Two Views of the SL Situation

Two writers from the Asian Tribune (q.v) stable of correspondents which the present writer has been monitoring are Tisaranee Gunasekara and HLD Mahindapala . They give almost diametrically opposite interpretations of what is going on in Sri Lanka. According to Mahindapala the bell has already tolled for the LTTE, and everything is over, bar the shouting. Tisaranee sees things in an opposite light. According to her it is GOSL that is facing an impending crisis and will soon have to go to the International Community (q.v) with cap in hand, and be forced to eat humble pie. In a previous blog I analyzed the article by HLD "Decline and Decline of the Tamil Tigers" and showed where it was too optimistic; now I do the same for the following article "Strange Times and Critical Choices" by Tisaranee which comes a different conclusion to that of HLD.

Tisaranee claims that Sri Lanka is facing an economic crisis which is already manifesting itself in the high cost of living and the increasing rate of inflation. The cost of maintaining the war is also becoming too onerous especially after GOSL adopted a "high-tech" strategy of using aerial bombing and artillery against LTTE targets. These have brought some gains in the East from Mavil Aru to Viharai, but has so far not yielded significant gains in the heartland of the de facto Eelaam. According to her the Defence Minister has claimed that the defeat of the LTTE will take at least three years. This is longer than what some the 'patriot lobby' (q.v) are saying, some of whom have promised the complete crushing of the LTTE by the end of this year. Accurate data of the real cost of the war has not been published. Recently charges have been bandied that the procurement of second-hand jets have involved shady deals. Whatever the truth of this it is clear that the cost of maintaining he offensive is high. So whether the three-year campaign to subdue the LTTE is economically feasible cannot be determined. Tisaranee seems to suggest that revenues of Government are exaggerated and quotes an audit report by the Attorney General to this effect. Once again it is not the purpose of this blog to determine the truth about the financial burden of the War. There is also the increased cost of sending supplies to Jaffna which has been cut off by land due to the closure of the A9 highway. And there is the cost of the salaries and perks going to the politicians and the jumbo cabinet. All this may lead to increased dependence on the Aid donors and Western tourists. And the aid donors are not giving the money for nothing and are demanding a so-called "political solution".

Another difference of views relates to whom the MahindaR government is favouring. According to Tissaranee "the Rajapakse administration has become more and not less vulnerable to pressure from the Sinhala supremacist lobby". The fact is that under MahindaR the so-called "Sinhala supremacist lobby" has lost much of its influence. He had not heeded any of their calls to end the CFA (q.v), or ban the LTTE, or restore Sinhala names to Tamilicized names as the 'Tar Brush Brigade' (q.v) has demanded. HLD on the other hand thinks that the primary concern of this administration is to promote the interests of the ordinary Tamils in Jaffna and the Vanni with little attention paid to Sinhela victims of terrorism. Thus there is greater concern for Tamil children said to be press-ganged into military service than to the Sinhala children who are killed in ethnic cleansing. Food and provisions are sent to Jaffna at great cost through sea and air, while even the salaries of bureaucrats in the Eelaam region are paid by GOSL. All this is a charge on the taxpayers of the country.

Tisaranee also draws attention to the growing cult of Rajapakse with key positions going to kin and monuments like the proposed cricket stadium in the Ruhuna named after him. But HLD hardly mentions any of this. The arrest of dissident MP Sripathy Sooriarachchi on a charge of corruption, which are said to be common amongst most ministers and parliamentarians, has also been adduced as an example of undermining democracy.

When it comes to the recommended "solution" to the separatist problem there are two parts. The first is what should be done immediately, and what should be done ultimately. On both aspects there seems to be a substantial agreement between HLD and Tisaranee. HLD seems to support the current policy of limited war with the LTTE, while Tisaranee seems to give priority to the "political solution" of negotiation. But the latter does not exhaust the kind of limited war which the MahindaR has adopted which has given some results at least in the Eastern Province. But neither seems to grasp the importance of a total war aimed at the heart of the insurgency which is in the Vanni. Thus on this ground there seems to be little difference.

On the ultimate political solution both favour the current GOSL policy of devolution of power. But until the LTTE is defeated this cannot be implemented as the LTTE will agree to nothing less than total separation. HLD seems to think that the LTTE will simply wither away as the Tamils turn against it. Tisaranee is not sure that this will happen and seems to think that the LTTE can be persuaded to accept a more limited devolution of power, perhaps on federal lines. But neither seems to understand that any devolution of power on racial grounds will only provide a temporary respite. Very soon the demand for separation will arise again, especially if the "devolved" units are allowed to maintain an armed militia. So very soon the problem will reassert itself, but on more advantageous terms to the separatists. The "solution" will soon become a non-solution.

We have not had a reaction from either of these so far for the latest development of the LTTE developing an air arm. This development will pose a greater problem to HLD than to Tisaranee. HLD has been promising a "decline and decline" of the LTTE, but given the mentality of the Tamils it will greatly increase the prestige of the LTTE amongst the Tamils. The LTTE is now claiming parity with GOSL on the military front. The crucial effect will depend on how this development plays with the non-LTTE Tamils, especially with Karuna the most important of the non-LTTE factions.

Victor Gunasekara

Strange Times and Critical Choices

By Tisaranee Gunasekara

Asian Tribune : 2007-03-25

"Yet for the cycle to end without more death and desolation, the two peoples who are playing out their destinies here must learn not to fool themselves and not to let themselves be fooled."Jacobo Timerman

It is a uniquely Sri Lanka potpourri of the tragic and the comic, the serious and the absurd, the significant and the irrelevant, characteristic of the country and the times. In the almost liberated Batticaloa, the LTTE attacks five army camps simultaneously. The Defence Secretary says that the war will continue for three years and that the President will have to find the funds. The Auditor General warns about the unreliability of the government's tax income statistics. The World Food Programme appeals urgently for funds to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the East while the government denies the very existence of such a problem. Colombo teems with check points while people continue to vanish. A minister proclaims that there are Sinhala Tigers in the parliament. The LTTE conscripts children in Madhu. Another minister blames the 'nattamis' for the spiralling cost of living. Only one parliamentarian is arrested for the misuse of state property! A Buddhist monk tried unsuccessfully to join the police force. The President makes an 'inspection tour' of his own vegetable garden, accompanied by television cameras and plans the construction of a Chaitya which will be named after him.

The warning by the Auditor General is three months old and was contained in a report he presented to the parliament. His analysis is clear and bald: the tax and export income statistics of the government are misleading and this jeopardises both the budget and the future economic plans of the country (Irida Lankadeepa - 24.12.2006). These errors have been pointed out on many occasions, to no avail, says the AG. The danger should be obvious - if our income statistics are unreliable then our budget will be devoid of reality. We will be spending money we do not have – until reality hits us in the form of a crippling financial crisis. Since our politicians will not want to deprive themselves of even the most insignificant of their innumerable perks and privileges, the cost cutting will have to be done initially at the expense of the economy and the living standards of the people and eventually the war.

The government has adopted a capital intensive strategy in its prosecution of the war, making extensive use of bombing and shelling. The NATO Forces follow a similar strategy in Afghanistan with little success. "From June until November 2006, NATO carried out an average of 18 daily (aerial) missions… However during the same period attacks by the Taliban, Al Qaida and other opponents of President Karazi increased" (International Herald Tribune – 16.3.2007). Whether we can succeed where the NATO is failing is as yet a matter for speculation (the recent spate of high profile attacks by the Tigers indicate that the LTTE is not quite a spent force in the East). What is indubitable is the financial unsustainability of this strategy. One MBRL shell is said to cost US$ 900; sustaining such expenditure over the three years mentioned by the Defence Secretary (at the least) would be impossible, even with cooked statistics. Though seeming effective in the short term, in the medium term it will make us more vulnerable to international pressure.

The Absurd and the Dangerous

The problem of escalating prices can no longer be denied or ignored. But the government's way of addressing the issue is does not seem propitious. According to the Hindustan Times Minister Bandula Gunawardane initially blamed traders of Indian origin (nattamis) for price hikes and then said that prices are going up because 'some unscrupulous traders had imported essentials in 20 containers and dumped them'. Any AL student of economics knows that dumping drives down prices by causing a market glut (except obviously in the economic cloud cuckoo land of the Hon. Minister). The absurd nature of this Ministerial pronouncement should not blind us to its hidden meaning – that of blaming some minority when things go wrong. This is a practice followed by Sinhala supremacist leaders and parties for more than a century – from Anagarika Dharmapala right down to Cyril Maththew and the JHU. The identity of the minority being scapegoated may change, but the charge is always the same – a minority conspiracy to cause harm. The responsibility and the blame for whatever the problem are thus displaced from the government/majority to this or that minority. Mr. Gunawardana's remarks taken together with the comments of another Minister, Champaka Ranawaka indicate that with its re-composition the Rajapakse administration has become more and not less vulnerable to pressure from the Sinhala supremacist lobby. Whether such an administration will be able to come up with a political solution to the ethnic problem or even be able to take meaningful steps to protect the human rights of civilian Tamils in the context of the ongoing war is doubtful. The regime's hardline partners are likely to see both as attempts at appeasing the Tigers.

The problem of rising cost of living needs to be taken seriously and addressed urgently because at a certain point it can even affect the morale of the troops. Soldiers and junior officers often come from economically weak backgrounds and high inflation will have a disproportionately negative impact on their families. Inflation is fed, in the main, by the depreciation of the rupee (in countries like ours much of the inflation is imported inflation) and intemperate spending. However cost cutting at the expense of the consumers (by removing or reducing subsidies) while the regime continues to spend on itself and its non-productive projects liberally will neither temper inflationary pressures nor reduce the burdens of the people. Incidentally there are indications that Mahinda Rajapakse's SLFP may not be all that liberated from the ruinous economic thinking of the SLFP of 1970-77. There is quite a bit of talk of imposing price controls, including on vegetables. Any reversion to the command economic ways of United Front years will bring about not redress but chronic shortages, black markets, and a drop in economic activities – plus a surreal situation with an artificially low official inflation rate and a stratospheric real inflation rate. Instead of low prices, the masses will have to put up with higher prices and queues.

Ryszard Kapuscinski wrote of Haile Selassie: "His Indefatigable Majesty would ride out to open a bridge here, a building there, an airport somewhere else, giving these structures his name: the Haile Selassie Bridge in Ogden, the Haile Selassie Hospital in Harara, the Haile Selassie Hall in the capital, so that whatever was created bore his name (The Emperor). President Rajapakse too seems intent on giving his name to as many things as possible, the latest in a long list being the Mahinda Maha Sama Chaitya. Obviously the destiny of the SLFP is to pass from the hands of one self-made dynasty to another self-made dynasty. The danger with the dynastic mindset is that leaders think that they and their families must rule in perpetuity, that they deserve to rule in perpetuity. We saw this equating of the self and the family with the state and the country in the case of the Bandaranaikes; the political opponents of the family are regarded as anti-people and anti-national and treated as such; democratic opposition becomes a vast conspiracy. The Rajapakses seem to be heading in the same direction and that behoves ill for Lankan democracy.

If parliamentarians are arrested for misusing state property, then the next cabinet meeting will have to be held at the Welikada Jail; and it will be a full session. Sripathy Sooriarachchi's supposed crime is a practice he has in common with most parliamentarians. It is hard to believe that Mr. Sooriyarachch's arrest is a move to curb and punish corruption; clearly the corruption issue is being used to curb and punish dissent within the SLFP. Obviously Mr. Sooriyarachchi was arrested with the objective of intimidating and silencing him; Colombo is abuzz with rumours that Mangala Samaraweera too will be arrested soon. The arrest of Mr. Sooriarachchi, together with the campaign to intimidate 'Mawbima', demonstrates a propensity on the part of the regime to use repression against democratic opponents. One does not have to agree with the politics of either Mr. Sooriarachchi or Mangala Samaraweera to oppose the regime's blatant attempts to use patriotism and legal loopholes to silence dissent and to repress political opponents. Such unhealthy tendencies need to be countered from the beginning, before they grow into monstrous proportions and undermine democracy in the South.

Ill Omens

The recent advocacy by British PM Tony Blair of a return to the 2002 CFA is revealing; it indicates our most likely destination, given our failure to come up with a devolution proposal and our unpleasant human rights record. When the money runs out we will be compelled to sue for peace and an unsympathetic international community will send us to Oslo, on bended knees (China, Russia and Pakistan may feel for us, but they will not bankroll us). The only way to avoid that bitter and dangerous fate, in the not too distant future, is to face the reality now, and engage in course corrections, politically, militarily and economically.

Propaganda to be effective has to be credible and not incredible. If our official communiqué's are to be believed we have the smartest bombs in the world which never fail to reach the target and harm nothing but that target. If our official communiqué's are to be believed we have such wise shells that they head to their intended destination like homing pigeons, avoiding any civilian that might be in the way. Ours must be a record because we have managed to wage war without hurting a hair on the head of a single non-combatant, despite the well known Tiger practice of using civilian Tamils as human shields. If non-combatants have died, they were either killed by the Tigers or they were not non-combatants after all, is how the argument goes.

Perhaps we cannot admit the number of the displaced and their wretched state because neither reflects well on us and on our claims of humanitarian operations to liberate Tamils. Instead of admitting the existence of the war and trying our best to deal with its negative consequences we maintain that there is no war. This means we also have to deny the reality of the refugees just as we deny that our operations have caused and will cause civilian deaths. We deny, even though the evidence is incontrovertible, even though the world out there (and the Tamils in here) know the truth. We deceive none but ourselves. We buy some peace of mind at the cost of credibility, which is already dented because of other lies and other denials. Apologies and expressions of regrets together with compensation and assistance would serve us better since wars do cause deaths and displacement.

Instead of making claims which are fantastic and thus unbelievable, it is infinitely more moral and more intelligent to admit the truth and try to make amends. We should make use of the refugee crisis to demonstrate to the Tamil people that though we are against the LTTE we care for their safety and well being. This cannot be done by denying the very existence of the problem but by admitting it and working diligently and with compassion to minimise it. We also need to show the world that though we are anti-separatist we are willing to reach a compromise with Tamil nationalism within an undivided Sri Lanka. These are basic requirements for the successful prosecution of the undeclared Fourth Eelam War, which is going to be neither short nor painless.