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Sri Lanka: Confusion and Obfuscation All Round! – saag

[MISC, Monday, 15 August 2011 07:43 No Comment]

Guest Column: Dr Kumar David

The political waters of this island have become very murky in recent weeks and there is no saying where things will end up by the end of this year or come early 2012. The principal actors themselves are not in control of events and the chips may fall in ways that even they cannot foresee.

The confusing signals of the recent period include:-

a) President Mahinda Rajapakse and his powerful brother Gothabaya (de facto number two in Sri Lanka’s hierarchy of power) are at cross purposes on core issues and this cannot continue for much longer.

b) The United States is upping the ante, and reading between the lines it is clear that GoSL is running scared; there will be no China to the rescue if confrontation becomes serious.

c) The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) won a landslide victory in July in local government elections and has taken the offensive threatening mass demonstrations unless the government agrees to devolution of power to the Tamil minority. The sixty-four thousand dollar question is what lies behind this stiffening of the TNA’s backbone.

d) The confrontation between Colombo and Madras which has been deteriorating since Jayalalitha’s victory has taken a distinct turn for the worse.

e) The equation between Colombo and Delhi is no longer a happy one where the later knowingly played cheerleader-in-chief to any and every misdemeanour of the former.

I will deal with only the first three items on this list today.

Gothabaya outflanks Mahinda

When the two most powerful persons in a government are close siblings and they make contradictory remarks on key policy matters it is usually a case of good cop – bad cop. It is a prearranged drama where the parties have agreed to take different stances in order to achieve agreed objectives. My instinct tells me that this is not the case this time, and permit me to crow that my intuition has earned a reputation of being spot-on. President Mahinda has gone on record numerous times since 2005 asserting that he is committed to substantial devolution of power to the minorities. He has given such assurances, repeatedly, to the international community and to Lanka’s powerful neighbour Delhi which was Colombo’s strongest supporter in the civil war against the Tamils. President Mahinda appointed an All Party Committee to report on devolution though its report is hidden away in the Presidential Secretariat, and he even set up a negotiating process with the TNA to work out a constitutional package, though predictably it collapsed recently.

Now quite out of the blues brother and Defence Secretary Gothabaya has firmly gone on record more than once that there will be no devolution of power to the minorities and said in no uncertain terms that the constitution as it stands needs no further amendment. Referring to the landslide mandate that the Tamils gave the TNA, Secretary Gothabaya has pointedly asserted that the Sinhalese gave the government an even larger mandate not to grant devolution, and that will be the final word on the matter. For the secretary in charge of the subject of defence to go out of the way and make such far reaching assertions on government policy in respect of minority and constitutional policy is most remarkable. To implicitly contradict the president and line up alongside the hard core chauvinist brigade in parliament is alarming.

I am quite convinced that this is not a prearranged game plan between the brothers. Brother Gothabaya is laying down the law and elder brother Mahinda is being compelled to toe the line. I am not suggesting that Mahinda was personally inclined to give anything substantial to the Tamils, but he has been playing a more nuanced game to pirouette around Delhi and the international community, both of whom were only too eager to be taken for a ride. To repeat myself, since this is important, this policy dissonance between the brothers is a game changer, it signals a modification in the balance of power in the government.

It is not that suddenly President Mahinda has lost his clout, nevertheless there has been a certain subtle shift of gears and it is worth watching how the power-pivot in the Sri Lankan state develops in the coming months.

The US flexes its muscle

According to one school of thought both Washington and Delhi had an understanding with Colombo during what has come to be known as Eelam War IV. The senior partners would not make a fuss about civilian casualties or other alleged brutalities but in exchange after eliminating the LTTE Colombo would show its good intentions by implementing constitutional changes and a substantial package of power devolution. Now Colombo has reneged on this promise (President Mahinda was doing it subtly, brother Gothabaya has gone brutally frank creating a stir) much to the annoyance of Washington and Delhi. Washington has shown itself to be fed up. A Congressional committee has called for the suspension of aid to Sri Lanka, criticism of the Sri Lankan government on human rights issues and war crimes investigation has become more strident and last week fighter aircraft from the USS Ronald Regan over flew Sri Lankan airspace in the opinion of the local air force – a frightened and embarrassed political establishment hotly denied it; what else could it do?

The United States has formally informed the Government of Sri Lanka that it wishes to have the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report tabled at the UN Human Rights Council meeting in March 2012. It has not made a suggestion or a request but used the stiffer mechanism of delivering a demarche which is an official line of action carrying formal implication of, as yet unspecified, but possible follow up action in the event the demarche is ignored. It is less than an ultimatum but more than a remonstration.

Why has the US taken this step? It is not hard to guess the State Department’s line of reasoning. First, if the LLRC report is not a whitewash, then, not just the US, but everyone knows the government will not release it or will excise vital sections. In this case the demarche is intended to embarrass the government if it suppresses the report. Another possible reason is that the demarche puts pressure on LLRC commissioners, constraining them from crafting a document that blots their personal copybooks. If the LLRC report reaches the UNHRC it will need to stand beside the Darusman Report, Channel 4 videos and whatever else the Tamil diaspora can dig up in the next eight months and flaunt at the Council or in its corridors. If the LLRC report comes off as a lame cover-up, the personal reputations of the commissioners will be sullied. By giving notice that reputations will be on the line the US hopes to stiffen the honourable commissioners’ backbones.

The TNA grows a backbone

In a development that many Tamils consider welcome the TNA has become more assertive not only because of its victory in the local government polls but also because of developments in Tamil Nadu and the reflections of this event in Delhi. The Tamils have given the TNA a mandate but the government of Sri Lanka has made it clear that it will not budge on the devolution issue. What on earth is the TNA going to do? What is it going to tell its electorate? It cannot simply say “They won’t give us anything” and play dead thereafter. It has to mobilise the Tamils in a politics of protest; not the folly of LTTE style adventurism, militarism and terrorism, but mass political activity. TNA leader Sampanthan has given notice that if the government continues to trample on the rights of his people that he will do so, though to what extent the wounds of war have healed and the people of the North and East come out into the open remains to be seen. Eventually it will happen, but the matter has to be put to the test, as foxy old Sampanthan has discerned.

My guess however is that there is more than a testing of the waters in the TNA’s refurbished backbone; more than even taking heart from Jayalalitha’s tough line demanding war crimes investigations and sanctions against the Rajapakse regime. The fearful question for the Rajapakse government is has India (either in its Tamil Nadu or Delhi avatar) given the TNA a green light to up the ante on the political solution matter? If the answer is ‘yes’ the Sri Lankan government is playing with fire if it sends in the police with batons and the troops with tanks to “teach the Tamils a lesson” as the Sinhalese state regularly did from 1956 to 1987. This is another of the as yet unanswered questions that is aggravating the climate of extreme political uncertainty in the country.

The TNA for its part would be foolish to put all its eggs in the foreign support basket. It has to cash in on its election victory and begin work in its base areas among the people. Educating, organising, building structures and above all inducting a generation of young Tamils who can lead the movement when the old men pass on, are the urgent tasks that the TNA is now well positioned to undertake. It must cast its bread upon the waters. I am not wont to make biblical quotations, but this reminds me of another point.

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