The Political Column28th May 2000
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present planetary configuration is not favourable to many countries, including
Sri Lanka until the end of the first week of June, say some astrologers.
But they also caution that it does not mean that the war will come to an
end after that.
To end the war, what is necessary is a negotiated political settlement. The LTTE taking over of Jaffna will also not be the end of the story. It will only give them a political advantage with the situation coming back to what it was five years ago.
Jaffna was brought under the government writ in 1995 with Deputy Defence Minister Anuruddha Ratwatte playing a major role. It was no doubt a serious political and psychological blow to the LTTE which had claimed that Jaffna had not been conquered by the Sinhalese since the end of Prince Sapumal's reign.
Thus the LTTE is making a determined effort to bring the Jaffna peninsula under its control.
The most important feature in this scenario is the role played by the Indian government. Ostensibly, India is reluctant to intervene in Sri Lanka other than on humanitarian grounds.
What is India's role as the South Asian super-power?. Should India keep mum when the existence of a democratically-elected government is threatened by a terrorist group. India knows well that there is no persecution of Tamil civilians in Sri Lanka. In Colombo thousands of Tamils live in harmony with the Sinhalese. They own property and run businesses in Colombo.
Even in the north, civilians face no organised persecution, though occasionally we hear reports of harassment. But the government takes action against those security forces men who are alleged to be involved in such acts.
If the LTTE takes over the Jaffna peninsula, it could pose a threat to India's territorial integrity because the LTTE could stimulate separatist tendencies in Tamilnadu. Who could deny the possibility that pan-Tamilism in the form of a terrorist monster could create problems for India? Some analysts question India's passive response to the crisis in Sri Lanka. They say the BJP government should be more concerned with India's national security than its political future that is being threatened by 17 Tamilnadu votes.
Perhaps, India does not want to get caught in a quagmire once again since it has learnt a bitter lesson in four years of military involvement in Sri Lanka. India was humiliated and given a cold farewell by the Tamils themselves. Analysts say India's peace-keeping mission from 1987 to 1990 was a disaster. It was because of that very reason that India was not too sure about its role. The Indian peace-keeping force which arrived in Sri Lanka as a friend and saviour of the Tamil people finally earned their wrath, when the Indians turned their guns on the LTTE.
A battered LTTE flirted with the Premadasa administration on the pretext of peace talks and managed to send the Indian troops back. This would not have happened if India's interest was to preserve democracy and to protect a legally-elected government in Sri Lanka at that stage. Even now it appears to some that India is playing a game at a time when Sri Lanka is in crisis with subtle moves aimed at persuading the government to evacuate troops from Jaffna.
Evacuating troops from Jaffna means playing into the hands of the LTTE which will happily walk into Jaffna and have a hold even on the Palaly base. Is this the ultimate objective of the Indian government? If that be the case, India is making a mistake concerning its own security. Tamilnadu politicians, especially those with separatist tendencies, will make the Jaffna peninsula a springboard for a separate state in Tamilnadu, the home for 60 million Tamils.
Others say India is adopting a wait-and-see attitude till the Jaffna peninsula is taken over by the LTTE so that it could thrust a peace formula on Sri Lanka with maximum benefit to the LTTE and the Tamils.
India must surely now realise that the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran is not going to lay down arms. But on the other hand, will India suggest a loose federal-system for the Tamils in Sri Lanka whereas its political system is quite different?
Should not India recall that what it proposed in the 1987 Indo-Lanka agreement was considered by both countries, the LTTE and other militant groups. Is not India obliged to uphold the Indo-Lanka agreement? If India comes out with another formula, it will pose a question on the validity of the Indo-Lanka agreement. The PA government does not want to talk about the Indo-Lanka agreement because it was signed by a UNP regime. The case is similar in India, too, as the agreement was the handiwork of the Congress Party.
Those who say India is waiting till Jaffna falls to intervene believe the UNP is toeing the Indian line. The UNP believes that the government should effectively get the Indians involved to find a solution to the current crisis. Unlike the SLFP-led opposition in 1987, the UNP is unlikely to rise against any solution put forward by the Indians.
In 1987, when the Indo-Lanka agreement was signed, the opposition headed by Sirima Bandaranaike protested against the arrival of the IPKF and the provincial council system envisaged in the agreement. There was violence. State institutions and property were set on fire, prompting the police to open fire.
But today things are different. The Indians have diplomatically struck a chord with the UNP. Indian diplomats have also held extensive talks with the Maha Sangha to feel their pulse as well as with the Sinhala hardliners. They all wanted the Indians to intervene, but in favour of the existing government and the Sinhalese. But India's intentions may well be different. They want to keep the South calm and stable while getting the best bargain for the LTTE.
In the meantime, Norway, apprehensive of opposition from Sinhala hardliners for its peace efforts moved very carefully with the help of the US to bring the Indians to the forefront. Now, India is placed in a difficult situation. Will the Indian government play the role of a regional power, a good neighbour or a self-seeking body of politicians who place their own political survival ahead of the national interest?
There are three schools of thought emerging from Indian soil.
According to the first school of thought, India would like Sri Lanka to suffer defeat at the hands of the LTTE to cover up its peace-keeping fiasco which killed more than one thousand jawans.
The second school of thought suggests that India has adopted a wait-and-see policy without getting involved too much in the internal affairs of a neighbouring country.
The third school advocates that the Indians should give logistic support to the Sri Lankan army.
In this backdrop, President Chandrika Kumaratunga on Wednesday evening met members of the Presidential Task Force on Ethnic Affairs and National Integration. She told them that the war should not frustrate the people, especially the Tamils who wanted their day to day grievances redressed. She called upon the task force to implement the language policies and look into other issues concerning minorities.
The President said all ministries should implement the principle of ethnic ratio when recruiting cadre. She said the ministries under her charge were following this policy to the letter but regretted that some ministries were not abiding by this principle.
She said if there were any problems in implementing this policy they could be referred to Ministers G. L. Peiris or Mangala Samaraweera who are in the task force. EPDP leader Douglas Devananda, PLOTE leader D. Siddhartan and SLMC parliamentarian M. M. Zuhair represented minority political parties in the task force which also include intellectuals and government officials.
The President also spoke about the grenade attack on the Norwegian Embassy and the government's efforts to bring about a solution to the conflict in the north and east. She said India and Norway were willing to facilitate in the crisis.
Meanwhile, the UNP also discussed the present situation in the country at its group meeting on Wednesday.
Speaking on the latest situation at the warfront, party leader Ranil Wickremesinghe said the country was facing a crucial period in its history. He told UNP MPs that the government media were accusing him of masterminding a European Parliament resolution, which called European members in the UN Security Council to take up the Sri Lankan issue.
The state media has also implicated former ambassador and UNPer Charlie Mahendran with the European resolution issue. Mr. Mahendran said he did not meet European Parliament member Neranjan Deva Adithiya as stated in the state media.
Mr. Wickremesinghe said that in any case, the resolution did not say anything about UN intervention. He said the resolution was not proposed by the Conservative bloc though it backed it.
Jayalath Jayawardena spoke on the sealing of the Sunday Leader and Jaffna's Uthayan newspaper, the only provincial publication in Sri Lanka. Some MPs told Dr. Jayawardena not to comment on Uthayan because the government would try to accuse the UNP of being in tow with the LTTE.
However, Dr. Jayawardena continued. He asked Mahinda Samarasinghe to take the matter up at the Inter-Parliamentary Union meeting.
National List member Sarath Kongahage, too, condemned the sealing of the newspapers. He said he was against the closing down of the 'Irida Peramuna', the Sinhala paper published by Leader Publications. He said there could be more to it than what meets the eye and hinted about a hidden motivation behind the episode.
Mr. Kongahage was critical of the Sunday Leader's page 1 lead story last Sunday. "What does it mean? It means Palaly was under siege. The LTTE came to Rajagiriya and attacked. Was Rajagiriya under siege? If the sealing was as a result of an article that criticised President Kumaratunga, Mangala Samaraweera or any other minister or an article exposing the corrupt practices of the government, I would have certainly protested against the sealing of the Leader," he said.
He told Mr. Wickremesinghe: "Sir, you said that Chavakachcheri has fallen. Sir, it is my view that it has not." If we go along with this paper (Sunday Leader) we would also be accused of approving it. What we should do is something general against the censorship. Referring to Mr. Wickremesinghe's controversial BBC interview where he made a statement that the LTTE had gone into Jaffna, Mr. Kongahage said the government used Major General Janaka Perera, an officer who had earlier been accused of having links with the UNP, to refute this.
Mr. Kongahage cited many examples, including Indian newspaper articles, which were critical the UNP's attitude. He said the Hindu newspaper carried an article which said the UNP was building up a defeatist mentality in Sri Lanka. He also recalled reports in newsletters published by the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna).
"You are the chief executive of this party. If you decide today to remove anyone from the membership, you have the right to do so. I do not say that is your prerogative. But when you take a decision concerning the life and death of our people, it has to be a collective decision of the party," Mr. Kongahage said. "Leader Editor Lasantha Wickrematunga is a good friend of mine. But in this instance, I do not agree with him" he said.
Rajitha Senaratne who spoke next said he was surprised at the manner in which Sarath Kongahage let out steam on the Leader newspaper and the UNP. He said Goebbels also thought that media censorship and propaganda could win the war.
Commenting on the situation in Jaffna, Dr. Senaratne recalled how he introduced Maj. General Janaka Perera to President Kumaratunga. He said Maj. Gen. Perera trained ten security personnel for Ms. Kumaratunga when they were in the SLMP. "It is because of my connection with Janaka Perera that he remained sidelined for a long time. Now they wanted both Janaka Perera and Ranil Wickremesinghe to solve the problem," Dr. Senaratne said.
Lakshman Seneviratne, Gamini Lokuge and Imtiaz Bakeer Marker who spoke after Mr. Kongahage however did not agree with his views. But most of them spoke against the censorship in general terms.
Winding up, Mr. Wickremesinghe said the party had advocated a policy of talking to the LTTE. "This is not new. It was the policy during President Jayewardene's time. Therefore, it is not my view. It is a decision of the party. If you want to change this stance, the party has to take a decision. President Kumaratunga, in her interview with The Hindu, also has acknowledged the importance of talking to the LTTE though the government is trying to blame me," he said and added that his advice to the government was that it should discuss the matter with India.
Referring to The Hindu article which was critical of the UNP, Mr. Wickremesinghe said: "I don't want to reply to its author P. K. Balachandran. If I happened to meet him, I will explain to him the true position of the UNP."
Referring to his comments on Chavakachcheri, Mr. Wickremesinghe said the news was conveyed to him when he was at Temple Trees.
On the sealing of the Sunday Leader issue, Mr. Wickremesinghe said it was due to the page 1 lead story which referred to a war in fantasy land. The story indirectly described the situation in the Jaffna peninsula, he said.
The sealing of the Leader Publications press by the Competent Authority came under heavy fire from several international media freedom groups. In Sri Lanka it was not unusual for a government to resort to the sealing of the press. It first happened in 1974 when Sirima Bandaranaike was in office. Her government sealed the Dawasa group of newspapers which were critical of the government.
Thereafter, we saw the seizure of the Saturday Review newspaper during the UNP regime.
If censorship is considered bad in law, the sealing of newspapers could be considered an arbitrary act which is worse and which stifles the rights of the people to have access to information. It is unfortunate that the very government which came into office with a pledge to uphold media freedom, has invoked draconian laws to stifle democratic institutions.
At a special meeting of the party leaders, the UNP had a complaint to make. UNP MP Tyronne Fernando said the UNP delegation led by Mr. Wickremesinghe was kept waiting at Temple Trees when it went there to discuss constitutional reforms. The UNP delegation was told that the President was seeing a doctor. The UNP delegation was given tea and cakes. Finally, the President did not turn up and the UNP team had to come back. But the President later went to Anuradhapura for a special pooja, Mr. Fernando said.
He also objected to the President's comments in The Hindu newspaper interview that the UNP was dragging its feet in finding a solution to the ethnic crisis. Mr. Fernando quipped 'the UNP delegation had to wait dragging their feet on Wednesday when the President failed to come on time for the discussion'.
At the party leaders' meeting, Srimani Athulathmudali raised another hornet's nest when she said Ravi Karunanayake should be removed from the Committee on Public Enterprises. She said since Mr. Karunanayake was no more with the government, the opposition was in the majority at the COPE.
When Speaker K.B. Ratnayake inquired from Mr. Karunanayake whether he was ready to resign voluntarily, he replied in the negative. Mr. Karunanayake said if he had conducted himself in a manner detrimental to the House, the Speaker could sack him.
Thereafter, all the government and opposition members agreed that Mr. Karunanayake should not be asked to resign since it would be highly unethical. As a compromise, they agreed to appoint one more to the committee to maintain the balance.
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