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The Rajapakse Presidency (Part IV)

“ Perhaps Vellupillai Pirapaharan knew what he was about when he decided to lend Mahinda Rajapakse a helping hand at the last Presidential election. It is logical to assume that any Tamil who has been maltreated would be more receptive to the LTTE’s arguments, more vulnerable to Tiger blandishments, less inclined to be loyal to the Lankan state. By assuming that any Tamil can be a Tiger and by acting on that assumption, the regime risks compelling Tamils to see themselves as Tigers and respond as Tigers. That will pave the way for the LTTE to replenish its manpower, its firepower and its coffers; it will facilitate the creation of yet another generation of suicide bombers, the LTTE’s deadly ‘force multipliers’.”
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( Read Part III)


by Tisaranee Gunasekara

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

IV – The War of their Dreams

(May 21, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The unofficial Fourth Eelam War commenced on a high tone, while the South was gripped by a collective ‘vertigo of intoxication’ (a term coined by Israeli writer and peace activist Uri Avnery). As the Mavil Aru crisis was climaxing a wave of religious dementia afflicted the South; claims of Budu res sightings (halos of light around Buddha statues) were reported from right across the country. This mass hallucination lasted for three days and was hailed by the JHU as a miracle presaging a victorious war. President Mahinda Rajapakse was reportedly ecstatic that the first halo was sighted in a temple in his very own Hambantota. Whether or not this ‘initial sighting’ was part of a plot to create a belief in the public mind about divine blessings for the regime and the Mavilaru operation (which would have been on the drawing board at that time) remains to be discovered. Be that as it may, the sightings were used in a George Bush type attempt to create a nexus between war and religion, to depict the war as a divinely sanctioned enterprise to save Sinhala-Buddhism and their chosen country, Lanka, from enemy aliens.

2006 was a year of revelation. With a self-proclaimed child of 1956 as the President, Sinhala hardliners could at long last come out of the closet and be themselves. Finally the Sinhala supremacists (and here I include not just the JHU and the JVP but all Sinhalese who feel that Sri Lanka is primarily or solely a Sinhala country) had a government that was theirs in every sense of the word, a government of real Sinhala tough guys unconcerned about the Tamils and unafraid of the West. This psycho-ideological backdrop was to have a decisive effect on the course of the Fourth Eelam war. Fighting the war half-heartedly was a charge levelled against Presidents Ranasinghe Premadasa and (to a lesser extent) Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. Sinhala hardliners believe that this ambiguous attitude impeded the war effort and prevented the defeat of the LTTE. On the other hand Mahinda Rajapakse was the leader the Sinhala supremacists always dreamt of but never had. This time the Tiger would be defeated, easily, it was said and believed.

Rajapakse did not disappoint; the Fourth Eelam War is being fought with little restraint and without much concern about damages to civilians. Indiscriminate bombing and shelling symbolised this new spirit. “Sarangapani, a coolie from Vavunathivu said that earlier people had time to take shelter in peace zones like schools, temples and churches. The fighting forces bypassed these shelters. But now no place is safe. ‘We don’t know when an artillery shell or an aerial bomb will fall in our area. The attacker can’t be seen. There is no warning that he is going to come. There is no escape’ he said” (Hindustan Times – 2.4.2007). The Vallipunam raid which killed dozens of young Tamil girls and the regime’s unashamed defence of it were early warnings of the tragedy that was awaiting the Tamils, caught between the hammer of a Sinhala supremacist regime and the anvil of a barbaric LTTE.

The regime’s Sinhala supremacist mindset made it blind to certain obvious truths, especially the vampiric nature of the Tiger. The LTTE feeds on the blood of the Tamil people. It needs the Tamils to hate the Lankan state in order to win recruits. Rajapakse could not comprehend the danger inherent in nay counter-terrorism strategy which fails to take into consideration humanitarian concerns. In consequence from the commencement of the war the regime played according to the Tiger script: “Huddled outside a detention camp in Sri Lanka's far south, relatives of civilians held for months without charge say lives are being ruined by emergency regulations amid renewed civil war…. ‘They still haven't charged my brother!’ said one woman, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid any retribution… ‘If they have any charges, then produce him in court!,’ she added. ‘I am so angry that my brother was taken into custody without any charge. If I had a chance, I would kill them!’” (Reuters – 20.2.2007 – emphasis mine). This sense of desperation, this anger, this desire for revenge is exactly what the Tigers want the Tamil people to feel.

Some wars are unavoidable. The Fourth Eelam War belongs in this category because the Tigers want war. A lasting peace is not an option as long as the Tigers are around (actually as long as its historical leadership is in charge). Limitless appeasement cannot contain the Tigers, as the sad fate of Ranil Wickremesinghe demonstrates. The question before us is not one of war and peace but of the nature of the war we wage against the Tigers. An 18th Century Swiss Jurist, Pastor Emmerich de Vattel stood St. Augustine’s concept of just war on its head by arguing that it is not the cause espoused but the methods used which decide the justice or otherwise of a conflict. Thus even a just war can become an unjust war if illegal methods become the norm, he argued in his groundbreaking book, ‘The Law of Nations’.

Perhaps nothing symbolised the distressing direction in which the Rajapakses were taking the war and the country than the decision to expel all North-Eastern Tamils living in Colombo lodges. The decision was made by the President’s brother, Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapakse; both he and the President defended it even after the Supreme Court intervened to prevent the expulsions. In the meantime an unprecedented and corrosive cynicism is evident in the manner in which the regime depicts the war. After Vaharai was won the President made a much publicizes visit there to be greeted by ‘the people of Vaharai’ and by a Hindu priest. The truth was that all the people of Vaharai were in IDP camps; the security forces had taken about 150 refugees and the priest to Vaharai, to enact the ‘liberator being greeted by the grateful people’ drama for the cameras. Some days later the Hindu priest was murdered by the Tigers. This one episode – the regime’s unscrupulous use of Tamil refugees for a photo opportunity and the brutal murder of the priest by the LTTE - encapsulated the cynicism and unconcern with which both the regime and the Tigers treat the Tamils victimised by a war that is of not their making.

Sinhala supremacists have always refused to acknowledge that the LTTE came into being and grew in strength because of our own mistakes, from 1956 to 1983. Instead, they prefer to believe that the LTTE is nothing but an international conspiracy aimed at dividing Sri Lanka or undermining India or subjugating Sinhalese or destroying Buddhism. For them what the Tigers really want is federalism because federalism is indeed separation. In their eyes Tamils have no grievances; in fact the Tamils are a privileged minority fighting to retain their privileges and gain more. The President seems to subscribe to this point of view. Speaking during his visit to the Vatican Rajapakse insisted that there is no ethnic problem in Sri Lanka; only a terrorist problem; at his most concessionary he uses terms such as ‘minority concerns’, a term which can be given different interpretations to suit the palate of diverse audiences. This ideological outlook impedes a political solution and has turned the APC into an eye-wash. The President’s own ‘solution, was a variation of district councils, a great leap backwards from political devolution to administrative decentralisation.

The war was thus fought without a real political corollary. This and the scant regard paid to Tamil rights began to undermine the international support for the Lankan cause. The regime’s habit of covering up all crimes by the Lankan Forces made matters worse. The killing of five students in Trincomalee in January 2006 was a watershed. The government claimed that these were Tiger supporters who died when the bomb they were going to use against the army exploded. This was generally believed until the post-mortem findings by a courageous Sinhalese DMO (Dr. Gamini Gunatunga) revealed that the students died of gun shot wounds. The resultant dent in credibility was made by other crimes and cover-ups, especially the killing of 17 aid workers in Mutur. Sri Lanka began to lose the ‘war of perception’. As the government’s lack of interest in improving the human rights situation became obvious aid cuts by Western nations began. This worsened the economic and financial crisis and created a vicious cycle which will someday make the war just unaffordable.

The war has been on for nearly two years, with no end in sight. The Tigers lost the East but gained a rudimentary air force; the Lankan Forces took the East but has been less successful in the North. Hubris on the part of the regime has prevented a proper analysis of the enemy; those who warn about the dangers of triumphalism are decried as traitors and faint hearts. The escalating human rights problems and worsening refugee crisis are dismissed as enemy propaganda. “In the war to eliminate the Tigers and protect the country, are human rights to comfort the Tigers?” a pro-regime poster (in 2007) rhetorically asked, giving expression to the dominant mindset. In fact any criticisms of the conduct of the war are decried as acts of treachery and a degree of intolerance, unseen since the First Eelam War, pervades in politics and in the public sphere.

President Mahinda Rajapakse is a path-breaker – to the past. In his long history as parliamentarian and political leader, he has never taken a progressive, forward looking stance on the ethnic problem. From the early 1980’s he was with the extremist wing of the ethno-centric SLFP, opposing any devolution, and denying the very existence of the ethnic problem. Though circumstances may prevent him from being as blunt, his actions demonstrate that he has not progressed much beyond his original Sinhala maximalism. It is precisely this extremism which enabled him to do what less immoderate minds would have shunned as being counter-productive, such as the SLFP’s political proposals which seek to turn the clock back to the pre-Accord times.

Antagonising/alienating ordinary Tamils is dangerously counterproductive as it helps the enemy, the LTTE. But this logic would not be acceptable to those whose worldview is based on an axiomatic equation of Tamils and Tigers. Mahinda Rajapakse clearly sees the LTTE as the enemy, as do all Sinhala supremacists. But he is unable to see the distinction between the Tamils and the LTTE (except in the case of those Tamils who support him unconditionally). He does not understand that a victory in the war is dependent on our capacity to distinguish between the Tamils and the Tigers, to accommodate the first even as we resist the second.

Perhaps Vellupillai Pirapaharan knew what he was about when he decided to lend Mahinda Rajapakse a helping hand at the last Presidential election. It is logical to assume that any Tamil who has been maltreated would be more receptive to the LTTE’s arguments, more vulnerable to Tiger blandishments, less inclined to be loyal to the Lankan state. By assuming that any Tamil can be a Tiger and by acting on that assumption, the regime risks compelling Tamils to see themselves as Tigers and respond as Tigers. That will pave the way for the LTTE to replenish its manpower, its firepower and its coffers; it will facilitate the creation of yet another generation of suicide bombers, the LTTE’s deadly ‘force multipliers’. The Tigers want the Sri Lankan state to think and act like a Sinhala entity because that would render ideologically impossible a politico-military strategy which is based on an inescapable reality (given the pluralist nature of Sri Lanka, its proximity to Tamilnadu and dominant concerns of the international community) – that the Fourth Eelam War cannot be sustained, let alone won, without creating a breach between Tigers and civilian Tamils through greater observance of human rights and enhanced devolution.

To be continued.
- Sri Lanka Guardian

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