President Mahinda Rajapaksa's 63rd birthday on November 17 turned out to be joyous.
He received two big birthday gifts. One came from the armed forces to their Commander-in-Chief. That was the re-capture just one day before of the strategic northern village of Pooneryn. As a result, the second followed. It was from the public who showered accolades, mostly over state-run media, for his unwavering commitment, despite pressures particularly from neighbouring Tamil Nadu to stop the war and talk peace.
"The laying down of arms now, and surrendering, was the greatest service the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) could do to the people in the areas of armed conflict and all peoples of Sri Lanka," declared an overjoyed Rajapaksa. Besides the demand calling upon the guerrillas to lay down arms, a statement issued by the Presidential Secretariat contained the new demand calling upon the LTTE to surrender. This indeed was a toughening of the Government's stance.
The significant military success, Rajapaksa declared in the statment, "will enable us to have a land route to Jaffna after several years, since the launch of Eelam War II."
There was, however, no formal response to his call either to "lay down arms" or to "surrender." Despite the fall of Pooneryn and their first line of defence at Muhamalai, the guerrillas have dug in and are offering stiff resistance to troop assaults from a number of fronts. Main among them are battles to wrest control of Kilinochchi.
Rajapaksa spent his birthday at the President's House in Kandy, taking part in religious ceremonies. The next day he called on the Mahanayakes of the Malwatte and the Asgiriya Chapters. Later, on a visit to Sri Dalada Maligawa, devotees cheered him. Some shouted loud that he had resisted many external pressures and stood firm. The external pressure mainly from Tamil Nadu was for him to agree to a ceasefire with the Tiger guerrillas and resume talks.
This made clear that reports of Rajapaksa standing firm on pressure from Tamil Nadu, conveyed by the Central Government, for a ceasefire and resumption of peace talks had permeated to the grassroots of Sri Lanka's citizenry. Of particular relevance in this regard, was the resolution adopted by the Tamil Nadu State Assembly on November 12 calling for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka.
The matter figured during Rajapaksa's talks with Indian Premier Manmohan Singh in New Delhi a week earlier. The Indian Premier had raised issue. Rajapaksa's response came in an official statement from the Presidential Secretariat. It said, "…the President emphasised that he and his administration have always been for a political solution. It is the LTTE that repeatedly violated its obligations and embarked on a path of conflict and terror. The President also drew attention to the past track record of the LTTE using the ceasefire to regroup and re-arm and not serious about a political solution."
Diplomatic circles in Colombo see the statement as a clear indication that any political proposals for devolution of power would await the conclusion of the main objectives of the ongoing military offensives. Most important among them is the re-capture of Kilinochchi, until recently the centre of political power for the guerrillas. The fact that similar views are being entertained even in New Delhi emerged when Opposition UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe held talks in the Indian capital with Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee.
Mukherjee had spoken about civilian casualties in the ongoing conflict in Sri Lanka, and the need for space for humanitarian relief. Wickremesinghe had given his own suggestions for how these relief measures could be adopted. They discussed the need for a political solution to the crisis as a means of ensuring a fair conclusion to the insurgency. Wickremesinghe said that Rajapaksa had asked for the Opposition's support for a political solution, and that such support was available, but that there was a need to get the support of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), as representatives of the Tamils in the North for this exercise. He said that the Muslims were already in the process.
Both noted that previous Sri Lankan leaders had formulated political proposals even whilst the military engaged the guerrillas. The late President J.R. Jayewardene had formulated two different reports after sittings of an All-Party Conference. The late President Ranasinghe Premadasa had followed the same procedure. Though former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga also announced a set of proposals, she had declared it would be enforced after military offensives then under way led to success. This was the first time offensives were continuing with no political proposals on hand.
However, there were no adverse comments by the Indian Foreign Ministry over this situation. Mukherjee was to note that the task of his Government on the present situation was broadly two fold - (1) to find space despite the ongoing war to formulate further measures to help the civilians in the Wanni, and (2) explore in the long term the possibility of moving towards a political solution.
According to sources in New Delhi, despite their previous assertions, the Indian Government is of the view that the Rajapaksa administration's "war on terror" had made gains, not achieved any time before by other Governments. In retrospect, India, that has helped the Government in valuable intelligence information to counter LTTE and provided defensive warlike material, was happy the military campaign is on track. That is why India backed with "resolve" the fight against terrorism when President's special envoy Basil Rajapaksa visited New Delhi for talks last month.
After official business in New Delhi, Wickremesinghe went with personal friends from India to the volatile state of Tamil Nadu en route to Colombo. He broke journey in Thanjavur, the old capital of the Chola Kingdom, and was soon in the eye of a political storm. He took part in religious ceremonies at Tiruvaroor Sannivasa Temple in Tirukolikaadu. On his way, a crowd of some 40 demonstrators carrying red and black flags of the Communist Party of India (CPI) mobbed his motorcade just before it arrived at the Temple. They were shouting slogans asking President Rajapaksa to go home, and calling for a ceasefire in Sri Lanka saying that Tamils were being killed in the island. There was a loudspeaker atop an Indian Ambassador vehicle blaring away these calls.
Thanjavur is a stronghold of the CPI, which is in the forefront of Tamil Nadu protests against the military offensive against the LTTE. Local Police that had been alerted to Wickremesinghe's arrival were at hand to see that the somewhat elderly protestors, mostly farmers and peasants did not turn too unruly, and the Sri Lankan leader was escorted safely to the temple premises where he took part in a pooja. Later, he told reporters that the demonstration appeared to be a case of mistaken identity. Those who took part were shouting slogans against the Sri Lanka Government leaders, he said.
|The Indian Communist mob surrounding Wickremesinghe’s vehicle
"Presumably, they knew some VIP was coming to the temple but did not know who it was," declared Wickremesinghe. When asked by a reporter whether the protest was not against his remarks earlier that day in New Delhi that a ceasefire was not feasible in Sri Lanka, he had replied, "I did not say that." The matter of a ceasefire was a prerogative of the Government and not of the Opposition, he had said.
As an aside Wickremesinghe had said that either the demonstrators joined him in the pooja and pray for peace, or he join them in calling for Rajapaksa to go home. But, on a more serious tenor, he replied the question of a ceasefire by saying that in 2005 (during the Presidential elections), the UNP had put forward some proposals, which the LTTE had rejected by asking the people of the North and East not to vote (and thereby ensuring Wickremesinghe's defeat to Rajapaksa.) Having had lunch at a nearby circuit bungalow, Wickremesinghe and party had left the district without any further incident.
However, that protest campaign, against whoever it was directed, reflected the mood in Tamil Nadu over developments in Sri Lanka. If the Chief Minister of this southern Indian State, Muthuvel Karunanidhi, was the architect of the protest campaign, he gracefully pulled out. That was after Basil Rajapaksa's talks in New Delhi with Foreign Minister Mukherjee. Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi telephoned Karunanidhi from New Delhi to Chennai to urge that he call a halt to his campaign including the threat of his members to resign.
Mukherjee himself flew down to Chennai after talks with Rajapaksa to personally request Karunanidhi to do so.
Behind the scenes, Karunanidhi was reminded of the consequences of rocking the Congress Government in New Delhi. If it survived on the props of the Dravida Munnertra Kazhakam (DMK), the Tamil Chief Minister was told that the props in the form of Congress members supporting his State Government would be withdrawn forcing it to collapse. It was a case of one needing the other to survive. Nevertheless, the storm that Karunanidhi had generated had developed into tsunami proportions in Tamil Nadu. Little wonder, Congress archrival BJP has declared it would resolve the issue in Sri Lanka within three months of coming to power. With parliamentary elections due in India early next year that offer no doubt will place the Congress party in an embarrassing position.
It is for these reasons that the Indian Government performed a balancing act in sending relief supplies to civilians in the north. New Delhi urged the Government of Sri Lanka to "facilitate" the arrival of relief supplies. Though Indian High Commission spokesman in Colombo kept stressing the point that the stocks would be given to the Government of Sri Lanka for distribution, it was not to be. In addition, the Indian High Commission officially admitted this. On Thursday they handed over the stocks to the International Committee of the Red Cross to take them directly to Wanni and hand them over to civilians. Nevertheless, Government officials were present at the ceremony when it was formally handed over to the ICRC. That included Foreign Secretary Palitha Kohona.
Already the BJP is raising pertinent questions. It asks what the Government of India has won from the Rajapaksa administration after providing intelligence information on Tiger guerrillas, providing defence military hardware and outright support for the military campaign. The BJP says Rajapaksa had not kept to his repeated promises to Indian leaders of keeping to deadlines to introduce political proposals. Now, BJPers complain, the Sri Lankan President wants to do so only after the military campaigns end.
Sri Lankan leaders might do well to keep a tab on the BJP, because Indian opinion polls show the party making substantial gains against the ruling Congress coalition among the vast Indian constituency unhappy that the country's massive economic growth had not trickled down sufficiently to the poor.
Even if there is no public reaction by the Congress administration, its embarrassment is understandable. "They survived a shaky confidence vote over the nuclear deal with mighty United States. They do not want to get embroiled in a controversy over tiny Sri Lanka with impending parliamentary elections. Hence, a hands off approach," said a political analyst in New Delhi. "Taking a tough line will only fuel anti-Indian sentiment and severely damage trade relations," he added.
It is not only in India that concerns over elections underpin major issues. The victory at Pooneryn followed by Muhamalai and Mankulam fuelled speculation that a snap general election was on the cards in Sri Lanka. But the reports were denied by House Leader and Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva. Adding his voice to these denials during a news conference at the Mahaweli Centre was his Cabinet colleague Maithripala Sirisena, General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).
The assertions, if true, would be good news for the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP). It wants the tenure of the present Parliament to extend beyond April, next year, so its MPs could qualify for pensions. Yet, diplomatic sources say President Rajapaksa during his talks with Premier Singh in New Delhi had hinted about his intention to seek a greater mandate from the people after the ongoing military campaign is concluded.
Notwithstanding these developments, an influential section in the Government is seriously examining the possibility of conducting a national referendum to extend the life of Parliament. This is much on the lines of how late President Jayewardene held a controversial referendum. The UNP had obtained an overwhelming majority in the 1977 elections and Jayewardene was hesitant to give it up. He therefore held a referendum to cancel the 1983 parliamentary elections, and allow the 1977 parliament to continue until 1989 and won a mandate to extend his term of office. The section that is pursuing this proposal had begun informally sounding out not only legal experts but also some parliamentarians to ascertain their views on such a move.