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The Rajapakse Presidency (Part 03)

"Some Tamils are Tigers, but almost all Tigers are Tamils. The LTTE claims to represent Tamils and articulate many of their legitimate demands. Given this indisputable reality anti-Tigerism has to go hand in hand with a firm commitment to devolution in order to avoid the pitfall of Sinhala chauvinism. If Rajapakse was not to fall into Pirapaharan’s trap of a Sinhala on Tamil war, it was not enough for him to be non-Sinhala chauvinist; he had to be anti-Sinhala chauvinist as well. But Rajapakse believed Sinhala to be coterminous with ‘national’; in his eyes Sinhala supremacism was the same as Lankan nationalism. Therefore he was ideologically predisposed to see Sinhala chauvinism as patriotism."
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Link To Part 02

by Tisaranee Gunasekara

"…going forward boldly into the future in search of an imaginary past"
Michael Burleigh (The Third Reich: A New History)


II - The Road to Mavilaru

(May 08, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The first months of the Rajapakse Presidency were a time of waiting, for the war that the LTTE was intent on unleashing. The Tigers had enabled the victory of Mahinda Rajapakse because they needed an enemy who could be convincingly depicted as Sinhala chauvinist. The Tiger plan was to make manifest the new regime’s latent Sinhala supremacism, thereby turning Eelam War IV into a contestation between Tamil people and Sinhala state.

Pirapaharan in his 2005 Heroes’ Day Speech used loaded terminology such as ‘Mahawamsa mindset, Mahavamsa mental structure’ and ‘Sinhala Buddhist hegemony’; the LTTE followed with unprovoked attacks against Lankan Forces in populous localities in an effort to engineer anti-Tamil backlashes.


The regime was inherently incapable of either comprehending the new political strategy of the LTTE or of responding to it adequately. Rajapakse’s outlook was simplistic. He disbelieved the existence of an ethnic problem. Instead of regarding the minorities as co-owners of Sri Lanka, he seemed to be in thrall to the ‘hosts and guests’ mindset which denied the minorities any inherent rights in this ‘Sinhala Buddhist’ land. Consequently he often equated ‘desheeya’ (national) with Sinhala, without realising how this would sound to Tamil ears, particularly given his proud self-identification as the true heir of the ‘1956 Revolution’!

Rajapakses core support came from Sinhala supremacist elements. The JVP and the JHU had campaigned hard to ensure his victory when many leading SLFPers were either opposed to him or gave him lukewarm support. Therefore both parties were extremely influential in the new administration. Mahinda Chinthana had contained a solemn promise to retain the unitary state. With Rajapakse at the helm Sri Lanka had a leader who denied the existence of the ethnic problem, supported the unitary state, rejected the homelands concept and advocated a unilateral de-merger of the North-East. A sea change was in the making; a return to the time before the Indo-Lanka Accord.

Some Tamils are Tigers, but almost all Tigers are Tamils. The LTTE claims to represent Tamils and articulate many of their legitimate demands. Given this indisputable reality anti-Tigerism has to go hand in hand with a firm commitment to devolution in order to avoid the pitfall of Sinhala chauvinism. If Rajapakse was not to fall into Pirapaharan’s trap of a Sinhala on Tamil war, it was not enough for him to be non-Sinhala chauvinist; he had to be anti-Sinhala chauvinist as well. But Rajapakse believed Sinhala to be coterminous with ‘national’; in his eyes Sinhala supremacism was the same as Lankan nationalism. Therefore he was ideologically predisposed to see Sinhala chauvinism as patriotism.

Rajapakse did not want a war. But war was inevitable and this he could not understand. Nor did he understand the need to expedite the search for a political solution to the ethnic problem, even though he could have made this effort without violating his commitment to the unitary state via either the Anandasangaree proposal (for Indian type devolution) or the 13th Amendment + formula. A reasonable power sharing arrangement was important to the Tamils as an indicator of the state’s willingness to move beyond 1956, 1972 and 1978 and restructure itself to accommodate the minorities as equals. Though such a deal could not have prevented the war it would have made Tamils feel secure, marginalised the LTTE and defeated Tiger attempts to redefine the war as a Sinhala on Tamil conflict. But the President did not believe in the existence of an ethnic problem (an ideological trait he shares with the JVP/JHU) and could not see a need for a political solution. He did not mind negotiating with the LTTE to prevent/postpone a full scale for (thus the Geneva talks); he periodically paid lip service to the slogan of a negotiated settlement to fob off the international community. But talking devolution to moderate Tamils was, for him, an exercise in futility, a dangerous gamble which would enrage his Sinhala allies.

Illusions are a hallmark of the Rajapakse Presidency and naivety a key component of the President’s world view. In those early months Rajapakse believed he could win over the Sinhala hardliners by committing himself to the unitary state and win over the Tigers by making some practical concessions (a la Karuna). He believed India would agree to replace Norway as the facilitator, and cow the Tigers into submission if they turned out to be obdurate. He did not understand the Tamilnadu factor or the contradictions inherent in the presence of a predominantly Sinhala Army in a North-East that is populated mostly by Tamils and Muslims. In this geographically, culturally and linguistically alien terrain the Lankan forces needed the goodwill (or at least the absence of ill will) of the residents. Therefore avoiding retaliatory attacks on civilians was both a political and a military requirement. But for most Sinhala supremacists, including the President and his influential brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse, such considerations smack of an insufficient commitment to the anti-Tiger cause, because in their eyes there is not much difference between the Tamils and the Tigers.

The Tigers did not want to moderate their conduct in order to win international goodwill; their strategy was to make the Lankan state and anti-Tiger Tamils look almost as bad as they are. They began to target Lankan Forces while setting up phantom organisations titled Makkal Padai (Peoples’ Force) to take responsibility for these attacks. On December 23rd a bus carrying Naval personal came under a landmine attack near the 100 Houses housing scheme in Pesalai; more than a dozen men were killed. The Mannar District Resurgence People Force, a Tiger creation, claimed responsibility for the attack. The Navy’s reaction was all that the Tigers were hoping for. “All residents were….lined up on the road in the scorching sun and were attacked with gun butts not sparing the women and children. Men were made to stand with their head in a hole in the ground and were humiliated and kicked from behind…. Remains of a mother and her four year old son have been recovered from a house that was burnt by the Navy. Another parent and child are among those missing. Attacks on civilians reportedly continued into the following day. Naval personnel robbed a large quantity of gold from the residents. There was no attempt on the part of the Government to intervene promptly and reassure the civilians, leave alone acknowledge what happened. Among those admitted to hospital is a 5 year old boy with a broken skull. A naval man had rammed his gun barrel into the back of the boy's head and penetrated it” (Briefing No. 5 – 27.12.2005). The state should have responded to these LTTE provocations with surgical strikes on senior Tiger cadres, using the Karuna group. Though a few such surgical strikes took place, in the main state forces and their Tamil allies went for ‘soft targets’ - precisely what the LTTE wanted them to do. The assassination of TNA MP Joseph Pararajasingham on Christmas Eve at the St Michaels Church in Batticaloa and the murder of five Tamil students in Trincomalee are cases in point; these brought Sri Lanka dishonour and benefited the LTTE immensely.

As attacks mounted so did international pressure to resume negotiations, a call both sides heeded for their own different reasons. The Tigers wanted to regain some international support and to persuade Rajapakse to disarm the Karuna rebels. They also wanted to prevent Local Government elections in Batticaloa where Karuna was still popular. The regime wanted to avoid/postpone war and gain some breathing space, at least until the Local Government election was over. Both sides met in Geneva and came to an agreement which neither had any intention of honouring. The Tigers promised to prevent attacks on Lankan Forces. The government promised to disarm the ‘paramilitaries’ (Rajapakse also postponed Local Government elections in Batticaloa).

The lull was brief. The regime very correctly did not disarm the Karuna rebels and the LTTE soon recommenced attacks on the Lankan Forces. In March a press release by the ‘Upsurging People’s Force of Jaffna District’ ended with an ominous promise: “We will meet again on the battleground”, a hint “that the suspended offensives against the SLA forces by the ‘Upsurgence People's Force of Jaffna District’ may resume soon" (Tamilnet – 30.3.2006). In the East the JHU backed ‘Sinhala Resurgence’ fanned the flames of racism (including an unsuccessful attempt to hold a hartal on Thaipongal Day). When the Tigers set off a bomb in the Trinco market during the Sinhala and Tamil New Year season, Sinhala mobs attacked Tamil residents with the overt and tacit backing of the police and the Armed Forces. It took a call from the Indian PM for the Rajapakse administration to move in decisively to prevent another full scale Black July in Trinco.
The Trinco mini-riot highlighted the LTTE’s diabolical intent, the vulnerability of Tamils and the regime’s disinclination to protect its Tamil citizens. There was (and is) a discernible difference in the official (and Southern societal) reaction to Sinhala and Tamil victims. Perhaps this difference is best captured in a statement made by a Tamil fisherman of Pesalai, after retaliatory Naval strike on St. Mary’s Church. Comparing the divergent reactions to the Kebithigollawa and Pesalai incidents the young man said: “The president went to the scene of the bombing to survey the damage. The government paid for the funerals of the victims. Nobody has come here” (AP – 18.6.2006). The Sinhala victims of Kebithigollawa and the Tamil victims of Pesalai were all citizens of Sri Lanka; therefore they had to be accorded the same kind of treatment if not in life at least in death. If the victims of Pesalai are not accorded the same treatment as the victims of Kebithigollawa, then the implication is that they – and by extension Tamils - are not really citizens of Sri Lanka. No better justification for a separate Tamil country can be found, even by the Tigers. Unfortunately given the ideological predispositions of the Rajapakses, such matters were beyond their comprehension. Nor did the administration realise that the international community’s condemnation of the Tigers (especially the EU’s proscription of the LTTE) did not amount to a lack of interest in the fate of civilian Tamils and their rights.

The President’s hands may have been tied when it came to devolution, given his dependence on the JVP and the JHU. But he could have made a unilateral initiative to reach out to the terrified Tamil people of the North and the East. He did not. Since the LTTE is not a legitimate, democratic state, with a population to care for, it is immune to the pressure of the international community. Not so the Lankan government. Mahinda Rajapakse is a child of ’56 but he is not living in 1956. Sri Lanka is an island geographically, but in this globalised world there are no political islands. The world (including India) will not allow Sri Lanka to ignore either the Tamils or the ethnic problem. Unfortunately Rajapakse could not understand the signals sent to him by the international community – that any backing for the coming war against the Tigers would be conditional on a good human rights record and a willingness to share power with the Tamils.

The situation deteriorated rapidly in the second quarter of 2005. The Tigers tried to assassinate the Army Commander, killed Gen. Parami Kulatunga and bombed a bus full of civilians off Kebithigollawa. The second Geneva meeting was abandoned. It was in this context the LTTE closed the sluice gates of Mavil Aru depriving a large number of farmers in government areas of water. By now both sides were ready – even eager - for war. The JHU, by involving itself in the controversy, assisted the LTTE in closing off any residual non-violent paths out of the crisis. And the Eelam War IV began in earnest.

To be continued.
- Sri Lanka Guardian



1 comment

Anonymous said...

This author is clearly donot have any idea of History of Ceylon.Current regime donot follow an imaginary past or illusion.Simply they have to get rid of the terrorism,otherwise there wnot be a country or future to the majority of voters.

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