It was arguably one of his biggest moments of glory since President Percy Mahinda Rajapaksa took to politics 38 years ago.
He surfaced in the hallowed halls of the stately old Parliament building following the 1970 General Elections, as the youngest Member of Parliament in the then House of Representatives, representing the southern electorate of Beliatte. As tradition demanded, the 'baby of the House' was given an opportunity of making a speech on the opening day of sittings. Last Friday evening, he stood up in the same hall, now the Presidential Secretariat, from where the destinies of the nation were once guided and is now a conference venue, as President of the Republic and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces he declared; "a short while ago, our brave and heroic troops have fully captured Kilinochchi that was considered the main bastion of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam."
Besides an audience of Ministers, parliamentarians, senior government officials, armed forces commanders, the police chief and the media, an entire nation saw or heard him utter those words. It was telecast live and broadcast over radio nationwide. Within seconds, there was national euphoria.
In many towns, crackers were lit and the national flag was hoisted in public places. In Colombo, breaking news on TV, radio and even SMS messages had set the stage earlier. The burst of crackers surpassed the crescendo created by fireworks that signalled the dawn of 2009.
|President Rajapaksa making the victory speech on Friday. Pic by Sanka Vidanagama
Even a retaliatory strike by a Tiger guerrilla suicide bomber outside the Air Force Headquarters killing two SLAF policemen and a member of their bomb disposal team did not dampen the public euphoria and enthusiasm. Motor cyclists with pillion riders parading the national flag toured city streets. Some danced on roads and the traffic snarls as a result were unusual. This time, a VVIP or VIP movement did not cause it. In websites that supported the Government, there were several laudatory accounts of the armed forces.
Video footage in the U-Tube posted by one group reflected shades of Iraq during the immediate post Saddam Hussein days. It showed what were some buildings in re-captured Wanni and described them as palaces where Prabhakaran had enjoyed a life of luxury. The only response from a foreign government came from the United States, the world's only superpower now. During a week where almost all offices are shut down due to Christmas and New Year holidays, the acting State Department spokesman was to remark on the need for a political settlement to the conflict in Sri Lanka. He was commenting on the aftermath of the re-capture of Kilinochchi.
Describing the re-capture of Kilinochchi as "truly an incomparable victory," Rajapaksa's first swipe was at LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran. "Although the leader of the LTTE had said only a few days ago that the capture of Kilinochchi was only a dream of Mahinda Rajapaksa, in truth it was not my dream alone," he declared and added it was "the constant dream of all Sri Lankans, whether Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim who are opposed to separatism, racism and terrorism…." The next swipe was at both foreign media and the international community. "We have seen in the recent past how this was belittled not only by the international media but also by those engaged in diplomacy," he said.
No doubt, the loss of Kilinochchi is a humiliating defeat for the LTTE.
Rajapaksa's rejoinder to Prabhakaran was as devastating as the Army's final thrust to Kilinochchi. On two different occasions, Prabhakaran had repeated that the troops' re-capture of Kilinochchi was a day dream of Rajapaksa. The first was in an interview with Nakkeeran, a journal in Tamil Nadu, and thereafter in his November 27 "Maveerar (Great Heroes) Day" speech.
However, the first signs that holding Kilinochchi was becoming increasingly difficult came in remarks made by the head of the LTTE Political Wing, Balasingham Nadesan. He told the media last week that the fall of Kilinochchi would not make any difference since it was only another place. That he had the concurrence of his leader to make such a remark is obvious. Otherwise, he dare contradict what Prabhakaran had said not long before. In some quarters, Nadesan's remarks were viewed as a cunning attempt to inveigle the Army to concentrate more on Kilinochchi to take the military pressure away from Mullaitivu.
However, it became clear that was not the case. This is what emboldened the loquacious Defence Spokesman and Minister Keheliya Rambukwella to declare Kilinochchi would be re-captured within 48 hours. This was in marked contrast to his remarks days earlier that Kilinochchi and Prabhakaran would both be re-captured before February 7. There was speculation that elections to Provincial Councils in North Western and Central Province would be held on this date. However, it was officially announced that it would be a week later, on February 14. The Commander of the Army, Lt. Gen. Sarath Fonseka, expressed the same sentiments (about the capture of Prabhakaran), to the state run Daily News.
There were clearer signs that the guerrillas were withdrawing for fear of not being able to withstand a major onslaught by the Army. They were worried they would suffer more casualties. Even if it was contradicting the bold assertions of his boss that re-capturing Kilinochchi was a Rajapaksa daydream, Nadesan also subjected himself to more humiliation by declaring that Kilinochchi was just another place. He knew that his assertions were wrong. Unlike the other areas re-captured by the Army earlier, Kilinochchi was different.
It was the centre of political power for the LTTE. Its "administrative complex" from where it ran what it called a "state-in-waiting" was located here. It was the hub of its "police force, law courts, tax collection machinery." Since the Ceasefire Agreement of 2002, the Peace Secretariat of the LTTE was located there. It was the 'capital' where hordes of Colombo based diplomats and visiting dignitaries travelled to meet Prabhakaran and his other leaders and pose for photo-opportunities.
True, the Government set deadline after deadline for the re-capture of Kilinochchi. That it did come two days into 2009, described by Rajapaksa as the year of triumph over terror, was a pleasant surprise not only to him but to his Ministers as well. The sequence of politico-military events this week seemed they were well choreographed. One unfolding event after another portended the shape of things to come.
It began on Tuesday (December 30). After a special Cabinet meeting, a news conference at night by a group of Ministers laid bare what was called 'a stimulative economic package' or a mini budget. That it contained a variety of relief measures not found in the November 2008 budget proposals underscored two important realities. Firstly, it highlighted the fact that it would have been possible for the Government to afford those relief measures to the public in the budget itself. After all, the latest measures, as officially claimed, were to "strengthen and stimulate the economy in the face of a global economic crisis." The budget came in its aftermath. Secondly, there were a number of other important connotations.
A few highlights of the relief measures. Just two rupees was reduced from the price of a litre of petrol. That is from Rs 122 to Rs 120. However, three-wheeler scooter taxis were offered petrol on a still unspecified quota at Rs 100 a litre. Ten rupees per litre was reduced for diesel, kerosene and furnace oil. Rs 276 was lowered for a regular cylinder of Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) for Laugfs and Rs 160 for Shell Gas. There were also a 'stimulus package' for the ailing tea industry, rubber exporters and cinnamon growers.
The price reductions in fuel, petrol by even two rupees, diesel, kerosene and furnace oil by ten rupees contradicted the official position taken up by the Supreme Court. This was after the SC determined that the price of a litre of petrol be reduced from Rs 122 to Rs 100. President Rajapaksa, Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and other senior ministers contended that such a reduction would affect the conduct of the military campaign as well as other development activity. Now, they have embarked on a virtual second budget, which is going to cost a staggering Rs 16 billion. How did the Government suddenly find the money for this?
It is clear the Government wants to defy the SC determination by merely reducing the price of a litre of petrol to just two rupees. That it has reduced the petrol to three-wheel drivers to the SC determined Rs. 100 is not lost on political analysts who see this as a move to comply with the SC order in part, but not in whole. If this determination was based on the price of crude oil at US $ 56 per barrel (about over Rs 6,200), world market prices have come down even further to US $37 (about over Rs 4000) now. A Central Bank source said yesterday that with the lower crude prices the Government was making even further windfall profits. Only when the Supreme Courts resumes sittings will the next move emerge.
The question naturally would be whether the SC is satisfied that the Government has complied with its determination or not. Therefore, notwithstanding the relief measures, the head-on collision between the Government and the SC over the petrol price issue remains.
The relief package itself comes ahead of elections for the Provincial Council for the North Central and Central provinces on February 14. Indisputably, the relief measures translate into votes.
There, the Government has endowed itself with a larger vote bank in the two provinces. This is at a time when the main Opposition United National Party (UNP) is still in some disarray with no proper programme of action to woo the voters. As in the past, it has been jumping from issue to issue and the lack of a cohesive strategy has become a drawback. Added to that, party insiders say, is the lack of funds for the polls campaign.
Even the UNP's statement on the victory in Kilinochchi was convoluted to the point that it was unable to give credit where credit was due. At a time when the nation was rejoicing, devoid of partisan politics, the statement while giving credit to the security forces tried to take away the credit to the Government by asking that fuel prices be reduced now that victory has been achieved.
The Opposition and Government are now gearing for forthcoming elections to the provincial councils in the Central and North Western provinces. And it is to be expected that while the Opposition will rest its case on the 'kitchen war' and the escalating cost-of-living, the Government is going to rely entirely on the 'war on terrorism'.
On December 31, Rajapaksa switched around two Ministers with no explanation given. Foreign Investments Minister Sarath Amunugama was given the Public Administration and Home Affairs portfolio vacated by Karu Jayasuriya, while Anura Priyadharshana Yapa was given Amunugama's ministry in addition to that of Media. Increasing reports emerge from the Government camp that the Media Ministry may come under the control of someone else, and that Yapa's transfer to Foreign Investments was the precursor to that move.
Clearly, the Media Ministry is going to play a major role in Rajapaksa gearing for something more than just provincial elections. A parliamentary General Election this year is almost a certainty, and the re-capture of Kilinochchi is but part of the politico-military choreography for this exercise.