Mahinda’s march from Mavil Aru to Mannar, Madhu and now Mallawi, birthplace of Madivadani, with more to come

‘Mahinda Rajapakse took the reins of office at this weak stage. His position seemed hopeless with the international community, India, Prabhakaran, NGOs and all the other anti-national elements, including the UNP, ganging up to tie his hands behind his back. Besides, Prabhakaran, who was riding high, did not give much time to come up with a solution even though he promised to do so in his annual speech.’

by H. L. D. Mahindapala

(September 03, Melbourne, Sri Lanka Guardian) In the three score years that spanned our post-independence era there is one indelible route in our history that will be drawn in gold from coast to coast: the miles conquered in the march of President Mahinda Rajapakse’s forces, all the way from Mavil Aru in the east to Mannar, Madhu, and now Mallawi, the birthplace of Velupillai Prabhakaran’s wife, Madivadani, in the west. According to all military estimates now it’s only a hop-step-and-a-jump away from Killinochchi, the so-called capital of Evil-laam which failed to supply the trapped Tamils a slice of bread or an aspirin.

By any historical standards, Rajapakse’s march is a remarkable feat that will be told and retold in heroic terms down the ages. With this march he has risen above petty party politics into a historical legend which will grow in time to come. In the meantime, however, he will have to bear the slings and arrows of his critics who are bent on denigrating him rather than acknowledging his gigantic contribution to peace, stability, progress and history of this war-ravaged nation.

On the other side of the defence lines, Prabhakaran has lost more than territory. He has lost his dignity, his putative status as the saviour of the Tamils, and above all his self-proclaimed claim to be “the sole representative of the Tamils.” He has lost all his bargaining chips. There isn’t around him a single friend that matters to save him. He alienated them all with his ruthless violence which initially lifted him above the other Tamil rivals. But now he has fallen on the sword that lifted him. There is no one to blame except himself and his arrogant intransigence which exaggerated his importance as a dictator of national events.

He met his match in Mahinda Rajapakse whom he described as “a pragmatic man”. Hardly anyone expected Mahinda’s pragmatism to take him all way to Mallavi, with more to come, and redraw the map of Sri Lanka to regain its lost sovereignty and territorial integrity. He began his march at a time when the nation was down in the depths of despair. The nation had all but given up hope of erasing the borders drawn on February 22, 2002 when the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe signed the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with Velupillai Prabhakaran without informing the President, Parliament or even his party. In this single arbitrary act he virtually abdicated his powers as prime minister of the north and the east to the Tiger Supremo. This was confirmed in a sneering tone by Anton Balasingham, the key player of the Tigers in drafting the CFA, when he told the journalists in the Vanni that Wickremesinghe was not their prime minister,

February 22, 2002 marked the zenith of the political power of the Jaffna Tamils who launched their violence against the state in the Vadukoddai Resolution of 1976. Velupillai Prabhakaran was handed over 6,000 sq. kilometers by Wickremesinghe which was a scandalous sell out. Paul Harris, the Correspondent of Jane’s Intelligence Review and the Daily Telegraph, who had grasped the significance of the underhand maneuvers of the Wickremesinghe regime, categorized it as “the biggest land sell-out in history”. He paid dearly for speaking out and revealing the truth. Wickremesinghe put his police dogs to track his movements and before long Paul, who was hoping to settle down in Sri Lanka, was expelled from Sri Lanka. (For details see Paul’s entertaining and informative book titled, “Delightfully Imperfect” – a Year in Sri Lanka at the Galle Face Hotel, Vijitha Yapa, 2007)

Though it was the worst of times for the nation as a whole it was the best of times for the Tamil Tigers. Everything was going swimmingly for the Tamil Tigers after the CFA. In the name of peace-making Wickremesinghe was bending over backwards to please the Tigers. The Tamil Tigers, on the other hand, had no intentions of stopping their aggression after the signing of the CFA. In his usual naïve approach to complex issues, Wickremesinghe viewed the CFA as his great political masterpiece that would tie the Tigers down to a peace guaranteed by the international community. But to Prabhkaran a piece of paper signed in Oslo was not going to stop him from bulldozing his way through anyone who stood in his way. The Tigers considered it as the penultimate stage to their Eelam. They had got the north and the east, got the borders legitimized in an international agreement, got themselves recognized as “the sole representatives of the Tamils”, got the GOSL to disarm its Tamil opponents, got the forces confined to barracks, got the ban lifted as a terrorist organization and all that remained was to push for the next step of UDI with the blessings of some selected nations, starting presumably with Norway. They were even seen as an invincible force in the eyes of many of the pundits, including the misguided diplomats in Western embassies.

The most charitable of critics considered the signing of the CFA as a necessary evil. The Wickremesinghe administration considered it as a triumphant moment on the path to peace. The Tamil Tigers considered it as declaration of their equality of status with the Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL). Based on this notion of military balance of power, Velupillai Prabhakaran and his emissary at negotiations, Anton Balasingham, took up a commanding position dictating terms to the Government of Sri Lankan (GOSL), with Erik Solheim, the boozing buddy of Balasingham, playing the obnoxious role of treating the Sri Lankan delegation as those who should obey his commands. The Sri Lankan delegation was privately grumbling in the corridors about the high-handed and partisan role played by Solheim. He was strutting the stage in Geneva as the Imperial Viceroy, banking primarily on the military balance that favoured the Tamil Tigers at the time. He was treating both as two separate states with equal power. The CFA which he helped to draft, with the inputs and consent of Balasingham and the Indian South Bloc in Delhi, had virtually conceded this status of parity. The GOSL delegation felt humiliated and they were seething with impotent anger unable to assert their legal and political status as representatives of a legitimate government with powers to override interlopers like Solheim.

So when Mahinda Rajapakse assumed his presidential seat in December 2005 he was virtually a prisoner of the legacy he inherited from the failed regimes of Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe. Their mishandling of critical national issues had led to the crowning of the Tamil Tigers in the CFA. Prabhakaran had assumed the role of not only the king-maker in the south but also the dictator of the unfolding events of the nation. He was cocky and he declared in his annual birthday speech that he would give some time for President Mahinda Rajapakse, “a pragmatic man”, to come up with a solution. This was the time when he did have the power to declare war and/or peace at the time of his choosing. Prabhakaran was, in short, in a position to dictate the national agenda. GOSL was reduced to playing a reactive role to the aggressive decision-making in the Vanni.

Mahinda Rajapakse took the reins of office at this weak stage. His position seemed hopeless with the international community, India, Prabhakaran, NGOs and all the other anti-national elements, including the UNP, ganging up to tie his hands behind his back. Besides, Prabhakaran, who was riding high, did not give much time to come up with a solution even though he promised to do so in his annual speech.

In fact, before Mahinda Rajapakse could warm his presidential seat the Tamil Tigers started firing at him. One of the major targets was the Army Commander, Lt Gen. Sarath Fonseka who narrowly escaped death. They also dispatched a suicide bomber to assassinate President’s brother, Gotabaya Rajapakse who survived the attack at Pittala Junction, in the heart of Colombo, with minor scrapes. The Tigers had succeeded in violating 95% of the terms and conditions of the CFA with impunity and the calculated moves of Prabhakaran, after Mahinda Rajapakse won the presidential race, were aimed at targeting the strategic nerve centre of the state. Despite these provocative attacks Rajapakse government had no option but to hang on perilously to the CFA purely to be on the good side of the international community which had brokered it.

At this stage, cramped by the humiliating conditions laid down in the CFA, there was hardly any room for Mahinda Rajapakse to manouevre. He must have felt worse than young Durugemunu who curled up in a foetal position in bed refusing to stretch his limbs. Dutugemunu had only two major obstacles to find his freedom: the sea in the south and the Tamil invaders in the north. Rajapakse was hemmed in by multiple forces: the meddlesome West, Indian manipulations behind the scenes, a disgruntled President of his party, Chandrika Kumaratunga covertly and overtly working against him, a negative media, anti-national NGOs, hired peace lobbies obstructing any head-on confrontation with the Tigers, frustrated UNP in the opposition trying to exploit every misstep to their advantage, a weakend military locked inside a box and keys thrown away by the two previous regimes of Chandrika Kumaratunga and Wickremesinghe, a feeble economy, climbing debts and inflation, and a parliamentary political base that was very shaky.

Mahinda Rajapakse’s task was to lift the nation from this plight and give hope to the war-weary people. It was a gigantic task. Faced with a grim situation he turned wisely for help from his brothers: Gotabaya, Basil and Chamila. His critics pounced on this combination and tagged it as “Rajapakse Bros & Co”. Despite all the likely infirmities in such an arrangement it has proved to be the best investment made by the President.

Broadly speaking, Mahinda had to fight on two major fronts: military and political. Gotabaya stood as the sentinel in the military front and Basil headed the political front. Collectively, the “Rajapakse Bros & Co” has come out on top. Though Mahinda is open to charges of nepotism it is this factor that has saved the Presidency and the nation. Leading in front “Rajapakse Bros & Co” has turned around huge political losses into gains. It is rather difficult to find another political quartet like this. Frankly, who cares if Basil, Gotabaya and Chamila are the President’s brothers as long as they function effectively as partners in the business of running the nation to fulfill the aspirations of the people? “Who cares if the cats are grey or white as long as they catch the mice?”asked Deng Tsiao Peng, who turned China around and set it on the path to a new nationhood, lifting it from the bloody depths of the Cultural Revolution – a self-centered movement of Mao to eliminate his rivals in the party.

Mahinda’s march from Mavil Aru too lifted the nation from the depths of a crisis of gigantic proportions. When in the first stage of the march the soldiers raised the national flag at Thoppigala the nation responded warmly and gratefully. Mahinda who seemed a novice when he assumed office leapt into the consciousness of the nation as a doer, an achiever, and in the eyes of some, even saviour. A UK signatory to the internet petition against Prabhakaran hailed the President as “Diyasena” (See petition in Lanka Web). The response of the hard-nosed electorate too is similar. They look beyond the immediate shortcomings into the larger benefits of the future. That is why they reject Wickremesinghe time and time again and return Mahinda Rajapakse. The failure of the anti-government media blitz to influence the electorate is mainly because the critics have lost credibility in the first place and, second, the anti-national media have lost touch with the grassroots. The media critics, carping on the negative side, are dime a dozen. Remember how every Tom, Dick and Harry were attacking JRJ for spending millions on the new parliament? Who remembers the critics now? The oppositionists who led the chorus are now the main beneficiaries of the new premises. Remember also the media brouhaha about the construction of Kandalama Hotel? Today the NGOs, including A. T. Ariyaratne and the newspaper editors who were leading the anti-Kandalama campaign happen to be frequent vistors to the place they demonized as an evironmental disaster. Contrary to their propaganda, Kandalama has been winning award after award for environmental values.

History has a way of airbrushing the critics out of the main picture and focusing essentially on the glories of the achievers. History remembers only the essence that comes out of the mountainous labours of humanity. The attacks of contemporary critics may be noted, if at all, only in passing, perhaps in a dismissive footnote; but in the mainstream of history such attacks get washed away like water on a duck’s back. That is why President Ranasinghe Premadasa stands out as a towering figure in the public opinion polls and not his mediocre critics. He was an achiever who worked for the people and their aspirations. Mahinda Rajapakse is an achiever of the same mould. What is more, with each advancing step into the Vanni Mahinda Rajapakse outstrips them all.

His greatness is in reversing a trend which was considered irreversible. The war was dismissed as an unwinnable task. So to come thus far, from Mavil Aru to Madivadani's birth place is a monumental feat. We may not like his brothers, we may not like his style, we may not even like his scarf but what we cannot deny him is his courage in taking on a mission impossible – and taking it head-on with great risks. His political and media critics will, no doubt, find his achievement an inconvenient truth. But facts are stubborn. If they don’t like it they can lump it. In time to come he will be recognized for more than marching into Vanni. He will be recognized for marching into history.

To be continued
- Sri Lanka Guardian