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Rajapakse’s Winter of Discontent

"The battle of the regime in the economic front at home is just as lethal as her travails with the international community – and particularly the powerful governments of the West. By its own action GoSL finds itself isolated by many diplomatic setbacks."

By Luxman Arvind

(May 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It was a formal interview in which Fauzia Ibrahim of the increasingly popular global TV Channel Al Jazeera (101 East) was conducting. In the process of the event President Mahinda Rajapakse, generally a smiling, courteous and collected man, lost his cool and demanded “You don’t ask that from the Americans. You don’t ask that from the British…Don’t treat Sri Lanka like that” that clearly shocked Ms Ibrahim.

She did not lose her composure and eventually was to have the day. Diplomatic and media sources in Colombo see this as a further sign of President Rajapakse losing his bearings - as his regime comes under siege in many fronts. Around the same time, mild-mannered new Minister of External Affairs Prof. G. L. Peiris – legal luminary and senior Minister in several administrations in recent times - abruptly cancelled a plan media Conference at the National Press Conference in Washington. Peiris is currently on a visit to the USA in which GoSL places much hopes for a breakthrough to salvage her negative image abroad. He was tasked with repairing much damage in US-SL relations where the US Administration is under pressure to set in motion a War Crimes Trial against the Rajapakse brothers and the Sri Lankan Army. All arising out of events in the recently concluded war against the Tamil tigers where nearly a third of a million Tamil women, children and other civilians were forcibly held in camps widely described as “Concentration Camps” of WW2 vintage. In fairness to GoSL, they vigorously deny the claim although their position is weakened by the continuous refusal of the regime to permit independent local and foreign media to ascertain the allegations. Of equal importance was Dr. Peiris’s meeting with the UN-SG Ban Ki Moon, himself under attack for failing to hold Sri Lanka accountable for gross HR violations last May in the Wanni region of the Tamil-dominated Northern Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, the recent recorded comment of a government apologist can bring no comfort to the Rajapakse regime “One may discern a serious danger of growing encirclement of Sri Lanka” – said he who was until recently a front-line trouble-shooter for the Rajapakse government in the UN/Geneva. His sudden removal, while he had about two more years to go under his Contract, was done haphazardly- believed to be at the instance of the Israelis who had complained of this official while in Geneva.

The battle of the regime in the economic front at home is just as lethal as her travails with the international community – and particularly the powerful governments of the West. By its own action GoSL finds itself isolated by many diplomatic setbacks. The US$2.6 billion loan from the IMF was secured after agreeing to many bitter conditions. The first two tranches averted a collapse of the economy and bought valuable time for the gasping economy. The third tranche is long delayed because the government has failed to accomplish reduce the assured budget deficits. Reducing consumption and cutting wastage in the poorly performing public sector – notably petroleum, power and energy - were all agreed to at the time the loan was obtained. The recent stiff hikes in the price of cooking gas, wheat flour, bread, milk powder, daily food essentials are already alienating the regime’s power base in the urban areas where live a large number of the working class. The wider rural electorate - largely of farmers and fisher folk - are not as badly affected as they live frugally with rice and farm produce, catches from the sea, hardly use cooking gas, milk powder and other items associated with the life styles of their cousins in the towns. However, punsihing price increases expected in electricity, fuel, price of medicine and pharmaceuticals will harm them just as well. The large working class base that helped Rajapakse to come to power over and over again finds the increases in wages assured during pre-election times are not forthcoming. They are sharpening their knives – just in case. Lack of management skill and professionalism particularly at a time the regime is going through economic difficulties is patently clear. Square pegs in round holes finding themselves in high Governement positions in a frequent display of music chairs is quite common.

Urgent issues that concern the welfare of the mass of the people, therefore, are hardly addressed to bring relief to the people. The recent change of ministers clearly showed out a series of comedy of errors. The former Ministers of Health, Education and Trade created more problems than what they settled during their tenure. It was no surprise, therefore, they were all moved from their positions in an indirect show of lack of confidence in them by the omnipotent President. When the new Ministers of Health and Education took over, the first announcement they made was to stridently condemn the previous office holders – their Cabinet colleagues nonetheless – suggesting they have “messed up the entire ministry’s running of affairs” It is clear nothing much can be expected from many of these Cabinet Ministers – the External Affairs Minister being one of the rare exceptions. The main claim of all these ministers is that they were elected by popular vote. This is woefully inadequate in running the affairs of a resource-short developing country

where managerial skill and competency often plays a tremendously complementary role.

By far the greatest challenge to the Rajapakse regime will be the issues of their relationship with India that is inextricably intertwined with the settlement of the National Question – the hydra-headed creature. This includes power-sharing issue with the Tamils of the North East, the questions relating to the IDPs of sharply contested numbers and the future of the Lankan Tamils – now agreed by both sides to be a concern of the Government of India as well. The unsettled issue of Lankan Tamils – of whom there are over an estimated 150,000 in refugee camps in India since 1983– is a matter of deep concern to the adjoining State of Tamilnadu, an important Coalition constituent of the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi Government. It is widely suspected the Rajapakse regime have given GoI many assurances to address the problem all of which can be unpopular with his extreme Buddhist Sinhala vote base. Pay time is here – and India is due to go to national polls next year. One indication the Rajapakse regime is buckling in was the inspired leak to the media last week to the effect draft proposals of the settlement will be handed over both to the President and PM of India - while the people of Sri Lanka will be kept in the dark. Now this a big come-down for a regime that impressed the Sinhala electorate with hyperbole and the like to the effect

“we will not be intimidated or cowed down by anyone” Fully realizing there can be a backlash the regime is believed to have let loose their henchmen on an anti-Indian tirade. Wilmal Weerawansa – the former JVP rabble rouser - was given a powerful Cabinet Portfolio recently although his administrative or managerial skills are virtually nil. His attack personally naming the Indian Foreign Secretary Smt. Nirupama Rao violates the basic norms expected in the behaviour of a Cabinet Minister in naming a senior official of a friendly neighbour out of protocol– albeit a regional power. India would have taken careful note of Weerawansa’s threat “Nirupama Rao has no business to tell us what to do” This ill-educated man is ignorant the many visits the President and his 2 brothers and other close officials undertake to India is merely to seek their advise exactly what Sri Lanka should do to overcome our many crises. Yesterday’s brutal attack by lawyer S.L. Gunasekera, with the dubious reputation of having been in almost all the major parties where he was shown the door – in poor taste names most of the current Indian leaders. The timing of both these inspired attacks by men close to the top of the regime to coincide with President Rajapakse’s uneasy visit to Delhi due June 08 is aimed to cushioning the hardliners within the country.

However, this can well be counter-productive with an Indian administration that has, in more ways than one, told the Rajapakses the game of procrastination now must end.

Yet another area in which the regime will find it tough convincing Delhi of their good intent is that in which they are engaging the TNA. That India has counselled the President to work closely with the TNA – who enjoy a large popular measure of electoral support of the Tamil people in the NEP – is hardly a secret. President Rajapakse called for “the cooperation of the Tamils to settle the National Question” in a great deal of fanfare. Senior Parliamentarian and leader of the TNA was to assure this in unequivocal terms “if lasting and sustainable peace and unity is what you sincerely look to, you will not find us wanting” is the substance of the TNA reply. Yet, when the entire delegation of TNA MPs under Mr Sampanthan’s leadership went to the Chettikulam IDP camp to meet, speak to and console the thousands of IDPs involuntarily held there, he was horrified the lower level army officials there have been given orders not to let them in. This after the delegation noticed the President’s office well in time of the visit and were assured all was well. This is not the first time orders in such sensitive affairs given by the President are counter-manded. By whom and why does not bode well for the President’s grip on the power apparatus is the view of these MPs and those in the know.

While Sri Lankan businessmen and industrialists have many other channels through which they can express their dissatisfaction to the CEPA, which the media makes out is being pressed on by GoI sources, the fact such influential millionaire industrialists like Mickey Wickramasisnghe of MUNCHEE Biscuit factory and Ariyapala Wickramanayake of Master Divers-MILCO coming out at Lipton Circus a week before the President’s visit to Delhi might not impress the Delhi Brahmins. Many in trade circles say the Government’s hand in this inspired anti-Indian demonstration is all too clear but puzzling.

There can be little good tidings from Europe in the regaining of the GSP+ simply because the EU is in a serious economic crisis. Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal are shaking the foundations of the EU financial structure. If England, Ireland and Germany were to fall even marginally then placing Sri Lanka’s GSP issue will have to be pushed lower down their agenda.

The ill-advised 2nd mega show of the “Victory against the Tamil Tigers” that was due to be flagged off on May 18 was called off. The first as we all know was in the weeks after May 19 last year. In the words of another columnist, “the war lords were beaten by the weather gods” This calculated move to rub into the wounds of the Tamil civilians (the LTTE leadership is long dead) in the country was frowned down by India and the international community. But the government was insistent on further propaganda gains to keep the focus of the Sinhala South from the spiralling Cost of Living issue. Now the whole thing has blown off in the face of the government as the Trans National Government of Tamil Eelam matter is back in the agenda of the global press. Local analysts are carefully noting our own spin doctors now cotton on to the "diaspora"bogey now that LTTE, Terrorism, Separate State have all lost their venom in the Sinhala psyche. Hilary Clinton, the US Senate, the Canadian government, Anne Arbour and associates, powerful sources in British and European politics are all back speaking of “HR violations and War Crimes in Sri Lanka” which could have been totally averted. With the Noreiga and Sudan’s Bashir issues catching the attention of the world press leaders in countries with suspect HR records are in fear of travelling to Europe and North America. Ban Ki Moon is under attack for doing a poor job and being weak to act in areas where the writ of the UN should have been more visible and forthright. Prof G.L. Peiris leaving the NPC press briefing in Washington in a huff is said to be related to the fact UNSG Moon has now turned course and is insistent on an international impartial fact finding mission.

Post June 08 can be a difficult month for the Rajapakses of Sri Lanka. July, decidedly so for many years, since 1983 so has been so.

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