The President – A Mindless Bomber?

In an article in the prestigious UK newspaper The Guardian its correspondent Jonathan Steele writing from Colombo describes President Rajapaksa as being "mindless as any bomber" (see article below). This comparison is quite inappropriate. In the first place bombers are not necessarily mindless as they have specific objectives to achieve (which they often do), and secondly whatever faults the President may have he has not been a reckless bomber, instead he has been accommodative of even terrorists of the caliber of the LTTE which no decent Government will tolerate. However Steele's arguments reveal the accepted views of the "international community" and the army of correspondents that it employs to project its distorted views. There have been many replies to Steele and The Guardian from the "patriotic lobby" but these have often missed the mark. These comments are directed not only at Steele's predictable distortions but also why the responses to Steele have often missed their mark.

It would be tedious to go through all of Steele's half-truths and downright falsehoods as there are many examples of this from reports by the Western media. The sad fact is that some of these misconceptions are perpetuated by GOSL spokespersons itself. Amongst these following could be mentioned:

In conclusion Steele warns President Rajapaksa not to separate the North from the East or to reject the federal solution. Nominally the union of the North and the East has already been severed but this is meaningless unless the LTTE is defeated as they hold sizable portions of territory in both the North and the East which are "no go" areas for GOSL. As for federalism we know that the President's cherished solution of "maximum devolution" is in fact some kind of racist federalism in all but name. The ACSLU solution to abolish all the Provinces and treat existing districts as units conventional local government is not even considered.

What is significant in Steele's article is not its factualness or its logic but that it represents the views of the "international community" as shown in its appearance in a prestigious UK newspaper. The dependence of GOSL on foreign largesse as a result of its failure to develop the economy, due to the policies introduced by the Great Hela Revolution, has made it almost impossible for it to follow a truly independent policy.

The difficulty of the "patriotic lobby" in refuting Steele lies in that GOSL too supports some of the things that Steele says. We have seen that both seem to agree that SL is dealing with an "ethnic" problem. President Rajapaksa has stated repeatedly that he is committed for a peaceful solution to the problem, and that he is willing to "walk the extra mile" to talk to the terrorist supremo. He supports the agreement with the terrorists giving them their de facto Eelaam thereby betraying the unitary status of the country. But this policy cuts the ground under its efforts to recover territory in the East from the LTTE by military means. Either GOSL has to choose peace or war, and it seems to be wavering between these two giving ample ground for the likes of Steele to criticize GOSL for its contradictory policy.

Some critics of Steele ask: 'What is wrong to resort to war to eliminate terrorism'. There is nothing wrong if war is declared as Bush has done in his War on Terror. What is wrong is to talk peace with one hand and then resort to low-level war on the other. This is the contradictory position in which GOSL is placed, and this contradiction is fully exploited by writers like Steele. The LTTE insurgency is a local terrorist insurgency and cannot be compared to Islamic terror which is organized on global lines. Some critics try to present the LTTE threat as a global threat but this is dismissed by the intelligence agencies of Western countries. Critics of Steele say that Bush and Blair are adopting a double standard when they engage in war to defeat the terrorism that confront them while they do not allow SL to use the same means. This ignores that there is a real difference between their anti-terror war which is a total war, while Sri Lanka's anti-terror is something of a sham.

What all the rumpus about Steele's article shows is the wrong policy of GOSL. The President has two options: either wage all out war on terrorism, or engage in negotiations and the peace process (with military action only to nudge the LTTE to the negotiating table). It is impossible to have war and peace at the same time with the LTTE (as GOSL seems to be doing now). Of these two options the only real option if GOSL is serious in eliminating terrorism is to declare the LTTE a terrorist group, outlaw it, revoke the CFA and foreign mediation, and mobilize the resources of the nation for an all-out war on terrorism and racist separatism. If this is not done SL will be the object of diatribes that that of Jonathan Steele.

Victor Gunasekara

Sri Lanka's President seems as Mindless as any Bomber

by Jonathan Steele

The Guardian (UK) : 2007-02-09

A four-year-old peace deal has been shattered by a government that has resorted to copying its opponents' brutal tactics

The roadblock was unexpected. Driving to Colombo along Sri Lanka's south-west coast, we were forced on to a sidestreet by police in Hikkaduwa, one of the island's main tourist centres. There must have been a multiple crash, we assumed, as the detour along narrow village lanes took us past rice paddies shimmering in the afternoon sun. Back on the coast road, fleets of ambulances racing south seemed to confirm our suspicions.

Later we discovered the problem was a bomb. Eleven people had died when a rucksack detonated in a crowded long-distance bus. Although not targeted at foreigners, the site chosen for the atrocity was in part a blow at the country's weakened tourist economy which has not yet recovered from the 2004 tsunami. Buses have never been hit in tourist areas before. Along with a bomb on a bus going east out of Colombo the previous day, the explosion was also designed to strike fear into every Sri Lankan traveller.

Like terrorist attacks on civilians anywhere in the world, this one was "mindless", to use the epithet that politicians and editorial writers always employ on these occasions. Killing people who have no connection to political decision-making is never right. But the bus bombs did not happen in a vacuum, according to analysts in Colombo. They were a predictable stage in the cycle of violence involving the Sri Lankan government and its guerrilla opponents that is making a mockery of Sri Lanka's so-called peace process.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) have been fighting for a separate homeland for decades. As usual, they denied responsibility for the bombs, but it is assumed this was their answer to an escalating military campaign by the most hardline government since independence.

Sri Lanka has long been a test case for the complexity of dealing with political movements that turn to terrorist methods, almost always as a last resort. Condemning their choice of targets while ignoring their complaints and the degree of support they command leads only to political stalemate and more bloodshed. Northern Ireland, the Basque country and the Palestinian issue show it is better to talk to terror users who have significant popular backing than to isolate them.

Sri Lanka's Sinhalese elite seemed to know this. Under Norwegian mediation the then government made an interim peace deal with the LTTE four years ago. Although the EU listed the Tigers as a terrorist organisation last year (a badly timed and stupid move), it still urges the new government to go on talking. So does the US, in spite of its war on terror. The Tigers are not Muslim. They have a local, not global, agenda, so any attempt to link them with an anti-western jihad is laughable.

It is equally absurd to use war to disarm them. Yet this is what President Mahinda Rajapakse is attempting, perhaps motivated by revenge after his brother, the defence secretary, and his army commander survived assassination attempts. Rajapakse's picture bedecks hoardings around Sri Lanka in an unprecedented cult of personality. He has taken to visiting Buddhist shrines on state occasions in a chauvinistic sop to the most dominant of Sri Lanka's four religious communities.

Worst of all, he is destroying the peace deal by trying to reoccupy the areas recognised as under Tiger control. Almost 4,000 people have died since fighting resumed last year; tens of thousands are homeless after government artillery and air attacks in the east of the island. The government has succeeded in capturing most of the Tiger areas there, and now appears to want to hold provincial elections and install a puppet ruler. Rajapakse's chosen candidate would be Colonel Karuna, a commander who broke from the LTTE three years ago and was quickly recruited by the Sri Lankan army to work with them. The government initially denied this, and because of heavy censorship local media had difficulty reporting it. But visitors to Batticaloa in the east now say no attempt is made to hide it. Karuna's camps are close to army bases and police checkpoints, and his ground attacks coincide with government offensives.

According to Unicef, the UN children's agency, the government is complicit in Karuna's abductions of hundreds of children to become soldiers. A UN security council working group will take up the issue of Sri Lanka (and Nepal) in New York today. Sri Lanka is one of several countries under the UN spotlight, and Ban Ki-Moon, the new secretary general, has warned of "targeted measures" (ie sanctions) if the practice is not stopped. Ironically, Sri Lanka chose to be on the list that was drawn up when only the Tigers were seizing children.

The government promised to investigate the charges, but abductions continue, says Unicef. The security council must not let Sri Lanka off the hook until proof emerges that it has stopped the practice and got Karuna to release all the children he has seized. The LTTE's use of child soldiers is on a far greater scale than the army's (Karuna was notorious for it when he was still with the Tigers), but elected governments have a duty to show they are not adopting the crimes and brutalities of their opponents. Sri Lanka's foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, was brave enough to make that point last month. Rajapakse promptly took his job away.

Sri Lanka's humanitarian crisis is dire. Kidnappings and disappearances, apparently by the police and allied forces, have resumed in Colombo. The civil war has made more than 200,000 people homeless in the past year, almost as many in the same period as in Darfur, which gets 10 times the international attention. Like the Sudanese authorities, the government is using its monopoly of air power to conduct a vicious counter-insurgency in the face of lesser rebel provocations.

The outside world can have a role and India may be the most important player. Floods of Tamil refugees are forcing it to take a renewed interest in its neighbour. It has warned Rajapakse against trying to split the east from the north, a device to foreclose a viable homeland for Tamils and reject a federal solution that most independent experts see as the only compromise likely to end the war.

Above all, India is refusing to sell arms that can be used for counter-insurgency. That is the best signal. If he believes he can defeat an enemy as widely supported by Tamils as the Tigers are, Sri Lanka's president is as "mindless" as any bus bomber.