Mahinda-JVP remarriage on the cards
- Tough policy on the LTTE and the war, but India's response uncertain
- UNP caught on wrong foot again as CoL crisis falls into dustbin
- Rajapaksa brothers back Mervyn, action likely against Rupavahini staff
As a New Year dawns tomorrow, the many challenges facing Sri Lanka in the coming days, weeks and months seem clearly defined.
The most important among them, no doubt, is the escalating undeclared Eelam War IV and a political settlement to the ethnic conflict. President Mahinda Rajapaksa spelt out what portends last Wednesday. He vowed at a janahamuwa that followed the formal opening of the new Mahanama bridge in Matara that he would fight terrorism to the end. The nation would thus overcome this scourge much the same way it had recovered from the devastating Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.
His pledge, made at the Sanath Jayasuriya Stadium, won him wide applause from the crowds. It seemed that despite mounting living costs, the south endorsed his stepped-up military action against the Tiger guerrillas. Therein lay the strength of the Rajapaksa administration. The separatist war is the key. Even an increase in the price of flour by nine rupees leading to a loaf of bread going up by more than five rupees did not cause more than a few ripples. Leaders of their staunch ally, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) had plastered the City walls with posters calling upon people to make sacrifices for the war effort and be prepared to even eat bajiri or rye, a cereal given to prevent starvation. It was widely used in the UK during World War II.
President Rajapaksa's pledge comes barely two weeks after the Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, told his top officers that he hoped to finish the ongoing war by August 2008. In the recent months, the strength of the Army has grown considerably. Though it is not prudent to talk of numbers, it could be safely said that it is now larger than the British Army. In the light of these assertions, one need not be a soothsayer or be privy to classified information to forecast a coming event -- there will be more war, one that is stepped up to defeat the Tiger guerrillas. A logical corollary to it would be the responses of the guerrillas themselves. The message for the average Sri Lankan, who is, unlike their political leaders, without escorts or back up vehicles, is more vigilance than ever whichever part of the country they lived.
Already military offensives are continuing in the western flank of the defended localities in Vavuniya. The ongoing North-East monsoon is stalling a major thrust. However, with that due to end by mid or late January, speculation is rife that the guerrillas will come under more heavy pressure. However, influential sections of the Government opine that a major thrust is not likely until after February 4, when the nation marks the 60th anniversary of Independence. One of the main reasons attributed for this is the impending visit by Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, as chief guest for the ceremonies.
In the light of repeated assurances given to India that a set of political proposals would be ready, the deadlines have been repeatedly extended. Whether the Indian Premier would be in Colombo when no political proposals are made public remains a critical issue. As one Indian diplomat declared, it may send the wrong signal that India endorsed Government's military campaign against the guerrillas. He said New Delhi believed there was no military solution possible.
There are newer factors that are threatening to make the scenario more frightening than before. Despite muted denials, none of them made officially, the reported deal between the Government and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) seems to be unfolding. The JVP abstained and prevented the Government's fall during the final vote on the budget on December 14. Barely days later, President Rajapaksa warned that "further attacks" by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) would compel him to ban the organisation.
Since the remarks were made, Sea Tigers launched an attack on Navy's fast attack craft in the seas off Delft Island near the Jaffna peninsula. A Dvora FAC was sunk. Our Defence Correspondent deals with this aspect on the opposite page. The incident came amidst claims by the Navy that they had crippled Sea Tiger activity by destroying some ten ships and weakening their military capability. Whether this incident alone will compel President Rajapaksa to ban the LTTE seems unlikely. Sooner than later, in the course of similar attacks, which cannot be ruled out, the prospects of a ban become higher. In such an event, the Ceasefire Agreement of February 2002 will see a fatal end. In fact the JVP reportedly sought to abrogate the CFA. That would naturally escalate the war to a new high.
Yesterday, the state-run Daily News published an interview with Defence Secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa where he, once again, struck a belligerent note by calling for the abolition of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) with the LTTE - which he called a "joke" because of the number of violations, and asked for the banning of the terrorist organisation.
He did have a rider though, when he said that the President would give an opportunity for the LTTE to "mend its ways" prior to any ban. He did not elaborate on what that meant, for the interview came just two days after the hectic sea-battle off the islet of Delft in the northern waters of the country.
New political alliance
Another move, now taking shape, is to prune down the size of the Cabinet - again a demand of the JVP. In a bid to accommodate those displaced, consideration is being given to a new structure - MPs being vested with non Cabinet Ministerial responsibilities related to a specific district. This naturally would assume the character of devolution of power to the districts. Whether such a move would run counter to any political proposals to end the ethnic conflict remains an issue. As a high-ranking Government source who did not wish to be identified said, "the newer measures are carved out largely to placate the JVP and accommodate its wishes. What follows thereafter remains to be seen."
The remarks seem to suggest that the ground is being cleared for a convergence of common ideals of the Government and the JVP, perhaps a forerunner for a future tie-up. However, the two sides stoutly deny it is so.
Though not directly linked, what the JVP's politburo discussed and decided last Thursday dovetails into Government's agenda. They have decided to form a Nava Jathika Peramuna (new National Front) and formulate policies for them. In fact some JVP leaders are now preparing the outlines for the new policies that would include strong positions in respect of the ongoing war and the ethnic issue. The JVP is to initiate discussions with a broader spectrum including the business community, trade unions, party branches and religious organisations. Political parties are to follow.
Some political analysts do not rule out the possibility of a formal no-contest pact once again between the Peoples Alliance (PA) and the JVP on the lines of the UPFA (United Peoples Freedom Alliance), the alliance that was hurriedly formed in 2004 to defeat the UNP. Both, the PA and the JVP know the ground reality that they alone, might not be able to muster the required seats under the proportional representation (PR) system; the JVP possibly the bigger casualty in going it alone. It will therefore, be a hunting with the UNP (in opposition), but running with the PA at election time for the JVP.
How this would impact on the main opposition United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP - M) faction remains to be seen. Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, though not in accordance with the present political climate, has launched his own campaign for constitutional reforms. It could well have been a platform to rally voters if there was an election. But in the absence of any, it is not only a cry in the wilderness but also out of tune to deal with the developing political situation. Thus, once again, the UNP seems to be missing out.
The Government waited for less than a fortnight after the Budget was passed to increase the price of flour, catching the UNP - and even the JVP - completely off-guard. Price hikes are being pummelled into the people with almost monotonous regularity that the Opposition has virtually given up the fight to use it as an issue against the Government. The plight of the people is that they feel there is a Government that doesn't deserve to be in Government, and an Opposition that doesn't deserve to be in Opposition.
Mervyn the man
The old year ended with a political tragicomedy. In Sri Lanka there are some who are not equal in the eyes of the law. They are much higher. One man who has time and again demonstrated this reality is parliamentarian Mervyn Silva. The story of his antics appears elsewhere in this newspaper, as the man sits it out at the Merchant's Ward of the National Hospital following his escapade at the state run Rupavahini tv station.
With parts of his head shaved so that doctors could administer two sutures onto his head, Mervyn Silva, dubbed by some as somewhat of a Mad Max, was being injected some political glucose from the higher echelons of the Rajapaksa administration.
He received telephone calls from the three Rajapaksas - the President, the Defence Secretary and the General Factotum who is currently in the United States for his Christmas vacation.
Mervyn Silva was encouraged to think that "something should be done with the Rupavahini staff", and when the wounded man tried to tell His Excellency that "some people say that I should resign", he was told in no uncertain terms, "I am the one who appointed you - I will decide".
Serving visitors traditional sweetmeats like Kavum and kokis and bananas, Silva was acclaiming that his "voters" would "deal with the people at Rupavahini".
Others were to say that the Rupavahini staff had not only exceeded their right to self-defence by assaulting Silva and his 'catcher' (whom he says he doesn't know!), but that their telecasting Live the un-edited clips of the incident in which the Government politico was involved, they had acted high-handedly.
They pointed out to the security risk involved in Rupavahini staff taking the airwaves to their own hands, and that it was a "mutiny" of sorts. Such was the thinking of Government high rankers who saw the incident differently from how the general public saw it, which was one of a 'Borupart' politico who met his Waterloo.
The Government's attempt to cover-up the Merv Show was arguably worse than what the MP did. The Police and the Army were not only sent to save the little cardboard Napoleon from being lynched, but the Police submitted a wishy-washy 'B' report to the Magistrate of the incident and faced a reprimand for doing so. Then, the CID was unleashed to retrieve the footage so that they could identify 'the culprits'.
Mervyn Silva has not been charged. His own charge against Rupavahini was that they did not telecast his speech at Matara the previous day made in the presence of the President where he made rude and crude remarks about a sitting MP for the Matara district, Mangala Samaraweera, even questioning his paternity, and about the recent defector from the Government, Anura Bandaranaike in whose house the man virtually lived once upon a time. His speech seems to have delighted those on stage, and it was his grouse that the state television station did not telecast it to a wider audience around the country.
But yesterday, the man who complained of not getting any airtime from Rupavahini was again complaining. This time, his complaint was for giving him too much airtime; that the assassination of Benazir Bhutto received only "five minutes" on Rupavahini, while they telecast his thrashing for "thirty minutes". You can never please some.