ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, July 22, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 08
Columns - Political Column  

Is this politicization of the military?

  • Toppigala show was far from a big success, but the message was ominous
  • New grand alliance National Congress to blast on Thursday despite moves to keep crowds out of Colombo

By Our Political Editor

The mood was sombre though the colourful splendour of a military parade and a fly past filled the television screens like scenes from a thriller war movie.

Government parliamentarians, a handful of VIPs and some school children gathered at Independence Square. President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa hoisted the national flag and mounted a special dais to declare, "Citizens, this is your victory." Despite days of propaganda that tried to whip up a patriotic fervour over the event, it was clear that the euphoria was missing. Thus, Thursday's tamasha, the celebration of the military victory at Toppigala, which the Government wanted to equate to the grandeur of an Independence Day celebration clearly failed to achieve that objective. There was just not enough public enthusiasm.

Diplomats from leading countries 'boycotted' the event. Some sent only their Defence Attaches. They argued that it was a military event. For envoys of the Donor Co-chair community, the United States, Japan, the European Union member nations as well as Japan, presence at the highest diplomatic levels would have amounted to an endorsement by their respective Governments of military victories. This was at a time when a Ceasefire Agreement was in force and they were urging Sri Lanka to talk peace, not wage war.

President Rajapaksa arriving for Thursday's ceremony at Independence Square. Pic by Gemunu Wellage

Major opposition political parties -- the United National Party, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (M) and the Tamil National Alliance also boycotted the event. The leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Rauff Hakeem attended the event. But, the same afternoon went to Parliament and said that he did so with much reluctance. "This is a political exercise built on military gains that made the Tamils feel they were a conquered race," he bemoaned.

Hakeem made clear he took part in the event to avoid being accused as a person opposed to the Security Forces. He already had a brush with the Special Task Force. There were several of his Cabinet and parliamentary colleagues who felt the same way but could not speak out.

Addressing a public rally in Nugegoda on Wednesday to pay tribute to troops, leading attorney S.L. Gunasekera speaking on behalf of the Manel Movement that supports the war against the LTTE, said the money spent on the tamasha could have easily gone for troop welfare. Endorsing the sentiments on the same platform was JVP's Wimal Weerawansa.

Two VVIPs, were also conspicuous by their absence. Basil Rajapaksa, Senior Advisor to the President was one. Though in Colombo, he did not take part. Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, though due early this week from his home in Los Angeles, California, did not turn up either. He was earlier scheduled to attend the event and was in touch with Security Forces top brass over arrangements.

During his address to the nation, President Rajapaksa took pains to say that Toppigala was not a personal victory "of the Defence Secretary" and his close associates, the "Service Commanders." He charged that "some who think so are engaged in insane prattle." The remarks underscored his concern over issues linking his brother who is personally running the military machine against Tiger guerrillas.

UNP defector Karu Jayasuriya, now Minister of Public Administration, chaired a special news conference to appeal to Sri Lankans to hoist national flags in their homes. Only few heeded the call. The national flavour which the Government wanted to create countrywide did not manifest openly. Like the 58-day long effort to secure Toppigala, there was many a battle behind the scenes over Thursday's ceremony. The lineup of what should take place kept on changing.

Original plans were for the Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka to hand over a Sannas Pattara (parchment). That was through the Chief of Defence Staff, Air Chief Marshal Donald Perera, who was to place it in the hands of President Rajapaksa. This was not to the liking of the top military men in the other services. They made representations to acting Defence Secretary, Lalith Weeratunga, who is also Secretary to the President. To drive their point home, they referred to an interview Lt. Gen. Fonseka had given a private television station where he had only praised his men and left out the contribution of others. Perhaps, the Army chief thought it prudent not to delve into others areas.

It was thus decided that the three Armed Forces chiefs and the Inspector General of Police will each present a Sannas Pattara. It was decided to add Kfir jets to an originally planned fly past by Air Force helicopters. By then, another matter, which was hardly manifesting in the media, had taken place. As The Sunday Times reported last week, the Government had decided to call upon schools to mark the event. But now they had gone a step further. In a bid to capture young minds, the Government asked the Army, Navy and Air Force to deliver written messages addressed to students. Though subtle, a political campaign through the military was taking shape in many areas. This was just one. There were others too as highlighted below.

Though it failed to generate public enthusiasm countrywide, Thursday's events at Independence Square are by no means a non-event. Beneath the euphoria and the glee over the success at Toppigala among Government leaders, lay a number of other critical issues. That makes last Thursday's events an important milestone in Sri Lanka's political firmament. It has seen the birth of new trends that have serious forebodings. Some significant aspects need close examination.

President Rajapaksa departed from accepted norms and conventions that govern a national event. A significant part of his speech was devoted to levelling bitter criticism and serious charges against UNP and Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe. Perhaps unintentionally but still ill-advisedly, the latter had described Toppigala as a jungle area suggesting that the efforts of the troops were an exercise in futility. In failing to give recognition to the role played by the troops, Wickremesinghe earned their ire.

Some excerpts of the Rajapaksa speech in this regard: "We also see an attempt to bury the victory of our troops by insulting them or levelling serious charges against them. Today, we see attempts by some who try to hide their own "stripes" by insulting the Maha Sangha.

"Is Toppigala a forest? Or is it a sanctuary? How many tanks did it have? How many houses? How many trees were there to an acre? Such questions are only important to cartographers. Please do not look at this victory with envy or jealousy. This is neither a victory of the State nor my personal victory. ……….This is a people's victory. I invite the Leader of the Opposition not to be an outsider but be a stakeholder in this victory. No matter that I am insulted or members of my family are insulted. We will bear it with patience. But do not insult our Security Forces. Do not belittle or underestimate our Security Forces. It is with the sacrifice of life and limb that they have won these victories for our motherland…………"

These were sentiments expressed in the Presidential address to the Nation from Independence Square. It was a national event. It assumes greater significance since the speech, albeit the entire event on Thursday was broadcast and telecast nationwide. Important enough they were watched by large groups of soldiers in most of the military installations in the country. Arrangements for this have been carefully made. When President Rajapaksa spoke, Rupavahini that was providing the all island coverage, cut into the Toppigala area to show groups of soldiers watching him. They heard their Minister of Defence and Commander-in-Chief using what was made out to be a national event to castigate his main political opponent. With Wickremesinghe unable to explain his position, the remarks would naturally lead to prejudice against him and his party, in the minds of the troops.

The fact that an acrimonious relationship has developed between President Rajapaksa and Wickremesinghe was evident even on Friday. What began a fortnight ago by the exchange of letters from their respective lawyers, went a step further when Rajapaksa ignored Wickremesinghe as he arrived for a wedding at the Colombo Hilton. After wishing the couple, the President avoided where Wickremesinghe was with some others, ignoring him in the process.

Coupled together with those messages the Army, Navy and the Air Force sent out to school children, the sentiments expressed by President Rajapaksa, no doubt is a clever attempt to create a new constituency (for him and his Government) in the military. This is at a time when the southern electorate has turned out to be very critical against him and his administration over a number of issues, particularly the mounting cost of living.

Whilst praising the troops for "the brave and courageous operation conducted" by them, Rajapaksa, on the one hand, declared "however dreadful, I will not be subdued or frightened by the growls of the LTTE." On the other hand, he alludes to his main opponent as someone who tries to hide his "stripes" by insulting the Maha Sangha and the victory of the troops. This is what the Commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces is telling all his officers and men in the Security Forces as well as the Police. This phenomenon naturally portends greater issues, more so with President Rajapaksa's own brother, a one time retired Lieutenant Colonel and United States citizen, Gotabhaya, being at the helm of the defence establishment. Until assumption of office, he had spent 17 years in the United States.

The latter has already demonstrated how powerful he is to take decisions that otherwise requires recourse to several procedures including the scrutiny of the Cabinet and Parliament. The one example that illustrates this is the signing of the Cross Servicing Agreement with the United States, a matter that concerns the sovereignty of Sri Lanka. Neither the Cabinet nor Parliament knew anything until Gotabhaya, a US citizen (now holding dual Sri Lankan citizenship), had placed his signature.

This is not to say that the agreement in question is good or bad. That is another issue altogether. The fact is no other Defence Secretary could have signed such a document, leave alone unilaterally discuss it with officials of the United States, without any approval from the Government. That has created a serious precedent. Not surprising that some Ministers say privately that provision should be made in the Constitution to ensure only Sri Lankan citizens, and not those holding dual nationalities, should hold positions like Secretaries to Ministries of Defence, Foreign Affairs and other vital sectors. The secret agreement with the US came into the public domain only because JVP's Wimal Weerawansa raised issue in Parliament. In Parliament, the TNA MPs joined the JVP, and the UNP in an unusual coalition howling in protest as to why the Government was keeping the annexures to this agreement away from Parliament.

Another significant aspect in Rajapaksa's address to the nation is the public acknowledgement of the "courageous operation conducted by the Sri Lankan security forces." Even if the Sri Lankan Monitoring Mission (SLMM) has increased its monitoring staff to oversee the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002, this pronouncement raises new issues. He declared "…this operation against terrorism was concluded……" in the East. Weeks earlier, he said in Kandy that the troops would launch offensives in the North to weaken the LTTE.

The new assertions come just a month after the meeting of the Donor Co-chairs in Oslo. They resolved, and the Government has been told, of their decision, i.e. - "there is no military solution to the ethnic conflict. It should be resolved by peaceful means". According to diplomatic sources, member countries of this group are to review the Government response to their appeal after eight weeks. More than four weeks have passed now, and Rajapaksa has issued a warning to the international community "not to obstruct this New Dawn of the East by raising false slogans….." Added to that, he has also hit out at the Ceasefire Agreement and described its formulation by former Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, as a "criminal act." This is when President Rajapaksa said, "There is no other country than Sri Lanka, where the criminal act of conceding a legal area of control has been implemented through an agreement."

He followed this up by repeating the same charge in a message to the 17th Annual Convention of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party that will be held in Maharagama today. He declared, "There is no other country except Sri Lanka that had committed a criminal act by acceding to a treaty, which confers a legitimate territory to terrorism." Is this a warning that the future of the CFA is at stake as more military offensives are expected in the North?

It is against this backdrop that another political event took place on Thursday. That was the birth of the National Congress - the joint alliance between the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (M). UNP leader Wickremesinghe and SLFP (M) chief convener Mangala Samaraweera signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Thursday at the Committee Room "A" of Parliament at the auspicious hour of 11.52 a.m.

Adding greater significance to the joint alliance was the blessings they received the very next day from former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga. She wrote to Samaraweera expressing her support. "The stated objectives of the alliance seem to reflect the essential need of the hour. I have believed for a long time that the country's problems can be solved efficiently only through a Grand Alliance of all honest, patriotic forces."

Kumaratunga noted that her party, the SLFP has recently changed several important policies which "we followed since 1993 - policies which permitted us to lead our country to great, new heights. New policies have been adopted without free discussion or dialogue, with agreement being obtained through the use of intimidatory methods."

Kumaratunga added, "I honestly believe that the strange new policies that are being implemented today, with regard to the Economy, the Tamil question and rampant corruption will not resolve the prevailing problems in any of these spheres and may even worsen the situation to a point of no return." She said she saluted those who have come forward, "despite the many personal dangers they face, to safeguard and take forward the hallowed policies of our great and noble Party."

Kumaratunga's blessings to Samaraweera, and through him to Wickremesinghe, are politically significant. In doing so, she is sending a message to her own SLFP loyalists in the Rajapaksa administration where her sentiments lay. In saying that the SLFP has changed several important policies, she is conveying to her party loyalists that she is not happy. In saying that she salutes those who have come forward, despite the many personal dangers they face, to safeguard and take forward the hallowed policies of "our great and noble party", she is, in fact, encouraging her loyalists to join the Samaraweera-Wickremesinghe grand alliance. Needless to say, that would be cause for some worry for Rajapaksa, who survives on a razor thin majority in Parliament.

Besides the MoU, which was made public on Wednesday, Samaraweera and Wickremesinghe also signed another document. That was described as one that governed the logistical aspects. The duo agreed that such a document will be made public ahead of a parliamentary general election. Details of the MoU appear elsewhere in The Sunday Times. One issue that still appears to be a bone of contention between the two sides is the Elephant symbol. Whilst the UNPers insist this symbol should be retained, Samaraweera loyalists say they want a different one agreeable to the two sides. His argument is that he cannot get SLFPers to vote for the elephant symbol. Some of Wickremesinghe's new set of advisers go with that argument, and belittle the importance of the elephant symbol. They even buttress their argument by saying that what's the use of the symbol if Wickremesinghe keeps losing with it - as if that is why he keeps losing. They say that the SLFP won with the chair and the betel leaf, and the UNP won the Colombo Municipal elections with the spectacle symbol - so what's in a symbol, they ask in the modern day.

Several others disagree, saying that the UNP has already compromised on the name at the last election to United National Front. If it sacrifices its long-standing trade mark, the elephant,which has earned its many candidates’ goodwill over the years, gives up its name, and probably colour (green), what will remain unique of the Grand Old Party of Sri Lankan politics. It will not be a distinctive party; it will be just another run-on-the-mill party.

The more immediate issue in the party was the MoU agreeing to have Mangala Samaraweera as the Deputy Prime Minister if and when Ranil Wickremesinghe becomes the Prime Minister - and for all Nominations Board at future elections of this National Congress alliance to be constituted by Wickremesinghe and Samaraweera only.

Wickremesinghe loyalists say that the consent of the party seniors, viz., Chairman Rukman Senanayake, John Amaratunge, Joseph Michael Perera, Gamini Jayawickrama Perera has been obtained for all this, but there's no question that many party members still don't know what on earth has happened; that the country's single largest political party, vote-wise and elected MP-wise has granted parity of status to a still unrecognized political off-shoot consisting of just two MPs with a questionable vote-base.

The Wickremesinghe version is that this exercise is only the foundation for a broader common front aimed at attracting non-UNP voters into opposing the Rajapaksa administration, and that when it comes to elections, all issues like the common symbol, the name, any no-contest pacts will have to be ratified by the respective party Working Committees. His detractors in the same party, point out that this is the price the UNP is paying for neglecting its grass-roots and even urban vote-base, poor organization and lack of drive by its increasingly Colombo-based political hierarchy, having to cling on to whoever is able to do the 'dirty work' for them in mass agitation, parliamentary opposition, trade union action and eventually deliver some votes to them as well.

Yesterday at Kataragama, the party hierarchy was appealing to the Gods to give them guidance. They believe the time is nigh. In 1947, the UNP was on the eve of ushering Independence for the people of Sri Lanka; in 1977, the UNP ushered in a new beginning away from food rations, shortages and joblessness, and now in 2007, they were on the eve of bigger things for the party. They believe good tidings come in 30 year cycles for the UNP.

With the National Congress now in place, their first show of strength comes on July 26. They want to assemble a crowd of an estimated half a million in the City of Colombo to show their protest against the Government on a variety of issues. But the organizers are already up with problems. They say some bus owners in the provinces have been threatened not to hire out their fleet of buses to the National Congress to bring supporters to the City. A more worrying complaint of the organisers is an allegation that under the guise of ensuring security for the rally, plans were afoot to halt buses entering the City and conduct thorough checks on them. The idea, the sponsors claim, is to delay crowds from entering the City of Colombo.

In his address on Thursday, Rajapaksa declared "The day we leave politics, our conscience will ask us what we have given to our children. Is it a colony or a heavily fractured country?" He answered it himself by saying "No, friends, we will gift our children with a land they will be proud to live in."

Without doubt, he is placing his bets heavily on a military option to the North-East conflict. He hit all round this week - the international community for trying to raise false slogans and the Opposition Leader Wickremesinghe for "the criminal act" of signing a CFA. He has wooed the military and equated himself a partner in their achievements. He has opened many fronts besides the escalating separatist war. Whether he can fight all these fronts only with the military, without the fuller support of the people like evidenced on Thursday, will be a crucial question for President Rajapaksa.

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.