs, inadequate development and internal economic mismanagement. And in this endeavour he can depend on the backing of a formidable ally – Chandrika Bandaranaike. The resultant destabilisation of the South would be just what the Tigers need.

Disaster can be avoided but the only question is whether the regime will avail itself of the opportunity or continue its sleep walking until the abyss is reached. Mr. Wickremesinghe would be betting on the latter. Even if the East is cleared of the LTTE, even if the government wins a snap poll, these are triumphs which can be evaporated by a severe economic and financial crisis. Our debt service ratio is already unacceptably high and if there is a generalised aid crunch (which is what Germany is working towards) we will be faced with subsidy cuts, price hikes, massive unemployment and inability to maintain defence expenditure at the required levels (If George Bush embroils the US in a war with Iran or Syria, our economic woes will worsen). Unable to pursue the war, unable to handle the economy, the government will be faced with internal dissension and popular unrest – an ideal scenario for an impeachment.

The only real impediment to this outcome would be a bipartisan consensus on a political solution to the ethnic problem. The UNP's entry into the APC (with its own devolution proposal) and the Tissa Witarana Report have created the potential for such a consensus. If the government exploits this potential by moving speedily towards an agreement on devolution, Mr. Wickremesinghe will be placed in a bind. He will find it very hard to wriggle out of such a consensus because of international factors (you cannot impeach a President who is offering Tamils a political solution while fighting the Tigers). If Mr. Wickremesinghe does not wriggle out, he will earn the ire of the Tiger, a truly frightening prospect. Still Mr. Wickremesinghe is probably depending on the JVP, the JHU and Mahinda Rajapakse's own antipathy to devolution to take care of that danger for him. If the APC exercise comes to naught because of the vacillation of the regime or the pressure of its hardline allies, Mr. Wickremesinghe would be able to have his cake and eat it – he will be seen as a moderate by the Tamils and the international community; the Tigers would not be irked with him; and he will be ideally positioned to benefit from the Rajapakse administration's suicidal errors of omission and commission.